Wednesday, 20 September 2017

In Belgrade

On the way from the airport to town, the hotel-driver grabs his mobile phone in order to show me pictures of Skiathos (where his family is from) and of his Nigerian girlfriend. In addition, he invariably points to casting pits and says: Nato bombs.

The pictures of the hotel on the internet and the hotel reality differ considerably yet the staff is friendly and helpful. In the cafés nearby smoking is the rule (and I feel transported back to Switzerland in the 1970s), many sidewalks are used as parking lots.
Since this is my first visit to Belgrade and I know nothing about the place (I had booked a hotel and inquired about the weather – that was my preparation for this five-day trip), I ask locals what they think worthwhile to go and see. Of the places suggested Sava's Temple and the Danube water front in New Belgrade impressed me most.

In order to get to New Belgrade I had to change buses at Zemun station. The fare was 150 Dinar. The bus driver didn't have change for my 200-note and said: 'You go free'. Upon attempting to enter the bus on my way back, the driver beckoned me over to the driver's door. He refused my 150 Dinar, he wanted to talk. Since he only spoke Serbian and I didn't our conversation was limited to exchanging the names of football clubs ('Young Boys', he said. 'Bern', I said. 'Good', he said) and tennis players ('Federer', he smiled, 'Very good'. 'Djokovic good', I smiled. 'Okay', he said). Shortly before the final stop he said 'Drink coffee'. I offered him 150 Dinar. He said 'No', took the 100-note and said 'Okay'.
I go for various unplanned walks, from between five to seven hours a day, stop at many cafés for cappuccino, check out Serbian food (huge portions, excellent meat) and discover, in the neighbourhood of my hotel, many tree-covered narrow streets and alleyways and lots of small businesses – I feel enchanted.

One of the things that baffle me most is the fact that I'm rarely fully present. By this I mean that most of the time I'm only physically where I am and that my mind is somewhere else. This is especially true when I'm caught up in the routines of my daily life. Since going places also means escaping the daily routines, I'm asking myself whether being in a foreign city makes me feel more in the present. A little bit, only a little bit. Time passes more slowly and the days seem clearly longer yet it still requires considerable efforts to focus on the here and now – yet the few successful moments feel definitely great.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

In the Land of Smiles

"Do you know why the Thais smile so much?", asked my friend Sukit, many years ago, on one of my visits to Trang, the city in Southern Thailand where he, his wife and his son happened to live. "Because a smile is never out of place."

In Thailand, that is. For as I've learned from a Thai woman in her thirties, who had lived twelve years in Sydney, the Thai habit of smiling when having made a mistake (the idea behind it is to try to calm one's boss down) doesn't play well with Australians who are not used to reading the varieties of smiles that the average Thai have at hand and regularly feel like being laughed at.
At the train station in Chachoengsao

The other day, when I inquired at the hotel reception whether my friend Bill, as he had informed me, did leave his phone number, the receptionist asked: "You meet your friend already?". "Yes", I replied, wondering first what this had to do with his phone number but then it dawned on me – since I had already met him, the phone number now wasn't really of use anymore, I imagine her thinking. "Okay, I check", she said and started to examine the rubbish bin. She quite obviously had thrown it away. I started to smile, she smiled back and that was that. There would be other ways to get in touch with Bill.
Meeting point in Chachoengsao

On the wall of my room hangs the following "announce" as it is called:
You can deposit your valuables or money in our safe deposit box at the front desk as the management is not responsible for any loss.
The Hotel will not be held responsible for the guest's property in case of loss or damage as following.
The loss or damage occurs in the hotel.
If the property that is lost is money, gold, traveler checks, jewelry other valuable items the Hotel shall not take responsibility.
The Hotel shall not be liable for any loss or damage by the following cases:
1) The case is beyond the control of the Hotel
2) The existing condition of the article.
3) The loss or damage is made by the guest.

