Grain destined for export stacked on Madras beaches (February 1877) I've started writing a series of posts on photography on World...
Monday, 29 June 2015
In the Shadow of the Pyramids by Laura El-Tantawy was a quick sell. The 500 copies went in about a month and if you missed it, well you missed it. It sold well because it was a superb combination of a personal story (El Tantawy's return to Egypt and discovery of herself and her country) mixed with the story of the protests of Tahrir Square. This is from the review I wrote for Photo Eye.
“There are 90 million people in this country. Ninety million stories to be told. This is the beginning of only one.”
The country is Egypt, the year is 2011 and the Arab Spring is in full flight. Cairo’s Tahrir Square is packed with protestors against the president’s rule and El-Tantawy is in their midst. “In the square of Liberation I found dreamers. Just like in the films. Thousands of them. In Tahrir Square I found myself again.”
It's a great book and there's the idea that she could have sold 2,000 copies so why didn't she print 2,000 copies. Why was she so selfish as to make such a small edition when she KNEW they would sell out.
Except she didn't know. The idea here is being wise after the event. I'm sure El Tantawy was confident in her heart that her book would do well, but I also know there was a lack of confidence there, an uncertainty that the book might not sell.
We know now that In the Shadow of the Pyramids sold well but how can we be wise before the event. There are many people who think their book will do brilliantly and sell in the thousands and they don't. What happens when you print too many books? You end up with a massive stock pile of books which you can't store. You've cut down half a rainforest for something that is ultimately going to be pulped. And you end up looking a bit of complacent for doing so. And there's nothing quite so annoying as complacency (either in myself or in others).
I don't mind small editions, big editions, cheap books, expensive books, books that sell out, stupid ebay prices, book-fetishisation, whatever. It's all good to me. There are lots of books out there, so if you can't buy one, then buy another. And if you really love something, get it whilst you can. Or pay a bit more for it if it's sold out and you want it so bad. Save up if you're skint.
And if you still can't afford it, look at it online somewhere, or watch the movie. It's not ideal but so it goes. It's nice that people are doing this (and they're doing it for love not money) and hopefully one day soon, somebody will create a digital library of photobooks.
So perhaps that's why El Tantawy didn't print 2,000 copies. It's the sign of a smart photographer not being complacent. Because complacency really is the enemy of everything.
What El-Tantawy did print 1,500 copies of is a newspaper called The People. This was meant to be distributed free to the people of Cairo - but that proved difficult so it went on sale in a variety of currencies. £25, $25, Euros 25, 25 Egyptian pounds and so on. The more expensive versions subsidised the cheaper version.
The People is not the same as In the Shadow of the Pyramids. It doesn't have that sense of personal discovery, it is more focussed on the chaos of the events in Tahrir Square and beyond. Changing that story was a challenge for Sybren Kuiper the designer.
'It was really interesting to design that story in a totally different way. but when Laura asked me to do a newspaper edition it posed a few challenges.
A real newspaper has more text to combine with the photos and it has bigger pages so you can't work with one image a spread if you want to use a significant amount of the pictures from the book. Still you want to get the growing chaos across to the readers. So you end up with a totally different graphic design. I applaud here for her courage to do so. Most people would have wanted an In the Shadow of the Pyramids 2.'
So the People is about the chaos of events. It's a newspaper where one picture folds into another. But it's not really a newspaper because there's a sense of the image breaking up into each other - the photographs are destroyed to form part of a greater whole.
The People shows the escalation of the demonstrations, the violence inflicted on the people, the bloodshed, the death and the aftermath of the clampdown. It's beautifully designed with a bell-jar sequence (quiet-loud-quiet) that is laid out over a dawn-dusk-dawn framework and it works splendidly. There are colour inserts that focus on the grieving, the missing, the dead, and there is a text in Arabic that gives it a specific context (as does the Arabic reverse-flow of the pages).
And even though it's not an In the Shadow of the Pyramids 2, at the same time it is. It's the same but different, and if you missed out on the out-of-print book edition, the newspaper version is not a disappointment. And if you have the book, the newspaper creates a different perspective on how both the book and the events of Tahrir Square unfolded.
See more spreads on Josef Chladek's Virtual Bookshelf.
Buy the People here.
Friday, 26 June 2015
Moisés by Mariela Sancari seems to be a modest affair. It's not too big, there are not so many pictures and the pictures that are included have an unspectacular quality to them.
At the same time, it's not at all modest. It's a project book, an installation book, that is both a visual portrayal of the grief Sancari felt for her dead father (he's the Moisés of the title), and an attempt by Sancari to come to terms with that grief, a grief complicated by the way in which Moises died.
When Moises killed himself, Sancari and her twin sister (who were 14 at the time) were not allowed to see the body. Was it because of the 'sin' of suicide or because of Jewish burial law. We can't be sure.
But already there is a huge amount of emotional energy invested in the story and it is this energy that Sancari brings out in her pictures. Because after he died, the family never talked how Moisés died, about the non-seeing of the body, about that layer of a grief that was laden with both anger and guilt.
Sancari set out to confront this silence through her art. She put an advertisement in the newspaper asking for paid volunteers answering to the age (he would be if he were still alive) and appearance of her father to model for her. Several people answered the ad and she photographed.
Moisés the book is one end result of this process. It has a triptych cover with double spines, so the pages fold out left-right, left-right, left-right rhythm. The first pictures are fragmented images of her father. You see him in bits; a jaw, a hairline, an ear, fragments that mirror Sancari's half-buried memories.
Then you open up the pages and you see the first volunteer in three frames; a quarter back profile, a full profile and a two thirds profile. The model stands there with his stern mouth and his swept back hair and he probably looks nothing like the real Moises, but he's wearing his old cardigan. There's a touching point, a hook.
The next model is bald, has a moustache and collapsed cheeks where his teeth used to be. He looks nothing like the first one. Fold the pages out and the third is a wide-mouthed man with a thatch of grey hair. We get four pictures of him and he's wearing the same cardigan as the first man. The models change, the clothes repeat, each could be Sancari's father, each most definitely isn't. There's a mix of social types, of projected futures, of degrees of aging. And then we get to the end and a man is combing Sancari's hair, the memory of the past brought into a counter-intuitive present.
