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]

 

Dr Strangepub: The Possibilities of 21st Century Photographic Publishing

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.

Dr Strangepub

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!)

Thanks, and my sincere thanks to those involved – Andreas Schmidt, Bas Vroege, Casey Kelbaugh and Harry Watts.

– Matt

 

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.

 

To recap 🙂

‘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.

 

 

Paul Graham: Some Food for Thought #1

Paul Graham is by no means an obscure artist and so there are a bunch of places online to find out more about him, his work and his publications, I am just going to highlight a few.

For starters, Graham’s website is great – featuring a good selection of images from each of his projects:

There is also an interview with Richard Woodman on the site here, it’s well worth a read but might not tell those familiar with Graham, much more information.

I love Lost in Publications, if you only head to one more page from this ‘Food for Thought’ it should most definitely be to this page, featuring ALL Graham’s various publications.

Paul Graham on 'Lost in Publications'

A much more detailed interview with Paul Graham, conducted by Aaron Schumann can be found on seesaw magazine’s website.
“That type of photography had its time, and those types of social concern are still relevant, but we’ve just got to find a fresh language to express ourselves. Today, we don’t write books as we did in 1952; authors now explore the structure of a novel and what writing now means, as well as their subject matter” (PG)

Here, Peter MacGill of Pace MacGill Gallery discusses the work of photographer Paul Graham (Focusing on ‘A Shimmer of Possibility).

Alternatively, Graham himself talks us through one of the narratives from ‘A Shimmer of Possibility’

And for those who didn’t get to see the retrospective (or mid career survey as Peter MacGill would have me say) of Graham’s work as it toured Europe, here are some reviews of his output 1981-2006:

Alastaire Sooke of The Telegraph
“The secret behind their success is that they fuse an essentially American idea with a drizzly British sensibility”

Wayne Ford of Wayne Ford!
“Graham’s work remains faithful to its documentary origins – a commitment to life as it unfolds before the photographers lens”

Jonathan Dodds of The Illiterate Knife Rack
“…the photographs strike at the feelings and rage being experienced and expressed by a whole new generation of working class people in this country.”

Gerry Badger writing for the BJP
“He never repeats himself, never stands still and, while he has certain concerns revolving broadly around the nature of the photographic document (although he rightly hates the “D” word, as he calls it), treats each new project as a beginning, approaching the medium each time from first principles”

Liz Joney of The Guardian (Review of catalogue)
“”Without the energy to interrogate yourself, you’re dead,” Graham once said, and one of his strengths as an artist is his mutability. He is constantly testing what photography is capable of.

– Matt


The Art Book: An Interview with Matt Johnston of the Photo Book Club

I was interviewed recently by Sara Potter of ‘The Art Book Group‘ who have published a book on art books. It will be available shortly and I shall post a link to it, but in the meantime here is my conversation with Sara on the future of photobooks for anyone interested.

SP: Where did the idea for The Photo Book Club come from?
MJ: Essentially, the club came out of my own desire to learn more about photobooks, I was discovering old books all the time with the help of bibliophile Wayne Ford and was enthralled by them. I was also surprised that there were very few places to discuss these books, there were a number of great websites discussing the new, indie, or self-published books, but nobody was inviting discourse on the classics. I wanted to spread the availability and discussion of old and rare photo books, to discuss the authority of the photobook in our world, and to share ideas with others. I was also keen that this would not be one person’s voice but a community project.
Recently I have also been hosting Book Club meetups and encouraging others to do so, the idea here is to get a lot of the discussion that currently happens online, to happen in person around a table. Fortunately, it seems that this idea has really resonated with the community and thanks to a group of enthusiastic organizers, there are now a whole host of monthly meetups.

Photo Book Club Barcelona

SP: How influential are photo books for promoting an artist’s work and is social media taking over the book’s function?
MJ: I wouldn’t say the two are competing as books and social media have very different purposes and outcomes. There is no dismissing social media as a powerful tool of promotion (and more importantly for me – discussion and collaboration) but in a very different way to producing a photobook.
One of the things I love about the photobook that we don’t replicate digitaly is that you have a story from start to end, all the narrative is consolidated into one physical object and you need no instructions or playback devices to enjoy it. To produce a good photobook involves a completely different set of tools and skills compared to social media and web galleries. This self contained narrative can be fantastic promotion for a photographer when done well, it can demonstrate the ability to tell stories within the confines of the printed page, and it has a physical quality that someone can treasure (which again digital media currently cannot attain).

