What does the website say?
from Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures website
As I was looking online for information about the photographers short listed for the Deutsche Borse Photographers Gallery prize, I was struck by how strong and yet how different the four photographers’ works are, and how they invoke different kinds of demands and considerations from the audience. As I noted in an earlier posting , I think the Photographers Prize presents an interesting process whereby these works are recontextualized as part of the contemporary documentary/ fine art photography industry of galleries, publishers, and of course photographers.
This recontextualization is necessarily a decontextualization to some extent. There is a sleight of hand that takes place whereby the photographer is rewarded for work that is (literally) framed as an intervention in the art and publishing world, which to some extent smooths out the photographers’ own passions, impulses, fixations, points of view, etc… I’m not saying that this recontextualization is a bad thing; the industry is at its best when it is able to act as a vehicle for the dissemination of powerful photography. But I do think that photographers’ own presentations of their work adapt to expectations of audiences. Presentation- through tone, design, performance- is modulated according to expectations about the audience and projections of the audience’s expectations.
That’s why I was so excited to see the websites of three of the four PG photographers: John Davies, Fazal Sheikh, and Jacob Holdt. I wasn’t able to find a website made by Esko Männikkö; if there is one out there I would appreciate someone letting me know. (Not having a website doesn’t make Esko Männikkö’s work any less interesting but I the other three have definitely taken advantage of an opportunity to present their work in a way over which they have substantial control.) With these websites, the photographers are not meeting the audience halfway in a gallery; the photographer has far more control over the terms by which they wish their work to be understood.
I often feel frustrated looking at photography online. The pictures look small, I don’t like moving in and out of thumbnails- I will often just open images across tabs and flip through them at my own pace. But these three websites distinguish themselves by making the images secondary to the whole basket of information that is on offer. Browsing to these sites I had a strong sense that I was hearing (seeing) a case being put before me. I don’t only mean the very explicit case that Holdt makes through his website, but that the site design and the relationship of pictures to argument makes a case for how the photographer wants me to think about the picture as information. And when that case is made well, the journey through the site, including text, design, and pictures, becomes very rewarding. All three of these sites are worth spending some time on, and each is like and unlike the other two in very interesting ways.
John Davies’ website (detail)
Briefly: John Davies’ site tells a story about Davies as a documentary photographer who makes pictures grounded in both sociological significance and a “classical” humanistic engagement. The site includes images of his work as reference but doesn’t pretend that the online imagery is equal to the photographic prints. His position as a photographer who produces collectable prints is supported by a resume of exhibits and projects; in fact the website is essentially a very rich and detailed cv.
Fazal Sheikh’s website is produced by the Swiss agency Netvertising in conjunction with the International Humanitarian Fund and the Volkart Foundation . The site displays several of his projects on the experiences of individual women, children, and refugees affected by social customs and political upheavals , including online editions that reproduce the contents of Sheikh’s books. These are very well designed and readable, and while there’s more content than you can get through in a sitting, the navigation is almost linear so you can come back and pick up where you left off. This is one of the better experiences that I’ve had of reading a book through a web browser. The photographer, however, comes across as a kind of corporate creation; the site does not invite us to know him the way that Davies’ site does, and I came away feeling like I had just had a conversation with the photographer’s minders; strange, considering how intimate the pictures are.
Fazal Sheikh’s website (detail)
If Sheikh’s website offers good online versions of physical books, Jacob Holdt’s site is the traditional (ie 1997) version of a book published online as html pages. “Enter the world’s biggest online picture book!” is the invitation. No flash, no pdfs: the centrepiece of the site is a 68 html page version of his American Pictures:
“Read it from the beginning or go to the page of your choice. The text builds up, so not everything with make sense unless you have read the previous chapters. Click on all photos in the text to see the stories behind (still unfinished!) Use arrows to go back and forth or – up – to this index. I will later make printer friendly pages for school teachers. The book is interactive, so feel free to come with suggestions for small changes or tests for school children after each chapter. Just remember that not everything can be changed since the value of this presentation is that it is all seen and experienced by one traveling person – a white, male, foreign, outsider, heterosexual, Christian, oppressor, un-educated, penniless hitchhiker or whatever you think may have limited my understanding of the serious issues. “
The rest of the site is the philosophical and political context for Holdt’s work and explains both his views and his activism, and it is very clearly in his own voice. (There’s also a lot more on his site than American Pictures)
The Deutsche Borse Prize will be announced next week and all of the photographers have presented their work in the galleries. The websites, I think, provide another view on their work and “contribution to photography” that provides a useful complement to the gallery exhibitions.
If anyone reading this has suggestions of other remarkable sites, please do share them.