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Photobooks and Narrative

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The photobook is beautiful.

But the photobook is flawed and constrained.

These constraints and limitations lead to imaginative solutions on behalf of both the maker and reader, it is surely much of the reason we enjoy it.

It is also the reason I believe that in so many cases the photobook’s simplicity, and it’s ability to transport us through narratives without becoming a distraction is where many digital photobooks fall at the first hurdle in needless gimmicks and ‘medium over message’ solutions.

That being said, if we are to find a future for the photobook both in analogue and digital form, we should embrace any and all experiments with new forms. Seeing as today marks the launch of #phonar 2013 (A free undergraduate photography programme which explores storytelling in the 21st Century), I thought I would share my favourite piece of digital storytelling to date.

 
Welcome to Pine Point‘ is an online and interactive documentary, though it’s interactive techno-wizardry soon pales into insignificance aside the narrative we witness. Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons tell the story of Pine Point, a purpose built town that in their own words was ‘left standing just long enough for a single generation to run through it’. It would be foolish to try and describe the project when it is such a great experience to travel through it yourself and watch the fireworks with reminiscent ‘Pine Pointers’. Not all of the content and characters will resonate, but those that do, will stick with you.

And this is what it is all about for me. The academic or conceptual work coming from the likes of Broomberg and Chanarin et al is interesting, it is thought provoking but it does not move me. I would rather my heart and mind are moved for 10 minutes than my intelligence is challenged for an hour.

Stories. Stories. Stories

Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

“If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to that degree that he forgets the authors and the public, and heeds only this one dream, which holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper, and you may have all the arguments and histories and criticism.”

Matt

A report from the Photobook Club Amsterdam

I was very fortunate to be invited by the organizers of the Photobook Club AmsterdamShirley Agudo and Taco Hidde Bakker to attend their second meetup last month. Already there is a great deal of interest in this branch but it was great to see the group meet in an intimate studio space courtesy of Rein Jelle Terpstra which allowed a very relaxed and fluid event to take place.

I had been invited to present a book on the day and had decided to present John Gossage’s ‘The Pond‘, in part because it is symptomatic of some of the reasons I founded the Photobook Club, and in part as I am always curious to see how the book is received. The discussion went in directions I never would have anticipated from the layout and design to the sequencing, title, cult status and a whole bunch more.

Interestingly I presented the book in a questioning and critical manner but found that when others also leveled any criticism at it, I found I became defensive about it and perhaps had a truer understanding of my own reading of this book. One thing that was decided on the night is that my copy of the book should be left in the hands of Taco Hidde Bakker who was keen to deconstruct the pages and collaborate in a re-editing and re-versioning of this classic (so keep a look out for this).

After my warm up act it was a privilege to have Hans Gremmen present to talk about his role as designer on Rinko Kawauchi’s latest Aperture book ‘Ametsuchi‘. Having this unique perspective reminded me of the very first Photobook Club event in London where Maxwell Anderson introduced me to a world of design choices in Kenji Hirosawa’s ‘Celebrity‘ that I had previously given little thought to. I think it fair to say that all who attended took a great deal from Hans’ candid take on the design process and having a variety of dummies from different stages of the project enabled us to better understand the process involved in designing a photobook as well as the relationships between photographers, designers and publishers.

It is a huge testament to the Photobook Club Amsterdam that despite the event starting at a very reasonable 7.45pm, I only just made the last tram back to town after midnight and took a whole bunch of questions and thoughts back with me. A huge thanks for the invite go to Shirley and Taco.

Matt

New to the shelf…

These wee comments are by no means reviews, just a few words on books new to my shelf…

Life after Zog and other stories
Chiara Tocci
Schilt Publishing

Life after Zog and other stories

Two things to think about here – firstly the images and book content but also the new ‘Grey Matters’ series from Schilt Publishing. It is clear that Tocci has a wonderful eye and a great understanding/application of palette but it requires a look beyond this to start piecing together ideas with images. In the forward we read that… “This story comes to you after long walks on mountainous footpaths, shared bus rides over steep ravines and sailing adventures across magical lakes in high Albania…” and this loose wandering feel is hard to put aside (partly due to aesthetic rather than conceptual sequencing choices), but on doing so and revisiting the less poetic introductory text there is much here to learn from.

As for the new ‘Grey Matters’ series – a grand idea very well executed in my opinion. A way to bring new work to a new audience while still believing in the worth of the project enough to bring it to the physical world of photobooks. The grey cover and wrapper along with the series title remind us that these are not finished thoughts or concepts, these books do not pretend to have all the answers, nor do they pretend to be slick, shiny and engaging. Instead these are interesting, open and inviting, not to mention a great way to invite interest in the development of these artists and their works. I will be interested to see more in the series as they are released but would certainly consider a subscription option if one were available (£12.50 per book is cheaper than many photo magazines!).

