Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Empty Bottles by Wassink and Lundgren

I'm going to attempt something that will probably seem unethical to some -- that is, review a book that I do not own (or as I see it, review a book that I wasn't suckered into buying). This is a book however that I've spent some time looking through and admittedly have been tempted to buy (mostly due to the hype surrounding it) but every time I move the pages from cover to cover I have the realization that I'm looking at crap and therefore -- when my brain starts working again -- I put it back on the shelf and step away. This has happened a few times and each time I feel the pull of hype and I am able to repel it thankfully even with the sticker on the new edition touting its greatness.

The book I'm speaking of is called Empty Bottles by Wassink Lundgren and it won the Contemporary Book Award for 2007 at the Rencontres d'Arles photo festival in France.

Let me proceed by asking a question. How many photographers does it take to make mediocre photographs of Chinese people picking up empty plastic bottles? In this case it would be two. The photographic duo of Wassink and Lundgren have worked on many books together and Empty Bottles is the latest. Yes, that is right, this is a collaborative effort between two people. Stunning collaboration gentlemen. My question is are there two brains at work here?

The first printing of 750 copies sold out quickly after the hype at Arles with a copy now fetching over $400 on the Photoeye auction website. Hundreds of copies were available at the first annual New York photo festival which featured an exhibition of his work curated by none other than Martin Parr.

Now if you've noticed in the past here at 5B4 Photography and Books I do not particularly enjoy negatively reviewing books. Who would? I don't have axes to grind and I want to share work that excites me in a finely crafted book. In this case, what kept me picking up the book was the design and presentation and had absolutely nothing to do with what I realized was incredibly boring photography. Has photography turned down such a blind alley to where this is an example of something that we are holding up for higher consideration?

Arles or no Arles...don't believe the hype. I hope there is a day when we come to our senses and realize that there is much more to be offered and much more to get excited about. I can only hope that that day arrives soon as I do not think I can stomach picking up more of these empty vessels.


Anonymous said...

i have to disagree with you on this one. i bought a copy of this last year (yes, I have the 1st edition, bought at regular price.), and i find the book very interesting. it's a different (ok. conceptual) take on China. i find it much better than some other photobooks dealing with the development of Chinese society published in recent years (but that's my opinion).

it's not only about "Chinese people picking up empty plastic bottles". your perspective seems very reductive. you could says it's not a new subject, since gleaners were portrayed in painting in the 19th century, but even so, i find it interesting they decided to document that aspect of Chinese society.

i also find interesting how you liked paul graham's "shimmer of possibility" so much and suddenly dislike this work. for me wassinklundgren are also dealing with things that go beyond the surface (in photography, as well as in society).

in what concerns bad photography, well, it would take ages to discuss this topic. i don't find the photos bad. and i also find the design of the book interesting.

sorry if my English is a bit confusing. ;) and it's great to have different opinions. hey! i also like stephen gill's work. :p

ps: they have a webpage:

i'm sure they will love a bad review. ha!ha! ;)

zé luís

Anonymous said...

I do agree with your comment but I wonder how you can like with little reservations works as pointless as those predictable photojournalists's books you sometimes promote... They aren't less conventional than this one - because yes, this one is especially conventional, even though it looks smart and subtle and provides all the regular hints (the gleaners!).

If you allow me being a little more critical, I also sometimes regret that you're not more open to European photography, at least the one that doesn't have the precise and professional quality valuated in the mainstream photography (there are various levels of hype, you know).

I like a lot to read that blog though. Your passion shows and it is difficult not to be impressed by your arguments.
Very best regards from overseas,

jp said...

Their own website says it all really: "Empty Bottles/24 scavengers attracted by bottles we put in front of the camera/Book/64 Pages/March 2007/Design by Kummer & Herman/Published by Veenman Publishers/First edition sold out/Second edition available/Price EUR 15.-

The WassinkLundgren home page does clearly state they are 'still searching for a rich art collector with an obsession for young photographers (and, in another version, 'for the right contacts inside the MOMA').

Anonymous said...

