Monday, July 21, 2014


Pyrrho van Elis

Last week I bought a book by Antoine Compagnon on Montaigne and I immediately started to read it. Compagnon is an authority on Montaigne and he has published several books and articles on this philosopher. The book I bought is titled “Un été avec Montaigne” (A summer with Montaigne). It contains mini-essays like my present blogs are. Originally the pieces had been broadcast on the radio for a broad public. I can recommend everybody to read the book, also if you have read already a lot on and by Montaigne. Montaigne’s Essays are so rich in content that any book on Montaigne reveals new aspects.
In one of the first mini-essays Compagnon shows that Montaigne was a man who was open to critical remarks. He even liked them, as long as they were to the point and didn’t come from a superficial attitude, from snobbery or something like that. This doesn’t mean that he always agreed with the criticism he received but he liked a critical stand as such and he liked discussions. Often he changed his writings under influence of the comments he received. Sometimes it was because he agreed with the criticism, often it was rather a matter of politeness, for showing that he took criticism seriously and for stimulating people to make comments.
The basis of criticism is doubt: the idea that everything need not be so as it appears to be. For Montaigne, who relied on the Greek philosopher Pyrrho (about 360-270 BC), doubt was a method for getting better knowledge. No wonder that his motto was: “What do I know?”. In this Montaigne was well ahead of Descartes, who is seen as the founder of modern philosophy and who is known for what we call now “Cartesian doubt” as a method for making progress in science. Nowadays critique is considered fundamental in order to come nearer to the truth. It was especially advocated by the Austrian British philosopher Karl R. Popper (1902-1994).
Everyone who advances ideas that are at odds with what other people think exposes oneself to comments and critical remarks, which may be appropriate or not appropriate. Be they of the former or of the latter kind, I think that one must take all criticisms seriously, anyhow. Critique doesn’t need to come only from other persons. Also self-criticism is an important way to improve your texts and ideas (and yourself!). Therefore I have developed a double strategy for coping with comments on my texts. My first rule is: Every comment is right, even when it isn’t. So every comment needs to lead to a change of my text. I think that some explanation is necessary. That a text must be changed when a comment is to the point is obvious, but what when it isn’t? Of course, it is possible that you and your commentator disagree. Nevertheless, I think that there is always a bit of truth in any opposite remark. What you can do then is trying to present your view clearer and better and maybe it is also good to skip some nuances of your stand that are questionable or not to the point, or just to add other ones. I guess that even inappropriate comments make that I change my texts in 90% of the cases.
And how about the second rule of my strategy to cope with comments? This is self-criticism. Often it happens that I reread a text and that I stumble over a word or a passage. I read it again and think: This word or passage is exactly correct. Nevertheless, I always change it, for how can I expect that another reader understands it if I, the author, needs to think twice before I know what I mean?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Killing in war: Does it happen?

Caterpillar Cemetery, Longueval, France

Only yet a few weeks to go and the commemorations of the centennial of the First World War will begin. When one thinks of war, one thinks of at least two opposing parties and one thinks of killing. Both are essential for what one calls war: There is no reason for fighting, if two parties do not disagree, and killing is the ultimate and often not so ultimate means for getting the other on his knees if he doesn’t give way. It is not difficult to find both elements in World War One. The immediate cause was a conflict between two countries (Austria and Serbia) and since both countries had their allies, already at the start the conflict was a war between opposing alliances: the Allies or Entente (France, the UK, Russia etc.) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria and others). Finally more than forty countries were involved. When it ended 8.5 million soldiers had been killed if not more and if one adds the civilian victims, about 15-17 million people died in this war. In several countries almost a whole generation of young people was lost. Who else must have practiced these killings than the fighting soldiers themselves?
I think that it was some fifteen years ago that my interest in the First World War developed. I had heard about the war, of course, but when I travelled in the north of France, the big number of war cemeteries struck me and I wanted to know more about this war. So it started. Since then I have read many books on the World War One and I have visited many war sites, both along the Western Front and elsewhere. I have devoted even a big part of my website to photos made during these travels ( I still photograph every monument and site related to WW I that I see and I still read as many books on this war as is reasonably possible. I have a preference for biographies, novels (many of them have been written by war veterans or are based on reports by war veterans) and other personal documents. So not so long ago in a second hand book shop I came across a publication of First World War letters of the British writer Vera Brittain and four friends who fought (and died) in the war and I didn’t hesitate to buy it. Immediately I started to read it and I can say that it is very interesting. It tells a lot about life in Britain in those days and about life at the front. It says a lot about what people thought about the war and about their feelings (especially when a friend at the front had died). And probably it says a lot more. What I miss, however, is that the letters tell us nothing about the enemy and even more nothing about the killing as such. It’s true, some letters talk about the Germans and that they shoot. Sometimes they tell that a soldier dies. However, if one considers how these events are described, I think that it is possible to defend the thesis that there is no enemy and that there is no killing in the letters, certainly no killing by you or your party. In this sense war is an impersonal affaire that passes like a river that washes your feet when you ford it. And even more, the absence of the enemy and the absence of killing by yourself and your side (especially in a personal sense of a personally doing) is striking in most ego-documents I have read on WW I. Of course, if you want to, here and there you can find passages in these works that seem to refute my thesis. Nevertheless, as a general tendency it is true, I think.
Is this tendency strange? I think it isn’t for despite all rhetoric that says that killing in war is allowed, in fact hardly anybody agrees. So most soldiers (who are people like you and I and not a special human race) do not want to confess they did. They would feel themselves ashamed, or unhappy or how you want to call it. Therefore I think that these war novels, biographies and other personal documents tell us not only much about World War I but also much about who we are as human beings. This gives these documents a wider meaning than being merely a report on a certain passage in history. These writings are not on war and war experiences, but they are on man.