The final page shows the ad that Sancari put in the paper. And finally we see what Moisés 'really' looked like in a photograph. A caption reads, To go back, begin from the right. So we go back and we see it differently; a neck, and another neck, and the neck again, red-raw, with abrasions. So that tells us something. And the men come back, but it's all a different view and the sad eyes, the brittle hair and the aging skin become something else again.
It's a slow and touching book. If it were a film, it would be Amour. The design fits the purpose but you need to know the story before you start which might be a barrier. Maybe that's why there's a slipped-in brochure with a text by Erik Kessels highlighting those projects that get to the emotional core of the big themes of life; Araki's Sentimental Journey, the work of Seichi Furuya or Fusco's Funeral Train.
Sancari's book gets to that emotional core. It's love, guilt and grief wrapped up in a quiet and apparently simple book. Sometimes you get the feeling that for photography to be good it has to be difficult in some way. You need to go through a pain barrier. You can feel that Moisés was difficult to make and is far more complex and multi-layered than it first appears. It's a book where you can feel the pain.
Read more about the project here
Buy the book here
Wednesday, 24 June 2015
"I'm from Latvia. It is normal there when you are in a strange place to ask if you can stay the night. So I am in Vienna. It's a strange place, yes, and I asked this Lithuanian guy if I can stay the night. And he says yes. So I get to his place and then he picks up my tablet. It's an Asus, just a cheap one. And he throws it against the wall. Look, it's smashed. And then he gets me by the neck and he's killing me. But I am lucky and I can get out. So I get out and go somewhere else. Then I see him today and he remembers nothing. I hope he will pay for a new tablet."
That's what Ivars Gravlejs said when I met him in Vienna. I was at a table with Michael Mack who called him over to show his new book, Early Works. It's being launched at the Claire de Rouen Bookshop in London on Wednesday 1st July from 6 - 8:30 pm.
The book's called Early Works. It's a good title.
Early Works features Gravlejs experiments in art and photography when he was a young boy. They took place in school. They were acts of rebellion against the tedium of the place. The experiments are artistic. There are performances, actions, pop art and montage. There are pictures of teachers. There are films. But the book is also about being a boy, being in school, about growing up. There are captions and they are funny.
Early Works is a film in book form. It's If mixed with Kes mixed with To Sir With Love mixed with Lord of the Flies.
Gravlejs had some prints from his Early Works in Vienna. They were vintage prints. He passed them over to me and I curated them. There were some things on the table so we rearranged them. That was the Installation. Then he played dead as though the Lithuanian had killed him. That was the Performance. And then he got up and that was the Resurrection.
I'm going to put that on my CV. In future years when he's showing at MOMA, I can say I exhibited him in Vienna.
Ivars Gravlejs works in a call centre.
Maybe the book will help him find a new job.
These are Gravlejs' early works.
Tuesday, 23 June 2015
If you're wondering how to make your pictures come alive, then look to Olivia Arthur and her new book Stranger.
It looks like a normal book with a normal cover. It's a what-if story - what if a man had survived a shipwreck off the coast of Dubai that happened 50 years ago and returned to the place 50 years later. How would they feel, how would they see, what would they do? Especially if they were a poor man, an Indian man, a man without status.
You open up Stranger and everything goes a little bit dreamy. It's hard to show on a screen because it is such a tactile book, a book printed on tracing paper in which one image melts into the one below till you become immersed in something that isn't so much a book as a kind of tracing paper shadow-play or lantern show. It's a dreamboat of a book, something that gets a life beyond the page. And if you're the kind of person who goes 'fiddlesticks to that, it's the pictures that matters, you just take a piece of white card (it even comes with the book. I didn't know what to do with it until I was told) and then you see the picture in its full glory.
You can't see the effect on the screen and you don't see it in the opened object. But once you get a short flow going it is like a film as you uncover one page after another and look for the story, and you feel the place flood into you.
The text is simple and direct. It builds the sense of Dubai as a city of the imagination. So there is a huge sense of place in there; to the extent that there is a large landscape element to it. There is also that combination of documentary and fiction (and a nod to Cristina de Middel at the start of the book) that is taking photography into new and exciting places. The tracing people lift and reveal has been used before, but I don't know if anybody has done it so beautifully. It extends the story-telling form and is something that feels lovely to the touch and the emotion created by the paper completely fits the circular narrative of the book. It's fantastic.
Buy the book here.
I really enjoyed Vienna Photobook Festival and the books I saw, talks I heard and people I met. The festival is big and more focussed on the booksellers than the talks (with the exception of the William Klein one), but I really enjoyed all the talks I saw which gave a great overview of the creative process; Olivia Arthur, Ania Nałęcka, Nicolo Degiorgis, Michael Mack, Andreas Bitesnich, the panel discussion on photobook collecting which gave another perspective on photobooks - as did the talk on book arts and unique book objects (editions of 1) by Walter Bergmoser and Peter Sramek.
And that is what made it so interesting for me; that march up the photographic food chain, with bookselling rooms that went from unique books to artist's books, from small presses to independent publishers, trade, before finally ending up at the top rare book dealer end of the market.
I felt like Candide in there, all wide-eyed and unknowing. Because when there is such a range of books and places, you are unknowing. Going through the rooms, you got the feeling of the shifts between editions, pricing, market, perspective and audience but with a passion for books that was evident at all ends of the spectrum and from all regions. There was a big eastern European presence there, which gave you the feeling that the UK is not very visually sophisticated. Though that feeling was redressed by the fact that my two favourite books there were/will be published in the UK.
It does feel a bit odd at times and, as you went through you felt the weight of capital sliding up the scale. I'm a bit neurotic about money, mainly because I don't have any, so by the time I got to the dealer rooms, I started feeling a bit like Nemo when he's hanging with the sharks who have better skin and better suits; it was a mixture of envy and wondering if there were any bags of £50 notes (or even better 500 euro notes) that I could avail myself of.
It does feel a bit odd at times and, as you went through you felt the weight of capital sliding up the scale. I'm a bit neurotic about money, mainly because I don't have any, so by the time I got to the dealer rooms, I started feeling a bit like Nemo when he's hanging with the sharks who have better skin and better suits; it was a mixture of envy and wondering if there were any bags of £50 notes (or even better 500 euro notes) that I could avail myself of.
