CLOSER LOOK

Book Was There: A Conversation with Andrew Piper

The following is an interview with Andrew Piper, associate professor in the department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University who has recently written ‘Book Was There’ – A presentation and discussion of current debates surrounding the book both past and present. It is at the same time a nod to University Presses – an often overlooked publishing platform by many outside academia but one that can add to both our photobook shelves (with the likes of Eugene Smith’s ‘The Big Book’ and Rachel Sussman’s recent publication ‘The Oldest living Things in the World’) and our understanding of the book as medium (‘Various Small Books’, ‘The Pivot of the World’ etc).

The Oldest Living Things in the World

We started by discussing whether ‘books’ is in the first instance too large an area to understand with any certainty or to pass comment on, whether it prohibits valuable discourse as the word covers so many genres and sub-genres. Andrew pointed out the different roles that books play in our lives – and that the children’s book, or the photobook together with their place in the 21st century, should be understood separately independently.

Discussion regarding the photobook as a prospering genre led to the qualities of the corporeal bookwork…

[AP] There is a lot of effort to pinpoint what is special about the physical book as apposed to the digital book and so a lot of publishers are experimenting with design and material. It is no longer enough to separate your book from the other books in the store but now also important to separate ‘the book’ from it’s digital counterpart. Publishers are putting a big amount of thought into artisanal qualities, they often draw from historical styles and tropes to emphasise the tactility, permanence of these things. [AP]

This is something we can quite easily see in current photobook trends. Just as books on birds, fauna and a Walden-esque life with subtle cloth covers and embossed spines now pop up on tables in Waterstones and Borders, so to the photobook store is decorated with wooden slipcases, exposed bindings and textured wraps.

So is this a hankering for the nostalgic? For the books we used to own or the books our parents used to own? We hear about the digital native, or at least of a generation growing up with screens in place of paper – what do they have to be nostalgic about – where is their reference? Is this a craving without full understanding?

[AP] Yes I think that’s exactly it, I have yet to meet a large cross section who is just completely spent with print, I know it must exist! For a while there was the myth of the digital native and at some point that might happen but for the most part the majority of my students have a clear idea of bifurcation. They know how to read online (and they do) but they also have really strong and often sentimental attachments to book reading. I just taught a ‘history and future of the book’ class and from 60 students I couldn’t find any who were completely done with the book, and in fact most of the class was more interested in the past of the book rather than the future. I think the harder sell is the future; computation and electronic texts. [AP]

Again here we can relate to the photobook – which is experiencing a surge in interest – interest in the physical, corporeal work rather than digital possibilities. There have been interesting experiments with digital works (Via PanAm is a reliable example) but for the most part it has been pushed to the side with few champions of the medium (a notable exception being Matin Brink’s blog which burned bright but short). We can also see that the community of photobook makers and consumers is a variably aged one – my students of 18-25 are as passionate about the codex as my academic peers, or perhaps more so!

Carol Golemboski’s ‘Psychometry’: a hybrid book

We turn quickly towards a frustration with the narrow romantic or eulogistic discourses surrounding the book. Andrew comments on his dislike of this binary argument and his response…

[AP] … this is what led to me writing the Book was There, the debate was so ‘either or’, there were these really polarised camps and it didn’t reflect my own interests and experiences or that of my students. It also didn’t reflect well the world we inhabit which for the time being is hybrid. It seems silly to fetishise one thing at the expense of another or to worship the new at the expense of the old so I was trying to put the two in conversation with each other (which is hard as people do seem to fall into these two camps). I am a curious historian by nature, I am interested in where things come from and how they live on. For me you can’t understand computation and electronic texts without understanding books. [AP]

One of the key aspects of ‘Book was There’ was thinking of reading and the book as different things. We understand that the book does not translate well to the screen – but does reading? (I went off on a bit of a tangent here about how photography’s second paradigm shift has led us to think of the image and the photograph as different things – the image as communication [mms/instagram/snapchat] and the photograph as a more traditional medium of expression)

[AP] That’s a really interesting distinction. I wanted in ‘Book was There’ to disaggregate reading from books, the history of the book and the history of reading bleed into one another but they have separate histories and uses also. [AP]

Here I wonder whether the unbound electronic text is changing the way that physical bookworks are produced and read, whether we are seeing more experimentation?

