This is the last in the current series of conversations based on the future of photographic publishing that I dubbed ‘Dr Strangepub‘. If there are people you think should be part of these conversations (and I already have an extensive list), then let me know.
Dr Strangepub or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the possibilities of 21st century publishing
Recently I sat down to chat with 4 individuals, all with their own different take on 21st century photographic publishing, it’s possibilities and perhaps a pitfall or two as well. These conversations were recorded and are now available to list/watch via the wee website linked here.
These chats are not an attempt to classify modern photographic publishing or even to generate answers but instead to pose questions on the current state and value of photographic publishing from the live experience and handmade book to multi-platform outputs and print on demand technology.
As well as being able to see all the conversations now, I will post them one by one over the next month and we start with Bas Vroege below . I have also included below a better worded version of the above should you wish to share it (and please do!)
Bas Vroege is the Director of Paradox pictures based in the Netherlands. Paradox is a not-for-profit organization exploring contemporary issues through documentary photography.
Here Bas talks about the multifaceted approach that Paradox employs for the work it publishes and how new possibilities in publishing have helped to create more dynamic storytelling.
‘Dr Strangepub’ is an online publication of converstaions between Matt Johnston and a selection of 21st century photography publishers, each with their own thoughts on what publishing can offer us today and whether or not we are currently exploiting it.
These conversations are not just based on the future of digital plublishing but also the roll of the physical object in the digital age and how the breakdown of traditional gatekeeprs has liberated our options as content producers. This project is a collaboration between Matt Johnston, The Photobook Club and Coventry University School of Art and Design.
This really should not have taken as long as it has, and for that my apologies. I often stress that accessibility is of paramount importance to me and The Photobook Club so was well aware that in publishing the Invisible City iBook I was both improving access to content for some but excluding a large audience also.
This publication takes on a magazine-style format, inside of which you will find not only the images and text featured in Invisible City, but a variety of personal reflections, commentary on the process of creating Invisible City from Ken Schles and even original notes from a lecture given at New York’s International Center of Photography in 1990.
If you have an iPad, you can download the publication free from the link given below via the iBook store.
The complete forward featured in the publication alongside screenshots is featured below this introductory video.
Forward I set up the Photobook Club in 2010 as a response to both my own fascination and frustration with photobooks. My fascination was born and nurtured as a student spending thousands of hours in the University library choosing books at random by the colour of their spine, or based on recommendations from my peers and tutors. My frustration was a little harder to pinpoint but essentially stemmed from my wanting to learn more about the classic photobooks, those revered and often rare books that held a sense of mystery between their two covers; everyone agreed they were classics but there was little discussion of why.
At the time there was, and still is, a huge interest in photobooks, but predominantly in the new, the self published and the handmade, and so together with partner-in-crime Wayne Ford, I decided to open out my thoughts and learning to a wider community – just as a traditional book club. As well as promoting and facilitating this shared experience online, I was keen to encourage the generative experience the photobook offers us both in spending time with a beautifully crafted artifact, and in sharing thoughts (as well as books) in person.
I certainly hope that (depending on your knowledge of Invisible City), this publication will either introduce you to, or help create a greater understanding of a hugely influential modern photobook. Inside you will find not only the images and text featured in Invisible City, but a variety of personal reflections, commentary on the process of creating Invisible City from Ken Schles and even original notes from a lecture given at New York’s International Center of Photography in 1990.
Regardless of your previous experience with this book, or whether you are a lecturer, photographer, student, book lover or just curious, I would really appreciate your comments via the email address below.
Finally, thanks must of course go primarily to Ken Schles, not only for allowing all to see his wonderful images but also for kindly lending me a copy of the book to work with, and for his enthusiasm towards this project. My thanks also to the contributors listed on the following page who offered their own, personal reflections on the book.
If you are in San Fran this September you are in for a treat as Gallery Carte Blance run by Gwen Lafage has teamed up with Darius Himes and Larissa Leclair of the Indie Photobook Library to put on a great event for photobook lovers and anyone with an interest in documentary photography. I shan’t waffle on and instead will introduce Darius Himes’ framework for the event:
The early- to mid-20th century produced a handful of photographic styles with a photojournalistic or documentary vocabulary at their core. This “documentary tradition” flourished in the latter half of the century, as photographic equipment shrunk, film speeds increased and world-wide traveled became easier and cheaper. The last decades have seen an explosion in art-photography educational programs and self-publishing, coupled with a continuing desire to explore the world, near and far. As we stand in the morning light of a new century, already some 12 years old, it is worth considering the question, What of the documentary style? When it comes to approaching the world around us—its people, places, conflicts, development and intertwined societies—how have the languages within the growing world of photography changed and shaped the conversation we have in images?
A huge thanks to the folks at Aperture publishing who have kindly offered the Photo Book Club community 10% off select titles, including Nan Goldin’s ‘Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ which we are looking at next month.
This special offer code will be sent to all members of our meet-up community at the beginning of next month. If you are not already part of this, you can add yourself below. And if you do not wish to be a meet-up member but would still like the code, please email Matt here.
Invisible City is well known to those who know it and unknown to those that don’t! How do you feel about it being so rare, and considered one of the greats, while many who cannot afford it, have not been able to see it.
I wish more people could see it. I feel it has never really been widely known. It went out of print soon after it was published. It was never my intention for it to be so rare. Relatively unknown and yet delighted in, maybe that’s a good definition of it being in a certain kind of club? A good thing people will be able to see it here in this club then. But books of this sort need to be held and flipped through, that I know.
