Review by Gerhard Clausing •
In a 1953 episode of the very dated and otherwise questionable American TV series Amos and Andy, the character Kingfish is shown pretending to be a French teacher, incongruously using a poster of the old German-American entertainment/nostalgia “Schnitzelbank” song. He tries to convince his ‘student’ that it is the finest French, using his improvised explanation that this is a bank where one deposits schnitzels (which are actually veal or pork cutlets, a bit of humor for those who know). Furthermore, the word Schnitzelbank in older German-American lingo was a carving bench. And here is a related current example of confusion involving language, time, and culture: there is a US fast-food chain named Wienerschnitzel that serves neither authentic wieners, nor schnitzel/cutlets, nor does it have anything to do with Vienna (Wien). Cultural reinventions and the adoption and occasionally intentional or unintentional misinterpretations of cultural elements from elsewhere or from another time are definitely relevant to our review of this photobook, EUSA.
Surveying this amusing series of images by Naomi Harris, our sense of authenticity is challenged and tested as well. We enter a world of make-believe, a lighthearted documentation of reenacted imagined worlds marked by practices that often are based in part on mythology and dream-like longing for days gone by and civilizations of origin that have either been lost or never existed quite the way that a collective imagination on another continent and in another time might dream up.
Harris went on trips within Europe and all across the United States to record photographic evidence of stagings in honor of imagined and presumed cultural and historical contexts, all showing activities meant to represent the other continent. The imagination of Europeans regarding the “Wild West” was stirred long ago by writers like Karl May, who had never visited most of the locales in which his narratives were set, but spun many stories about supposed American heroes of the old West. Some of the interesting practices in Europe documented by Harris are a glorification of exactly those myths and stories from long ago: we see festivals devoted to the American native inhabitants, cowboy festivals, as well as European reenactments of the American Civil War, among others.
Similarly, in the US she documented such happenings as Oktoberfests (widely adopted as seemingly ubiquitous celebrations representing another culture), Viking-inspired celebrations, and tulip festivals. We get a funny feeling that we are viewing a dream-like fairy-tale world that has commercial implications as well. Harris photographs the protagonists with a refreshing directness and simplicity, isolating them as they are enthralled by their own activities. At times she brightens scenes with flash, illuminating the goings-on fully. Folks of all ages are portrayed; the juxtapositions enhance her lighthearted approach, displaying a certain bemused curiosity and respect along with the humor, which is never condescending.
The preface by Harris and the email exchanges between Erik Kessels and Carolina Miranda further provide background information and cast light on transoceanic cultural clichés and misunderstandings. I think this is a delightful study of cultural absorption, interpretation, and transmission in foreign settings, and congratulations are due to the photographer and all the collaborators for allowing us a glimpse into these magical moments of cultural endeavor.
Photographer: Naomi Harris (born in Toronto, Canada; resides in Toronto and Los Angeles)
Publisher: Kehrer, Heidelberg and Berlin, Germany; © 2017, published 2018
Essays and Prose: Naomi Harris, Erik Kessels, Carolina Miranda
PVC flex cover with screen printing, sewn; 240 pages, unpaginated, with 135 color images; 21.5 x 23.5 cm (8½ x 9¼ inches); printed and bound in Germany
Photobook Designer: Teun van der Heijden