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.  

35 comments:

Blake Andrews said...

I haven't seen Redheaded Peckerwood, nor most of the titles on the year-end lists. This is a chronic source of frustration but not much I can do about it. I have one local bookstore which stocks these type of titles, but there are still many books that I can't see in person so I rely mostly on word-of-mouth.

Recommendations by photographers are one way to get a sense of what might be good. Another trusted method is publisher. I generally enjoy most of what Steidl or Twin Palms or Nazraeli puts out, so they might serve as some traditional gatekeeper. Based on that method, Mack Books (Redheaded Peckerwood's publisher) might also be developing into a trusted source. I love Pontiac and Let's Sit Down Before We Go, two of the other recent Mack Books. So maybe I'd like Patterson but it's hard to know for sure. Anyway it's good to see at least one counter opinion amid the flood of praise.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Blake. I'm sure you'd love Redheaded Peckerwood as most people do. It's just me and perhaps I don't like it because everyone else likes it and Christian and Michael Mack have done such a great job of selling it. Sometimes it works like that.

But have you ever gone on word of mouth and bought a hugely recommended book that you really didn't get on with?

Blake Andrews said...

Not really, mostly because I very rarely buy books without seeing them first in person. There are just too many variables that can screw a book up, so I like to hold them first to make sure. The one exception of course is Lune de Miel which I pre-ordered sight-unseen. I've got the book but still haven't seen much of it since I'm scared to remove the shrinkwrap. But trust me, you'd like it. Everyone does.

colin pantall said...

Lune de Miel sounds good, but it's no Eping by the Missis, though I think the reformatted Ne de Mi is going to be Harvey's next book.

colin pantall said...

And more thoughts on a similar subject from Stan Banos.

http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/2012/01/what-if-guide-had-been-indie.html

Gabriel Benaim said...

Agree w Blake that one thing driving the frenzy is people's inability to see the book in hand before deciding. I had a chance to buy several books on the top spots this year and passed because they just didn't do it for me (despite others' enthusiasm even before all the year end's lists). Instead I bought what I liked and couldn't be happier. I am however often disappointed in what I buy off amazon sight unseen, based on hunches or recommendations, and am doing so less and less. Unless you have a good bookstore near you or travel to photobook festivals, though, you have no other option.

colin pantall said...

I know what you mean, Gabriel - I don't have a decent bookshop near me and sometimes there are really good books that just aren't available in any bookshops. I'm not sure what the solution is, but buying blind off Amazon is getting less and less attractive as you say.

Gavin McL said...

Colin

Apologies this post has nothing to do with this post -well maybe it does.
I enjoy mining history (don't ask)
An one on the lists I subscribe to a new book was mentioned.
"Bath Stone Quarries" not really my thing I'm more coal me. But I thought you might like it- they mention some of the old quarries that you mentioned in a post late last year. But why it may be relevant to this discussion is the way the publisher presents it as a youtube video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BoLxGZ2_Jo&feature=youtu.be

I liked a lot of the underground photos- but that just me

Hope you enjoy

Ken Schles said...

Colin- I recently expressed similar frustrations from the other end of it, as a creator of photobooks. In my recent talk at the SPE Joint Regional Conference on Photographers and Publishing (Light Work November 2011) http://vimeo.com/34862432 I express a similar frustration (and in regard to a book I did with Markus Schaden, ironically.

We (both publishers and artists) want people to see these books (and sell these books). It is not our intention that the books become so precious and disappear so quickly. But the distribution model is very broken and the market at present is such that it is simply too risky to print more quantity.

As someone who has been on those lists and whose work has been perennially difficult to obtain, it is frustrating and disheartening: To spend years and years working on all aspects of a project and know that it cannot be shared or appraised in the form it was intended to be seen on its own merits is difficult to say the least.

Both Christian and I were upset when we found that our books had sold out at Paris Photo. That's not what we went there for, that's not what we made our books to be. But the market (and human nature) operate in their ways and of their own accord.

I agree with Markus. This is unsustainable and the market needs to be expanded.

colin pantall said...

