Spotlight: Eli Durst

In Eritrea, a young photographer pursues a cinematic vision.

By Alexandra Pechman

Eli Durst, Photographer, from the series In Asmara, 2015 Courtesy the artist

Eli Durst, Photographer, from the series In Asmara, 2015
Courtesy the artist

Eli Durst spent his summers during high school and college assembling asylum applications at the Austin immigration clinic where his mother works as a legal advocate, often for refugees from Eritrea. Durst took passport photographs and met dozens of people who had crossed the U.S. border from Mexico after landing there by circuitous journeys and illegal means, fleeing Eritrea’s authoritarian government and standstill economy. Yet, some Eritreans spoke wistfully about the underrecognized allure of Asmara, the nation’s capital and a time capsule of early twentieth-century colonial Italian architecture.

In the 1930s, following four decades of colonization, Italian fascist forces imposed the charge of futurism on Asmara through hundreds of new buildings, often shaped like the era’s latest technology: airplanes, radios, trains. The invasion of British troops in 1941, during World War II, brought an end to the Italian colony and the architectural explosion. Today, buildings remain remarkably undisturbed after years of war and undemocratic regimes.

“That really interested me, this kind of a duality of people’s love for this place while they are doing everything they can to leave,” Durst told me recently. In the summer of 2015, Durst visited the city for the first time, arranging for the brother of an Eritrean translator who works with his mother’s clinic to serve as a guide. He showed Durst the city for a few days, but then was forced to report for military training—another reason Eritreans leave the country.

Eli Durst, Samson and Winta, from the series In Asmara, 2015 Courtesy the artist

Eli Durst, Samson and Winta, from the series In Asmara, 2015
Courtesy the artist

Durst toured Asmara using a 2003 architectural survey, but found he was not allowed to photograph iconic buildings. Though still standing, the majority have fallen into disrepair. A 1930s swimming hall he wanted to photograph had, he learned, been closed for a decade, and buildings converted for government use were restricted. With limited accessibility, Durst focused on silent details, and took cues from the cinematic styles of Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, and, most of all, Michelangelo Antonioni. “I couldn’t not see it that way,” Durst said. “Asmara looks so much like the world I’ve seen in these midcentury Italian films. Antonioni, particularly, conveys a certain beauty with an underlying tension, where you have this setting but it’s disintegrating.”

Durst’s sharply contrasted black-and-white images from Asmara are often devoid of people, though the sense remains that someone has just left or is soon to appear in the frame. The Roman lettering of AMOR on a building reflects up from a puddle of standing water. Untouched coffee cups crowd a brimming ashtray on a table. A place setting of food awaits a diner.

“All you can talk about is how beautiful it is, because everyone is afraid of being critical,” Durst said. Eritrea has no free press and one of the world’s worst records for free speech. Journalists who speak out against the government are imprisoned, email and Internet use are closely monitored, and foreign journalists are not allowed to enter the country. (Durst traveled under a tourist visa.)

Durst, a native Texan, took photography classes at Wesleyan University. After graduating in 2011, he moved to New York to learn more about photography, working at Griffin Editions and as an assistant for Joel Meyerowitz, whom he cites as an influence. Durst later attended the Yale University School of Art for his MFA, where he began to work on his Asmara portfolio.

¬¬Eli Durst, Steak, from the series In Asmara, 2015 Courtesy the artist

Eli Durst, Steak, from the series In Asmara, 2015
Courtesy the artist

The retouched passport photographs that Durst took over the years in Austin (and now uses in his work, with applicants’ consent) punctuate the series and connect Durst’s engagement with Eritreans in Austin and Asmara. Other images have faces and bodies that are clipped, cropped, or seen at a distance.

In a photograph taken in the dining room of his nearly unoccupied hotel (tourism to Eritrea is made difficult by a government wary of Western agitators and influence), a waiter in suit and tie stands in front of a contemporarily dressed man seated alone among empty tables.

Durst’s trip coincided with Ramadan, and on Eid al-Fitr local photographers take pictures of celebrating families. One took notice of Durst. “All the younger photographers had digital and he had this old Olympus,” Durst said. “He saw me and I stood out. He took my picture and then pulled me aside and led me around the city.” The man didn’t speak English and Durst was without a translator, so during their hour-long tour Durst never learned his name. In Durst’s image of their encounter, the unknown photographer, his face obscured by the Olympus, trains his analog lens on Durst, a seeming nod to the obscured face of Thomas in the popular imagery from Blow-Up (1966), Antonioni’s seminal meditation on the medium of photography.