Can't help but feel that if they'd left green cards or visa approval letters on the ground instead of bottles and shot in black & white we could have seen a much more poignant and Humanistic Willy Ronis/Robert Doisneau kind of feel to the project. (and then you'd surely be kissing their ass!) Maybe I'll try this myself under the 7 train....see you there!!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the comment. I just don't see anything beyond the surface or particularly deep with this work. It seems to my judgment to be nothing than a half-assed concept (which may have art historical references but that doesn't make it deeper) and a lazy execution of the work. I really do not see how you are comparing Graham with this. There is no comparison in my mind.


I am not into much photo-journalism but if I praise something it is because I see the photographer or artist making new and intelligent descriptions with each new shift in the variables. Even the Bechers who made the same exact photo over and over again had to take great pains to find the vantage point and match the light conditions. With this work one image would do. The cover image is a fine photograph, the rest is simply redundant.


You've got your "idea" now go illustrate it. Actually you don't even have to take one photo. I already get it from your description. Many ground-breaking conceptual artists had the intelligence to leave their ideas on paper and then just designate that piece of paper as "the art."

Anonymous said...

I cannot agree more with what you say. I had enormous difficulties in understanding the value of this work and just thought: if this is what becomes "important" I will never be able to have success with my own photography (which, in any case, can always happen :-))

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a conceptual art project someone once set up in Times Square called "A Homeless Trap." It featured a huge mouse trap with a sleeping bag as bait.

The difference is that the artist who created the "Trap" didn't take people home with him and then display them for the rest of the world to see.

Here's another idea for anyone interested: super-glue a one dollar bill to the ground and photograph people trying to pull it up.

Sebastian said...

Since I work in a bookshop and was even there in Arles last year, I could´ve picked up a signed copy without a problem. I didn´t. What I have to say in favor though is: these two photographers are around 23 years old, they had to leave the festival that year one day before the price was given, since they had no money. So I guess we can agree that they are earnest in what they are doing (having published several little booklets). The intelligence of this work is not in the composition (but we do get a picture of chinese city life from the rich background), there is no hyper exact timing (but the people are caught in a precise description of what they are doing), there is no big artistic value. But bear in mind that the people going for those bootles are not the poor, rather they belong to the new middleclass, so this is nearly a Sander style document of the backbone of chinese society. What I like in their and comparable work, they don´t try to be better than they are, they add a small slice that says just enough.

Anonymous said...

The more I think about it, the more this book sounds like an episode from "Punked" or "Candid Camera." And about as smart.

Anonymous said...

I don't know who you are.....but keep it up....please !

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen the book or the exhibition but here's Simon Norfolk's critique of it, on moral grounds. Link

Anonymous said...

thanks for that video federico. ha!ha! simon norfolk is basing his opinion on what he thinks he sees, not questioning it at all or even bothering to try to learn more about the work, very stranger for someone working in contemporary photography. it seems he believes his own work is "morally correct" (whatever that is! unbelievable!), one can argue that norfolk's photos "beautify" war, not saying that I share that opinion, but I am sure many photojournalists/artists think like that. he also shows his photos in the art gallery context, and that is considered horrendous by many photojournalists, they consider it to be "morally incorrect". go figure!

from what I understood it seems it is ok to explore misery by not taking part in it.just document it. i presume this the so called "neutrality" of photography. i find it amazing that people still believe in it.

norfolk is using all these photojournalism cliches to make a point.

It seems "empty bottles" stirs some emotions then. :D which i find wonderful. it seems people hate/love it with passion.

Ze Luis

Anonymous said...

just wanted to add i like norfolk's work/books (it is a very interesting take on war photography). it's just his opinion in this video that i find slightly ridiculous. :)


Anonymous said...

"Simon Norfolk's critique of it, on moral grounds"?!? That is insane considering Norfolk's work, which is the archetype of the best right-thinking, well-made, shallow photojournalism.
Moral grounds... No way.
I prefer the two young guys. They're aware of their cynicism.

Anonymous said...

Misplaced cheap cynicism does not equate with morality at any level except at its most base - something which I would never accuse Simon Norfolk of no matter which medium/venue he chooses to get his message across.

Anonymous said...

i have not seen this work (the chinese stuff), but simon norfolk's is dreadful, shallow, throw away magazine work at best. there is no "moral" ground for him to stand on.

Anonymous said...

The thing I DO love about Simon Norfolk is that in every shot he publishes there is a replica of Stonehenge (you have to look closely...). Hey, could we make a rule that all photo-based journalists or artists be required to wear pith helmets and multi-pocketed khaki clothing whenever they're in foreign cultures? Just want everyone to get along, man. God bless the Strand....