Thanks for the constructive and thought inspiring comments, Ken. It's difficult and I understand the dilemma - and that 1,000 books is actually quite a large print run to sell out. And it's quite an achievement of Christian to sell it out in such a short space of time. Which is down to the marketing ability of Michael Mack and the sheer quality of his book - I still don't warm to it though.

I think the energy of all the small publishers is fantastic. It's also overwhelmingly positive - I also think that a lot of them are coming from different places, so expanding the photo book world by just being there. As you say, the dilemma is how to sell something that is avowedly tactile when bookshops are closing all over the place - whilst there is a corresponding rise in the ease of self marketing books online.

So how will it all pan out? I don't know, and I'm not sure anybody else does either.

Any ideas on how to expand the photobook market, Ken.

Thanks for the local link to stone quarries - I just like hanging out at Brown's Folly but some of those places look familiar and I love the old miners.

Do you know the old government fallout shelter in Bath - check this out.

http://www.jessealexander.co.uk/pages/projects/turnstile2011.html

What's your interest in coal by the way? Do you go down old mines?

Rémi Coignet said...

2 or 3 things.

About Patterson : When I saw his book at Paris Photo, I immediately knew that I wanted it and that it will one of the key books of the year. And if the copies available at Paris Photo or Offprint sold out, it's not because of taste makers. As far as I know at that time the book was not reviewed anywhere. But because people there were attracked by the book they had in hands.

About taste makers (and yes as a blogger writting in french I'm one from the lower floor). You might consider there is a conspiracy. But you can also take the example of movies. Most of the time when you go to see a film, you have never seen it before, but maybe you make your choice following the advice of a critic from one newspaper or from one other. Or maybe you read 3 or 4 critics and try to make your own idea.

But at the end I agree with you all, the best is to see the books in a bookshop and make your own choice.

Marc said...

There is a lot of talk of "expanding the photobook market" in this post. I couldn't help but notice that if you scroll to the end of the comments there is a picture of a photobook with a big EXPAND button hovering over it. I have tried clicking this several times. Can Markus or someone else who is in the know tell us if that has worked?

colin pantall said...

Thanks Remi - the post isn't really about Redheaded Peckerwood as such - I've mentioned in other places how an edition of 1,000 can be absolutely huge if it doesn't sell, but books don't sell on reviews alone and I believe that Michael Mack is fantastic at marketing his books and creating expectation for them. That's a good thing by the way. So even without reviews, the book is not going into a vacuum.

The post is more about the contradiction between the rhetoric of the tactile and where you can actually touch books, as well as the politics of end of year lists and how they affect people's judgement (do you think the end of year lists would be the same if they were all released simultaneously). I'm definitely affected by what other people think for example. It's not really surprising that happens - it's exactly the same as the judgements people make about paintings depending on who they are told the painter is.

Thanks Marc - it'll expand here - http://issuu.com/colinpantall

Marc said...

But seriously, Colin, your post deserved more than a quip as a response. I started responding in a comment but it got too unwieldy so my response is over on eyecurious.

colin pantall said...

http://www.eyecurious.com/on-introspection-navel-gazing-and-nitpicking/

Thanks Marc. I still think that Markus Schaden, Alec Soth and Martin Parr are pretty big judges of photobooks and when they recommend something, people take notice and are far, far more likely to buy it. I spoke to all three for the BJP and they were saying how great this book and that book was - I took notice because they are very good judges and have interesting tastes.

I think the problem isn't so much people buying books because of them, but people following them in an uncritical manner so everything becomes an echo chamber of the same voice. We don't all have to like everything. We should be able to disagree on things without being scared of people taking offence.

Anonymous said...

Is there an artistic medium that spends more time looking inward and over-analyzing itself than photography? Oh wait, yes…it's the more specific and far more fetishistic world of photography books, and you Colin -- your blog and this post -- are indeed playing a part in all of this.

Colin, you raise some very interesting points but you fail to address several extremely important aspects of the situation, and this weakens your argument. Both both you and Ken Schles have alluded to the financial considerations. It's a shame you don't explore this more fully and realistically.

There are many reasons for the success of Redheaded Peckerwood. Patterson was working on the project for several years and many people had waited in anticipation to finally see or buy the book. Not to mention the quality of the work and the book craft (the edit and sequence). And for what it's worth, I believe that the print run was 1500 copies, not 1000.