[AP] Its a good question because there is a lot of experimenting but it always remains very experimental. If you think of commercial presses they are still working with a fairly coherent and unchanging notion of what a book is even though they are very happy to sell electronic books. I don’t know when or if that will change, I don’t see signs of publishers really experimenting (beyond the likes of the Kindle ‘single’). When people write books today they are still writing things that look like books of old. They may be sold in different formats but the concept hasn’t changed in the mainstream.

It may be that it is a really important anthropological constant, it’s been a very powerful media for a long time so it is naive to think it might disappear overnight. Yet on the other hand I feel like if people spent enough time in their lives clicking through the web to find things, you are going to have readers who feel less comfortable with the book in it’s traditional format. maybe all that clicking makes you want the book more! [AP]

Perhaps this is where the photobook comes into its own as it has often, if not always, been an experimental medium. Its status as a luxury/art-object/cult/underground means of presentation has given us the accordion of Ed Ruscha, the hidden secrets of Ben Krewinkel and the anti-linearity of Paul Graham.

Conversations with Gaulbert

I was keen to hear Andrew’s opinion on the lack of a digital incarnation of the book, whether we could even expect one…

[AP] I think that the timescales we are looking at are Darwinian, more than the human framework can really understand. We can’t see that evolution in action, in realtime. For me a lot of it is going to have to come from social pressures, the book has always responded to social needs – to address beliefs about how information and society works. A lot has to change before the book is not a good thing to serve social needs. Imagine education or entertainment – books are still very good at meeting broad audiences in broad ways. [AP]

And a last thought on University presses…

[AP] They are really where intellectual avant grade still happens, there is a lot of mundane stuff gets published with them but they are a test bed for new ideas that commercial presses wouldn’t publish. So they, like some of the smaller indie presses, are really key. [AP]

 

Ruscha Rediscovered, an evening with Ed at the PBC Coventry…

…well perhaps not rediscovered, when I took a lecturing post at Coventry University I knew from my student days that their special collection housed a 2nd edition ‘Twentysix Gasoline Stations‘, but I had no idea what other treasures I would find…

In no small part thanks to the Brouws, Burtonn, Zscheigner book as well as the Artist’s Books Cooperative’s ‘ABCED‘ I have been thinking about Ruscha a lot recently and was keen to hold an event with a selection of his books and some chatter with the PBC Coventry. With the support of the University library I have been able to scour the entire collection for nuggets of Ruscha on the shelves, folio cabinets and behind lock and key, the result was surprising: Not only is there a copy of ‘Twentysix‘ but also one of the rarest books Ruscha has authored (due to a warehouse error!) in ‘Dutch Details‘ alongside ‘Thirtyfour Parking Lots‘, ‘Every Building on the Sunset Strip‘, ‘Crackers‘, ‘Royal Road Test‘, ‘Some Los Angeles Apartments‘, ‘Real Estate Opportunities‘, ‘Nine Swimming Pools‘ and more!

This event takes place tonight and with the nature of the books is for now, a student and alumni event only but I will be working to expand engagement with these books over the next few months and would be very interested to hear if anyone would be keen to see these books, or even have them visit their gallery or institution. If so, just shout me on email – matt@photobookclub.org.

A report and images will follow tonight’s meeting.

– Matt

Paul Graham’s British Road Trip

The A1 road for those who know it, or know the book, doesn’t exactly conjure up thoughts of a road trip or road trip aesthetic. There are no dessert vista’s here, no vast stretches of road ahead and behind. This is most certainly not the orange-tinted views of Wim Wenders or Stephen Shore as they pass through El Passo and Nevada, neither does it evoke thoughts of Kerouac or Pirsig’s prose.

©PAUL GRAHAM

This isn’t to say we do not recognize some of the conventions of the genre in the images, particularly in the diners, cafes and petrol stations, but Graham has also weaved a decidedly British streak into the book. Bright blue skies give way to overcast days and wet roads, neon is only seen once, and all in all, this is a much more subdued photographic approach. No fanfare will be found here, just a well paced, expertly edited series of images, and in this I find myself looking harder, and for longer.

©PAUL GRAHAM

What lies at the heart of this book (to myself at least) and does conform to the road genre is the human encounters Graham has documented along the A1. These are all characters we recognise, they are the hundred of people we see in the car alongside, or in the adjacent cubicle at a restaurant and if you are anything like me, you wonder about why they are here, now, or what it is they do and why they do it. Almost all of the subjects in ‘A1’ hold the camera’s gaze back, I like to think they are looking at Graham, or at me, wondering exactly the same things.