SP: Are they an artwork in themselves?
MJ: In short, yes. Viewing a book is sometimes compared to visiting a gallery, as you turn the page (or a corner of a gallery), the impact of the previous image gives you a different context for the next image, you can use space to give a breath to the reader, or to surprise them, and images can be paired in harmony or stark contrast. When careful sequencing, appropriate printing, layout, typography, paper stock, size and design are combined to enhance the content the book holds, then yes, it can absolutely become artwork in itself. But not all photobooks are, Alex Sweetman sums this up when referring to Cartier Bresson’s ‘The Decisive Moment’ and ‘The Europeans’;

“…these elegant presentations of photographs fall short of being bookworks. The art here is the single image, not the expressive action of the whole. And this is true of the bulk of photography books, monographs, and exhibition catalogues which remain merely collections – portfolios between covers.”

SP: Can you see ‘e-photo books’ being popular in the age of iPads and Kindles?
MJ: Yes, but not in the current format they resemble. As with all new technology, the e-book has been shaped by what has proceeded it (the book), and to me, this seems a  wasted opportunity. The constraints of the physical book do not apply in the digital world, so why allow ourselves to be limited by them? I see the future of the digital photobook looking more like an App than a book, and it must be immersive and engaging. It is all to easy to click ‘next’ through a web gallery, the majority of which will offer little context, no option to share and discuss, and will be displayed in a manner dictated by the website, not catered for the project itself.

 There are several promising projects starting to emerge though.

Via PanAm iPad App

SP: Do you think the value placed on quality design and production is increasing within the book market?
MJ: It absolutely is, and it needs to. While there will be some people who will buy a photobook in physical form because they have the money, and that is what they enjoy or are accustomed to, this group of people will get smaller and smaller, and it certainly doesn’t include me. I wouldn’t rush to spend £30-£50 on a photobook if it was available online, or in App form unless it was beautifully produced and offered an experience that it’s digital counterpart could not match.
The same goes for the young generation of consumers (often dismissed as wanting everything online, for free). Many of my students treasure the photobooks they have, they treasure the physical qualities of it, they treasure all that the digital cannot replicate, like the smell of the glue, feel of the paper, or the fact that the photobook demands you sit down with it and carefully turn the pages rather than consuming images quickly, and on the move.
As for how the physical object affects the narrative/content; I don’t believe it should  affect it as such, but should enhance and support it. Every choice in production should support the message it holds rather than dictate the content.

SP: Where do you like to buy your photo books? Are there any particular shops that add to the whole experience of buying a book?
MJ: As much as possible, I try to buy from bricks-and-mortar stores like Claire de Rouen and Koenig books in London , but it would be unfair to say this is the only place I buy books, I also shop online and sometimes venture to the dark side of Amazon. We should support our book shops as much as possible but this cannot be based on sentimentalism alone. Book shops should be doing more for the customer paying an extra 10-25% on their purchase. They cannot compete with price or selection of the online giants such as Amazon, but Amazon cannot hold intimate photobook meetings, or invite publishers or photographers to introduce and sign books (Dashwood books in NY is great for these events).
In the early days of the Photo Book Club we started a map of great bookshops around the world where you could get your photobook fix. I started by adding those that I knew of and as people added more recommendations it grew as a community sourced map and now boasts over 160 stores worldwide. I love that the map has personal comments about helpful staff and favourite purchases, and that it can be added to by anyone, it’s a collaboration of great bookshops around the world.

SP: How do you like to ‘read’ a photo book?
MJ: It depends on how I already know the work. I usually begin by quickly flicking through the book (usually as I walk out the store, or on the train home), getting a feel for it. Then, I’ll make the time to sit down with it. A closed book is a fresh and self-contained object so I don’t believe I should need to research or look at other photobooks prior to my first reading. I will read all text presented before the images, followed by the images (if presented in this manner) and consider any text that follows the images to be the bonus material or extra context if needed.