The festival is free so you got a few thousand people walking through. Non-photobook people attend talks and buy books, and if you're skint and like photography, price is not a barrier - you can attend and look at books. Photobook Vienna has healthy sponsorship by various people, including the collector, Peter Coeln. There's a generosity there and a sharing of work and ideas and art that is very simple and direct. I find the whole historical/collecting obsession rather spectral (as in being on the spectrum), but when it feeds into creating a wider audience, it is a great thing. It gives something back and it broadens interest and that is something generous. It's a massive undertaking to organise and run a festival and even though there is always a commercial interest at some stage, it's done through a passion for art and the medium. I talked to some Viennese photographers about the festival and they mentioned how this was the one time in the calendar when they felt part of a bigger whole, that the world opened up to them and they opened up to the world. And that is something rather wonderful.
Why Make a Photobook by Ania Nelecka Presentation
There was also a book dummy review at the festival. The first prize went to Mark Duffy (pictured above in a wet plate by Borut Peterlin), with his fantastic dummy that was based around pictures of damaged posters of Irish politicians. It fits into the corrupted image idea, but was made out of a corrugated plastic tied together with heavy plastic tags. It's a book you could take into the bath.
I was reviewing books there and came complete with an overcooked tagline. It's difficult because you see 12 people in a day all of whom are coming from completely different places, so you have to shift your brain constantly.
Then there is the variety of dummies you are looking at; on the one hand you are looking at books that start at the rough hewn, proper pictures-glued on paper dummy. Then there are the professionally bound, beautifully made ones. And finally there are the artist's books which are works in themself. What do you judge on
The other thing is to make a book takes ideas, energy and dedication. Kazuma Obara went through 15 dummies before he got to his final Silent Histories draft, Nicolo Degiorgis scrapped the whole dummy process and did a major reshoot before he got to his final Hidden Islam book.
Making a book is a long, painful and expensive process comparable to simultaneous ripping up £50 notes into confetti and flogging yourself over the back with vinegar-tipped brambles. You have to know (or get to someone who knows) photography, design, paper, printing, construction, binding, writing and so on. And you have to have a bag of £50 notes. Why anyone would do it is beyond me.
So as a reviewer, what are you reviewing for? Is it for the finished book, the possible book, the ideas, the design, the energy, the openness, the story or a bit of all of those things. Or what if you see a dummy that is rough in every way, but there is some brilliance in there? And what if the pictures are great but they're not best-suited to a book? What do you do then?
Stories, originality and energy are the thing and there were some great stories among the reviewees. They weren't always fully realised but that's part of the process.
Mika Sperling came in with a beautiful series of pictures looking at a German-speaking Mennonite community that lived in the Ukraine, was exiled into Siberia by Stalin in the 1930s, moved to Germany in the 1990s and has now divided with the conservative elements moving to Manitoba, Canada.
Most interestingly, Sperling is a (lapsed) part of that community. She was born into a Mennonite community in Siberia and as she photographed in Siberia, Germany and Canada, she found her own values come under scrutiny from the communities she was both part of (she had family in them) and was photographing. So there's the missed perspective of a woman in there. There's been lots of photography of Mennonites, but has there been any from within the community - that combined that dual insider/outsider view? Though Ian Willms comes close with his beautiful project Why we Walk (thanks Lucy!).
Simon Brugner did a project on the Arsenic Eaters of Austria; it's a simple story with a brilliant hook; the old custom of eating arsenic to ward off disease and stay young.
And last but definitely not least is Libuše Jarcovjáková.She was born in Czechoslovakia but got out to Berlin in 1985. Her dummy was an autobiography, of the boyfriends, bad jobs, rough flats and hardships of being a woman in the new west. There were lots of pictures and a text that had a sensitivity and a vulnerability that you hardly ever see. And somewhere in there is a really great book. But it wasn't anywhere near finishing. But one day it might be. I hope so.
So thanks to all the reviewees for showing their books and their ideas. Their pictures are shown below.
That's it for photobook festivals for a while. Not sure when the next one is. It would be nice if there was a small, underfunded one somewhere, perhaps near a beach, where chaos and goodwill reign. No. Oh well.
George E.Holroyd III
Wednesday, 17 June 2015
When Photobook Bristol ended on Sunday, I came home with the three books that had launched over the weekend. And my wife and daughter said, "Go on, let's have a look then."
So we had a look and we spent way longer than the twenty minutes. The previous photobook record that we had once spent looking at Showdogs (a strangely enjoyable book of pictures of sad-looking dogs).
The three books were Peter Mitchell's Some Thing Means Everything to Someone (the scarecrow book), Mariela Sancari's Moises (the dead father book) and Laura El-Tantawy's The People.
They all got a big thumbs up and my daughter summed it up by likening the books to different films. "The scarecrow book is the most popular one, but it's weird and fun at the same time. It's Back to the Future. The one with the dead father is really sad so that's like a drama where the more you think about it the sadder it gets. Maybe that's Grave of the Fireflies. And the Egypt one is hard-hitting and historical but has a lot of energy. It's a thriller where everything keeps moving and you never know what's happening. It's The Bourne Identity."
Which is a pretty good summary. So there are the unbiased reviews for you. My reviews of all the books won't be 100% impartial, they never are on this blog, just as views in life are never impartial, photography is never impartial, some competitions are not impartial (how many competition judges have heard the line - from extremely well-known photographers or their agents, 'He'll enter if he wins'). People aren't made to be impartial, however much we may pretend. It's not in our nature.
But I'll write about the politics of free books, review copies and giving stuff away in another post because it's interesting. What's also interesting is the question of what a photobook review is for. Because this post is going to end up being a review of Peter Mitchell's scarecrow book.
One way of looking at it is to take Joerg Colberg's approach and regard a review as a systemised form of photobook analysis based on a marking system like this (these are the results for Land Ohne Mitte,. Read the review here).
Photography 4, Book Concept 5, Edit 4, Production 3 – Overall 4
It's a pretty good system which I like. It tells you he loves the book, he thinks it's fantastically thought out, but the book might be lacking something in the fetish stakes. It covers some of the main spots and it recognises that a good photobook is not just about good photography. It's about design and ideas as well.