©PAUL GRAHAM

Interestingly, while we see life from the road, cafe’s and fields going by, even pulling up to a petrol station, we are never inside the car. It is at first an odd omission, especially compared to the more well known photography from the US dealing with the road, it’s landscape and it’s stories. But in doing so Graham remains very much a traditional documentarian, slightly removed from each situation he encounters unlike his Stateside contemporaries. The result is another reason this is such an important and unique piece in the ever expanding road photography genre.

– Matt

And if you haven’t seen the book yet…

26 Years Later: The Great North Road Trip

In 2009, ‘traff’ of the Culture Republic blog said that:

It would be an interesting exercise to make the journey in current times and see what changes have been wrought.  One would imagine there would be new freeways, big box retail and neon-lit ‘service centres’, yet still the same air of suburban angst and hopelessness faintly lingering.

Luckily Phil Coomes of the BBC’s ‘Viewfinder’ blog seemed to have the same interest and in September of 2009 embarked upon ‘The Great North Road Trip’.

©PHIL COOMES

The idea was to travel the road in search of stories on the recession, just like Graham, Coomes’ choice to follow the A1(M) meant a swift dissection of England from the wealthy city of London, through industrial and post-industrial towns of the midlands and on towards Scotland.

While Coomes’ refers to Graham’s work on a couple of occasions, it is not a complete retracing of locations or ‘After A1: The Great North Road’ style project. It is however a well thought out project in it’s own right and as an archive of a time period is very interesting. I have archived all the posts in the lists below.

©PHIL COOMES

There is an audio slideshow created by Phil Coomes and Paula Dear that sums up the weeks travel, hearing direct from the public who have spoken to Coomes adds some weight to the piece and makes me wonder what Graham’s subjects would have spoken about, given the opportunity.

©PAUL GRAHAM

– Matt
And if you haven’t seen the book yet…

Paul Graham’s ‘Free Pass’?

Shortly after I posted the first ‘Food for thought’ which gave an introduction to Paul Graham’s work, Stan Banos of Reciprocity Failure commented on the amount (or rather lack of) criticism his more recent projects have been subjected to. This doesn’t just apply to Paul Graham by any means and I think important points are raised here by Stan so have included his comments below: (Thanks Stan!)

– Matt

From the series 'Troubled Land' ©PAUL GRAHAM

Stan Banos:

FWIW, I think Troubled Land one of the greatest, most innovative documentary essays ever, and full well realize that Mr. Graham is close to a photographic demigod in many an art and documentary photo circle- and yes, who am I to say otherwise. Master photographer, innovator, educator- all well earned accolades. Nevertheless, all the above should not place anyone above criticism.

I’m not the greatest fan of his latter work, most of it searching for a new voice, a new vision he never quite achieves, but continues to deconstruct on his journey- and it most certainly is his prerogative not to repeat himself. But I continue to ask- who without his pedigree, without his name appeal would have been able to secure a publisher (other than Blurb) to publish a book of… grain? All without question or critique- no artist, politician, or god that should be given that much of a free pass.

From the series 'Films' ©PAUL GRAHAM

Matt Johnston:

Stan,
I would tend to agree with you here. Troubled Land is the rare photobook that really can keep you coming back and finding new layers and new questions each and every time, for me the same is true of ‘A1′ and in a very different way ‘Beyond Caring’. His latter, more conceptual work certainly doesn’t have the same gravity as these early projects but in ‘A Shimmer of Possibility’ I still find something special (can’t really out my finger on what that is though).

The free pass is a very good question, and I think it can apply to a few photographers lately; I know it is photo-suicide to say anything against Mr R Frank but I was immensely disappointed with ‘Pangnirtung’ and suspect this 5-day documentation would not have been published by Steidl had Frank been a young and unknown author.

I think in these cases the discussion and critique or review of the projects/books should be more transparent, otherwise these authors continue to have an aura of invisibility around them; everyone says they are fantastic but no one want to say why! On top of this, so many reviews now simply take the letter of the publisher as law, and in turn the publisher points people to this ‘great new review’ and the circle of photobook love-in continues. (There are of course some fantastic reviewers and photobook commentators who do not fall into the category above – Stockdale, Colberg, Claxton etc)

Do you think Graham’s standing as an ‘Art’ photographer helps with this ‘free pass’?