Monday, July 07, 2014

How to make perfect photos

My exhibition in the Capitainerie in Stenay, Meuse, France

“Nobody is perfect”. It’s a well-known saying. Implicitly it says that perfection is the norm. It’s something we have to strive for. And so we do, at least often, or at least many of us. In our work. When we educate our children. Advertisements tell us what the best products are for looking great, ... and we buy them. Some writers tend to work infinitely on a book, for as long as it is not perfect they do not want to publish it. Look around and you’ll see plenty of instances in which perfection is the goal or where it is important.
As such there is nothing against perfection, but I have two remarks. What does it mean? Perfection is not something objective but it is a norm and as such it is only a view on what is important; it’s a standpoint and nothing else. Moreover, hidden in the idea of perfection is the view that it makes you happier. But does it?
I do not want to substantiate these remarks here, but I want to say something about a case of the pursuit of perfection: The pixel race in photography: the striving to make cameras with more and more pixels. No sooner has a camera come on the market with a sensor with x thousand pixels than another camera producer brings out one with an even larger number of pixels. And so the race goes on. The idea is that the more pixels a sensor has the better it is. For a sensor with more pixels produces sharper photos, and the sharper a photo is the better it is. Is it true?
Until not so long ago photo sensors produced images that were a bit blurred, certainly in comparison with analogue photos. Since sharp photos are considered better, camera producers developed sensors with more pixels in order to solve this problem. The result is that today photos taken with digital cameras are better, so sharper, than old-fashioned analogue photos. As a consequence analogue cameras were pushed off the market. However, the pixel race still goes on. Camera producers continue to make cameras with sensors with more and more pixels making digital images increasingly sharper through the years.
Is this a good development? In a certain sense it is, but what I find annoying is that nobody seems to ask the question what making more perfect and better cameras means. If new cameras really make better images, why are there then still people who prefer old or simple cameras? Even more, why are there still people who make paintings, for example painted portraits? For isn’t then a photographed portrait simply better than a painted portrait and so to be preferred? Apparently for many people the answer is “no”, so there is something else that makes a photo good. But commercially it is not interesting.
When I am on an art market with my photos, many people spontaneously tell me that they like my photos or even that they find them beautiful. When I am talking to them, I often say that most of my photos are analogue (on my last art market, I had some twenty analogue photos and one or two digital ones). I think that it’s an indication that beauty and perfection do not go together; or maybe they do but then it means that perfection is as subjective as beauty is. And indeed, I like it to take photos “off road”, in a way that deviates from the main stream approach. So I still use my old analogue camera and I use also a so-called pinhole camera, which is a camera without a lens, (the readers of these blogs will have noticed, however, that I do not shun the digital way: most of my blog photos here are “modern”). A pinhole camera produces pictures that are far from perfect, for they are blurred. And a blurred picture is one of the cardinal sins in photography. Is it? Apparently not all people think so, for just these blurred, vague and coarse-grained pinhole pictures catch always more attention than any other photos in my presentations. And many people find them better. Even more: My first big exhibition will show just such pinhole photos: 25 imperfect blurred coarse-grained photos showing the River Meuse from its source east of Dijon till Rotterdam. Where can you see it? In Stenay in Lorraine in France. So if you are going to visit the battle fields of Verdun this summer, or if you’ll be there for another reason, go to Stenay as well, for “il vaut le détour” (It’s worth the trip): The photos are like paintings.

The photos can be seen in the Capitainerie, Rue du Port, Stenay (Meuse, France; just north of Verdun) from July 5 till September 13.