Mack makes great books, and has been doing so for many years. Blake's assertion that they "might also be developing into a trusted source" is just ridiculous. Look at the catalog.

Colin, you continually mention how well Mack and Patterson have marketed, sold and created expectation for this book -- but what have they done that every other artist and publisher are not doing these days? They listed the book and took it to Paris Photo. But what beyond that? Mack even distributes his books himself. Other publishers have far larger distribution.

A publisher makes a book first and foremost to get the work out into the world. I'm already hearing rumors of a second printing of Redheaded Peckerwood, so Mack's motive seems clear.
Collectibility, speculation and all that other jazz are up to the consumer.

Patterson has made an outstanding, challenging book. I can't say I'm surprised that you're taking aim at Peckerwood -- it's an easy target at the moment, sitting at the top of so many lists. All that Patterson and Mack have done is realize a bit of the success that all good books aspire to. There's no crime in that.

O.K., now back to your argument in general, and in brief: We are living in a new golden age of photo book publishing. The market IS EXPANDING RIGHT NOW. When have things been better? Please tell us. Photo books were featured front-and-center at Paris Photo this year. Publishers, publications and even exhibitions featuring books are popping up all over the place. The market will be the market -- it will separate the good from the not-as-good and the just plain bad stuff. Really, how much larger could the photo book market become? These aren't your mother's photography books. We're not selling fuckin' Anne Geddes here. A vast majority of these books are purchased by other photographers.

Are there tastemakers? Yeah, sure, but there are usually reasons why they are tastemakers -- because they offer a certain depth of experience and knowledge and generally possess good taste which is known and trusted. This ain't no different than Roger Ebert and his two big, fat thumbs. Or hell, even the Billboard Hot 100. No matter how much you love or hate a book, a film or a song, if it's successful, there's usually a good reason reason for it, at a most basic level -- a good story, great direction or an unforgettable melody.

It's alright to be frustrated, but it's not cool to whine and complain and offer absolutely no solutions to what seems at the moment to be an almost imaginary problem.

Anonymous said...

Colin, your text is a relief. Thanks for it!
Like you, I often feel tempted to purchase those books in spite of previous disappointments. Quite fortunately, I have some opportunities to check some of the most recommended instead of ordering them by email, and most of the time, I understand why I should be impressed and not be impressed. I am not moved either, not interested and not enriched.

Yes, the Patterson, but also Taryn Simon's last efforts, Broomberg and Chanarin : all of them are so smart, so detached, so cool. How not to be impressed - the key word here-?
Why does a book of photography have to be so ostensibly intelligent, and always more intelligent than its own subject and maybe its reader? Are we masochists? Are we impressionable teenagers trying to be cool?

Please, excuse my English. I am a French reader.

Anonymous said...

PS, I am the French guy, Samuel BTW.
One last thing : seen from here, the international taste of these books is often attractive at first. Nice-looking, full of colours, witty, etc.! Quite soon though, it is hard to find any excitation in that flow of cool objects that all look the same - but we keep on pretending excitation. Disappointing, isn't it?

Rémi Coignet said...

Colin, I understood well you took Redheaded Peckerwood as an example. But what I meant was that it was really impressive to see at Paris Photo and even more at Offprint rushing on this book. Especially friends and people I know like publishers, bloggers who all wanted a copy.

Regarding the lists, I think you have to consider what is the goal to the different lists : some (the Photo Eye for example) are obviously made to sell books. Others may be to satisfy the ego of the listmaker, others may be done as recommendation to the audience of a magazine or a blog. The trouble, as I wrote elsewhere, is with us looking at all these lists until the OD.

Regarding the development of the market, I am septic : the main audience is not interested in what we call photobooks and the mass-market doesn't help. Few days ago I entered a Virgin Megastore and had a look at the photobook shelves : Depardon, Doisneau, Erwitt and ONE Steidl…

colin pantall said...

Thanks Anonymous 1 - I think you're right, I am part of it. So it goes. And thanks for picking up on the navel gazing and nitpicking bit.

Thanks also for the info on the edition number - ahhh, see how that works.