But for me it's about other things too. In the quick-speed world of photobooks, putting a review up on the blog is about recognition of what people are trying to do, it's about acknowledging the experimentation and the taking of chances. For me it's about how somebody tells a story and the open-ness of mind with which they do that. It's also about an economic rebalancing, so the low-rent end of the market gets a look-in rather than just providing free ideas and images for the wealthier, less-imaginative commercial worlds to pilfer and de-soul, It's a kind of positive discrimination where people who don't have much money are given a bit of a push up.
And it's also about taking part in shaping the photography world in a direction you want it to go. And it's a curious thing, but you find that other people are thinking the same thing as you and are shaping it in the same way, moving photography towards something altogether more intriguing, questioning and entertaining. And that becomes a creative community of like-minded people.
This serves to help people who have great ideas and are original but maybe don't get the recognition or financial reward their talent, hard work and dedication deserves. And I think that is one of the points of photobooks; they serve as an advance guard for the wider world of photography, and effect change in art, editorial and commercial markets.
But sometimes people are too ahead of their game, or they worked in a different era, or they are just too offbeat and they never quite get recognised. So a review can be part of giving that recognition. A book does not appear in a vacuum, it's tied into all other kinds of considerations and a review can recognise those human qualities, the essential decency of a person and what they are trying to do.
That idea is at the heart of this review of Peter Mitchell's book, Some Thing Means Everything to Someone, Peter Mitchell's Scarecrow book. Sure, it's about the book, but it is also about giving a nod to a great British documentary photographer, one who has never really got the attention he deserved possibly because he was always too far ahead of his time, something that comes up in his great book on the urban Landscapes of Leeds, Strangely Familiar.
Mitchell is the first British photographer to have a colour show at a British photography gallery. He's got a different way of seeing and experiencing the world then and Some Thing Means Everything to Someone is about that way of seeing, that way of being. The cover has a map of the stars then you open it up and you see a free print and odd but great title typeface. Flick through it and you see it's a book of scarecrow pictures.And mixed in with those pictures are images of objects that form a biography of Mitchell's life.
So there are Mitchell's scarecrow manifestations paired up with Mitchell's Material Manifestations; these are objects that are part of his life. In the introduction he wonders at the objects that accompanied Tutankhamun to the after-life. Mitchell likes to think that these were not just functional objects, but objects that he really loved. '...the possessions Tutankhamun put aside for the future made him a king; the possessions you see before you made me a photographer.'
The first object we see is a milk jug with the inscription 'To thine own self be true'. That's not an object, that's a manifesto. It's something to live by. And that is what comes up throughout the book. Born in 1943, we see the objects of war (and pre-war - the thing-biography is rough and ready with the chronology). His mother's wartime Alien Identity Disc (she was Italian) is shown and so is a baby's anti-gas respirator.
The fifties come, and there are sunday school prizes, Enid Blyton Books and a model of the Skylon at the Festival of Britain. Dan Dare comes in, then it's the sixties and Mitchell moves from CND to hitchhiking around the USA at a time when 'hippies ruled the world.'
There's space travel, life on Mars, town planning and, just in case the photography business collapsed, there's a sideways shift into screen-printing and Letter Press just as Apple Macs come into being. A beautiful Bauhaus chess set and a poster made in the 'style of English Englightenment' for Mitchell's first photographic show his obsession for the graphic, decorative and industrial arts - and what he calls 'a trend to regard things that interested me even if nobody else was interested.'
Slipped into the shifting from one age to the next is Mitchell's photographic journey. From 1969, there's a kodachrome of the Boulder/Hoover Dam, there are posters of his shows, a case he used to carry prints around the States as he hitched from gallery to gallery and a Travelling Exhibition Box from Impressions Gallery in York (the one that hosted the first British colour show). Polaroids, print cases and a knitted Hasselblad camera add to the idea of a man immersed in a visual/graphic world set against the political backdrop of the CND of the sixties, the Ripper murders of the seventies and the Miner's Strike of the eighties.
Some objects provide questions that are left unanswered. What is in the unopened parcel and who is Eyvind Kvaale? And some objects provide answers that provoke questions. Mitchell has the first 'interplanetary passport', Mitchell flew on Concorde (it was like being on a very fast tube train), Mitchell has a guide to the stars.
So if the objects provide a material vision of his life, a journey that is going to take him to the stars, the scarecrows are a manifestation of Mitchell's human form, a rough approximation. And they are wonderful and weird, a site to behold.
I live in Bath and have an allotment. Around my allotment you get scarecrows. Some of them are your basic tramp scarecrows, but there are others that are quite creative in a shabby kind of way. Arty shaman scarecrows that have a little magic about them.
Mitchell's scarecrows aren't like that though. His are agricultural scarecrows. They're Worzel Gummidge without the West Country charm. You wouldn't want these scarecrows to come to life. They're all rather sinister it seems, psycho-scarecrows that could decorate the fields of the island in the Wicker Man..
The scene is set by a scarecrow in a wheatfield. His shoulders are hunched and the sleeves of his black raincoat come straight down. He has a hat and his face is covered by a piece of card of some kind. He's looking at you and you feel his world beckoning.
It's a dark world, a complex world, but the more you look, the less sinister it becomes. A yellow-coated scarecrow is shown tilted in a newly ploughed field, his arms stretched out. It looks like he's flying. He is flying, because there on the facing page is a picture of Mitchell's Concorde ticket and a photo of the Burning Concorde.
It's a book of pairings as well then. A prostrate scarecrow shot at night in a field of stubble is shown with a stained glass window. The Colour Before Color exhibition poster links up with scarcrow with a red oil-tin for a head, while a cover of Punch Magazine is paired up with a scarecrow holding a massive plank.
It looks simple but it's not. . There's a personal narrative, an object narrative accompanied by short stories of what these objects meant.And it all combines to form a whole that is so much more than its parts. It seems strange that a book of scarecrows has layers that you can go back to and back to.
But then I'm biased for a couple of reasons. I'm friends with Rudi Thoemmes who published the book under the RRB imprint. And I'm also biased because I know Peter Mitchell a little bit (but not enough) and he's a lovely, lovely man. I saw his talk at Photobook Bristol where he talked about the book and showed us a picture of his duodenum that was taken when he was in hospital the week before. That's why the talk was cut short. But he insisted on coming, he insisted on speaking and he stayed the three days no matter what the doctor said.
