Thursday, June 18, 2009

A note to Charles Montgomery

Thanks very much for your comment on my post about the poor woman on a street in Pyongyang, and especially for your last observation: "Almost ALL the photography I've seen of [North Korea] partakes of this 'camera is in a different world than subject' nature. It's like taking pictures at the zoo, but as though the occupants themselves built the structure." Your zoo simile reminds us all to reread Kafka's "A Report to an Academy," that definitive statement about the impossibility of communication.

One photographer who has looked at the impossibility head-on is Philippe Chancel, in his book North Korea (Thames and Hudson, 2007): a book of images of people surrounded by emptiness. In a technical note for Emily Dickinson specialists ("This Page Intentionally Left Blank: Janet Holmes Formats Dickinson," Emily Dickinson Bulletin 19, no. 2 [Nov.-Dec. 2007]: 18-22), the poet Janet Holmes and I discuss this image from the book ("Air Koryo flight attendant, Pyongyang") in connection with two other ways of depicting nothing.

One of those ways is Holmes's. Creating verbal artifacts out of what's left after words have been arbitrarily erased from poems by Dickinson, Holmes rewrites Dickinson as a poet of the white blanks between words. Even the title of Holmes's book, The ms of my kin (Exeter, UK: Shearsman Books, 2009;, represents what was left after she deleted part of The Poems of Emily Dickinson.

The other way, of course, is the way of Emily Dickinson, who has a whole special vocabulary of code words for "nothingness." Dickinson is the great poet of starvation and loss, and her experiments taught her that starvation and loss leave us in a kind of North Korea of the soul. There, she says, we have and we become only one thing: "that white sustenance, despair."

Meanwhile, a June 1 e-mail from the Galerie Philippe Chaume announces that "Making Worlds," Philippe Chancel's new collection of images from the United Arab Emirates, is now on display at the Venice Biennale. In the text of the announcement, Elise Legris-Heinrich explains:
Depuis ses débuts, Philippe Chancel photographie les sociétés autoritaires et les dictatures communistes en particulier. En 1981, il est le premier à se rendre en Pologne où a lieu un état de siège proclamé par le général Jaruzelski. S'ensuit une longue série de reportages jusqu'à cette année 2005 où il obtient un visa de près d'un mois pour la Corée du Nord. En 2008, il réitère l'expérience de l'utopie en se rendant aux Emirats Arabes Unis pour constater de ses propres yeux ce gigantesque chantier à ciel ouvert. Déjà, il constate des points communs entre ces deux pays : culte de la personnalité donnant lieu à une iconographie à satiété, concentration du pouvoir, contrôle sur les individus et surtout un déni de l'humain, revers de ces sociétés de l'hypertrophie régies par l'argent et le pouvoir politique.

. . .

Toutefois, les photographies de Philippe Chancel ne sont pas subversives. Au contraire, il pénètre au coeur de la fascination qu'exercent ces sociétés de l'image pour mieux comprendre les raisons de leur attirance et de leur répulsion. Ainsi, le cadrage de ses photographies est frontal et distancié pour répondre à son exigence de fidélité avec la réalité sans l'entremise d'un jugement ou d'un affect. L'esthétique documentaire qu'il met en place tâche d'oeuvrer là où la propagande des idéologies agit c'est-à-dire dans les apparences et les faux-semblants. Ses photographies mettent en abîme les rouages du pouvoir et questionnent l'image même.
Which can be translated:
From the beginning of his career, Philippe Chancel has photographed authoritarian societies, in particular communist dictatorships. In 1981, he was the first to go to Poland when it was under the martial law imposed by General Jaruzelski. A long series of reports followed from then until 2005, when he spent almost a month in North Korea. In 2008 he repeated the experiment of utopia in the United Arab Emirates in order to take note of that vast open-air construction site. He had already observed points in common between the two societies: a personality cult generating a glut of iconography, a concentration of power, control over individuals, and above all a denial of the human: the reverse of those societies of hypertrophy which are ruled by money and political power.

. . .

However, Philippe Chancel's photographs are not subversive. On the contrary, they penetrate to the heart of what is fascinating about these societies of the image in order to help us better understand why they both repel and attract us. So the composition of his photographs is frontal and distanced in order to comply with the demand for fidelity to what is real, without the mediation of judgment or emotion. The documentary aesthetic which it establishes seeks to do its work where ideological propaganda holds sway; that is, in appearances and illusions. His photographs penetrate to the depths of the workings of power and question the image itself.