Anonymous said...

I had a look at the New York Photo Festival and I must admit I was horrified. You're right about "The Hype".
All the names there are hip (the guys have been touring in the right places, starting with Arles) but I've seen almost nothing that feeds me, almost nothing imperfect and passionate and genuine.
And obviously, your new Swedish friends had some success.

Anonymous said...

They are young and working out their ideas... I don't think they are pretending to have made anything conceptually brilliant in this one book.

"Hype" [by definition] implies deception via intense promotion. Is anyone really gaining from their promotion except for them? Are they being misrepresented in any significant way for someone else's gain? Did anyone say they are the next Duchamp?

It's good to support deserving artists who are working out their ideas. Where's the harm and who cares?

Anonymous said...

Good points Vincent. Perhaps I should have used the word "buzz."

My major problem is that photography books have been so feverishly collected that I think we aren't really even looking at them anymore. You have two or three important people "buzzing" about a particular book and then everyone jumps right in for the kill based on two opinions. Perhaps with this book 750 copies was a perfect run. That was all that was needed. But no. It gets reprinted (almost solely because of the preceding "buzz") and now it gets pumped into a new category of "importance" yet it is still the same mediocre work no matter what the intentions of the two artists was.

I have cut back my buying by 50% and I am not missing out on much at all. No accounting for personal taste but ask yourself the next time you bring a book to the store's counter, "am I buying this because of some outside influence or does this object speak to me." I seriously think that a large majority are consuming because someone has told them "this is great. You should pay attention to this." Add onto that the fear that if you hesitate then it will be gone (and you won't have the next book that sells at auction for over $500.00) and you have the current climate where any little bit of mediocrity finds its footnote within the history of this medium.

Of course, It could just be a matter of my tastes versus yours.

Anonymous said...

"Hype" (by definition) doesn't imply deception.
It just implies a collective idiocy, a need to belong or believe.
Good for those young guys, who managed to create a buzz, even though being hip doesn't mean they are talented.
Would "skillful" be the right word to define them?

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

I have not seen the book, but just the images and web site... so, don't know if it's good.

I agree with you about the level of mediocre work being published and promoted... a stroll through Chelsea is all the confirmation you need (with occasional welcome exceptions of course).

The economics of printing make it possible to have anything made cheaply these days... and I completely agree there is too much poor work in print. I try to ignore much of the obviously bad work being promoted, while keeping an open mind to being surprised once in a while. I sympathize with your frustration over oftentimes misplaced "buzz."

[as for "skillful," I think it's in poor taste to question an artist's intentions (playing to the art market?), without cause]

Anonymous said...

[as for "skillful," I think it's in poor taste to question an artist's intentions (playing to the art market?), without cause]

We both know the guys had an intuition. They played with codes and they did it in the perfect timing. It is precisely what Jeffrey questioned in this accurate text.
"Intuitive" (by definition) doesn't mean "thoughtful", or "sincere", or etc. So I reiterate : skillful, obviously. And all of us followed.
(But if you know anything about that tiny world of photography, these guys did what they have to do if they want to succeed. Talent is nothing if you don't promote it. That's depressing but true).
Good night.

Anonymous said...

funny comments. This book had a very negative review on a dutch photography website when it was actually published. It was for sale at 15 euro (say $20) and no one bought it. Then it won a prize. And suddenly a lot of people thought it was great. The first edition sold out in a couple of days.
What does this say about people forming their on indenpendant opinion on what is good or not? First it was thrashed, then it won a prize and sells for $ 400 ?
In my opinion this says more about the twisted minds and behaviour of collectors than about the inherent quality of the work of WassinkLundgren.
Personally I like the book. It is well done, nicely designed. And at an original price of 15 euro had no pretentions.
It seems to me that in photography there is an increasing number of people who just follow a general opinion or taste, without being able to form a taste of their own. Is this inherent in the recent surge in interest in photography an d photography books?

Anonymous said...

I don't know them, so give them the benefit of the doubt. I may have misinterpreted your meaning. If so, apologies.

Jeff, keep up the good work. I always enjoy reading your postings.

BC said...