So maybe sometimes a review is to make somebody feel better, to cheer him up, to put a smile on his face. That's part of why I wrote this review. But at the same time I really do love the book. It's a slow burner that is beautifully printed and coming from a different place. So the other reason is to get the first review of Some Thing Means Everything to Someone up on my blog. Because it's brilliant!
Get well soon Peter.
Buy the Book Here.
Tuesday, 16 June 2015
Ah, Photobook Bristol!
Well, it's photobook luvvie time, but it is over and it really was such a wonderful and open event with great speakers that went from the beautiful photography of Tom Wood, the intensity of Laia Abril, to the soulfulness of Carolyn Drake, the domestic delights of Anna Fox, the invention and wit of Erik Kessels and the charm and insight of Catherine Balet.
It was a privilege to be able to have a drink, listen to and talk with some of the most innovative, dynamic, sociable, funny, soulful, considerate, caring and above all, creative people in photography, publishing, teaching and design, as well as see new work and students getting in the photobook mix. And that's what makes it such a unique festival - it's small size and it's openness. It's a feelgood festival despite being in England which isn't really a feelgood kind of place,
Three great books were launched. Peter Mitchell's Some Thing Means Everything to Somebody, Laura El Tantawy's The People, and Mariela Sancari's Moises, more of which before the summer break.
And Ricardo Martinez Paz was there with Catherine Balet (who you will hear much, much more of when her new book is published) and his golden shoes. And that was delightful. And very, very cool. Cool and open. There's a good combination!
So that's my symbol for the weekend: The Man with the Golden Shoes. Click Click and off we go...
See an album here.
Wednesday, 10 June 2015
picture by Eamonn Doyle
So the blog will take a short break for Photobook Bristol and Vienna Photobook Festival, both of which I'm looking forward to immensely
In Vienna I'll be talking about narrative and my German Family Album. And at Photobook Bristol I'll be on a panel with
Eamonn Doyle, Kate Nolan and Kazuma Obara
talking about their first photobooks, all of which are massively interesting, engaging and challenging in different ways and have featured on this blog. As well as talking about what went right and what went wrong with their books (and what they would do differently), I think the question of why publish a book in the first place will come up.
picture by Kate Nolan
It's a question that came up on the Photobooks Facebook page where questions were asked on the business model of photobook-land, its incestuousness and all the other usual questions that we repeatedly ask of photobookery.
Well of course Photobook World can be small and it can be an echo-chamber. But it's not really that incestuous. If something is incestuous then the group is closed. If anything, Photobook World is not incestuous enough. I think that is what people are really objecting to.
Sure, you do get the same voices popping up again and again, and you get cliques, but at the same time if you have something that is good and you want to be seen or heard, it's relatively easy. It's a very open world. And the more open you are and the more engaged and engaging you are, the easier it gets. The world of the Photobook is far more open than the equivalent photographic worlds in academia, art or commerce.
picture by Kazuma Obara
Look at the end of year best lists and you'll see names that were completely unknown a few years earlier. On the 2014 list from Photo-Eye. you had people like Laia Abril, Nicolo Degiorgis, Max Pinckers, Andy Rochelli, Alejandro Cartagena, Momo Okabe, Awoiska van der Molen.
Go back a year to 2013 and you can see Pierre Liebaert, Lorenzo Vitturi, Oscar Monzon, Carlos Spottorno, Mike Brodie, Carolyn Drake and Paul Gaffney.
Go to 2015 and 2016 and you'll get people on there who are still students now. Guaranteed.
These are people who have popped up out of nowhere (or almost nowhere) simply because they made something interesting, int he same way that Doyle, Nolan and Obara made something interesting. So you can make it 'big' in photobook world, make an interesting book. It's that simple.
Of course very few people have heard of these people outside photobook land, but that's because if you're going spend £20 on a book of pictures, you have to be really interested in photography and books. Not many people are. There are other things to spend one's money on.
But the openness I do not doubt. And if you worry about the world being limited by a handful of tastemakers, the answer is also simple. Write a blog, start a magazine, have an opinion and get busy.
So sometimes when people talk about photobook world being too closed, I sometimes get the feeling they mean the opposite; that it's too open.
Monday, 8 June 2015
all pictures by Simone Donati from Hotel Immagine
You sold me to an old man, father
May god destroy your home; I was your daughter
Making love to an old man
Is like fucking a shrivelled cornstalk black with mould
When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.
These are landays, 2-line poems from Afghanistan that 'have long been used by Afghan women as a secretive form of rebellion' (read more about landays here). The ones above don't hold back and provide a view of life that is harsh, uncensored without the involvement of the self-justifying male filtering mechanism (of the 'actually, women have a lot of informal power, bla bla bla' kind).
The landays hit the spot and they're brutal. After reading those poems, the reality of being fucked by a 'shrivelled cornstalk black with mould' has been made a little bit more real to me. It's a terrible image and the poem is drawing the big picture without flinching or worrying about anyone's sensibilities being hurt. There is no consideration for whoever might get upset by these poems, because however upset they get, their pain is but a pinprick compared to those women sold by their fathers, uncles and brothers into sexual bondage with 'cornstalks black with mould'.
After reading about the landays on Saturday morning, I got Simone Donati's Hotel Imagine in the post. It's a book about the popular iconography of contemporary Italy melting into their equivalents in politics.
So one way of looking at is is as a project about Italian identity in the new millennium. The starting points were two projects, 'Welcome to Berlusconistan' and 'Padre Pio Cult' that Donati did as individual editorial projects. But once these were done, Donati started to think about Italian society as a whole, what it had become and how it could be represented.
So there are images from fascist marches, pictures of fans at the Napoli training ground. and contestants queuing up to audition for 'Grande Fratello' (Big Brother), as well as images showing Italian crooners ('melodic singers'), race fans, and election night celebrations.
Individually the pictures are a survey of the collective Italian crowd mentality and they are straightforward a documentary/step-backs from a photojournalist approach, the opening up of the mise-en-scene that is repeated throughout the book.
