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published in Two Rivers, Koenig Books, London, 2019


First Encounters

I don’t know about you, but every once in a great while, something stops me in my tracks. Something beautiful and confusing and true, something subversive, surprising, undeniable. It could be a remark overheard on a bus, a bit of poetry stranded on Instagram, the yellow of an American Goldfinch at dusk. Or it could be a photograph. These aren’t life changing events; they’re moments of clarity invested with meaning, glimpses of logic suffused with their own mysterious volition. I think of these moments as part of being in the world, the part in which the world interrupts the shuffling, same-old same-old, and wakes me to a more vital form of attention. I never know when it’s going to happen or why or what to do when it does. All I know is that it happens, and that it happened when I first encountered the work of both Joachim Brohm and Alec Soth.

        The first time I saw Joachim’s work was in an attic apartment in Columbus Ohio in 1984. Joachim had just arrived from Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship. We didn’t know each other well, just well enough to share photographs. Joachim showed me work which would eventually appear in the book Ruhr. They were depictions of people at various redeveloped leisure spaces, parking lots, and open fields. I liked the work, but mostly, I was somewhat irritated by the color prints: they were pale, very light, almost washed out. I missed the deep color saturation of Kodachrome, the gold-standard of photographic color, and I couldn’t understand how such an obviously accomplished and intentional photographer could accept such terrible prints. On the way home, I realized that Joachim’s prints weren’t bad Kodachrome color; they were a critique of Kodachrome color, and by extension, a critique of the culture that prized Kodachome color and everything it stood for: leisure, consumerism, cheerful conformity. Drained of color, the fantasies embodied in Kodachrome became the architecture of urban alienation, inhabited by people who seemed more trapped than liberated. Even the River Ruhr felt sapped of energy and vitality, a barren simulacra of itself. That evening, I realized the way the color of consumer culture attempts and fails to make up for lost landscapes, meaningful relationships, and sense of purpose.

       I hadn’t met Alec when I first saw “Sunshine, Memphis, Tennessee” and I can’t remember where or when I saw it. I’m guessing 1999 in an exhibition somewhere in Minneapolis, but I could be wrong. What I do remember is my reaction. I was shocked. It was large and almost overwhelming in its technical virtuosity. The symbolism of the photographic self attached to mirrors was thwarted by focus and viewpoint, as if to say face-to-face is all we have. But the face-to-face is what shocked me. The intimacy. I couldn’t understand how it had happened, how someone had actually photographed a total stranger on a bed in that pose in those clothes. I couldn’t sort the power relationship into the usual portrait mode. Instead, the photograph crossed the boundaries of everyday portraiture into something that revealed the erotic and political subjectivities animating the desire to represent and to be represented, to discover and to be discovered. The fact is that somehow Alec had found a way to enlist another person in a voluntary and daring dual revelation. There was push and pull, resistance and empathy, resentment and compassion. And there I was, caught in the middle: seized by an immediate ethical responsibility to reach across boundaries and contact another person and, almost simultaneously, by a realization of the utter impossibility of walking even a few steps in another’s shoes.

        Much has happened since those first encounters: subjects have changed, the material of the medium has been transformed, friendships have solidified, and careers blossomed. But Joachim and Alec have remained faithful to a certain kind of photographic activity: they carry their cameras out into the world and they create meaning out of what they find there. Their ability to transform appearances into signification rests on an understanding and mastery of photographic technique, but it is impossible without a deeply attuned sense of attention. When this attention, both piercing and sincere, comes into contact with a world that is neither static nor predictable, everything changes. The world becomes active. It engages in its own representation. It participates in the creation of meaning that, in its turn, contributes to the world’s becoming. In this way, Joachim and Alec open themselves and us to new relationships, unforeseen thoughts, and every once in a great while, a moment in which the world becomes new, shakes us awake, stops us in our tracks.

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