“With Antonioni, there are these complicated and often very scary political undercurrents,” Durst said. “That photographic tension exists in his films. That’s what was driving me.”

Alexandra Pechman is a writer based in Rio de Janeiro and New York.

Eli Durst is the winner of the 2016 Portfolio Prize. His exhibition In Asmara is on view at the Aperture Gallery through February 4, 2017. Click here for more information about the Portfolio Prize, now open exclusively to Aperture subscribers.

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John Berger’s Intimate Greatness

Aperture remembers the life of John Berger, whose narrative approach to art criticism reached far beyond photography.

By Geoff Dyer

Jean Mohr, John Berger, 1967 Courtesy the artist

Jean Mohr, John Berger, 1967
Courtesy the artist

I became interested in photography not by taking or looking at photographs but by reading about them. The names of the three writers who served as guides will come as no surprise: Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and John Berger. I read Sontag on Diane Arbus before I’d seen any photographs by Arbus (there are no pictures in On Photography), and Barthes on André Kertész, and Berger on August Sander without knowing any photographs other than the few reproduced in Camera Lucida and About Looking. (The fact that the photo on the cover of About Looking was credited to someone called Garry Winogrand meant nothing to me.)

Berger was indebted to both of the others. Dedicated to Sontag, the 1978 essay “Uses of Photography” is offered as a series of “responses” to On Photography, published the previous year: “The thoughts are sometimes my own, but all originate in the experience of reading her book.” Writing about The Pleasure of the Text (1973), Berger described Barthes as “the only living critic or theorist of literature and language whom I, as a writer, recognise.”

For his part, Barthes included Sontag’s On Photography in the list of books—omitted from the English edition—at the end of Camera Lucida (1980). Sontag, in turn, had been profoundly shaped by her reading of Barthes. All three had been influenced by Walter Benjamin, whose A Short History of Photography (1931) reads like the oldest surviving part of a map this later trio tried—in their different ways, using customized projections—to extend, enhance, and improve. Benjamin is a constantly flickering presence in much of Barthes’ writing. The anthology of quotations at the end of On Photography is dedicated—with the kind of intimate relation to greatness that Sontag cultivated, adored, and believed to be her due—“to W. B.” At the end of the first part of Ways of Seeing Berger acknowledges that “many of the ideas” had been taken from an essay of Benjamin’s titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” (This was 1972, remember, before Benjamin’s essay became one of the most mechanically reproduced and quoted ever written.)

Photography, for all four, was an area of special interest, but not a specialism. They approached photography not with the authority of curators or historians of the medium but as essayists, writers. Their writings on the subject were less the product of accumulated knowledge than active records of how knowledge and understanding had been acquired or was in the process of being acquired.

This is particularly evident in the case of Berger, who did not devote an entire book to the subject until Another Way of Telling in 1982. In a sense, though, he was the one whose training and career led most directly to photography. Sontag had followed a fairly established path of academic study before becoming a freelance writer, and Barthes remained in academia for his entire career. Berger’s creative life, however, was rooted in the visual arts. Leaving school possessed by a single idea—“I wanted to draw naked women. All day long”—he attended London’s Chelsea and Central schools of art. In the early 1950s he began writing about art and became a regular critic— iconoclastic, Marxist, much admired, often derided—for the New Statesman. His first novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958), was a direct result of his immersion in the world of art and the politics of the left. By the mid-1960s he had widened his scope far beyond art and the novel to become a writer unhindered by category and genre. Crucially, for the current discussion, he had begun collaborating with a photographer, Jean Mohr. Their first book, A Fortunate Man (1967), made a significant step beyond the pioneering work of Walker Evans and James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), on rural poverty in the Great Depression. (A Fortunate Man is subtitled “The Story of a Country Doctor,” in homage, presumably, to the great photo-essay by W. Eugene Smith, “Country Doctor,” published in Life in 1948.) This was followed by their study of migrant labor, A Seventh Man (1975), and, eventually, Another Way of Telling. The important thing, in all three books, is that the photographs are not there to illustrate the text, and, conversely, the text is not intended to serve as any kind of extended caption for the images. Rejecting what Berger regards as a kind of “tautology,” words and images exist, instead, in an integrated, mutually enhancing relationship. A new form was being forged and refined.