So we see priests preparing for a prayer meeting at a football stadium attended by Mariya Pavlovic, a visionary who sees the Virgin Mary. Mixed in with that a stripper performs at a Grand Prix meeting, and we see Karima El Mahroug (Berlusconi was convicted for having sex with here when she was underaged), sitting sad-faced in the private are of the 'Paradiso Club'.
So it's fascism, politics, music, soaps, reality TV, and religion. There's sex and corruption and once you start adding it all together it ends up being an extreme cynical idealisation of Italian life. This is stupid Italy and maybe it's my imagination, or maybe it's me projecting the disgust you repeatedly hear Italians express for aspects of Italian life, but after a couple of viewings, it's almost as though Donati is spitting the pictures out.
There seems to be a disgust in there; at the triteness of it all, the easy fall into adulation, the upsurge of fascism, the seduction by a twinkly smile or a pair of breasts, the dumb populism, It's a book that answers the question, How Crass is Italy? And the answer is This Crass! And This Stupid!
Donati nails, in a very direct way what is wrong with Italy. Hotel Immagine is a book that could be paired nicely with Frederico Clavarino's more allegorical Italia O Italia, a book I describe as '...a deeply pessimistic book, one that uses the symbols of the past to relate the slow tragedy of a dying present. And in the end that isn’t just the story of Italy, it is the story of everywhere.'
Of course you could do the same thing for other countries. How Shit is the USA, France, China, Nigeria, Brazil, Australia, the UK?
Ah, the UK! It should be like shooting fish in a barrel. We do crap with a small c-, and without the compensations the Italians have (food, art, weather, architecture - we lose) But the cultural depictions of this country's crassness are constrained by a certain affection for its popular pastimes and traditions. Go to Only in England, the Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr show and there's a rooting of the images (which are Fantastic fantastic!) in the history of Pagan history, Wakes Week, Mass Observation and American street. It's kind and not savage at all in comparison.
It would be nice if it were savage. There is a lot to be savage about. We currently have a government that is dismantling the welfare state, employment laws, and human rights in a manner that rides roughshod over 150 years of campaigning and progress. The British people have bought into the dehumanising of the poor, the sick and the disenfranchised and embraced the values of a commodified, property-centred culture that is built on a bubble of imported corruption, greed and venality.
You can speak to pretty much anyone who works in photography and there is a recognition that this state of affairs is not represented. Nobody is doing those broad brush strokes on what it is to be British or English, on the snobbery, self-interest and cruelty that is devastating this country.
You can see this at all levels. Every year Source puts out its annual survey of student work. There are some great projects in there (from the University of South Wales where I teachs, Mira Andres, Sebastian Bruno and Isaac Blease have done some great work), but you can go through the different universities and colleges and there is virtually nothing on what is happening in the UK on a larger scale.
I appreciate that not everybody is interested in doing this kind of work, but when the absence is on such a scale, one wonders if there isn't some kind of systemic blindness to the world around us. There is little that is passionate, angry or concerned. And on such a scale it's a Roger Irrelevance in photographic form.
It's the kind of irrelevance that Tom Wolfe wrote about in his introduction to Bonfire of the Vanities, He talked about how back in the seventies he waited and waited for somebody to write the great American novel dealing with great American problems; the decline of the cities, social conflict, racial strife, the political class.
But nobody wrote it. American novelists were too busy dealing with the death of the novel, the death of the realism and their response was to come up with different kinds of novels - 'Absurdist novels, Magical Realist novels, and novels of Radical Disjunction'.
Hotel Immagine has a similar bitter heart and so do the poems featured at the top of this post. So that's Italy and Afghanistan covered. But what about Britain? There's plenty of bitterness here, we're drowning in it. But what about the photography? Where are our landays, our Bonfire of the Vanities, our Hotel Immagines? You get the feeling it to is wallowing in its visual equivalents of 'Absurdist novels, Magical Realist novels, and novels of Radical Disjunction'. Which is all well and good but of little interest to anybody beyond the photographers themselves and the photo-world of which they are part.
I think if we want to get an audience and have a voice as mentioned in last week's posts on the Golden Age of Photobooks, then we need to think about the grand narratives and what is actually happening in our world. Donati and others are doing that for Italy. It would be nice for people to do it in the UK (and thank you Zed Nelson for your piece on property in London). And maybe think about it a bit. And get angry about it a bit. And have an opinion about it a bit. And not be afraid to do so.
Buy Hotel Immagine here.
Friday, 5 June 2015
"My mother was quite disappointed. She hardly knew him. But my father thought my mother was wonderful and he was very happy. Emotionally, he was a fairly reticent person; he would happily give me a great bear hug but for the finer things he wasn’t quite with it. So really my mother wasn’t that happily married but did her duty."
So my talk at Vienna is going to be about my German Family Album (you can see some of the pictures here and more of them here) and the stories that Photobooks can tell.
The problem for me is how do you tell family stories, and they are quite tragic and sad story when those stories are overshadowed by the horrors of Nazi Germany.
How can I uncover the layers of different histories through the conflicting recollections and non-recollections of family members? How can I organise the mixed strata of a series of family albums; albums in which there are both the conventional representations of family life as well as pictures where little cracks appear, ambiguities become apparent and an ultimate sadness of life in 1930s Germany is brought to the fore.
It's White Ribbon meets Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (aka Generation War), and it is devilishly difficult to do.
The problem is combining a visual narrative with a textual one, while negotiating the interference caused by the mass of film, literary and historical material on the matter, one in which my family is set squarely on the wrong side. It doesn't give much leeway. How can I tell the story with pictures and words and is it a story worth telling? The reason for making this the subject of my talk is to give me some ideas, but to be honest it has only confused me more.
But it has given me an excuse to revisit some great photobooks and see how they handle telling a story, and that has revealed to me how very rigorously people are engaging with story telling through photobooks.
One of the major problems with photobooks (which I mentioned in these posts from earlier this week on the supposed Golden Age of Photobooks) is they are subject to interference.
So often the tone is set through academia and this infects the timbre of the photobook. You find yourself seeing these great pictures, or really intelligent visual insights, but it's spoilt by the words that accompany it. This is why the day when photobooks become the subject of serious academic study is probably (not definitely because academic study can be a blessing) the day that all the energy and madness and chaos of the current photobook market is dissipated.
