The Brooklyn Museum presents the launch of 'Imagining the Future Museum: 21 Dialogues with Architects' by András Szántó
McNally Jackson Books Seaport and Primary Information present Mirene Arsanios, Constance DeJong and Annie-B Parson
Artbook @ Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles Bookstore presents Frances Stark & Anthony Graham on 'Alexis Smith: The American Way'
ALLIE PISARRO-GRANT | DATE 3/23/2011
Who was that woman lying there? What building is that, now crumbling? Whose side were they on? These are images to be poured over. These are images to be asked questions to, decades later.
Excerpted below are a selection of images from Koen Wessing: Chili, September 1973, Eratta Editions’ Books on Books No. 8. First published in 1973, just months after the fall of Salvador Allende to Augusto Pinochet's coup d'etat, it describes the tense days of the military attempt to root out public opposition in the streets of Santiago, and has since become one of documentary photography's most exemplary moments. This entry in Errata Editions' Books on Books series reproduces every spread from Wessing's gritty documentation of Chile's darkest historical moment. Below are a number of the original spreads, alongside excerpts from contemporary Dutch journalist Pauline Terreehorst’s text, The Man in the Grey Suit, also from the book.
Although the American magazine Life had shown that it was possible to change the balance and give priority to photography, usually photographs still accompanied texts, certainly in newspapers and magazines. Texts were mandatory. Even in photography books, it was still customary to publish texts next to the photographs, often written by famous writers. It was thought to enhance the impression, and reputation, of the photographic work. Walker Evans was and still is a great example. But Wessing had experienced that those texts often got more attention than the photographic work itself. Therefore he knew exactly what he did not want, when traveling back with a bag full of films: he wanted to tell his own story. He wanted to use the images as if he was a cinematographer. What he made in Chile was a film, inspired by the Nouvelle Vague of Godard and others in the fifties and sixties, and the work of William Klein. It is a paradox that this reprint of Chili 1973 will be accompanied by a text again, because it lacks the urgency, the historical setting and the context of a knowing audience.
Immediately after he returned to the Netherlands, the photographs
were printed. He glued them together in a dummy of the
future book and phoned Lubberhuizen, the director-editor of the
Bezige Bij. Lubberhuizen had already noticed the impact of
Wessings’ photographs in the magazines and acted immediately.
He published the book exactly in the unobtrusive way Wessing
had asked for, and for a very low price. In Wessing’s mind it was
the only way to get the message spread as soon as possible.
What is the story Wessing wanted to get across the thick layer of indifference of an already image-savvy audience?
Firstly he wanted them to look. The second reason for not adding texts to rescue the indifferent reader was to force them to combine the photographs himself, to grasp the meaning of the images he was confronted with.
Wessing wanted a photo essay, with only images – as if he
was a mime-player again, which he used to be for a short period
of time at the beginning of his career. The expression of the
images had to speak without words. It is in many ways symbolic
then that the book starts with a close up of a scarred magazine,
almost disappearing in the flames on top of a heap of already
burnt books. Incidentally they happened to be the books of a
friend, whose apartment was searched by passing soldiers, but
this fact he learned only after having returned in the Netherlands.
On the cover of the magazine we see a drawing of Allende,
by then already assassinated by the military regime. On the next
page we see the whole picture: laughing soldiers who throw
papers and books on the pile. Burning books is a horrible sign of
repression. Regimes who hunt for ideas, for intellectuals, belong
to the most severe, the most uncompromising, because they show
not to be interested in reasonable thoughts. They want to act
without thinking. It always leads to bloodshed. This is what these
first images tell us. In the next two pages we see people mourning.
They bury loved ones, slain in the first uprising. But in a
way they also bury Salvador Allende, although nobody will admit
this because it is already forbidden to speak about him. In the
next images we see a corpse in a coffin, and again people crying.
But the crying is soon replaced by anger. In the double spread
that follows we see an image of a left wing demonstration, as can
be seen at the many folded fists.
But neither cries nor anger can prevent that people are
detained, as is obvious in the following pictures. They must have
been put on a list, because the whole action takes place with
unbelievable efficiency and order. One prisoner after the other
passes the grilled fence of the soccer stadium of Santiago. Mostly
men. Wives, children and other relatives are left behind, crying,
full of anxiety about things to come. It is through this fence that
Wessing is able to get in as a photographer. His grey suit must
have made him acceptable for the soldiers. He moves around
quietly, observing, taking pictures of all the elements of ongoing
tragedy. He notices the arrival of the prisoners, heads low, folded
hands over their neck, anonymous. Then he shows the gate,
where people are waiting. In the next picture we clearly see a
detained intellectual. His black hair touches his shoulders. He
wears thick black glasses, like Allende did. His jacket is already
dirty and he wears no tie. He looks worried, carrying a plaid, as
if he is going to a strange picknick. This is one of the most
striking images Wessing has taken. He must have known that
here he touches the hearts and minds of the people who would
leaf through the book, back in Europe: ‘this could have been
me’, they must think. Identification is the starting point for
In the next image we see prisoners being photographed
holding a sign with a number – their administrative number as a
prisoner. The next step is the lining up of the prisoners, taking
them to improvised cellblocks. They walk through a door. From
a distance, Wessing sees how the long hair of the men is being
cut by professional barbers. Now the anonymisation is almost
completed. The nobodies disappear in the stadium, behind
another fence. When Wessing throws some cigarettes, they have
to fight for it with a soldier, who is interested too. In the
meantime, on the next page, a man is brought in who has the
appearance of a union man: no glasses, sturdy, hand-knitted
sweater. These were the prisoners of the Junta: the left wing
union officials, and the left wing intellectuals. All had been said.
Time to go – Wessing manages to get out of the stadium. The
following days he wanders through the deserted streets of
Santiago and sees peculiar scenes. People are being searched, but
it is not clear what the soldiers are looking for. It seems like they
want to create a sphere of anxiety with their actions. Women
have to open their bags. Are they afraid of small guns, while
they themselves are carrying automatic weapons the size of a
suitcase? These are pointed at windows, where book-loving
people may live. Strings of bullets are worn like jewelry. An
old woman with shiny black shoes tries to pass unnoticed. Her
handbag is no target. In the deserted streets sometimes only
prisoners are seen, forced to clean fences that were carrying
slogans in favor of Allende. Again words are to blame. The
soldiers guarding the scene look at Wessing, in the lens of his
camera. One of them is wearing sunglasses: the armed force is
anonymous too. Wessing shows us the pile of books again,
now turned into ashes. The words are gone. It is the last page
of the book, meaningful. Ideas are more alive than ever.
Wessing managed to get his message come through. Not only
then, in the aftermath of the happenings in Chile, but also
later, while photographing in El Salvador and Nicaragua in
the early eighties. Those pictures are the ones that were seen
by Roland Barthes, the French intellectual and semiotic, who
at that time already had written many books and articles about
cultural phenomena that can be read as a text. Barthes
introduced the elements punctum and studium in his analysis,
stating that any striking picture has ‘punctum’ and all the
others are merely illustrations, and offer information with
‘studium’. In a way this was what Wessing had expressly
wanted with his photography: that they speak for themselves.
Text excerpts and images excerpted from Koen Wessing: Chili, September 1973.