A side-effect of this ongoing relationship with Mohr was that Berger had, for many years, not only observed Mohr at work; he had also been the subject of that work. Lacking the training as a photographer that he’d enjoyed as an artist, he became very familiar with the other side of the experience, of being photographed. With the exception of one picture, by another friend—Henri Cartier-Bresson!—the author photographs for his books have almost always been by Mohr; they constitute Mohr’s visual biography of his friend. (The essay on Mohr included here records Berger’s attempt to reciprocate, to make a sketch of the photographer.) His writings on drawing speak with the authority of the drawer; his writings on photography often concentrate on the experience, the depicted lives, of those photographed. Barthes expressed the initial impetus for Camera Lucida as photography “against film”; Berger’s writing on photography hinges on its relationship to painting and drawing. As Berger has grown older, his early training—in drawing—rather than fading in importance has become a more and more trusted tool of investigation and inquiry. (Tellingly, his latest book, published in 2011 and inspired in part by Spinoza, is called Bento’s Sketchbook.) A representative passage in “My Beautiful” records how, in a museum in Florence, he came across the porcelain head of an angel by Luca della Robbia: “I did a drawing to try to understand better the expression of her face.” Could this be part of the fascination of photography for Berger? Not just that it is a wholly different form of image production, but that it is immune to explication by drawing? A photograph can be drawn, obviously, but how can its meaning best be drawn out?

This was the goal Barthes and Berger shared: to articulate the essence of photography—or, as Alfred Stieglitz had expressed it in 1914, “the idea photography.” While this ambition fed, naturally enough, into photographic theory, Berger’s method was always too personal, the habits of the autodidact too ingrained, to succumb to the kind of discourse- and semiotics-mania that seized cultural studies in the 1970s and ’80s. Victor Burgin—to take a representative figure of the time—had much to learn from Berger; Berger comparatively little from Burgin. After all, by the time of About Looking (1980), the collection that contained some of his most important essays on photography, Berger had been living in the Haute-Savoie, France, for the best part of a decade. His researches—I let the word stand in spite of being so thoroughly inappropriate—into photography proceeded in tandem with the struggle to gain a different kind of knowledge and understanding: of the peasants he had been living among and was writing about in the trilogy Into Their Labours. Except, of course, the knowledge and methods were not so distinct after all. Writing the fictional lives of Lucie Cabrol or Boris—in Pig Earth (1979) and Once in Europa (1987), the first two volumes of the trilogy—or about Paul Strand’s photograph of Mr. Bennett (p. 44), both required the kind of attentiveness celebrated by D. H. Lawrence in his poem “Thought”:

Thought is gazing on to the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to a conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending.

In Berger’s case, the habit of thought is like a sustained and disciplined version of something that had come instinctively to him as a boy. In Here Is Where We Meet the author’s mother remembers him as a child on a tram in the London suburb of Croydon: “I never saw anyone look as hard as you did, sitting on the edge of the seat.” If the boy ended up becoming a “theorist,” then it is by adherence to the method described by Goethe, quoted by Benjamin (in A Short History) and requoted by Berger in “The Suit and the Photograph”: “There is a delicate form of the empirical which identifies itself so intimately with its object that it thereby becomes theory.”

This is what makes Berger such a wonderful practical critic and reader of individual photographs (“gazing on to the face of life, and reading what can be read”), questioning them with his signature intensity of attention—and, often, tenderness. (See, for example, the analysis of Kertész’s picture A Red Hussar Leaving, Budapest, June 1919.) To that extent his writing on photography continues the interrogation of the visible that characterized his writing on painting. As he explains at the beginning of the conversation with Sebastião Salgado: “I try to put into words what I see.”

This essay is adapted from the introduction to John Berger’s Understanding a Photograph, published by Aperture in 2013.

Geoff Dyer’s most recent book is White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World (2016).

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Exploding Faces & Glitchy Portraits: The Futuristic Work of Pandagunda

Sweden-based artist Pandagunda finds inspiration in everything from hospital sounds, to glitch art, to imperfections in the world around us. His work is largely digital, with an almost tactile quality. People with surreal spikes and growths shooting out of their heads, glossy 3D shapes, and often an almost floral treatment creates works that require a…

Westhoek, Scarred land.


