Over 100 straight white male photo books were cut up to make this book

‘The Bikeriders, 2019’, from “SCUMB Manifesto” MACK, 2022. (Justine Kurland)
‘The Bikeriders, 2019’, from “SCUMB Manifesto” MACK, 2022. (Justine Kurland)

There can be no mistaking the message that photographer Justine Kurland is sending with her latest book, “Scumb Manifesto” (Mack, 2022). That’s because she lays it all out on the cover, in bold all-caps letters.

Here’s an excerpt:

“I, JUSTINE KURLAND, AM SCUMB. I THRIVE IN THE STAGNANT WASTE OF YOUR SELF-CONGRATULATORY BORING PHOTOGRAPHY. I BUBBLE UP, A RAW LIFE FORCE, MULTIPLYING FROM THE USELESS EXCREMENT OF YOUR MISOGYNYSTIC BOOKS. … YOUR TIME IS OVER OFFICER HISTORIAN. I CALL FOR THE END OF THE GRAPHIC REPRESENTATION OF THE MALE CANON, IT’S DADDY WORSHIP AND ITS MONOPOLY ON MEANING AND VALUE.”

Get the message? It’s not very subtle or demur. Why should it be? And I imagine it ruffles a lot of feathers too, as it should. Whether you agree with what Kurland is doing with this book, it is important to examine one’s heroes and, if need be, tear them down. I don’t think that should be controversial at all.

It goes without saying that throughout the history of the world, there have always been people whose ideas and voices are given more weight and authority than others. That happens because of many things — war, patriarchy, economic status. Who’s at the top of the heap? Who’s at the bottom? The answer to that question is rarely fair.

I’m only pointing out the obvious when I say that life isn’t really about being fair. Power isn’t really spread out equally. And women, people of color and the poor have been on the raw side of the deal for too many years to count.

“Scumb Manifesto” is a series of collages that Kurland made from her personal library of photobooks. In fact, she purged her photo book collection in the act of making this work. She cut up the work of 150 straight white men who have monopolized the photographic canon.

I have to confess that I can’t identify most of the work that was used in the collages, probably because I’m more familiar with photojournalism than photography in general. That’s not to say that photojournalism is any better in its own “canon.” Nope, it’s just as off-kilter and unbalanced.

There is a list of images at the end of the book. Sometimes its descriptions can identify the photographer’s work that is being cut up — off the top of my head, I recognize Danny Lyon, Walker Evans, Brassai and Martin Parr. There are far more, of course. But it’s almost beside the point. The book is about taking the overwhelmingly male canon and transforming it and thereby reclaiming it.

The title of Kurland’s book plays off one of the first feminist texts written by Valerie Solanas. It was titled “Scum Manifesto,” and it essentially called for, as Kurland points out in an essay in her own book, “an end to men, and the power that seeks domination, exploitation and death, and the creation of a superior, all-female society.”

Solanas is also known for shooting Andy Warhol. And according to Kurland, she did this because Warhol stole one of her plays.

In a world made up of hierarchies and unbalanced power structures, that really is no surprise — that a prominent person would steal what is not his to puff himself up.

This happens in countless ways every day. It is partly how people get ahead and stay there. So, whether you like Kurland’s book doesn’t really matter. It is a forceful and bold statement about reclaiming agency from a world that happily takes it away in the first place.

You can read more about the book on the publisher’s website.

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