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Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Incestuous and Self-Congratulatory Photobooks?

I enjoyed Akina Book Factory very much at the weekend. It's a workshop where you work in groups to edit and make your own collaborative photobook.

You end up with a book but the best part is the collective editing - basically all the people submit a bunch of images (so 16 people in this case) around a particular theme (our theme was Home), all these images are submitted down to a remaining 50-60 images - and then in your groups of 4 you make a new edit of these - and a simple but lovely book.

That collective side was really interesting - you release your pictures into the collective edit and then build up a new story based around whatever. Our group's edit was based around a narrative because one of the group's parents had just been to visit. During the visit she concealed the marks of her real self and regressed into being her parents' child again. Which was something we could all relate to and base a story around.

It was a lovely event organised by IC Visual Labs and Valentina and Alex at Akina Books. This is part of a vibrant and emerging Bristol photography scene and is also connected to RRB Photobooks  and Photobook Bristol. 

One of the participants at Photobook Bristol is Stephen Gill and he gives his thoughts on photobooks here.

What do you think of the rise in self-publishing? How has this changed the medium? 

I am a bit out of touch really but I think, sadly, the book content seems to be getting left behind and have felt this for a few years. Perhaps we should forget about making books and make work and allow the books to make themselves. Many books made now seem dangerously to be with an audience in mind and playing to appetites and trends, becoming and moving like a swarm. Photography could be seen as looking a great deal at itself in recent years to the point where it’s getting close to imploding.

His basic idea is there are too many new photobooks. He's sounding a bit like Martin Amis here with his complaints about the new. I do think the random and often pointless energy of all the new photobooks is part of its appeal - all the independent publishers popping up all over the place are a contemporary equivalent of people starting their own record companies back in the 1970s. That energy started with punk but soon extended into other musical genres and really opened up music to a huge extent. But that energy didn't last and music became just another corporate behemoth

And maybe that's what Gill is complaining about. That there are too many people self-referencing themselves and the vast archives available to produce work that is insular, incestuous self-congratulatory in tone. And there is that. And there has always been that.

But outside the ghettos of hipster conformism, photobook nerdism and arts council funded self-congratulation, there is an energy that is outward looking and will take photography into new places. New content is being produced in photobook form and is looking at the world in new ways. It might not be very visible because there is such a mass of not-very-good photobooks blocking the way, but it's there and it's moving outside photography. This engagement with the outside world might diminish photography in some ways, because as soon as photography goes out of its teeny-weeny little pond, it becomes a much smaller fish. And I think a lot of people would rather be a big fish in a small pond. But if you think of Nemo going out from the edge of the reef. Yes, that's the idea exactly. I'd best finish there....


Alex said...

Nice piece, and there is definitely a growing disdain with the photobook movement. But as you say, the problems people are discussing with the photobook movement have always been there - ie. over-saturated, self importance in photography, some really awful work.

But I agree that this should be where we choose to be - as the print-buying and small gallery market continues to fall apart, photography has found a way to get to its audience once again. Let's stay in this pond and not let Parr and Badger, or Blurb and Amazon, flood it.

colin pantall said...

No, let's get out of the pond and become part of something bigger. I spent the afternoon with some doc phot students who were being shown a bunch of Italian propaganda books with a view to the students putting on a show with IC labs in Bristol - they were Martin Parr's boooks and he was doing the showing. So I think that generosity and openness is part of opening photography up to a wider world.