We all love Azoulay, Barthes and Baudrillard, but you are killing your audience if the book starts with the dense essay that ticks off the names of the usual suspects. It might tell people how educated you are in conventional photographic theory, but that really means diddly-squiddly to most people. If you want to tell people about your intelligence, rather than spending your £15,000 on making a photobook, you might as well print a bunch of flyers saying how smart you are, and stand on the corner of the local High Street handing them out to whoever is daft enough to take them. You'll get a bigger audience and at a cost of say £100 (for 1,000 flyers if you design them yourself) you'll save yourself a bunch of money and get a far bigger readership.
But then I suspect that sometimes people don't want an open audience, they want an audience that is closed, an echo chamber of other people who are doing the same kind of thing, and the bigger the budget the amplifying effect it has on the statement you make. Which is fine, as long as you are self-aware enough to understand the essential tedium and irrelevance of the whole two-ring circus.
Making a successful photobook is not about ticking boxes or showing your scholarship. It is about telling a story well. Using pictures, using words, using design, using paper. It can be smart, it should be smart, but no matter what the subject, it should look outwards rather than inwards. That is where the energy comes from.
I read Primo Levi's If this is a Man and the Truce again recently. I couldn't put it down because he tells the story (which is horrific) so brilliantly, uncovering the tiny, transactional details of the horrors of Auschwitz and revealing the psychological strengths and sheer good luck needed to survive. And he reveals the strange medieval chaos of the months he spent getting home after the war. It was like a Brueghel in print, being part of the this mass of moving forces in a Europe that was traumatised and stunned in equal measure. We recently had the Victory in Europe celebrations here in the UK, but reading the Truce just made VE Day seem so irrelevant and our UK wartime experience so easy in comparison.
So Primo Levi tells his story and he does it beautifull. He's a story teller and the story came out naturally. He said that If this is a Man was there in his head in Auschwitz and wrote itself.
Levi's book sold and so did Art Spiegelmann's Maus. Again this is a book where the focus is on reaching an audience and telling a story in an engaging manner. Spiegelmann was inspired to write about his father's experience in Auschwitz after seeing the trial of Adolf Eichmann shown live on American TV. This was the first documentary of its kind and one where there was the idea that the TV show was more than a sober documentary about the bringing to justice of a Nazi war criminal - it was also a TV show. It was, in its own way, 'entertainment.'
I think photographers forget this sometimes. There are so many photographic niches (and all the interesting ones are tiny, tiny niches) that people get stuck in them and end up circling around in swirls of self-mystifing smoke.
A Sex-Pumpkin! You're Kidding Me. From All Quiet on the Home Front
Pictures get stuck in the mythology of visual narrative (which is why you'll see so many pictures of rocks, waves, lightning blasts, cloudscapes, blossom, hanging fruit branches and other daft symbolism in photobooks - I know that clouds, blossoms and all the rest have a great tradition but really...) and a self-sustaining editing mythology of pairings, breathing spaces and across-the-gutters as though we were all aspiring Brodovitchs, Kawauchis or Moriyamas (actually, they're all great things to be. Oh well, never mind) - while paying scant attention to things like text or storyline or a real narrative flow.
One of the reasons this might happen is because it is difficult to tell a story well. Another reason is that to tell a story well, you sometimes have to be brutal. Primo Levi was brutal, Art Spiegelmann was brutal. They wrote things that were incredibly difficult to say. Most of us baulk at saying things that are far less difficult to say. We do this because we're too polite, we're too afraid, or we have a false sense of ethics that helps to preserve our modesty.
At the recent Liverpool/Look Festival 15, one of the real standouts for everybody who saw it was Richard Ross' Juvenile in Justice. The pictures were fantastic but it was the captions that really did it; short, snappy captions that were so tragic and so revealing of what happens when the banality of how layer upon layer of poverty meets up with a punitive and discrimatory justice system.
But they didn't happen by accident. They were deliberately and coldly thought out to see how they could best affect the viewer. It was difficult but it had its effect and it took you right into the pictures and the lives of the young people who Ross photographed and beyond.
In that sense, it had more to do with modes of documentary or the Seven Basic Plots than with sequencing or layout and perhaps that's what photobook-makers need to address.
Though to be honest I think people are addressing that already. The Epilogue by Laia Abril, In the Shadow of the Pyramids by Laura El-Tantawy, Wild Pigeon by Carolyn Drake, Live Through This by Tony Fouhse or Echolilia by Timothy Archibald all tell very difficult stories using brave and complex combinations of image and text.
They don't bottle it in other words. And that should be a lesson to us all.
And that is what I'll be talking about in Vienna; my German Family Album and the photobooks that have tried and succeeded in telling a story in engaging and entertaining manner. With the hope that somewhere along the line that engagement and entertainment value will spread to me.
Thursday, 4 June 2015
Yesterday's post looked at the Golden Age of Photobooks; the conclusion from this blog is that there is a huge amount of energy, creativity and communication going on. If there is a Golden Age, it's a Golden Age of energy.
It's also a Golden Age of experimentation; with layout, paper, design and ideas. That doesn't mean there is a flood of outrageously fantastic books. There isn't. There are lots of flawed books. But just because these books don't hit all the high notes, the sense of adventure, obsession, anger, passion or just plain oddness makes these books of interest. These are the books I feature on my blog, books where photographers are trying to do something different, where hard work, originality, wit or intelligence are being used.
There are also those books where people are making books because that's what you do, where there is no originality, where there is a grant that needs to be spent, research that needs to be ticked off or a stagnation of thought. They're a waste of time. These are boring, stupid, lazy books. Or just pointless. There are lots of those.
The Time article caused lots of debate in the small world of Photobook-Online Land. One question raised by a few people was should the audience be made bigger? Does it need to be made bigger? Or can it just continue on its merry way? And if it does need to be made bigger, is the current photobook world actually capable of appealing to a wider audience?
It's worth thinking of what appeals to a wider audience. So here is a list that I carefully thought out in the last five minutes. This is what a blog is for by the way. It is not a carefully edited thing. It is a piece of chaos. That's why it's enjoyable and so often madly wrong.
