Really looking forward to some time in Barcelona next week. I will be heading over to launch Code-X; Paper, Pixel, Screen and Ink with the bookRoom (UCA Farnham) at Arts Libris. The book brings together some great voices who are playing with, responding to, and generally trying to make sense of the sometimes chaotic changes the codex is going through. The chapter I contributed is titled ‘The Photobook Club; a pragmatic response to hierarchical conversations and the photobook as capital‘ and is available in the book (of course) and soon online.
I have only ever written a handful of ‘reviews’ on this site – it has never been the purpose of the platform in any way – and still is not, but for a few reasons I like to engage with the process. Primarily the review allows a new connection to the work and a deeper engagement with it – positive or negative – it demands a concretisation of loose and often fleeting thoughts. Secondly, the review, from a readers perspective should be invaluable to the author of the work – I am consistently surprised by the emphasis placed on a few ‘elite’ and selected reviewers over a true readership, especially with works that seek ‘to do’. Thirdly, any books I receive end up at Photobook Club events or, if light enough (and this is a very serious limitation) touring round different locations, getting posted to other parts of the world and being enjoyed by tens and hundreds of people.
With this in mind I thought a reader’s perspective on a recent publication* from MACK and a brief comment on another would be a good start. These books were received amongst others and were unsolicited. I had originally planned to write about Ivars Gravlejs’ Early Works – a book that I took to a Winter book club in Coventry and was extremely popular, but Colin Pantall had already written a thorough piece on the book which resembled a lot of my own thoughts**.
*New issues are interesting for sure but how about more reviews on older works/books that didn’t sell well/second editions etc?
** Colin’s review was posted in July – giving some cause to think that I may never be someone to write about a book when it first launches.
It is inevitable that with a medium like the photobook, in which we, the reader, are given so much room to bring our own thoughts to the experience of reading, that we will find books articulating what we are thinking about at the time. I spent time with Spirit of the Bone at the same time as I was getting my head around the underlying state of the ‘visual’ that led to James Bridle’s proposal of a ‘New Aesthetic‘. The New Aesthetic – which represents a new way of looking and making, influenced by an undercurrent of computational seeing manifests itself in the everyday screenshot, glitch, timecode, manipulation or satellite image. Broomberg and Chanarin’s work immediately connects with these notions of computation seeing – images in a hybrid form – recognisable not as photographs but as photographic elements.
The series of portraits in this book, which include Pussy Riot member Yekaterina Samutsevic and many other Moscow citizens, were created by a machine: a facial recognition system recently developed in Moscow for public security and border control surveillance. The result is more akin to a digital life mask than a photograph; a three-dimensional facsimile of the face that can be easily rotated and closely scrutinised. (MACK)
Together, the series as a taxonomy of portraits of resistance and futility is powerful. The breadth of subjects and the sense of ‘collection’ together with their lifeless representation through the cameras and software creates a highly voyeuristic reading. To compare a reading of this book with a visit to a taxidermy museum would not seem too far fetched. Physically the book is commanding and exquisitely printed – the separation of image from page via tip-in(?) highlighting the alienation of subject from surrounding, reduced to algorithmic visual interpretation.
An interview follows the photographic section of the book – suggesting augmentation and addition as apposed to essential reading. The interview (between B+C and Eyal Weizman) is a little meandering. Physiognomy and phrenology give way to forensics and taxonomies, colonialism and retrospective anthropology before arriving at surveillance and facial recognition in relation to terror and modern conflict. A little more focus and some discussion on the process (including subject selection) would have improved my own reading and understanding of the work.
A note on reading: Despite spending considerable time with the book, and having explored each page, I have never done so in a sitting and have not felt much has been missed in not reading the book in a single, linear fashion. I would be really keen to hear how others have navigated through books like this, and whether you feel it has had an impact on what you have taken away from the experience.
Erm…. how to comment on a Roe Ethridge book? I don’t really want to comment on the work actually, as a reader I found it rather thin and was given no help in the work (Shelter Island is the only piece of tex aside from acknowledgements). For what it’s worth I figured that Ehridge was interested in speaking about the changing relationship to place (in current and past forms) that digital technology has brought about. What is really exciting about this work though is that it is a wonderfully made book, with high quality prints, of a decent size…. and for £10! Of course Ethridge’s name likely helps keep the edition size up and cost down but to know that works of this quality can be sold for £10 is so encouraging – perhaps MACK might consider a progression of Schilt’s excellent ‘Grey Matters’ series?
The Photobook Club’s Natural Collection (found online here) returned from a stay in Australia recently where it was exhibited at the Monash Gallery of Art in Melbourne. The collection is now back in Coventry where it awaits an exhibition at the Lanchester Library and a number of social engagements with schools in the area.
A number of the books have already been requested and sent to Casablanca – if you would like any packages of books sent on then just get in touch.
Yesterday Colin Pantall, on the Photobook Bristol blog, posted a sort of response to criticism that the photobook world is a ghetto, that it is a closed world, one which is hard to break into. It is an interesting position certainly and one which many may feel was a) not taken seriously (‘Next in the Photobook Repeated Circular Arguments’ followed this post) and b) only confirmed and solidified in Pantall’s response.