M

From the series 'American Night' ©PAUL GRAHAM

Stan Banos:

I can only speculate, Matt. Some artists build up toward greatness in slow and steady increments then maintain a persistent level of quality throughout, others have a rather meteoric rise, and then milk it- others still, try as they might, just can’t grab the golden ring again. I don’t believe Mr. Graham a slacker by any means, he has continued to create in earnest- I just don’t think anything he’s done since his initial three books has come anywhere near that level of artistic quality, confidence and authenticity. His latter work is characterized mostly by a series of hits and misses, perusing perpetually changing waters- not unsimilar to most student work. In this respect, he very much follows the Stephen Shore mode- an initial brush with photographic immortality, followed by more “personal” explorations.

Again, as to why the dearth of criticism (constructive or otherwise)- it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why certain artists and personalities become irreproachable darlings of the art world. Maybe, just maybe, because he was once called on how not to do documentary (B&W only, please) and having proved them wrong (big time) critics are now somewhat reticent to step up- particularly since he’s quite articulate and can sling the vernacular as good as any other art shark, and beyond. I still remember hearing him wax prolific on the benefits of “meditation pages” between images.

Hell if I know- what I do find curious though is that even the immortals of cinema get called out whenever they lay a turkey- and it’s usually fast and furious….

See the comments for more discussion:

Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’ and Death

Mann’s images in ‘Immediate Family’ show her subjects in a state of content, content with their surroundings and with the omni-presence of the camera. Her family seem to move slowly through life and through the book we hold in our hands, despite the titles incorporating ages and dates, there is a sense of timelessness and fantasy to the narrative.

'Virginia in the Sun' 1985 ©SALLY MANN

In some of the images this timeless quality transforms into more of a stillness, her children moving from subjects of a documentary to still life’s in a collection. It becomes apparent that just as Mann is aware of the joys and trivialities of life, she is equally intrigued and conscious of our fragile mortality. Since ‘Immediate Family’ she has gone on to document her husband Larry’s deteriorating physical health as a result of muscular dystrophy as well as the University of Kentucky’s ‘Body Farm‘, but even here in the serene Virginia landscape there is evidence of Mann’s curiosity. In an article from the Guardian in 2012, Blake Morrison commented that:

In truth, though, Mann’s lively obsession with death – her capacity to be unsqueamish about it while seeing its thumbprint everywhere – originated way back in early childhood. Her father was a country doctor who had seen his share of death and who liked to say there were only three subjects for art: sex, death and whimsy. He was himself an artist in his spare time, and his whimsical creations included a man with three penises (Portnoy’s Triple Complaint) carved from a tree trunk. It was an unconventional, rural childhood, middle class but bohemian: no church, no country club, no television. Mann describes herself as a “feral child”, running naked with dogs or riding her horse with only a string through its mouth.

'Jessie and the Deer', 1985 ©SALLY MANN

Mann presents us with the role of death in country life through images such as ’squirrel season’ and ’Jessie and the dear’, but these only solidify the nomadic theme we are presented with throughout the entirety of the book. What I found more interesting were the images that seemed to exude a feeling of death, or in some case more of a permanent stillness.

'Dirty Jessie', 1985 ©SALLY MANN

Here in ’Dirty Jessie’ we are presented with a clearly live Jessie but whose legs are positioned at such an uncomfortable angle that to make connections with a fall and broken limbs is one that many make on first seeing the scene. The grass spreading away from the body with a scattering of leaves contributes to the notion of impact.

In ’Flour Paste’ it is hard not to conjure up thoughts of death. The flour past on young, sleight legs gives the appearance of a much older subject, of frailty and ultimately when we consider the framing, pairing with ’Squirrel Season’ and an ankle bracelet that brings to mind a body tag, death.

'Flour Paste', 1987 ©SALLY MANN

Likewise in ’Jessie’s Cut’, the blood, stitches, closed eyes and lack of any other human presence create a sense of unease.

'Jessie's Cut', 1985 ©SALLY MANN

These images carry a real potency and add weight to the complete series of images Mann presents us with, and to me, it offers another strand to the book that I dont entirely understand – I love that.