Pretty comprehensive, I'd say.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Am Rhein bei Sargans

Diese Aufnahmen machte ich, 
beziehungsweise mein Nokia Phone, 
am 25. August 2017

Nichts verblüfft mich mehr als dieses eigenartige Phänomen, dass ich selten sehe, was vor meiner Nase liegt. So habe ich etwa erst diesen Sommer entdeckt, dass es am Rhein bei Sargans Sandbänke und Steinablagerungen gibt, wo man baden kann. Eigenartig, dass man den grössten Teil seines Lebens – klar doch, ich spreche von mir – so selten sinnlich und gedanklich da ist, wo man physisch ist.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Steve McCurry: Afghanistan

Many of the pictures in this tome I remember having admired during an exhibition at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich in 2015. As always when looking at Steve McCurry's photographs I marveled at the incredibly intense colours that made the pictures look fantastic and somewhat unreal, fairy-tale like.

Afghanistan is a large format tome (hardcover, 26,7 x 37 cm, 256 pages) – Cologne-based publisher Taschen understands better than most of its competitors that photo books are much more impressive when they come in large format – and that presents stunning portraits, awe-inspiring landscapes, moving scenes as well as compositions that are testimony to the photographer's extraordinary eye.
Bamiyan, 2006 @ Stve McCurry

It goes without saying that what we see in photographs largely depends on what we bring to them. So what do I associate with Afghanistan? What immediately comes to mind is what I've recently heard on TV – that the country is known as the graveyard of empires for many of the world's powers have tried and failed to conquer Afghanistan. Apart from the power struggles, I think of grandiose landscapes and a harsh climate. What I also bring to these images is a willingness to be visually introduced to an unknown world.

What above all strikes me when spending time with Steve McCurry's Afghanistan is the sensation that this is a very old culture – you can see that especially in the eyes and the postures of the people portrayed. They radiate something that goes beyond their immediate presence, they seem to represent not only ancient history but something eternal.

Apart from places of worship, hardly any buildings appear intact. This is certainly due to the ongoing wars that, to the outsider, seem a permanent feature of this country but one also wonders whether Afghans – as the Indian intellectual U.R. Ananthamurty once remarked about Indian writers – are living  "simultaneously in the 12th and 21st centuries, and in every century in between." Steve McCurry's photographs, that often resemble paintings, reinforce this impression.
Kabul, 2003 @ Steve McCurry

In his highly informative afterword William Dalrymple points to the great diversity of racial types. "The genes of one hundred different races meet here and intermingle." And he adds: "As bewitchingly rugged as the Afghans themselves is the formidable landscape that produced them."

Eighty percent are illiterate, I learn. "Yet they are a proud people, eyes levelled straight, in contempt as much as in curiosity: These are the faces, both male and female, that peer so defiantely from Steve McCurry's magnificent Afghan portraits."

Since Steve McCurry has been coming to Afghanistan for over thirty years, he also has had ample opportunity to record the tragedy of Afghanistan's modern wars and this collection isn't short of the ubiquitous violence of the country.

William Dalrymple's text  perfectly complements Steve McCurry's "utterly original" shots. On the one hand because it refers to the photographs in this book (and this is amazingly rare in photo books), on the other hand because the writer shares his own relationship with Afghanistan – especially the story of his latest arrival at Herat airport is wonderfully telling.
Mazar-e Sharif, 1991 @ Steve McCurry

Afghanistan is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary country.

Steve McCurry
English, German, French
Taschen, Cologne 2017

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Human Cost of Agrotoxins

This tome documents the catastrophic consequences of inconsiderate use of agrotoxins by Monsanto in the Northeast of Argentina over twenty years, mainly congenital malformations. But there are also other kinds of sufferings that are not readily visible: miscarriages and cancer, as photojournalist Pablo E. Piovano, born 1981, states.

Unsurprisingly, most media rarely write about it. "Silence was what made most noise. So I decided to go out and document on my own to know what was happening to the health of the people living in the fumigated villages", writes Pablo E. Piovano.

In other words: "The Human Cost of Agrotoxins" is classic documentary and this means: to go out into the world, confront yourself with what is out there   and then tell us about it. 