There is little need to deconstruct the argument, and a few commenters have already pointed out the flaws, but here is the gist of the piece which fails to consider that perhaps inclusion is not only about the (tiny percentage of) books making these lists. Fails to consider the irony in declaring openness prior to listing self-made criteria for ‘entry’. Fails to think even about the selection of practitioners to speak at the event this year – which is mostly made up of book list ‘success’ stories and established voices in the ghetto or village or whatever the self elected guardians of the photobook world are calling it.
But the Photobook World is nether closed nor difficult to get out of. Look at the list of Best Books for 2015 and while there are old-er-hands in there like Alec Soth, or Boris Mikhailov, the top places are taken by photographers like Mariela Sancari, Dragana Jurisic, Daniel Mayrit, Laura El-Tantawy, Thomas Sauvin and Ivars Gravlejs…
So it’s not a closed world. If you want to be part of it, make a nice photobook that says something different. If it looks the same as every other photobook, if it doesn’t have an opinion or attitude, if it’s bland and tasteless, it won’t cut the mixed-metaphor mustard. It really is that simple – if you ignore all the other complicated things that we won’t talk about here.
So the photobook world is not closed to anybody. And if you don’t want to be part of it, then you can just walk away and not come in. Or if you’re a little bit interested or curious you can just drop in and stay for a little visit. You can leave any time. It’s really quite open,
Of course a lot of people wouldn’t want to be a part of this world anyway – maybe the fourth failure is in not recognizing that we can walk away and still be a part of the photobook and its significance.
It is silly to try and predict the turning point of the photobook – and of course there need not be one. But in cutting for sign we can surely see something is moving against the photobook – in a positive manner. I wrote about the photobook’s dull hierarchical conversations and the trend for contribution of content (and books) to a pointless cycle around the photobook for Code-X recently (a short chapter I hope to have online for free). It seems perhaps there was something in the water, or else everyone got fed up of hearing and seeing the same stuff again and again. A number of notable posts recently pick away at the veneer of the photobook scene as we see it represented by production, consumption, miss communication and poor thought.
These are some great starting points for a critical perspective…
Harvey Benge – Link Craig Atkinson Pt I – Link
Craig Atkinson Pt II – Link
Lewis Bush – Link
In the spirit of thought over reaction, i’m not going to add much here for now but spend more time with these pieces. I will finish with this though…
Craig Atkinson comments that
The main problem to my mind is that so much photography is made with no intent. People don’t know what to do with their pictures. Naturally, they want people to see them, so they head for Blurb, or Lulu and often never speak to a printer, never consider paper stock, typography, sequence, size, fold, edit…
To which it might be worth adding that perhaps worse than those who don’t make well made books, are those who do – who speak to the printer and get on the latest trendy designer – the artist formally known as SYB? They get gorgeous paper and interactive elements, only to realise that the book costs £40, they don’t have an audience beyond family and friends, and the book says nothing other than that they value style over communication.
The continuing presence of SPBH as an arbiter of the DIY spirit affirms Ceshel’s belief that self-publishing is an independent state of mind, an attitude as much as an aesthetic. “DIY culture,” he says, “is by its nature an ethic in opposition to society’s rules at large. It flourishes in environments of communitarian support, collaboration, and even informal barter economics. It is rooted in self-affirmation against a conformist and normative system … An army of young artists is undermining the greed-run system at its foundations, one page at a time.” Long may it flourish.
Transparency – I was sent a review copy by Kehrer Verlag
KayLynn Deveney’s ‘All You Can Lose is Your Heart’ looks at ranch-style dream homes in the American Southwest, built in the 50’s and 60’s. It is intended that the images inside, presented as a close-to-typological study is able to act as a metaphorical portrait for ‘those living inside’ that tells us about ‘a fading vision of the American Dream’. For some reason the press release seems keen to stress that this is the ‘first time these houses are the subject of a published photographic work’ – something that on its own should be nearly inconsequential.
What is a well trodden path though is the visual and verbal discourse of the American Dream and its health – it’s dead, it’s alive, it’s dead, it’s alive. It’s dead. So, important then that Deveney brings something of value to the discussion. This is certainly the case for the images presented in the book, which, despite learning more about their production in the accompanying interview with architect (and marketeer) Jean Valjean Vandruff, are still charmingly sweet. The mix of straight-cut timber with ornate, curved detailing on acutely angled roofs is only made more compelling for the pick up trucks and light-up reindeer that now block the view. Here is the strength of the work (not the book) – in plainly evidencing the augmentation or destruction of an historical ‘ideal’.
As I tend to find with almost all photobooks from more established houses, there are too many images here, and some focus is lost in the edit – it is a struggle to really feel as though we are seeing much of the occupant’s lives in these photographs. We should also ask whether we gain any insight into the wellbeing of that elusive American Dream – to an extent perhaps but greatly aided by the interview and essay at the rear of the book.
The sequence and edit of content (not only images) is my main issue with the reading – which feels somewhat cumbersome and in need of some rearranging. Using the essay and interviews as well as original marketing material and blueprint to break up sections of the photographs might simultaneously create a more sure delivery.
The box of dummies, which can be seen online here, is currently sitting around and waiting for a new destination – so if you fancy it heading your way, just drop me an email. The only thing needed, is to split the cost of shipping to your destination among members of a club or just a bunch of folk!
Looking forward to Paris next week – will be stopping by Paris Photo, Offprint, Le Photobook Fest and more. Would love to catch up with anyone else in town and also keen to see new works or just chat photobooks/projects. Pop me an email if you want to meet over coffee – firstname.lastname@example.org