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Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Photobook Review

More good things came to me from Helka Aleksdóttir who so very kindly sent me a copy of  the Aperture Photobook Review.
It's a great magazine that looks at Photobooks, especially those from smaller publishers. Many things caught my eye. However, Gerry Badger's comments on Reading a Photobook and what makes a good photobook really struck me. 
He says that reading a photobook is a mix of watching a film and reading a book, that it combines appreciation of individual pictures with "following the story that is being told, negotiating not only a trail of facts, but also a labyrinth of signs and symbols."

Badger also quotes Gossage's perspective on the photobook; "First, it should contain great work. Secondly it should make that work function as a concise world within the book itself. Thirdly, it should have a design that complements what is being dealt with. And finally, it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest."
 Badger also mentions Gossage's view that a photobook should be "a world of its own", an imaginary work, a fiction. Mmm, well we all know that all photography is propaganda and unreliable, lacking inauthenticity and truthfulness.
So having the photobook inhabit this self-contained world seems fair enough. But viewing everything as fiction, as propaganda is something of a leap of faith, more of a leap of faith than the converse. It is a leap of faith that cons us into thinking that our trickery and deception is so clever that the viewer is unable to see it - and not just for now, but for ever more as well.
But we can see it, we do see it. When we think about it we see it all the time, every day in the newspapers, on advertising hoardings, on labels, in magazines. We don't see everything, but we see alot. When we don't think about it, as we don't most of the time, it catches us unaware and we fall for it - unawares. 
But just because something is propaganda doesn't mean it's not true. The propaganda, the lie, the deceit is right at the heart of what we see. It's built in, part of the world, a solid, almost tangible aspect of a way of thinking and seeing and being. We know this when we choose to know it but sadly most of the time we're like mug punters betting on the wrong horse; we know it's going to lose but still we back it. 
Perhaps it would be better to flick things round and see the truth evident in photography, not the fiction - and lies might be part of that truth. In our everyday life, that is how we see the world, deceit and all. It seems to take a somewhat mystical view of the world and its photographic representations not to see photography and photobooks for what they are - no matter what design, sequencing and textual trickery they might employ - as solid representations of fairly straightforward routine series of photographic conventions.
Making the photobook not a thing-in-itself, but an object of the world that attaches to the world will help widen the audience for photography. And while photography as a whole has a huge audience, photography of the kind this blog, or the Photobook Review, talks about has a very limited audience. 
That limited audience is apparent in the countless lists of best photobooks of 2011 (here's a great summary of those lists from Marc Feustel ), some of which have editions of 50 or even less and are for an audience that is very limited in number by definition of their form. But for all the great design, layout and tricks with paper, the trickery, investigations and subterfuge cannot disguise that almost all the books mentioned have an outrageously strong connection to the non-fictional world. 
So there is an attempt to fictionalise the world, mainly by using fictional rhetoric (of the novel, the film, the archive, visual semantics, the endlessly self-referential), but that fictionalisation never achieves full realisation. 
 It will be nice to see people crystallising this attempted fictionalisation and escaping the closed circle of the photobook world and actually making photobooks that have a real fictional edge - Jackie Magazine in the 1970s kind of thing will do, Love on the Left Bank would be perfect.
So, in conclusion, it's great to see the Photobook Review. It's marvellous and right on the money. At the same time, it will be interesting to see how it develops and how it will escape the closed photobook circle and find an audience beyond the converted. Because that's what it needs.
A final note on photobooks. Blake Andrews has a wonderful end-of-year best of list here. What is most shocking for me is how long it took me to realise that this is part of Blake's very own special collection and everything is sold out. I was so looking forward  to buying Eping by the Missis, Harvey Kenmore's square format crop of Alec Soth's classic Sleeping by the Mississipp. Old ou!


christian said...

Great post - many thanks!

José said...

I am a bit confused about your point, how what you write necessarily opposes Badger & Gossage's view. I like straight photography (if you excuse the blunt category) for its potential for lie, fiction and propaganda, while retaining a strong and undeniable connection with truthfulness. That wonderful ambiguity, absent in staged photography of the kind of Crewdson or Olaf (where the artifice is too evident) is what makes non-staged photography so unique.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Christian; Jose, I think Crewdson and Olaf work more in individual images than book form which is what I'm writing about. I appreciate your point, but at the same time wonder why people don't just make straightforward, down-the-line fictional books - as opposed to books that investigate the ambiguity of photography - something which, in my weak and impatient state, I find quite tiresome and strangely non-investigative.

José said...

I join you in your unambiguous reluctance towards books "that investigate the ambiguity of photography". Boring! I am curious as to concrete examples if that doesn't agitate your impatience. (Perhaps "the book of the year" in Feustel's list of lists? I haven't seen it physically as I live in South America)

But I was thinking fictional more along the lines of books which profit of such ambiguity, not books that make ambiguity their subject. In that sense, isn't "American Photographs" fictional? (It even includes pics that were not taken in the States, and its author famously said that what was documentary about that work was just "the style".) Or "The Americans", which you can call anything except unbiased. Or "Sleeping by the Mississippi" whose author writes about the power of photography to suggest stories? Or even books that are less "narrative" than those three but which nonetheless have their healthy dose of fiction, as "American Prospects" by Sternfeld, or "Uncommon Places" by Shore?

colin pantall said...

Thanks Jose - I didn't know some of American Photographs were not American? Well, there's the broad view that everything is fictional - which is annoying. There is also the personal, the stream-of-consciousness (which is maybe where Frank fits in - inasmuchas The Americans is a diary of Frank rubbing the US the wrong way!).

The thing that gets me is so many people refer to fiction/the fictional in their work - and have done so for such a long time, that surely it should have become just another convention.

And that for all the talk of the fictional, why don't we have people who are doing properly fictional work - not just in tableaux from but in narrative book form.

mark page said...

On the money as usual.Nice one.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Mark. I hope the sun is shining on you up in Manchester. Happy New Year.

Jeff Glass said...

I agree: photobook fiction is a great idea, although not precisely brand new. Wright Morris did something like this in what are sometimes called "phototexts," eg, "The Home Place" and "the Inhabitants." Although his fictions were not photobooks per se, the photos worked with the fiction to tell a story.

I've been working in a related vein; although not photobooks per se, my "photocomix" combine my photos with very short text to create fictions. http://www.jeffglassphoto.com/photo-comix/

I would love to see similar photofiction. It would be more interesting than "interrogating the medium" type work.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Jeff and thanks for the link to your narratives. I think there is lots of room for interrogation of the medium but there seems to be a sticking point with photography and fiction - it somehow gets stuck on being excessively poetic and lacks the directness and brutal honesty that fiction can bring.