I think a lot of people think work is good just because it appreciates in value. I'm glad to see Jeff and some of the other reviewers calling the people who hype and buy this crap out on it.

Doug Rickard said...

I am sitting next to my 10 year old son and I just watched an interview of Wassink Lundgren at the NY Photo Festival while he sits next to me playing World of Warcraft...

He says to me, "So these two guys are putting empty bottles on the ground and then waiting for poor people to come and pick them up so then can take pictures of them? Then they take the photographs to go sell books? For what reason? Why are they doing this? It is cruel and just not right. Are they giving the people the money from the books or sharing it? It is the same as if they are putting a plate on the ground and then having a starving person in Africa come get it and waiting to take the picture. Would they also do this? What about a trail of bottles and then each time they bend down to pick one up, they get another picture? What about a picture when they go home with some coins to feed their family? I don't like those guys... it is just wrong. Maybe the photographers themselves should live like this for awhile and have some Chinese photographers come follow them around while they pick up bottles or food. This makes me sick."

Perhaps Wassink Lundgren can explain it to him? I can't explain it and have it make any sense for him... and I am a very good "explainer".

PDN Interview:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure a child's ingenuous comment is necessarilly wise.
I had a look at the video. Cool guys who describe what they did. They never say why (they mention boredom), or if they had an intent, or ideas, or doubts, which shows they understood the game ("never complain, never...", etc.).
It is becoming difficult to deal with that practical cynicism. If we didn't know why we have so many well-designed bland books looking good and having no effect on us, now we know,

And to rik plomp : as an example of what you write, think of the Badger-Parr and how it infuences people.These two guys do a great work, but it seems they also burry the books they don't select. At least to the eyes of the speculators who make the market and, since quite recently, the reputations.

Anonymous said...

I find that I agree with almost everything "Mr Whiskers"has said about the books on this blog (Damn that cat has an interesting library)

But this one I don't.

Lets place this review back many years from now in the past (I'm old so I can do this). It's in Artforum, and now change the name(s) of the artist to Ruscha, and the name of the book to "26 Gas stations"and read through it.I know some places it doesn't read correctly, but you get the idea.
Ruscha started a history in photobook making that this book, "Concorde" by Tillmans etc have followed up on. They lean heavily on the context that a book gives and very lightly on good pictures. They often take a long time to see if they really work.

Personally I don't care at all if artists are good to their grandmothers, or kind to their pets, artworks themselves are always immoral.

and also like a lot of the rest of you I have trouble with someone who makes a war look like it is all going on at sunrise or sunset.

Thanks for the stimulating review and comments.

Old & in the way.

Anonymous said...

had a look at the work again. It seems that most of the people are not poor. My second impression is that they're performing some kind of civic duty by cleaning up.

Anonymous said...

"It seems that most of the people are not poor".
Is that really the point?
Can't a work be juged only in terms of consistancy and necessity?

I don't always agree with Jeffrey but what I like in that blog is its ability to analyse books in their own perspective.

Unknown said...

I don't believe this book deserves such harsh criticism. I don't think it deserves great accolades either. On the surface it's not the most impressive photobook but the heart lies in the concept. Which is good, not great. Whatever you think at least the book was affordable at $20 and now $30, and of course less at the discount retailers. So if you like the idea and peak at an aspect of life culture abroad, just a peak might be worth checking out.

Anonymous said...

Wassink Lundgren are just young quiet talentuous photographers. Their book is just honnest and perfect ! do not buy it ! leave it for photobooks lovers !

Anonymous said...

Today it is all about the concept rather than the craft, which is where so much contemporary work falls down.

Bring back the craft!

Anonymous said...

I've seen that book again yesterday and although I found it a little pointless, I wasn't that shocked.
Two young guys playing a silly game with Chinese people... Not smart, but what?...
Much more depressing were books by photo journalists that I saw on that same table in Arles (yes, the hype). Among those ones, the most visible was Paolo Pellegrin's latest. Hey, who really wants to see once again those unidentified victims, that generic grainy B&W and all the usual tricks? "As I Was Dying", like too many of those pj's books is nothing but monument to the photographers'ego. The book isn't even adventurous and it isn't sympathetic, so what is the point?
And today, why not to focus on the depressing products Magnum spreads everywhere?
They are a bit more toxic than that small book.