Another awesome month on the Photo Book Club thanks to those who contributed and shared their own thoughts on Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’. I really enjoyed taking the time to get re-aquanted with this book, and found new themes and new images that resonated more than before.
I am especially envious of this meetup as Ken Schles will be joining the group to talk about his fantastic new book ‘Oculus‘. More information can be found via the invitation shown below. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is a book that completely cheered me up after the disappointment of Magnum’s ‘Postcards from America’.
From the moment you open up the book’s containing box there is a sense of occasion, the book can be teased out of it’s perfectly formed home by the matching green thread and we are presented with a beautifully crafted hardback book. The book, and box are both of exquisite design but where this sometimes overshadows content, in ‘The Green Factory’ it does not.
Inside we meet with a variety of families who are associated with the Alstom power plant in Chatanooga, TN. Their own piece and interpretation of the American Dream set out alongside an unconventionally formal and distant family portrait. This book will keep me coming back for more, not only is there a large amount of content here, but it certainly invites second, third and fourth visits. Bessard points us to key phrases but there is also enough here from the mouths of the subjects that we can infer our own readings and interpretations and create a more personal experience. If I had seen this book last year, it certainly would have made the ‘B#@t of 2011’ list.
It seems that just about everyone was queuing up to get this one, and rightly so. This is a fantastic collection of short essays collected and curated by Will Steacy. Each essay from a smorgasbord of photographers describes a picture not taken, a picture missed perhaps, or a moment unable to be rendered in the confines of photography. The paperback form here really suits the material and can be read as a collection of fascinating short stories, or dipped in and out of at will.
I have no idea how I came across this book, or why, i’m also not sure exactly how I feel about it but it’s a touching and intriguing book for sure. Léonie has documented her Mother’s struggle with OCD and how it has affected her personality, environment and relationships. The images present single moments, snapshots of feelings and events presented together with occasional montages of family photos and collages.
My criticism of this book is simply that I found there was too much here to take in. So many moments that carry significance to the narrative that I felt somewhat lost within it: perhaps this was Léonie’s intention. The accompanying recorded conversations at the back of the book provide interesting points to dive back into the images, I would have loved to hear these discussions as I navigated the book.
Darius Himes states that this book “is purely delightful; it teases and engages the intellect as well as soothes the spirit with it’s crafty and crafted, playfulness”, and I agree wholeheartedly with him, it’s just a shame that with such thorough crafting of the images, the book itself, while well designed, could have gone further to emulate the twitchers journal it mimics. The notes that accompany each image are especially fun once the book’s secret is revealed, but seeing it artificially produced to live flat on a page removes some of the book’s appeal as an object.
(see a more in depth and articulate review and comment of this book over here by Douglas Stockdale)
‘My home is where you are’ is clearly made with love and affection by Filipe Casaca, the small images proudly displayed high on the large page resemble sculptures more than images, still lives of his partner over a period of years. The scale causes you to intrude onto the book and into their lives which, over 15 images is presented to us not as blissful fairytale but as a relationship with moments both tender and tense.
The book alone provides an aesthetically interesting read but when time is spent with the accompanying text and interview, the reading of this book becomes a more complete experience.
(I have just seen this post by Wayne Ford on this wee book which, just like Douglas’s review, is more in-depth and eloquent!)
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.
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.
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.
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 getKen 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.
This May I will be heading up to Newcastle to hold a Photo Book Club Meetup in conjunction with the North East Photo Network held at the North of England Mining Institute. It should be a cracking night of books and refreshments – just bring a photobook along with you that you would like to share.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Likewise in ’Jessie’s Cut’, the blood, stitches, closed eyes and lack of any other human presence create a sense of unease.
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.
“I have always loved her art and more so since being a mum.
I’m not photographic art critic and my words here are from the heart, only.
In a way I am torn about how I felt watching the film and Sally Mann’s unwavering vision, her dedication and the fact that she is seemingly consumed by photography. I would love the ability to be that focussed and am envious that she has a husband and family that are so supportive of her ‘work’ even though her work or art has always involved them.
I feel for the children, too. When I am consumed with my photography I would love to follow that train of thought or action to completion but I cannot because of family demands. Im not saying that Mann’s actions are selfish but I feel that she is fortunate to have the unerring support of her family. I’m guessing that her work supports them very well and so they appreciate that if she may be at times emotionally unavailable when working they appreciate that what she does pays the bills.
I don’t think that her being so consumed doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love her kids. She is an artist and to work efficiently she needs to be in the right head space to work, though at times it is a the expense of family time. I met Trente Parke in 2003 and he was at that time very similar, saying that almost his every thought was of photography and he is an amazingly talented and successful photographer, too. In think it goes with the territory.
I did note that her son spoke about ‘Sally Mann’ not ‘mum’, but what to make of that I cannot answer.
Some people may see as what she has done as exploitative but I don’t. As a mum to a young boy I am fortunate of our close relationship that he allows me in and doesn’t mind being the object of my focus. To me their lives growing up being part of their mother’s vision was amazing. They were willing participants and I love the fact that many of the images they appear naked. Some of their portraits are so direct and raw, something only maybe possible if it’s your mother photographing you.