Ken Shcles' 'Oculus'

SP: What is your favourite photo/art book and why?
MJ: If I had to pick a photobook based predominantly on content then I suppose Alec Soth’s Niagara is my favourite project that lives within a book.
If I were to choose a favourite photobook based on its physical qualities then it would be hard to beat Watabe Yukichi’s ‘A Criminal Investigation’. It’s the perfect marriage of subject and object. It’s set out like a documented police file of a 1958 Tokyo murder investigation and the book has beautiful Japanese folding with incredibly rich, matte black tones. It’s been featured on a few ‘best of’ lists recently and because of this it’s now hard to get hold of. It’s a shame that there is a great number of people who don’t get to see and feel the physical book once it becomes popular or collectible (in many cases, me included).
For me, the best photobooks are the ones that I can’t get out of my head, the ones that I just have to pick up again and look at. I didn’t get Ken Schles’ ‘Oculus’ on the first reading – part photography, part philosophy, but it just called me back to revisit again and again, each time taking something new from my ‘read’. And I always pick up something new in John Gossage’s The Pond. I’ve probably read it over 50 times and I’m sure there is more.

Sally Mann: Some Food for Thought #2

As I mentioned in our first ‘food for thought’ post, this second version looks a little more at ‘Immediate Family’ than Mann’s other works and publications.

Firstly, as this book is easily available at a good price in a re-edition, I will be not be creating a video for the book in it’s entirety. And so you can either look to purchase the book here (or here for US), or look at what Mann features on her own website.
It is by no means a substitute for the book but it does give a taste for the work and as often as possible I will feature other images also.

1. There is a fantastic introductory article on the book over on American Suburb X authored by Valerie Osbourn. This article takes a look at Mann’s unflinching camera as well as some of the controversy that surrounded the book when it first came out.

2. Another fantastic piece here, this time about Mann’s provocation both in relation to the images of her children, and of more recent work with the dead.

3. The Smithsonian magazine writes about Mann’s images of her family here.

4. And… even though it was featured in the earlier posts, it is most certainly a must watch in relation to this specific book:
This video offers a great insight int Mann’s mind, and process as well as hearing from her children about their mothers image making and use of them as subjects.

Sally Mann in conversation with Steven Jenkins March 21st

It was fortuitous that Stephen Shore spoke at SFMoMA during our month long look at ‘Uncommon Places’ but now it’s happened again! On March 21st Sally Mann will be in conversation with Steven Jenkins at the Herbst theatre in San Francisco. For those who can get to the event, it looks to be a great evening with lots of insight into Mann’s image making process.

Hit the image for all information about tickets, times and location:

Sally Mann in Conversation with Steven Jenkins

– Matt

Sally Mann: Some Food for Thought #1

As we look at Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’ this month it is worth acknowledging the artist beyond this single publication. And so below are some useful links and resources to find out a little more about one of America’s most important female artists. You can also see the links below for other publications by Mann.

We will feature another ‘food for thought’ post shortly looking more closely at resources linked to ‘Immediate Family’.

1. Perhaps the best resource is the film ‘What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann‘, directed by Steven Cantor.
Sections of the film can be found on Youtube or you can buy the complete film here.

2. In this interview from American Suburb X, Sally Mann speaks with Steven Cantor (director of ‘What Remains’) about the process of making the documentary, and in particular about the relationships between Mann and her children.

3. This next video is not nearly as in depth as ‘What Remains’ but it still offers a great insight int Mann’s mind, and process as well as hearing from her children about their mothers image making and use of them as subjects.

4.From Lens to Photo: Sally Mann Captures her Love‘, in this video Mann speaks of her ‘Flesh and the Spirit’ body of work in which she photographs her husband Larry Mann.

5. And if you enjoyed that, NPR also feature an insider conversation between Sally and Larry Mann which is interesting, touching and sobering in equal measures.

