Grain destined for export stacked on Madras beaches (February 1877) I've started writing a series of posts on photography on World...
Tuesday, 10 January 2012
Introspective, navel-gazing nitpickers
While researching my feature for this month's BJP on small publishers I spoke to German publisher/bookshop owner/gallerist Markus Schaden. Markus thinks that for the current wave of new photobook publishers to be sustainable, there has to be a new audience, and for that audience to be reached, photobooks have to be of interest to the population at large, not just he current photobook buying public.
So people have to buy books because they really want to see them, not because they have been recommended in an end-of-year list, or because they are collectible. In Blake Andrews best-photobook list satire, he mentions Jacob and Visarro's Lune de Miel (how long does it take him to come up with this stuff); This is what he says:
"Published in a small run of 20 books, each of which was presold to important photo tastemakers like myself, chances are you'll never see this book. But everyone agrees it's good. The first picture is some kind of dog near a red wall, then the next one looks like Instanbul at night or something. I don't know. Anyway I can't describe every photo without removing the shrinkwrap all the way but just take everyone's word for it. Lune de Miel is one for the ages"
It's a satire, but it also rings alarmingly true. I have books that are still in their shrink-wrap, bought because I know they are collectible, come heavily recommended by key taste-makers and will increase in value. I know people who buy books which they don't even think of looking at, but pack away for some mythical future date of sale. I know people who buy two copies of the more precious books - one to look at, one to keep shrink-wrapped at a future date.
It's a despicable state of affairs and a horrible way of thinking. But at the same time, there is also a sense that there is a cabal of photobook taste makers (which on its lower slopes includes writers and bloggers such as myself) who continue to foster this way of thinking - not deliberately but through some weird mechanism (that we the reader creates ) that combines envy, desire and unattainable genius. We have diminished the photobook to something even worse than the fetish that the gallery print once was.
We also contribute to the continuing introspective nature of photobooks. I watched the classic Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol over the holidays. Near the beginning, the ghost of Jacob Marley berates Scrooge for not going out into the world, for introspecting over his money and gold. Well, it's the same with photobooks. They don't always address the world as it is, but rather introspect over the mechanics of how and why the photobook and its narratives operate.
And perhaps taste makers are partly to blame for that. But at the same time, if somebody likes a book, then they like it. If Markus Schaden, Martin Parr and Alec Soth all like a book at the same time, then there might be a reason for it. They know much more about photobooks than you or I and have much more access to new photobooks than you or I.
So why complain? They are not to blame. But there is a sense that sometimes people only like certain books because Markus, Martin, Alec or whoever like them. They follow blindly, and when they follow their blindly, it ends up with a closed circle of sycophancy - a North Korean nightmare where 50,000 bloggers can't be wrong.
But 50,000 bloggers can be wrong. For example, I recognise that the top book in many of the Marc Feustel's end of yearslists is Christian Patterson's Redheaded Peckerwood. And I bought it pretty much on the basis of recommendations of various people. But having bought it and read all the acclaim for it, I pretty much feel that I should like it, that I have to like it. But I don't like it. I can see how clever it is, how well-made and thoughtully sequenced it is, how complex the range of visual devices used to tease out a classic story. Still, I don't like it. I don't warm to it. The text doesn't grab me, and nor do the pictures or the diverse ways in which they connect. It leaves me cold, which I feel frustrated by because when I read of the endless interviews and research Christian did in making the book - the interviews and research that he didn't include in the book, it leaves me wondering why. I loved the film Badlands ( which inspired Christian's book) but find it difficult to relate to Peckerwood.
And why should I relate to it? It's a difficult book in some ways, and different people have different tastes. Peckerwood hits the spot on so many other people that it doesn't have to hit mine. So why blame taste makers, as long as they are saying what they think.But if they're not saying what they think, if they are just saying what they think should be said, well yes, let's blame them. Anyone's fair game when that happens.
But if taste makers are sometimes to blame, then why aren't photographers? Stick a bunch of photographers together and half the time they will start arguing about what is real, what is true, what is art, what is documentary, what is ethical, what is allowed (not much), what isn't allowed (almost everything), what is elitist, what isn't. These are all vitally important issues, but there is only so much time of the day that one should spend on them. The rest of the time one should spend on more interesting and worldly things. So when some photographers get into this mode of being, the what's ethical and what's not finger pointing kind of deal, that is the half of the time that they are introspective, navel gazing nitpickers.
And whilst they're talking about this, the far more interesting stories of the people they have met, the experiences they have had, the places they have been, will be lost. I wonder if people aren't a bit shy of being enthusiastic and excited, if they have been condemned to consider everything through some mythical ethical eye-of-coolness.
Half the time,. they will be introspective, navel gazing nitpickers. However, the rest of the time, they might be visionary, life affirming prophets. I am constantly speaking to people and getting that sense of wonder, that visual sense of being out in the world producing work that challenges and excites and invigorates. It might not always be the work that gets into the top photobook lists, but it is awe-inspiring and brave. And it is of this world. So I suppose all we need to do is choose what we like and not let it be determined too much by a closed circle of taste makers. Because if we do that, we'll all be stuck there yearning for a copy of Jacob and Visarro's Lune de Miel, printed in an unattainable edition of 20 that are stuck shrink wrapped in the hands of people we envy but despise because we want a copy and we don't have a copy and we can't get a copy.
So rather than complain about the introspective nature of photobooks or the endless discussions on the nature of work, we should not follow others but should instead go out into the world and find work that interests and inspires us on its own account, not the account of others. And if we can't see that work, or find that work, if it's not available to us except through the word of others, then perhaps we should just let it pass us by. If you can't touch it, it's not really there.