[dropcap type="1"]I[/dropcap]t also bears the marks of its ambivalences – as a part of France notwithstanding its Flemish tradition, but also as a place with mores revealing a strong attachment to the past and yet with a yearning for change, and it is also the seat of a blatant sociocultural rift.
From this sole background four projects have emerged, fragmenting and going their separate ways, but always keeping in mind the identity of this territory.
Whether through the prism of landscapes or through that of portraits, these projects aim at disclosing the identity of this part of France nowadays.
In the end, dialogue emerges from these four autonomous projects which thus gather strength to the point that they become complementary. The Westhoek project came as a way to work together for the four young photographers. The four of them being French living in Belgium, it was a interesting challenge to go to this region of mixed culture. In the context of the upcoming presidential election in France, and the migrant’s crisis strongly present in this region, it was an important time for them to discover this land, to meet the people living there, and therefore to give a vision of this poorly known area. When they talk about their experience there, they talk about meeting cheerful and welcoming people, in despite of the general humble background of the land they went through, people were strong and proud. When ask about the reception of the images, it’s clear for them that it’s a really subjective vision that they give. They all come from a documentary tradition but they are really conscious here of presenting their vision, the images are open enough to let the viewers make his own idea of the region, his own story.
About the authors:
« Scouting Around Westoek” is composed of four french young photographers ( Paul Hennebelle, Fabien Silvestre Suzor, Benjamin Sandri, Johan Poezevara) graduated from the Art school « le Septantecinq » in Brussels in 2016. For this one project they decided to work together on one territory the Westhoek, a part of the French Flanders in the north of France.

The post Westhoek, Scarred land. appeared first on Positive Magazine.

The Red Ice Forest

The Red Ice Forest wallpaper

I received my new drone a few days before the ending of 2016 but i couldn’t fly it here in the Netherlands since we were hit by some heavy fog for a few days. finally on the 30th of December it was clearing up just a little but, which ended up being just enough so i could try out the drone and hover above some trees near my living place. All of the trees were covered in ice but it didn’t cover up all the grass on the floor, resulting in some nice orange/red grass coming through the icy scenery.

DJI Phantom 4 Professional, Adobe Photoshop CC 2017.

Mac users: download Macdrops the official InterfaceLIFT app for Mac OS X.


Incoming wallpaper

Taken this past weekend in the Marin Headlands, California. The natural lighting was nearly perfect for highlighting the awesome power of the ocean.

Nikon D7100.

Mac users: download Macdrops the official InterfaceLIFT app for Mac OS X.

A Pocket Full of Happy: Becky Margraf’s Handmade Squares To see…

A Pocket Full of Happy: Becky Margraf’s Handmade Squares

To see more of Becky’s art, follow @bargraf on Instagram.

Becky Margraf’s (@bargraf) personality-packed squares began as part of the #100DayProject, a movement encouraging people to participate in 100 consecutive days of making. Soon after she started, rain clouds pouted, bowls of cereal grinned and breakfast pastries winked. “Taking weird things and making them cute is a cool way to look at the world,” says Becky, who is the community manager of “Anytime I was out in the wild running around San Francisco, I’d look for an object that I thought would be cool to turn into a creature.” Using 30-cent sheets of felt and 60-cent skeins of floss, she sewed her tiny, happy creations in a couple of hours, often finishing them on her commute. “This year was totally crazy — my relationship ended, I got this crazy job promotion and I moved. The squares are almost little diary entries,” says Becky. “It was cool to have something to do on the bus besides stare at a phone.”

Seeking ‘Unnoticed Beauty’ with Photographer Benjamin Lee To…

Seeking ‘Unnoticed Beauty’ with Photographer Benjamin Lee

To see more of Benjamin’s work, check out @itchban on Instagram.

He’s based in one of Australia’s busiest cities, but freelance photographer Benjamin Lee (@itchban) thrives in nature. “There is so much unnoticed beauty in the world and everything that surrounds us — if only you take the time to look for it,” says the 30-year-old Sydney resident who left his office job two years ago to pursue photography full time. Benjamin hopes his work energizes other people to go explore. “It’s easy to get weighed down by your worries and not realize how big the world is and how small your problems actually are,” he says. “Get out there and enjoy what the world has to offer.”

Weekend Hashtag Project: #WHPimitation Weekend Hashtag Project…

Weekend Hashtag Project: #WHPimitation

Weekend Hashtag Project is a series featuring designated themes and hashtags. For a chance to be featured, follow @instagram and look for a post every week announcing the latest project.

The goal of #WHPimitation was to find resemblances between people and their surroundings. Each week, we feature some of our favorite submissions from the project, but be sure to check out the rest here.