Books take on their own lives, if they are successful, and go on to have their own histories. I have a few stories around the book. Books reflect back on you. And although this book is relatively obscure because of its rarity, it’s given me a few stories to tell. Walker Evens called his book, American Photographs, his “calling card.” For me, Invisible City was a life-line into a career as a working artist. It has gone places I’ve never been to, spoken to people I’ll never know. It’s always been underground and under the radar. Something people ‘in the know’ seem to know about—whatever that means.
It’s a small private book, and it has affected people in a personal way. But as its creator, I can’t objectively gauge its impact. And I don’t think anybody creating a work of art can ever truly understand what impact one’s work has had. It’s hard enough to know one’s own mind, let alone someone else’s. Sure, over the years I’ve gotten some glimpses. Pre-internet, I’d get the odd phone call. Sometimes people would want to visit, or even send me small gifts. One time I got a phone call from Italy, from a fashion house that said that Robert Frank had told them to call me. I found out through them that Invisible City was a favorite book of his and he was throwing some work my way (eventually there was an ill-fated gallery connection from him too. And it was through that that I eventually met him). One call was from Robert Robertson, the DP who was working on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers at the time. Over the years I found it had had a huge effect on many people in the photo and especially the film industry, but at the time it was considered too ‘raw,’ and too ‘hard’ for the main stream.
But the world has changed. I’d hear that some teacher was showing it to their students, or there was a lecture about it. In time, I’d be asked to give lectures about it. But not that many people contacted me early on. During that time I kept lamenting that the only good photographer was a dead one. I was still struggling to make ends meet. John Szarkowski at MoMA told me that the museum would have to support my work because it was important and galleries wouldn’t want to hang my pictures on the wall because they were too ‘difficult.’ Unfortunately, John retired soon after and the support wasn’t all that forthcoming as the photoworld and museumworld morphed into something else.
So the book didn’t have a direct impact on my career, not at first anyway. It took a few years. Over time though, it’s been cumulative, and it hasn’t abated. Not in the least. I’d hear of creative meetings in all sorts of creative industries—after the fact, where the book was referenced, but rarely did anyone bother to call me. In that, the book had a strange trajectory. Immediately upon publication, the New York Times selected it as a notable book of the year, but there were not many copies yet in distribution because of a decision to sell most of the copies abroad. Copies were slow to surface in US bookstores and it was considered out of print within a year. When first published, a local favorite bookstore, St. Mark’s Books, had it on their hip new arrivals table. I was really proud of that, but within a week it was hidden behind the cash register because so many copies were being stolen.
You had to know that it was there and you had to ask for it. To me it was frustrating. How were you to know about a photography book you had never seen? I worked so hard to make it happen, and when it did, immediately it went into hiding. Peter Galassi at the Museum of Modern Art put it on display for the More Than One Photography exhibition, but left it in a vitrine, so nobody could leaf through it or even touch it. Somehow, the book was out there, but it was also hidden. Early reviews came with some caveats. I don’t think the book was that well understood at the time when it first came out. The Times review said I was making obvious connections to Weegee. Others thought I had copied Ed Van der Elsken’s Love On The Left Bank—Susan Kismaric at MoMA showed me that book after she saw mine. I love that book, but I had never seen it before.
Because of its rarity (it sold out really fast) the price went up quickly and it was lost to a more general public. I couldn’t even afford to buy copies on the secondary market. It stayed hidden away in collections. How do I feel about that? It’s funny, you want something to be successful, but you think that it being a success would cause certain things to happen, which isn’t necessarily the case. I guess I was naïve. When Jack Woody published my book, he also put out that same year Joel Peter-Witkin’s first book and Herb Ritt’s first book. Personally, and in the long run, I think my book is as important as theirs, but they got the museum shows and they got the fame. The attention my book got was pre-internet word of mouth. I see now that it is people of a certain age and from a certain milieu who mostly know of the book. There were no photography book geeks to speak of back then. There were lovers of photography books, but it wasn’t such a vocal and distinct appellation to like photography books. And of those that did their voices had little impact in the larger photographic community.
Not that long ago I was in the office of Phil Block, the director of the school at the International Center of Photography, and while he sings the praises of Invisible City (he was an early and ardent advocate, an early champion of photography books as well) he says that younger people just don’t know about it. To test this, I asked students walking into his office if they’d heard of the book. Most all said they never heard of it. With less than two thousand copies in a world of seven billion people, I think that’s quite understandable. But then again, you just don’t know its impact. In 1999, I got an email from the Dutch photographer and curator, Machiel Botman. He and the curator Wim Melis of the Noorderlicht Foundation for Photography wanted to make my work the center of a festival that included a slew of some very impressive photographers (I don’t want to leave any names out, so please look at this link). They said, “We love Invisible City, what have you been doing lately?” That exhibition led to the publication of my second book, The Geometry of Innocence, published by Hatje Cantz, in Germany, 13 years after IC came out.
I hadn’t a clue that there was an audience of people that knew of my work outside the U.S. I felt like one of those old forgotten jazz musicians who had to go to Europe to find their audience. So, in that sense, I wish my work wasn’t so obscure to people. It’s been a long and somewhat hard road. I’m lucky that I can still work and explore new avenues of ideas. By and large, Invisible City was my passport to entry. I’m proud of its successes. From all the responses from people over the years who have sought me out to tell me what impact the book has had on their lives, I would think that more people would like to know about it. But with few copies about and people being so precious about them, I can understand why more people don’t know about it. I wish Invisible City more luck in the coming years. More is hard to say.
I will be looking closely at the photography book in particular and ways in which I see it developing, as well as the huge support we have had for the Photo Book Club, and for the physical books and stores that we all love.