The Photobook Ghetto – Surely an Ironic Post?

Yesterday Colin Pantall, on the Photobook Bristol blog, posted a sort of response to criticism that the photobook world is a ghetto, that it is a closed world, one which is hard to break into. It is an interesting position certainly and one which many may feel was a) not taken seriously (‘Next in the Photobook Repeated Circular Arguments’ followed this post) and b) only confirmed and solidified in Pantall’s response.

There is little need to deconstruct the argument, and a few commenters have already pointed out the flaws, but here is the gist of the piece which fails to consider that perhaps inclusion is not only about the (tiny percentage of) books making these lists. Fails to consider the irony in declaring openness prior to listing self-made criteria for ‘entry’. Fails to think even about the selection of practitioners to speak at the event this year – which is mostly made up of book list ‘success’ stories and established voices in the ghetto or village or whatever the self elected guardians of the photobook world are calling it.

Full post here

But the Photobook World is nether closed nor difficult to get out of. Look at the list of Best Books for 2015 and while there are old-er-hands in there like Alec Soth, or Boris Mikhailov, the top places are taken by photographers like Mariela Sancari, Dragana Jurisic, Daniel Mayrit, Laura El-Tantawy, Thomas Sauvin and Ivars Gravlejs…

So it’s not a closed world. If you want to be part of it, make a nice photobook that says something different. If it looks the same as every other photobook, if it doesn’t have an opinion or attitude, if it’s bland and tasteless, it won’t cut the mixed-metaphor mustard. It really is that simple – if you ignore all the other complicated things that we won’t talk about here.

So the photobook world is not closed to anybody. And if you don’t want to be part of it, then you can just walk away and not come in. Or if you’re a little bit interested or curious you can just drop in and stay for a little visit. You can leave any time. It’s really quite open,

Of course a lot of people wouldn’t want to be a part of this world anyway – maybe the fourth failure is in not recognizing that we can walk away and still be a part of the photobook and its significance.

Update: some additional and insightful comments on Colin’s post found here by Lewis Bush

Photobook Bristol – a brief review

Back from Photobook Bristol and getting a chance to look back through notes and reflect on conversations, themes and format. For a quick review of the event from someone involved, have a look at Colin Pantall’s blog in which he celebrates openness and a feelgood atmosphere, and for the programme, see here. It is hard to disagree with the feelgood festival atmosphere – it was clearly a celebration of photography and it’s relationship with the book but there was a distinct lack of substance or openness.

Speakers for the most part were of a particular set and without the inclusion of some newer blood in the likes of Abril, Pez, Degiorgis, Atkinson and Bush, you would very much feel as though you had paid someone to bring all their friends together for a chinwag. Some of the presenters were fascinating to hear from (Kessels and Mitchell in particular) but spoke little about the book, only occasionally and briefly mentioning a publication or design choice. Perhaps with some reorganisation of the available lineup there still could have been more engaging sessions – I would certainly love to hear more about Daniel Meadows thoughts on publication, digital storytelling and community engagement rather than what was essentially a presentation of a project. Similarly Erik Kessels was brought in for a feel good and humorous ending but at the expense of an exploration into his very playful use of the photographic book.

The price of the event should not be overlooked, most folks having paid £115 for the event (including some good food) – as a funding model it works but ultimately degrades the conversations and interactions – essentially the ticket price acts as a barrier for a whole bunch of people who might be less enamoured by the book than the super fans in the room and thus might offer some resistance or alternatives to the celebratory occasion. Despite the rather predictable demographic in the room it would have been interesting to include the audience more often. A large number of sessions had no room at all for Q+A, others only 3 or 4 questions were put forward. The inclusion of a hashtag or digital community space might allow for some additional layers of conversation that could then be expanded on in the break sessions.

Some of the more interesting panels that attempted to address what might be problematic areas of the photobook world (‘PhotoBiblioMania’ and ‘Let’s talk about Money’) were buried in the early morning slots at 09.30. It is worth highlighting Jeff Ladd and Lewis Bush as two voices on these panels that presented alternative views and posited some challenging questions, though the former was heckled for his. A personal lowlight was the ‘First Photobook’ panel with Eamonn Doyle, Kate Nolan and Kazuma Obara, chaired by Colin Pantall – The panel was a great opportunity to unpick the ‘success’ of three recent works in relation to the author’s intent. Unfortunately success was seen as the selling out of a book and Pantall failed to interrogate answers such as ‘I am glad it’s sold out so I can move on with the next thing’ (Nolan), a token question about the sustainability of the photobook world was included, again not in any depth.

Interestingly, both Parr and David Solo, in a separate panel were somewhat negative about consideration of the photobook in online spaces, Facebook groups etc. There is a great deal of truth here in that these platforms can often generate self promotion and repetitive and meaningless confirmation as well as nepotism but I struggle to think of Photobook Bristol any differently.

What was most telling about the event was that the word ‘market’ was used more often than the word ‘audience’, and this is a problem for the event itself. There is as yet no identity or intention for Photobook Bristol, it is not a conference or a book fair, describing itself as a ‘festival’ – and so perhaps it is unfair to expect more than was delivered. I would be keen to hear views from those that went or any that tried to watch form afar.

Matt