For the full review, please see

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Foreign Correspondents: The Art of Guessing

When they arrived in Phnom Penh they discovered that there had been a revolution in Thailand. As Times correspondent, Robert was desperate. He read the French newspapers in Phnom Penh, translated the article on the revolution, rewrote it and cabled it to London. As the story was going out he remebered that the French correspondent in Bangkok was a friend of ours and totally unreliable –given to wild exaggeration and catastrophic conclusions.
"Did you cancel the cable?" I asked fearfully.
"No," said Robert, "but I added a shaky postscript: PLEASE CHECK."

Thus do the headlines in Southeast Asia originate. Formerly I had a touching faith in the veracity of our better newspapers, now I read everything from that dim area with tongue in cheek. The respectable format of the London and New York Times impresses me no longer. Behind the authoritative columns I have my memories of the wild and bewildered correspondents in the mad countires in which no Westerner knows or understands what is really happening. Robert spoke fluent Thai and knows more abot Thailand than anyone I ever met out there, but in times of stress the Thai were not given to conversation and most of Robert's stories were educated guesses.

Carol Hollinger
Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Edward Weston 1886-1958


This beautifully done book of photography by Edward Weston was edited by Manfred Heiting and comes with an essay by Terence Pitts and with a (very brief, comprising merely half a page) portrait by Ansel Adams who wrote among other things: "Edward suffers no sense of personal insecurity in his work; he required no support through 'explanations,' justifications or interpretations ... I would prefer to join Edward in avoiding verbal or written definitions of creative work. Who can talk or write about the Bach Partitas? You just play them or listen to them." And this is exactly what I did after having read that.
Edward Weston with Seneca View Camera 
Copyright: Collection Center of Creative Photography 
© 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of RegentsPhoto: Tina Modotti, 1924

Edward Weston was the son of a doctor, his mother died when he was five, his formal education ended before high school. "I cannot believe I learned anything of value in school, unless it be the will to rebel," he later wrote according to Terence Pitts who writes about the life and art of the photographer in an interesting text entitled "Uncompromising Passion".

Before spending time with this book, I was only familiar with Weston's Nudes and his relationship with Tina Modotti, an Italian immigrant to the United States who had acted in several silent movies in Hollywood and who would eventually become a photographer herself. Their time in Mexico had quite an impact on Weston. "In his daybooks he described street life in Mexico as 'sharp clashes of contrasting extremes ... vital, intense, black and white, never gray'. By contrast, Glendale, California, now seemed 'drab, spiritless, a uniform gray – peopled by exploiters who have raped a fair land."

Eggs and Slicer, 1930
Copyright: Collection Center of Creative Photography 
© 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

Edward Weston believed that photography must take a different avenue than the other arts. "The camera should be used for recording a life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh." And so he also photographed shells and sliced vegetables. "Weston made many of the photographs that are now recognized as among the most important: photographs of a gleaming white chambered nautilus shell set in a dark, ambiguous space; pairs of shells tucked into each other; and sensous bell peppers."

Many of his photographs are razor-sharp, and quite some taken from up close. His credo from later years can be felt or so it seems. "I am no longer trying to 'express myself,' to impose my own personality on nature, but without prejudice, without falsification, to become identified with nature, to see or know things as they are, their very essence, so that what I record is not an interpretation   my idea of what nature should be   but a revelation, a piercing of the smoke screen ..."

Nude, 1936 Copyright: Collection Center of Creative Photography
 © 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents
My favourite pics in this tome show dunes, landscapes and the ones that present views of the Armco Steel mill in Ohio. Weston felt that the artist had to respond to "the architecture of the age, good or bad  showing it in new and fascinating ways", as he had written in his daybooks. Stieglitz, whom he showed his portfolio of prints, was not enchanted. "Instead of destroying or disillusioning me he has given me more confidence and sureness    and finer aesthetic understanding of my medium", Weston wrote to his friend Johan Hagemeyer." In other words, his ego seemed to match the one of Stieglitz.

Edward Weston
Essay by Terence Pitts
With a Portrait by Ansel Adams
Edited by Manfred Heiting
Taschen, Cologne 2017