Various (13 books)
Author  – Me? Google? Anonymous Press? Sally Mann?
Anonymous Press (Α–Π)

Name the author – answers on the back of a postcard

I love this project and it is rather addictive. Anonymous Press allows you to perform an image search which is then arranged using a mysterious algorithm into a 12 page digital book and archived along with everyone else’s self-created zines. But where it gets a little more interesting still is that these can be bought for a very reasonable price – they are printed cheaply and bound by hand with staples before being sent out. It is a ton of fun to see what your searches will return, what images will be shown, where on the page and in what order.

I made a bunch of books and chose to purchase them, to bring them from the uber-digital image search to a tactile experience – it doesn’t work, it’s not the same, and that’s why I love it – these books ask so many more questions than you would expect for a free/$3 book. As further experiment into authorship/narrative and coherence I produced books based on the titles of books we have looked at on the Photobook Club – ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’, ‘Immediate Family’, ‘Uncommon Places’ etc, it is fascinating to see how much these books or these images are related in a grander sense to their own ‘keywords’.

Various Small Books
Jeff Brouws, Wendy Burton and Hermann Zschiegner
MIT Press

Various Small Books

I shan’t say too much about this one as I imagine anyone with even a remote interest in Ruscha and the work he has inspired already has a copy on the shelf or on order. It should be pointed out however that this book is an absolute triumph – I doubt there will be any disappointed by this bible of biblio-homages to the bound work of Ruscha. Some you will know, some you will own but all come with concise and insightful texts with great insights into the links with Ruscha’s work.

Home Sense – Beyond Home
Ryoko Yamashita
T.I.P Books

Home Sense

A neat but beautifully designed book and case here and one that only enhances rather than detracts from the very still images inside. Hiroaki Yoshino comments that this book could have been called “The Sensation of Home” although while this is true it speaks more to me about the lives within than the structure itself.

There is certain inevitability about the house and these images – we walk through the house and through the book knowing we will soon reach the end, our demise and the books final image, the clock on the floor a reminder that while the images are still and quiet, outside these walls a world is moving on regardless of our willingness to take part.

Hesitating Beauty
Joshua Lutz
Schilt Publishing

Hesitating Beauty

There are times when I feel a fraud as a photobook enthusiast as I become frustrated that while many photobooks can challenge and can be enjoyable, it is rarely that they have a truly powerful affect on you like a live performance or novel may be able to do (perhaps this is just me). Joshua Lutz’ Hesitating Beauty however is a book, a narrative, many questions and a collection of images that will long stay with me and will be returned to again and again. The sequence offered for reading can be taken on face value or we can delve further into an appropriately clouded world that is hard to comprehend, I would strongly urge the latter.  If you can see this book – do so!

– Matt

 

My Photobook New Years Resolutions

We’ve had the end of year lists which I couldn’t resist getting involved in, but we must remember that photobooks are for life, not just Christmas…

…and so here are my photobook-related New Years resolutions, things I have been thinking about for a wee while and hope that committing them to ‘paper’ might make me stick to ‘em.

Buy fewer books
I am by no means a huge book buyer but I realized in compiling my list before Christmas that there were a stack of books I had bought and still not really spent any decent time with. I plan to spend 3 times longer with 3 times fewer books this year.

Yuhki Touyama, Line13

Jump into Japanese photobooks
This goes against resolution number 1 but resolutions are supposed to be broken right?
I have pretty much ignored Japanese photobooks up until now, the only reason is that I figure they will be much like beginning to watch ‘The Wire’ or ‘The Sopranos’; I will love it but it will take up all my time and most of my money. Perhaps if I just borrow a few from the library it will be manageable!

Avoid jumping into Chinese and Soviet photobooks

So the next big thing for photobook lovers are Chinese and Soviet books apparently but haven’t Soviet books in particular been popular with collectors for a while? Either way, i’m going to avoid them, wait for the craze to die down and enjoy them leisurely without worrying about price and availability. Im sure many will go for crazy prices, I may never see them but I’m reluctantly getting used to the idea that you can never see ALL the great books.

Un-organise my bookshelf
In a moment of acute procrastination I sort-of organised my bookshelf before Christmas (nothing too sophisticated, just done on loose theme really). I have found however it is a little boring; I know what book I will find next to another, there is no fun or discovery in that. I want to go back to the days where I look for a book and find three others I haven’t visited for a while.

Publish
I’ve been involved , albeit loosely with a few book productions but would like to do more this year. I’m not sure whether this will be in publishing per se but would love to hear from anyone interested in collaborating on a project (email here). 

