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Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Photography, book covers and Captain Beefheart

In November, Aida Edemariam wrote this story on the dumbing down of book covers for marketing purposes, so reducing the integrity of the book and the author

The idea for the article came from a talk given by Margaret Drabble. Drabble said that publishers "...have not asked me to dumb down ... but I have a feeling there's a problem. I write literary novels but I can sense my publishers have difficulty in selling me as a genre ... whether in literary fiction, or women's fiction or shopping fiction."

The story led to a book redesign competition run by Bookninja. Never one to miss a trick, the Guardian had their own competition, Guardian Book Cover Redesign Competition. The results of both competitions are shown here ( I love Annie Proulx - is that quote on the cowboy book for real?).

The dumbing down works both ways though, and photographs are also dumbed down by being on the cover of books. This Larry Sultan image ( from Covering Photography, a site that shows book covers featuring famous photographs - via Buffet) on the cover of Douglas Coupland's All Families are Psychotic, is a case in point.

Perhaps overexposure or trying to make everything showable, or sellable or affable or conceptually viable compromises photography in a more absolute manner than we imagine - maybe we should all take Mark Tucker's advice and make more Fuck You work "...where you put it all on the line and say "This is who I am.""

Anyway, I think the no-money-in-the-art/photography/magazine-world will help people do this and not focus on the money, the exposure or the show to the exclusivity of all else, returning it to the more poetic place where it truly belongs. It might also help us be more critical of both our own work and the work we see. My friend Tadhg ( who has recently become a father and so has more pressing priorities than the latest typographical survey of family, factory or food) wrote to me yesterday to say, "When you see so much photography you start to look at the more obscure work, which may actually be rubbish, like a musician who starts getting into Can or Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica."

It's supposed to be the other way round, but Tadhg's idea is the more you see, the less discerning you become - and I can appreciate that. Which begs another question, what is the photographic equivalent of Captain's Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica?


Mark Tucker said...

Correction: I was merely quoting from an interesting article by Doug Menuez, (although I love his concept!):


Not sure I'd have that Title dye-pressed into my Brewer portfolio, but I do get his line of thinking.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Mark. I read the article. Great article, but the cheesy portrait kind of subverted the meaning so I quoted your quote of it instead.

Go on, get the title embossed on yor portfolio, give it a go, it'll look great!

Anonymous said...

I'd say that when you look at enough photography now you zone out to it. I can't count how many times I've found myself clicking "next" through someones Flickr photos and then realising I haven't seen any of them and my mind has drifted elsewhere for the last few minutes as I tap a mouse.

Sometimes it's the more obscure work that can grab my attention and snap me out of it.

simon anstey said...

adam, that is just symptom of looking at the wrong 'stuffing'......

Timothy Archibald said...

I appreciate the Captain Beefheart parrallel, though I actually like Beefheart. Why? Because it is an aquired taste that seems to reveal it's qualities and layers only after repeated listening. And, of course, I appreciate the strides it takes, the long reach that sometimes misses but sometimes grabs it. In photography, I tend to gravitate to similar things: projects that reach out ambitiously, even if they may fail.
But...sometimes...I gotta be a sucker for a pretty and honest picture.

colin pantall said...

The wrong stuffing indeed, Simon and Adam, but the idea is it doesn't matter what the stuffing is (Flickr, Photographers' Gallery bookshop, all the blogs).

Tim, I was waiting for the Beefheart fan to come along. Just change Captain Beefheart for someone else - (Kraftwerk?), and imagine all the people who try to be like this and don't quite get there - and are not being ambitious in their reaching, but just doing it for all the wrong reasons and are just copying because it's cool, will sell (blast from the past there) or that's what you do when you're a student/artist/etc.