It's a blog post so apologies for not going into the finances of it in more detail ( I do go into this in a little more detail in this month's BJP - the interviews for which generated the ideas in this blog post) - there are many, many different ways of funding books and making them.

Personally, I'm really looking forward to the first self-generating Freecyle book, made with, printed with, and featuring freecycle contributions/contributors.

I don't question Mack at all - great book and well done. It's just that, as Anonymous 2 and 3 point out, not all books are for everybody.

I'm a kind of messy person. The place I'm typing this is a sty, with condensation on the walls, receipts, books and random scraps of paper all around and dust covering the top of my antique computer. Somebody who is very tidy wouldn't like this. They might find it hard to live with or tolerate for any length of time.

Conversely, I do sometimes find it hard to fathom the wavelength of some (but not all I hasten to add) very neat and tidy people. I definitely find it hard to get on with people who timetable their days to the minute, who are interested in time management, attention and control and detail to a high level. I don't understand the way of being.

Well, supposing these people made photo books... You get me?

It doesn't mean that their photobook isn't good. It's just... too tidy?

Remi - what's wrong with Erwitt and Doisneau? They are a way for people to get into photography. Perhaps we should be more embracing of all photography. Perhaps that's a door that shouldn't be closed. Perhaps that closing of doors, or labelling things right and wrong is part of why some photography doesn't appeal.

Oh dear, that comes back to me again. I'm doing that, aren't I. Sorry, Anonymous #1.

Anonymous said...

A worthy addition to the conversation:

http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2012/01/a_few_thoughts_on_photobooks/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+jmcolberg%2Fconscientious+%28Conscientious%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

Anonymous said...

I deliberated on the Redheaded Peckerwood and I'm glad I followed my head and not the hype. I bought Oceanmania and was hugely disappointed, I've learn't my lesson. But the Bertien Van Manen book I did like, I've liked her images for a long time and perhaps this is the key... if you like the photographers photographs then you will likely like a book by that photographer. I can honestly say I have struggled with C P's images and I have the very same feelings you have towards his book.

I think when it all comes down to it, the photobook world is stuck. It does not appeal to enough of an audience and it needs to break out of the photographer as audience refuge. I'm sure, by saying this I'll raise a few hairs, but it it is not only about the photographs, it is about the celebrity of the photographer, it's as much about character as about the photographs. We love Eggleston - he's allowed to be boring, he's free, exasperating, and not dependent on being liked nor good... though he is in his own way - just like we all want to be...he has popular appeal. Photographers try to build on him, add their narrative etc but it can't be done again.

Ken Schles said...

@ anon

The marginalization of the photobook world compounds itself. The photobook market as it is, is unsustainable—I think we all agree: it tends to marginalize the work further. There are few places to understand the depth or breadth of what is being produced except at no more than a few international fairs in a few major cities a year--and then the amount of work is so overwhelming, it is difficult to absorb such a barrage in the time allotted. There is little critical structure to discuss the work in depth, especially at the rate that it is being produced. Little or no support for a critical structure that could bring the work to a general audience that, by and large, is pretty clueless about the work or the framework that the work is being produced in and appearing in. Let alone a discussion of specific works that are meaningful along with a discussion of why these works might be meaningful or might be of interest to the world at large, which, to my mind, goes to the crux of the matter. We need a larger dialog to bring the work into a larger context. This is a difficult task given the fragmentation of general "popular" media markets over the last 15 years.

I would also put forward that the museums and institutions that should be supporting work critically have failed to do so. They are overly concerned about attendance and capital building programs and due to institutional torpor, they are slow to respond to anything given that they need a two to four year build out for any upcoming exhibitions. I think the material in the Parr/Badger books alone (to just take an obvious example—hell "The Protest Box" is a huge museum show itself) could constitute years worth of exhibitions and support a deep and thorough critical analysis that would be of intrinsic interest to a popular "general" audience. The material is already there: contemporary, historical, practice, context that these books appeared in. Etc., etc. There is no critical or institutional structure supporting the practice of photobooks to bring it to the larger world. Bookstores (or lack of them) is only part of our problem as I see it.