However, I feel it’s always good to question any portrait and look deeper. Some of the childrens’ looks in their portraits could be deemed as affected. Or was it that they had got to the point after numerous ‘takes’ that they were actually past that point where they were fully consenting. Who knows?
Mann’s images, art and consuming passion for photography make her an icon of our time and we need to thank her family for that, too.”
One of the things I love about photobooks is that they can stay on your shelf and change over time so much so, that two readings of the same book can cause completely different reactions.
Lately I have found myself drawn back to books that work with the physical, natural landscape, a few of my favourites at the moment being Paula McCartney’s ‘Bird Watching‘ and Bernard Fuchs’ ‘Roads and Paths‘.
And so perhaps it is no surprise that in picking up ‘Immediate Family’ again for this month, one of the themes that resonated unlike before was the physical landscape and serene beauty of this idyllic setting. As a town-dwelling citizen I see (naively) only the ideals of this rural setting, the simple pleasure of collecting yard eggs and resting by the water.
Mann’s images really bring home this idea of living alongside the landscape when we see Jessie’s wild hair tangled up and becoming part of the foliage she stands in front of. Or where Emmet stands tall in the black water, only creating the slightest of alteration to the flow. This Virgina idyll also puts me in mind of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ from which I have lifted a few quotes alongside Mann’s images.
“In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society.“
“As I sit at my window this summer afternoon, hawks are circling about my clearing; the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by twos and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white-pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air…”
“Now that the cars are gone by and all the restless world with them, and the fishes in the pond no longer feel their rumbling, I am more alone than ever. For the rest of the afternoon, perhaps, my meditations are interrupted only by the faint rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway.”
“While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me. The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house today is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too.”
“On land only the grass and trees wave, but the water itself is rippled by the wind. I see where the breeze dashes accros it by the streaks or flakes of light. It is remarkable that we can look down on its surface. We shall, perhaps, look down thus on the surface of air at length, and mark where a still subtler spirit sweeps over it.”
Thanks to Daniel Milnor who runs the always-worth-a-bookmark blog ‘Smogranch’ over here for offering this personal reflection on Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’. If you would like to add your own reflection, please do so in the comments below or by emailing email@example.com
I have very distinct feelings about this book because I discovered “Immediate Family” in the very early stages of my decision to become a photographer. I was NOT of the “art” mind at the time because the photography that gave me reason to pursue this endeavor was the photography of the Vietnam War. I found Larry Burroughs and felt a way I’d never felt before. I would go through old copies of News Photographer Magazine. I found “Deeds of War” by Nachtwey and again felt a way I’d never felt before. And then I found “Immediate Family,” and once again I felt something I’d never felt before but in a different way.
I’m not sure you can find two more different genres than war photography and what Sally Mann was doing, but I felt like they were both putting out similar emotion. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure what to think when I found Sally Mann’s work. It froze me in my tracks. Since that time, all those years ago, I think her work had more of an impact on me than the work of the photographers in the photojournalism world, and I am still doing documentary work today. Years ago i was asked to do a portrait of my neighbor’s kids and I said “no.” The neighbor brought her kids over anyway and for the following seven years I photographed kids full time.
I never tried to copy Sally Mann but I surely had her emotional impact in mind every time I put my camera to my eye. She also made me realize I have a responsibility when it comes to my own family. I’m the guy. I’m the photographer in the family. If I don’t document my family there will simply be no record of them. When you walk in my house, the first picture you see is not an image from my 20+ years of doing documentary work. The first image you see is a 40×40 black and white portrait of my 8-year-old nephew. And on a sidenote….years ago, when I worked for Kodak, my phone rang and the voice on the other side said, “Hi Dan, this is Sally Mann.” Having the kind of friends I do, ones that would try to trick me any chance they had, I ALMOST hung up on her. Turns out it was the “real” Sally Mann. I’ve lived in LA many years, have never been starstruck by anyone but in this case I was almost speechless. In my office I have a portrait of Sally Mann, made by my New Mexico photographer and friend Karen Kuehn. I keep it there as a reminder to never forgot what this pursuit of photography really means. So, in short, if you don’t have this book…..get it.
If you fancy getting involved and sharing your thoughts on the book then you can do so in the comments section below or in email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Title Immediate Family
Author Sally Mann
Publisher Aperture 1992
“Mann’s subjects are her small children (a boy, a girl, and a new baby), often shot when they’re sick or hurt or just naked. Nosebleeds, cuts, hives, chicken pox, swollen eyes, vomiting—the usual trials of childhood—can be alarmingly beautiful, thrillingly sensual moments in Mann’s portrait album. Her ambivalence about motherhood—her delight and despair—pushes Mann to delve deeper into the steaming mess of family life than most of us are willing to go. What she comes up with is astonishing.”
—Vince Aletti, The Village Voice
“Immediate Family, which was published in 1990, must be counted as one of the great photograph books of our time. It is a singularly powerful evocation of childhood from within and without…”
—Luc Sante, The New Republic