Ask more
There is a beauty in struggling with a book, forming our own interpretations, right or wrong. With a curious mind however there is also, in some cases a frustration. I have on occasions directly approached the photographer to chat about aspects of the book, this year, I’m going to do it much more as so far, everyone has responded with really informative messages.

Mrs. Merryman’s Collection (MACK) to be included in the box

Box of books
There will be more on this by the end of the month but I am really looking forward to this wee project which will involve a box of books heading round the world stopping off at each of the Photobook Club branches. Coming soon….

– Matt

B*@t of 2012

Those of you who remember (and those of you who do not), last year I mentioned I would not enter into the ‘best of’ bonanza before proceeding to do just that by selecting 5 photobooks that had stood out to me in the ‘B*@t of 2011’ post.

This year I shan’t try to hide the fact that I have made a list but it’s not the regular ‘Best of 2012’ style. I simply haven’t spent time with enough new books this year to be able to give any sort of top ten or top twenty. Instead I will list those that I have enjoyed/been entertained/confused and educated by over the course of 2012 in a few different categories.

NB: It seems a contractual obligation now to trash ones own list or at least belittle/justify it before proceeding with the ‘main event’. I would like to think I started this last year but know that is not true. What I do no to be true – people like to make lists, it is a nice way to step back and perhaps try to learn something from our viewing habits and the themes that are drawing us in. People also like to read lists, it is always interesting to see whose taste is similar or differs wildly and then try to catch some of those books we have missed.

It is also great to see this year that a lot of the books from last years ‘Best’ lists have had very good second editions, most are available again at reasonable prices which offers some hope for this years ‘top books’. I dont think there is anything in my list that is particularly hard to get hold of at the moment but if there is drop me an email and I will loan out the book for free.
– Matt

Back to back:

I started by looking back at the books I chose last year. It is always pleasing to find out that the book you were gushing about 12 months ago is one that has continued to entertain and educate/frustrate over this past year. In this category fall two books from last years list:

Ken Schles: Oculus (2011)

Oculus

Watabe Yukichi: A Criminal Investigation (2011)

A Criminal Investigation

The Growers:

Redhead Peckerwood made a lot of lists last year and I am sure The Present will make many this year, they certainly both make mine, but it took some time.

Redhead Peckerwood took time only in as much as the curse of the photobook list made it almost impossible to get hold of for a good price until the second edition came out, and by this time I felt I could do without. Seeing it at Paris Photo made me change my mind and it was first in the suitcase. Following it was a book I never thought I would buy (especially after the ‘film‘ debacle) – Paul Graham’s ‘The Present‘ which really must be seen to be believed, the internet does not do justice to this book and this work; subtle and sweet but with a serious undercurrent. I would not be so bold as to say it is a must-own but a must-see for sure.

Christian Paterson: Redhead Peckerwood (2011)

Redhead Peckerwood

Paul Graham: The Present (2012)

The Present

Not a book, but also a book:

Two projects here that have had the guidance of Paradox in the Netherlands and are both much bigger than the books mentioned here. ‘Poppy‘ and ‘The Last Days of Shishmaref‘ are books, but they are also exhibitions, online galleries, blogs and educational resources; true transmedia projects that you can, and should get totally lost in. I expect ‘Poppy‘ will find it’s way onto many lists but ‘The Last Days of Shishmaref‘ (2008) has more heart and good intent than you can ignore.

Dana Lixenberg: The Last Days of Shishmaref (2008)

The Last Days of Shishmaref

Robert Knoth and Antoinette de Jong: Poppy (2012)

Poppy

Small and humble:

These books don’t try to change the world, nor do they seek to challenge our interpretations of the fluidity and omnipresence of a 2D world (or other such nonsense), instead they tell a small story, one that is engaging from start to finish and one that for a moment at least makes us think a little differently.

Peter Dekens: Touch (2012)

Touch

Theo Simpson and Adam Murray: Road and Rail Links Between Sheffield and Manchester (2012)

Road and Rail Links Between Sheffield and Manchester

Bird Watching:

Used to be a bit of a bird nut as a kid so maybe that is where my interest comes from but it seems photographers have been turning their lenses on the winged of late too. Three books I have thoroughly enjoyed this year that focus on the bird; there are more, but I have not seen them. The three here are all a bit of fun, at least on one level, Paloma al Aire is just straight up fun from page to page – and it puts a smile on my face to see people take such enjoyment from this ‘hobby/lifestyle’. Bird Watching is a great book and depending on how much time you spend with the book it will give you different messages; personally I don’t like to think too much when I look through this one, I enjoy it as a bird watchers notebook, I just wish the description ‘tags’ were stuck in rather than printed on the page.