The critic AD Coleman wrote an interesting piece that talks about the state and collapse of photography criticism and a marginalization of critical practice over the last 40 years. I think it speaks directly to the issues we're discussing here. He gave this talk at Hotshoe Gallery in London last November. I think it gets most interesting from pages 11-18 if you don't want to read the whole thing... starting with "Let me return to considering the state of the discourse." He's been mulling over some of the same issues from his angle. I think it can add to the discussion.

http://nearbycafe.com/artandphoto/photocritic/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Dinosaur_Bones_ADColeman_2011.pdf

colin pantall said...

Thanks Ken - at the same time, don't you think publications such as the Photobook Review and the Photobook Fairs aren't starting to shape a critical structure that, despite its weaknesses, is far deeper and better-rounded than what we had in the past. Or that the flood of new photobooks and the mixing of fashion, art, typography and design is actually expanding possibilities compared to the photobook world of previous decades?

Ken Schles said...

@ Colin

Yes, The Photobook Review and the Photobook Fairs are both excellent developments and should be championed. But the Photobook Fairs still keep the discussion within the boundaries of the photobook world. The Photobook Review, if it gets a large distribution, could be of great help. But it will take time to see how it evoles and what its impact will be.

One of the problems, as I see it, is that we are in the process of moving away from an "object" economy because of the Internet and photobooks are suffering directly as a result of it.

I don't see the mixing of fashion, art, typography and design as anything new having been in NY for many, many years. There used to be a store here called "untitled" that did just that in the 1980's. Markus Schaden, when he first started in the late 90's did the same in Köln before he specialized with what he was most passionate about. But what has changed is that what was underground and available only in the most cosmopolitan centers of international cities, is available almost anywhere now. This is a good thing. We need a distribution operation to attend to these places that doesn't suck all the money out (DAP nominally takes 80% off retail to distribute a book. Unsustainable!)

Maybe it's like a war and we're in the earlier stages of an insurrection. There is always that moment when a popular uprising shifts over to become an organized conflict with regular troops. Sometimes the transitions from one stage of a conflict to another doesn't work and the rebellion is stymied. I think we might want to consider that what is occurring is along those lines. I think we need a propaganda arm to get the word out in the form of criticism or a critical exchange=popular criticism within a broader environment different from specialized forums and blogs and magazines) and we need some heavy artillery to push forward in the field (institutional support=museums and stores and libraries and universities). But the difficulty is also material in that we are trying to sell objects to more than a handful of collectors. Books don't have to be just for select collectors. That is the beauty of making books. They are an accessible, intrinsically affordable object, that also just so happen to contain great ideas and constitute as important an art as anything produced today. Given the number of people who line up in front of museums (did you see the line of people trying to get into Paris Photo?) this can be accomplished.

The question is how to educate the masses and to get them involved as both audience and consumer.

Blake Andrews said...

The issue that most resonates for me (described well here by Colin) is the potential of these lists to blindly shape opinion. At the end of the year the lists come out and everyone is welcome to treat them how they want. But what happens sometimes is that they can irrationally dictate taste. If a particular book appears on Alec Soth's list, for example, that book will immediately increase its sales. People will buy the book regardless of their own taste, even despite their own taste, because someone respected says it's good.

Which is fine in one sense. Everyone's entitled to do buy what they want. But I think what happens is people lose their own sense of taste. Or worse, they don't ever develop one. Colin's ability to realize he doesn't like Peckerwood is the exception I think. Most just go with the flow. They buy what they're told is good and try to like it.

The same phenomenon happens in all media, music, film, books, etc, as Anonymous points out. But that doesn't mean we can't criticize it. Yes, every song on the Billboard 100 is there for a reason but often it has very little to do with the song itself. It's more often about tastemaking and marketing. I guarantee just about any melody written can make the Billboard chart if it's recorded with certain production values and promoted in certain ways. The song itself is relatively unimportant.

Which again is fine. Everyone can buy whatever music they want. But I think the situation exploited by music producers is that many people have very wishy/washy musical taste and will like whatever they're told is good. That probably sounds condescending but in my experience it's largely true. Most people can't be bothered to develop sharply individualized tastes. And if it's that way in music it's even worse in photography.

This carries over pretty directly to the fine art market. There are dominant forces at work which create taste. In fact the whole model is sort of built on that ideal. If Saatchi or some other prominent buyer collects a certain piece, that piece immediately gains prestige regardless of its merits.

