Were all just passengers here, some of us just feel the need to document our experiences to convey, reflexively back to ourselves, that we were ever really present. We rely on the camera as a means for which to confirm our existence and our incremental movements here under the increasingly hot sun. The camera lifted to the eye is a reality check. The gesture births a swollen and momentary need for patience and concentration. You cannot make a photograph with a certain authority at the point of juggling more than one task or duty. The camera demands as much from you as you demand of the experience or subject that you want to capture. It is an exchange. It is not without taxation.
This experience of making photographs is necessary to stop the motion of the world and our perception of it suspends until the point in which the shutter, digital or other, has intervened in the business of this slowly rotating orb affixed to an imagined, yet scientifically calculated 23-degree axis. All energy is spent. Life cools in the vast emptiness of the abstract universe, its function undermines a deceiving lack of eternal and perpetual inertia. The camera, as well as the clock, imposes a segmented abbreviation of time that we use to determine our relationship to our environment. A camera is a tool used to suspend the inevitable end of all things. Photography corroborates with entropy and destiny in delaying the endpoint of light on the subject. Its fuel spent, the moment dissipates and challenges our lateral prefrontal cortex’s function of memory and its relationship to experience. It is a marker, a buoy in the drift of cosmic wind.
Martin Bogren’s Passenger published by Editions Lamaindonne (2021) is a granular assault on the sense of sight. Bogren, a Swedish artist familiar with what Jeffrey Silverthorne once described to me as “Swedish grain syndrome” pushes his images to the point of breaking apart. Their ruddy and atmospheric surfaces remind one of a type of photographic pointillism-when you get too close, they break apart. Held at arm’s length, a point not to be undervalued, they begin to crystallize and to coagulate into forms that resemble subjects. Bogren’s book begins with this quote…
“When we for a moment silence our minds and let go of understanding there is a knowing beyond, without thinking, without judging, accusation or fear. We then see beauty for beauty itself without a need for analysis or mastery. Then we know who we really are. Meanwhile, we are just passing through”
It is a nice quote that inserts itself into our contemporary moment as a rebuttal against intention and against the often morose or mean-spirited interpretation of the political image. It forbids a post-modern conceit for deconstruction and asks us to resume the pleasure of looking, and of being affected by images in a way that unlocks and incorruptibly asks us to pivot and reference our place in the world without the accustomed baggage that we have been assuming in our overthinking. It is a quote that suggests a benevolent intention, but in doing so, forms the mind towards the opposite position. We begin to ask why is this quote necessary. In the following pages, it becomes clear.
Passenger, all benevolent platitudes aside, is a book made from images shot in Calcutta, India. Against his wishes to begin the book with an empty mind, I begin to question what I am seeing. I do this mostly as the container for which I am presented with the work is a book and not a gallery wall where it might be slightly easier to let go and critique myself through his work in purely visual terms. In a photobook, I am being asked to read these images with ties to an epistemology that the book and its history presents to me, and am also basing my reception of the book based on my own knowledge of the production of images. In doing so, I read the work as partially intended for the images are beautiful in their decay and streaky dissolve. I am reminded of what a yellow filter can do with color film and what the significance of the color yellow is on the cinematic landscape which Western filmmakers usually employ to elicit a feeling of unease or poverty. Conversely, in film color grading, it can also mean wisdom and summer. Over Calcutta, it can go both ways, a pearl of wisdom found in the unease of dissolution.
Throughout the book, I am reminded of why I gravitate towards Martin’s work. I have a few of his books on my shelves and I take joy in looking through his images often. Whereas I am not a completist, nor am I aware of all of his work, it is hard not to read a location like Calcutta, particularly the color images of Calcutta, in a certain way that gives me pause. They feel foreign to the conceit of his other books somehow and I have to apply a level of rationality to understand why this book gives me any more pause than his book, for example, Italia, which I do own and enjoy without the same interrogation. Perhaps what strikes me as worth having a pause are those very issues that seem to be silently addressed in the opening quote-that I should let go and learn about myself through an act of pure and uncomplicated observation. In trying to manage this expectation from the author, I find myself still continually drawn into and out of my comfort zone as it relates to the very easy problem territory of exoticism and class warfare-a key element in Indian daily life.
The figures depicted in the book are mostly treated with respect and humility, but they are not treated without an exoticization of a Swedish documentary photographer abroad. So, how can I humble Martin’s intentions in my mind to re-draft his experiences more akin to his work in Italy, which to be completely fair, is not his home either? The caveat here is that in Italia, there exists a European sense of economy, though part of Italy, particularly the South, also suffers from a deep economic deprivation. There is also the obvious discussion regarding photographs of BIPOC people from the perspective of a white European man. To ignore this, as much as I want to for the sake of Martin’s intentions is not possible in 2022. Does this mean he should not photograph anywhere there are people of color? Of course not, but one cannot conveniently mortgage this part of the discussion for purely aesthetic reasons. So, I remain perplexed in how to facilitate a cogent agreement either for or against the images in the book.
It is easy to speak about beauty and ignore social mores and political circumstances. For example, I think the colorwork in the book is particularly haunting and evocative of something I would like to see more from in Bogren’s normally monochrome pictures. There is something that he has unearthed here and I feel a privilege in seeing this new approach, or an approach new to me. That it coincides with his trip to Calcutta raises some questions, however, I do not wish to see Bogren’s intentions as poorly. When I look at his previous books, I feel no exploitation or ill-will, or optics that present as theft. I see them as romantic, bristling with life executed under a simultaneous bittersweet ode to decay. They are, for all intents and purposes benign politically and I appreciate that and understand much about what his opening quote hints at with those books. Here though, questions must form, but we do not have to adjudicate on them with an unnecessary penalty, but I also refuse that images are merely pleasing the eye and not complicated by the mind.
If nothing else, the discussion that I have pointed to in Martin’s book, the one he clearly does not wish to have can be used as grist for the mill by people who do understand, however unintentional, the weight of the discourse of their production. Let me be clear, I highly recommend this book, but that does not disallow my interpretation of the work. Once an artist puts work into the hands of the public, no matter their intention that they are seen in purely visual terms, they must accept that the public owns as much of that experience as their experience of creating it. Nothing exists by will alone, and nothing will exist in the vacuum of one once public. One cannot look away from themselves in assessing an art without the culmination of their own inherent or structured bias, both negative and positive. It is the same in any act of creation. I hope Martin can forgive my inquiry. I cannot empty myself as a vessel with which to simply receive his or any other images. There is too much at stake in the world right now to recalibrate my orientation of thought to a blank white slate.