Paula McCartney: Bird Watching (2010)

Bird Watching

Luka Felzmann: Swarm (2011)

Swarm

Ricardo Cases: Paloma al Aire (2011)

Paloma al Aire

The Great Outdoors:

A craving for a less concrete life has continued to manifest itself in the books I have been drawn to this past year. You could consider the above category linked in here but the following sum it up a little neater I suppose. I was also drawn to the array of ‘hessian-like’ covers this year on books like Erik van der Weidje’s ‘Superquadra‘ and ‘Reading Ed Ruscha‘.

Joel Meyerowitz: Legacy (2009)

Legacy

Paul Strand: The Garden at Orgeval (2012)

The Garden at Orgeval

Oscar Tuazon: Leave me be (2012)

Leave me be

Discussion at meetups:

The book that garnered the most discussion at meetup that I ran this year was, without doubt John Gossage’s ‘The Pond‘. For those that had not seen the work before it tended to be a love or hate kinda relationship (with more siding for love) and produced much conversation on sequencing and pace of photobooks.

John Gossage: The Pond (2012 orig. 1985)

The Pond

Niche:

Perhaps with the popularity of the New Topographics and in particular Baltz’s work, this will not be considered such a niche book, but it’s title sure sounds it. Also a possible contender for this category was the above mentioned ‘Road and Rail Links Between Sheffield and Manchester (2012)’

Jason Griffiths: Manifest Destiny: A Guide to the Essential Indifference of American Suburban Housing (2011)

Manifest Destiny

Notable Mention:

As I mentioned up top, this list doesn’t really constitute a best of, more a collection of books I found interesting for different reasons. The books below are on my desk and may have had a brief viewing but no more than that, they are included for the fact that they currently all excite me and i’m looking forward to exploring them more…

Geoff Winningham: Rites of Fall, High School Football in Texas (1979)
Lena Effendi:
Liquid Land (2012)
Filipe Casaca: Blue Mud Swamp (2012)
Peter Grasner: Was einem Heimat War (2012)
Hans Van Der Meer: The Netherlands off the shelf (2012)
Ben Roberts: Occupied Spaces (2012)

‘Invisible City; A Digital Resource’ – The most Surprising 2012 Photobook Publication

Very proud to see the Photobook Club’s digital publication ‘Ken Schles, Invisible City; A Digital Resource’ make it onto Martin Brinks ‘Top Digital Photobooks‘ list last week and now very happy to read a great little review of the publication in Taco Hidde Bakker’s ‘Photobook Listmania‘.

Alongside comment on lists and photobook consumption which is worth a read in itself, Taco dubs our publication as ‘the most surprising 2012 photobook publication’. You can read the section below but please do head over to the post to hear Taco’s other thoughts.

The most surprising 2012 photobook publication to me has been The Photobook Club‘s free-of-charge e-book: Ken Schles – Invisible City: A Digital Resource. A page-by-page digital representation of the beautifully printed original 1988 book (which is rare and expensive nowadays) embedded within notes around the production of the book, and recent discussions. An excellent example of how valuable older, sometimes overlooked and understudied, photobooks can be lifted out of the shadows and be studied in a public realm beyond the traditional library.

Taco Hidde Bakker

Mark Power and Militarization in ’26 Different Endings’

Maybe it’s just me but there seems to be a loose military theme showing it’s head every now and again in Power’s ’26 Different Endings’.

Perhaps it is the grid references and camouflage palette that put me in a particular frame of mind but the decay, signage and architecture do resemble a military training ground. If there is a British suburban replicant the Army use, I bet it looks like this…

– Matt

Image MARK POWER

Image MARK POWER

Image MARK POWER

Image MARK POWER

Image MARK POWER

Adele Reed on ‘A1: The Great North Road’, a personal reflection

Thanks go to photographer Adele Reed for sharing her thoughts on Paul Graham’s ‘A1: The Great North Road’. If you would like to share your own thoughts on this book, do so in the comments section below or to me via email.

Graham’s portrait of this historically endearing straight-forward British system is poignant in many ways. The moments he captured and brought away from the culture along the road are portrayed in a candid, sympathetic and honest manner, serving tribute to working class Britain, their collective apathy of the eighties, and the despondent neglect the road suffered during these times. Rupert Martin wrote in an essay published as an introduction to the series that Graham illustrated the ‘kind of self-sufficient melancholy’ of the people – who somehow seem downtrodden but proud of their society.

©PAUL GRAHAM

For me it’s a heartfelt and warm testament to the salt of the Earth, the genuine, honest members of our nation who keep the cogs turning, who support the road, and who the road supports back. Cafe interiors crumble into decay but a charm withstands: vibrantly painted walls and garish patterned curtains reflect fashions and a flamboyancy our country should be proud of. I feel a deep affection for our provincial towns whilst viewing the images.

Adele Reed

©PAUL GRAHAM

 

And if you haven’t seen the book yet…