The photo world is a bit different so far but I see it heading in that same direction. And I think photobooks are the leading edge of that change, or at least the most obvious manifestation.

All of which is not to castigate publishers or authors. Everyone is doing what they can to get their work out and maybe make a little money. I have no problem with that. My ideal is for everyone to develop their own firm sense of what photos they like, what is good, and what they can follow. The year end lists can help that process, but they can also get in the way.

Anonymous said...

"The question is how to educate the masses and to get them involved as both audience and consumer."

The audience makes itself. You underestimate the intelligence of a population. Make something interesting, you'll get an audience proportionate. Trying to fill the shortfalls of photography with 'they just don't understand' artistic fluff is a little patronising.

Also let's not forget that it is not actually about selling - David Golblatt, for example, is he looking for mass consumption as a primary aim... I don't think so - he's looking to document South Africa, I think the mass audience has no problem understanding this.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Ken, Anonymous and Blake. I think the ducation element is a two-way street - but we also have to educate ourselves so that we can tell interesting stories in a manner that is... "interesting".

I love the end of year lists - and overall they are a very good thing. But they do influence me, and sometimes I do want to go with the flow in an uncritical manner. That's because I have a lazy streak and it keeps everything cosy.


As Blake says, it's the same with all media. It's also the same with advertising and marketing. These things do have an influence and it can detract from our critical abilities.

Ken Schles said...

@ anon

I only speak in highly general terms here and don't for the moment think its as simplistic as "lead and they shall follow." I agree it is much more complex and generative a dynamic than that. I don't want to imply it would be "that" easy to just gather resources and grow an audience. But the audiences don't make themselves either, there is complex social dynamic happening all around.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/15/magazine/15wwlnidealab.t.html?pagewanted=all

I think that there are "inefficiencies" in the way work is distributed and the way a general audience can possibly discover the work. Those two inefficiencies are what I am thinking about right now.

I'm not looking for world domination, I just think, and in this I believe we can all agree on this, that there are more possibilities for a larger audience for the work and for a larger discussion about the work. There could be a larger cross cultural give and take beneficial to everyone. I am happy to do my work in isolation and have for many years. But it is also nice to be able to discuss the work with an informed audience. I think everyone on each end of the discussion benefits from that.

The discussion here on this blog, I think stems from the fact that lists alone leave much to be desired and leave many questions unanswered about the work itself. The form of the "discussion" about the work itself that Colin points to becomes, in a strange way, "lists talking to lists." perhaps these inefficiencies of the form of the discussion create the space for personal discovery, where we can indeed form our own opinions and make our own appraisals about the work, and I hope we do, but these inefficiencies also keep the knowledge about the work fairly confined to an "in" group that can divine the import of and the context that each list might provide.

The lists alone don't make for a very deep discussion. Other things hopefully can and will happen--and indeed do happen to give and convey meaning, but the form of the conversation is structurally defined by the lists right now. Lists have no inherent meaning without context, that is why we attend to who makes the lists. Information is meaningless without a discussion of significance.

So we have the inefficiencies of the lists and the inefficiencies of the physical distribution of the books. It makes for mysteries that intrigue some and compels them to seek and discover more and share their passion of discovery and reveal the revelations (or the disappointments) they find. But for others it makes for an opaque or invisible reality they have no entry into.

colin pantall said...

THanks Ken - a larger audience for the work and a larger cross cultural give and take is exactly what we need to aim for. And I think that is happening and, despite the inefficiencies, the new publishers is part of that cross cultural give and take - and it is making for a larger audience in some ways at least. The energy is overwhelmingly positive.

Anonymous said...

What I don't care for about the Patterson book (or Taryn Simon's) is how strategic it all is. Find an 'interesting' story and illustrate it with examples of your studiously crafted art photographs. That's tedious and unilluminating, especially when the stunning 'Badlands' movie already exists.

Good luck to Mack and their ability to maximize the impact of their books. No problem with that at all. I just don't care for such over-schematized works like Simon's "Living Man..." or Patterson's "Peckerwood". No room for the subtle ether of art to intoxicate, just the pre-ordained experience, as cooked up by the artist.