– Matt

 

Kurt Easterwood on Stephen Shore’s ‘West Fifteenth’, A Conclusion

Here is the fourth and final extraction from an extended piece of writing by Kurt Easterwood of Japan Exposures. Kurt produced a fantasticaly rich deconstruction and analysis of Shore’s ‘West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974’ featured in ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’. The image in question can be seen on the right hand side of the image below and you can find the full PDF underneath the image or right here.

West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974

PDF – Kurt Easterwood on ‘West Fifteenth’

A Conclusion

At most, Shore probably spent about 30 minutes standing at the corner of Fifteenth and Vine, framing the scene, adjusting the focus, measuring the light, preparing the film holder, and tripping the shutter. We can be fairly certain he did all these things blissfully unaware of Over-the-Rhine’s German immigrant antecedents, trends in outdoor advertising, or pawn shops as economic indicators. Nor is it likely that Shore took the inverted image he found on his camera’s ground glass and flipped it over in his mind, ruminating on what sociological discourse the graphical elements contained within his frame’s borders might conspire to conjure up for future travelers on his tour of uncommon places.

Thus there is a very real possibility that readers will bristle at my deconstruction of this photo, and the introduction of what may seem like incidental history and tangential politics in an attempt to locate the photo within a much broader context than Shore ever intended. Seeing as I’m likely guilty as charged on that count, in my defense let me stipulate that I see the tour I took of “West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974” less as a deconstruction of an image and more a construction of a separate image, akin say to Mark Klett’s rephotography projects.  Like the spirit in which those are undertaken, the aim has not been to bring Shore’s original photo kicking and screaming into a context imposed from outside, or to re-align it to fight some rhetorical battle, but to merely have it in hand like a trusty map as I negotiate its spaces nearly 40 years later. It’s my hope that the new topography I have constructed as a result informs the old, much as Shore’s two-dimensional photographs in Uncommon Places built upon and informed their physical counterparts. READ MORE

– Kurt Easterwood

Kurt Easterwood on Stephen Shore’s ‘West Fifteenth’, The Photographers Presence

Here is the third teaser from an extended piece of writing by Kurt Easterwood of Japan Exposures. Kurt has produced a fantastic deconstruction and analysis of Shore’s ‘West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974’ featured in  ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’. The image in question can be seen on the right hand side of the image below and you can find the full PDF underneath the image or right here.

In this installation Kurt looks at Shore’s presence in the scene itself….

West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974

PDF – Kurt Easterwood on ‘West Fifteenth’

As our last stop on this exploratory journey, a final sightseeing viewpoint as it were, let’s ponder for a moment one more spot at the corner of Vine and Fifteenth, the spot Shore placed his tripod and set up his view camera to capture this scene. Shore’s presence, and the position of his tripod and camera, is referred to, if not exactly reflected in Lee Friedlander-like fashion, by the out of focus “Bus Stop: No Standing” sign that could be nowhere else but directly in front of where Shore was standing. We smile at the sign like we do at other occasional ironical signage in Uncommon Places — e.g. “MECCA” (p. 129) or “John F. Kennedy said: “ART IS TRUTH”” (P. 133) — as if Shore were thumbing his nose at the municipal establishment that would deign to tell him where he could or could not stand his tripod.

STEPHEN SHORE

PDF – Kurt Easterwood on ‘West Fifteenth’

The Photographer’s Presence

But telling people where they can or cannot stand in the form of municipal anti-loitering ordinances has long been a tactic used by city governments and police forces to exert undue control over citizens in lower-income areas. Three years before Shore took his photo, the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down Cincinnati’s own anti-loitering ordinance as unconstitutional. The ordinance had held that “It shall be unlawful for three or more persons to assemble, except at a public meeting of citizens, on any of the sidewalks, street corners, vacant lots, or mouths of alleys, and there conduct themselves in a manner annoying to persons passing by, or occupants of adjacent buildings.” In a footnote to his opinion, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote that, “The alleged discriminatory enforcement of this ordinance figured prominently in the background of the serious civil disturbances that took place in Cincinnati in June 1967,” by which he was referring to race riots in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Avondale that spread over into Over-the-Rhine.

The sign can then be read not just as a joke of Shore’s own making, but as an ironic and not necessarily unintentional questioning of Shore’s right to be there, assembling these elements in a manner annoying to persons passing by, “an alien element impeding the activity on the street.”  READ MORE

– Kurt Easterwood