World Wide Order, Julian Röder (Hatje Cantz)
Heads Will Roll, Max de Estaban (Hatje Cantz)
Wikipedia scores zilch when it comes to introducing the term fine art photography:
Fine art photography is photography created in accordance with the vision of the artist as photographer. Fine art photography stands in contrast to representational photography, such as photojournalism, which provides a documentary visual account of specific subjects and events, literally re-presenting objective reality rather than the subjective intent of the photographer; and commercial photography, the primary focus of which is to advertise products or services.
This begins by implying that non-fine art photography cannot the act of a creative photographer or — another possibility given the partisan logic of the premise — all photography created by an artist belongs to the fine art stable. The error is then compounded by a categorical contrast between the esteemed subject of fine art photography and two other types of photography: the representational sort, such as photojournalism, and the commercial kind. We can take the hint and regard these last two as inferior: one is merely a visual record of what exists and the other merely vulgar advertising.
Two books published by Hatje Cantz embody what is really at stake here. World Wide Order is a collection of photographs by Julian Röder, divided thematically but united by a concern with the incestuous union of power and economics that we know as capitalism. The first section is entitled The Summits, a series that started when Röder was a participant in the protests at Genoa in 2001 and which evolved as he recorded moments from the opposition to the G8 summits in Brussels, Evian, Gleneagles, Heiligendamn, Thessaloniki and Hokkaido. Impressive as the 2003 anti-war protests were, bringing millions of civilians onto the streets around the world, they were essentially passive and cannot be compared with the spirit of protesters that Röder captures with his camera. He records civil disobedience as it should be — organized, focused, prepared to defend itself, courageous – epitomised by a shot taken at Gleneagles in 2005 that calls to mind an infamous moment photographed during the Battle of Orgreave. As the G8 organizers retreated to rural locations in order to outwit opposition, conflict moved from urban barricades to country lanes and fields. Gentrify this if you can.
Another section, Human Resources, deals with weapons fairs – photographing not the weapons on sale but the physical make-up of the displays and the sales people, actors who take their places and their maquillage as another set of props. Röder removes any trace of logos or representations of the products, enhancing the eerie, stage-like quality of the salespeople alongside their display booths and space dividers. The images are brightly lit and shimmer with colour but this only draws attention to an inhuman aspect of the spectacle. A related section, World of Warfare, looks at The International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX), held every two years in Abu Dhabi (www.idexuae.ae), as a shopping mall for rocket launches, tanks, military aircraft, guns, riot control gear. Here, Roder draws attention not to the artificial architecture of the fair or the human manikins who maintain it but to the weapons as marketable objects of desire, consumer items in the ultimately deadly game of buy and sell: rolls of bullets laid on a display glass alongside arrays of coloured glass to resemble jewellery in a shop window, a tank for sale in front of an information desk tastefully decorated with white tulips, consumers in military attire holding their goodie bags.
Heads Will Roll is the work of Max de Estaban, a photographer born in 1959 and thus a witness to the media revolution that in a few decades has rocketed us from an internet-less era of black-and-white television and dowdy newspapers to the image-bombarded world that hems us in more and more tightly. Max de Estaban’s photographs – digitally arranged collages, employing multiple exposures at times– are a dizzying mix of the virtuous and the virtual, the sensuous alongside simulacra. The fragmentary images are seductive, erotic at times, designed to be disoriented. In his own words: ‘There are no master trajectories, no linear narratives, but multiple possible routes, all equally valid.’ Very true to some extent but statements like this about post-modernity have passed their sell-by date; we have moved on and can question where these ‘multiple possible routes’ are going, never mind whether they are all equally valid. Max de Estaban’s work may be fine art photography but is it philistine to ask if this is just digital decoration, part of the world we live in but not questioning it?