Johan said...

First, I would like to say that I am french, so please excuse my broken english, bad spelling et errors.

This is an interesting article that reflects some of the questions i had, but about music. I like lists. It is a great way to discover new things.

I would like to comment on "Educating the masses". I think one should not misundertand this as "people are dumb, we are an elit, let's teach them what is great art that should be loved". Some works are easier to love than others and you need to educate yourself to like them. Mass medias don't do that, they just give people what they want, what they already know. If I take an example in music, Let's say one first love in music is very rarely Xennakis. People will to tend to love the Beatles more easily. As far as I am concerned my first love was eurodance, then I discoverd U2, then Nirvana. After that I discoved rock music from the 60's and 70's. After discovering Pink Floyd, I was intrigued and I wanted to discover more "unusual" things. More "difficult" and "weird" things. After I spent 15 years listing to music and expanding my tastes (I now like blues, rock, reggae, experimental, classical, rap, jazz, world music...) I'm finaly discovering Xennakis, and still It is difficult, I don't like everything. I still have to learn. And of course I hope to discover more music during the next 15 years. I don't mean that Xennakis is better than the Beatles. They are different (I still prefer the Beatles though). What I what to say is that : in order to appreciate some works, you sometimes need the discover others things before. They will feed your mind and expand your knowledge. Jumping from eurodance to Xennakis is a too big jump. Untertainment is when you stay in a safe zone, Culture is when you want to go beyond your own tatses, when you want to go deeper. So when you want to discover things you don't even know they exist, lists are a great tool. They are a step in order to construct your own tatses. You first have to trust someone when he/she tells you something is great. You've got to go towards it and try. You may not like it in the first place, but it can provid you keys for another works. The question is to know whose list will be right for you at a particular moment. Taste makers exist of course. this is not a bad thing. Only the good ones remain. The poseurs vanish quickly. All they can do is to create a hype, but if the works they promote are not good, they won't last long.

I haven't had a look at Christian Patterson's Redheaded Peckerwood. There is no book shop in my town. I've just seen samples on blogs. This is clearly not a book for me at this moment. I'm only discovering photobooks. What I'm looking for now is a book with great photos. I might be wrong but I feel that Redheaded Peckerwood is not that kind of book. It is more a book about making a book. It is very self-conscious. It is about how to tell a story and not a book of photographs. You can't extract every pictures from it and look at them and say what a great shot ! It is a whole. This book will speak only to few people that are interested in book making not "just" great pictures that can stand on there own. This is an acquired taste for sure, not the kind of book to start with. Not my cup of tea still, but in few years maybe I'll be glad to remember reading about it thanks to lists and try to make my own opinion about it. The question is : how much will it cost in 15 years... I'm also pleased to have discovered that book beacause i will start looking at books in another way, and I may love books that I would'nt have loved if I hadn't kown Redheaded Peckerwood. I've learnt something.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Johan - I think a lot of photography connects (like music) and tastes come and go and people relate to different areas of music or photography in different ways.

And different people like different photos or photobooks at different times. I can appreciate why you don't like Peckerwood, Anonymous, but at the same time it is interesting how people are picking up the narrative drives of books like Peckerwood, the forensic examination of someone like Taryn Simon, or the conceptual mindgames of Broomberg and Chanarin - and using these to further their own practice and investigate things photographically in new and different ways.

Anonymous said...

I perfectly agree with anonymous above : "find an 'interesting' story and illustrate it with examples of your studiously crafted art photographs."
Strategic, obviously.
And "No room for the subtle ether of art to intoxicate, just the pre-ordained experience, as cooked up by the artist" could as well be translated by "Ideology", which is what puts me at distance from those virtuous self-demonstrating books.
By the way, has someone here noticed that the books that appear in the rankings we talk about are, like the ones Badger and Parr promote, mostly from the same predictable territories? More regional bodies of work are off these radars...
Samuel

colin pantall said...

I think that's a bit unfair, Samuel. If you look at the Photobook Histories as the books Parr and Badger promote - then the range is incredibly diverse and varied.

I don't think anyone is trying to be 'virtuous and self-demonstrating' - and isn't finding 'interesting story'isn't that what it's all about?