6. In this text interview Mann talks about her ‘Deep South’ body of work

7. And, luckily for fans of Mann’s work, her website, unlike so many other big-gallery photographers is good!
You can see selections of images from most all of her series, hit the links below to get a taste for the different bodies of work:

Early Work
At Twelve
Family Pictures
Southern Landscapes
Battlefields
Body Farm
Faces
Proud Flesh
Ambrotypes

– Matt

An Interview with Chris and Jack

In preparation for this month looking at Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’, I revisited the 2009 Steidl publication ‘New Topographics‘ (a great representation of the 1975 exhibition, or as much as I can imagine without having been there). Just after the director’s preface is a great little interview with two viewers at the exhibition; A man (Jack) and his wife or girlfriend (Chris).

Jack’s comments sort of some up my own feelings on the work featured in the exhibition, and in particular of Shore’s images, it’s also a lovely little interview with great characters itself and so I hope you enjoy it here:

– Matt

CHRIS: I just don’t like this at all; [I prefer] people, pictures, something that tells a story. Route 66, big deal, it doesn’t mean anything.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think the photographer had any intent?

CHRIS: He must have, for a layout like this. He couldn’t have been doing this for his enjoyment, because they are very dull pictures in my opinion. Jack, what do you think?

JACK: They mean something to me because I’ve never seen them before. I think he’s trying to get at…I’m still working on it…

INTERVIEWER: Do you think these pictures really capture the feeling of the places?

JACK: They really do, very much so. At first they’re really stark nothing, but then you really look at it and it’s just about the way things are. This is interesting, it really is.

CHRIS: Look at this picture. I just…why? What is he trying to show?

JACK: You said there are no people here, but there are people, all over the place. Everywhere you look there’s people.

CHRIS: Okay, you look at this you can imagine somebody checking out of the hotel, but it’s gone, there’s nothing for you to identify with except, what, dirty sheets? I don’t like it. I’m sorry! I don’t care for that kind of…Are you a photography student? What kind do you prefer?

INTERVIEWER: Do you think there’s any difference between the [photographers] in the show and what they were doing? Do you like anyone better than the others?

CHRIS: I really can’t comment because we’ve only been in just this one area [Shore, Schott], looking at just these, so I can’t say as to what I prefer.

JACK: I found my truck. I can’t believe it, it’s my truck, right there.

INTERVIEWER: Robert Adams, got your truck.

JACK: Just interesting. You know I think there’s a lot of people, I really do, there’s people, it’s a way of life. It’s how it is. It’s interesting.

CHRIS: I don’t like them. They’re dull and flat. There’s no people, no involvement, nothing. Why do you like them?

JACK: Because I’ve been there. This is what people have done. [The pictures are saying] ‘This is it, kid—take it for its beauty and its ugliness.’

CHRIS: I don’t like to think that there are ugly streets in America…but when it’s shown to you, without beautification, maybe it tells you how much more we need here. What do you think, Jack?

JACK: Try not to, it hurts.

CHRIS: You’re the one who enjoyed them.

JACK: I enjoy everything.

Havn’t seen ‘Uncommon Places’ yet? Have a look…

Put your questions to Ken Schles on the Photo Book Club

Throughout September we will not only be looking at Invisible City, but we will be hearing from its author Ken Schles who will not only be giving us a unique insight on how the book came to be, but also answering questions from Photo Book Club readers on the book, his practice and anything else that you would love to ask one of the most important photographic minds working today.

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Pop any questions to us via the comments section above, our Facebook page, using the #photobc hashtag on Twitter, or using the form below. We will collate questions and out them to Ken in September.

If you have not seen the book, it is online in it’s entirety right here

Anders Petersen talks about his Soho Projects VIDEO

In July we will be looking at Anders Petersen’s ‘Cafe Lehmitz’ and so as a little teaser here is Anders talking about his work with the Photographers Gallery on ‘Soho Projects’.


Anders Petersen has been working in London’s Soho for several weeks, as part of his Soho Projects residency commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery. Immersing himself in its bars, cafes, homes and hotels – creating a very personal portrait of one of city’s most vibrant areas.

In this video Petersen talks about his time in London, his working processes, and previous projects including the seminal Cafe Lehmitz.

Anders Petersen (b.1944), one of Sweden’s most noted photographers, is known for his influential, intimate and personal documentary-style black-and-white photography.

Find out more here: photonet.org.uk/​index.php?pid=550