Engagement with (and Knowledge of) what's happening in the world
Engagement with (and knowledge of) different forms of narrative
Use of Social Media
The Ability to Tell a Story
The Ability to Be Direct
Understanding who you want your audience to be
Self-awareness (of yourself and the limitations of photobook land) and the ability not to take yourself too seriously
Not being boring
So I can flash back over the years and think of books and projects that hit those spots and get out to a wider audience. Laura El-Tantawy, Timothy Archibald, Lina Hashim are just a few people who really hit some of those spots hard over the years in different ways.
But sometimes you get too much indirectness, where the story isn't told, but rather we rejig photography's fascination with telling how the story is told. That can be done really well. Anouk Kruithof has done it fantastically well and in a way that's fun. That's her thing and she makes great books out of it.
But sometimes I wonder if we don't take ourselves too seriously. I think of Broomberg and Chanarin's People in Trouble Laughing and Falling to the Ground. It's the project where they went to the archive in Belfast, took a bunch of pictures out and then photographed the spaces below stickers that were used to show the pictures had been used. So instead of being a project about Belfast it's a project about the photography of Belfast.
I like the pictures. They are fun. They are funny. But they are not really framed that way and you wonder how it is that the best known photographic representation of an archive that covers the last 30 years of life in Northern Ireland is a piece about stickers on pictures; the conflict of the time, the surface politics and the low-level domestic stress and anguish are by-the-by.
Maybe the archive is not very good. I don't know. I haven't seen it. But it does not seem quite right somehow. It's not as though all these stories of the tail end of the Troubles have been told. And if they have been told, they can be told again, in a different way. In a better way. In a more interesting way.
But the dilemma is it's still a great project and photographers take it as their inspiration. So then you get all these younger people flitting around a subject saying things like it's all been photographed, it's all been done, this is about the production, the act of looking, the archive, the control.
The same thing happens with Paul Graham, whose work I love. But God help us when people start trying to make work in the shape of a Shimmer of Possibility. You end up with awful sequences of non-pictures and people mumbling about montage.
It's like an endless circling around a story, a failure to look at something that is really interesting in favour of something that is, most of the time, not nearly so interesting.
If serious photography and photobooks want to punch at the weight we think they are entitled to we need to address that. We also have to think of the language that we use and who we are talking to. There is a sobriety in photography that can be stomach-churningly dull.
Sometimes looking at a photobook, or more commonly an exhibition (so lets go there), is just so depressing it makes your heart sink. How often have you been to shows where you wander around intently trying to get something out of it. And when you look around, you see other people walking around the sparsely decorated concrete space looking deeply into pictures, reading captions, and trying to fathom some kind of meaning out of something that has taken huge effort and cost to make, fabricate and show. But the work that is required to understand it for so little reward is immense. It really is a pointless exercise because essentially the work is a failure, the words are a failure, the idea is a failure. On the outside you try to put an intelligent face on, but on the inside you feel like one of the people in the picture up top.And so you leave feeling empty and something of a failure for not being smart enough to get it. But really it might be that there is nothing to get.
I've seen this happen and people excuse it and say, 'well it's not a very interesting subject'. But I disagree; everything can be made interesting if you work at it. Something like Yann Mingard's Deposit (or A Shimmer of Possibility) can be long and complex and intelligent and take some effort, but still not be boring. So it's not the length or the subject, it's the approach, an approach where tedium is embedded in the heart of the project. So if a project or a book can't be made interesting using pictures, why not just write a paper on it and forget about the camera. Surely then we will only be bored one way, rather than being both visually and verbally bored to exhaustion.
A few months back I was in Bath's best bookshop, Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights. Ed, who stocks the visual arts shelves, pointed at the Photobooks and said "Those don't sell." And then he pointed at the graphic novel section and said "But these do."
One reason the photobooks don't sell is because most of the books on offer at Mr B's are trade books, books put out by big publishers. But now the market has shifted to more bijou small-published and self-published books and that's where the money is going. The idea here is that the market hasn't grown, it has just changed.
But even the small and self-published books don't sell. Compare their sales to the mass audience and mass global appeal of graphic novels and manga. There is no comparison.
I don't know if this matters. The photobook world is a niche and let it be so. A great book can sell a few hundred copies and still be a great book. So what. Who cares.
But at the same time, because there are so many photobooks around and people are looking at them in different ways, there is an increased sophistication in how we read images, how we tie them together, how we tell stories.
I think of relatively modest books like The Spook Light Chronicles, Yolanda or Will they Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty and I see people really trying to engage with their audience in visually and verbally engaging manners. It's probably nothing new but it's something that connects to the idea of how we communicate pictures to an audience in a way that is interesting, that is outward-looking and mindful of the audience rather than inward-looking and lacking in self-awareness.
Whether that will ever translate to a mass audience I don't know. Because the really big problem with photobooks is price. As I mentioned in this post, we had an artist's book fair in Bristol a few weeks back and with ten pounds my daughter came out with loads of stuff, some free, some paid for. It had an appeal. If she went to Offprint or the stands at one of the upcoming photobook festivals, she'd come away with nothing - almost everything would be beyond her price range or she wouldn't be interested. So if people are talking about a bigger audience, you have to make it happen. And pricing is part of that.
By sheer coincidence, the subject of photobook narratives is one of the topics of a talk I'll be giving at Photobook Vienna in two weeks time. The other topic that I'll be connecting that to is my German Family Album and the question of how I can make that interesting! Because the last thing any of us need in our lives is more boredom.
Read the full programme here. I get a great tagline and William Klein is the undoubted headline of many great speakers. Ahhh, Vienna....
This week's claim to fame: I saw Midge Ure in Tony's, my local greengrocer once.
Wednesday, 3 June 2015
Detail from The True Golden Age of Photobooks from the South Netherlands School: Reviewers critique photographers of mediocre dummies during he 1475 Brussels Photobook Festival.
Why this is not the Golden Age for Photobooks! That's the title of this article that appeared in Time yesterday.
In some ways it's not. Dewi Lewis and Maarten Schilt ( both book publishers) mention how, in one way, this supposed Golden Age can't be a golden age because the Golden part of it is not translating into sales of photobooks through traditional photobook publishers.
Looked at from that perspective, the Golden Age of Photobooks was probably sometime in the 1950s when there were very few photobook publishers around and the highest grossing photobooks would sell in the tens of thousands - much as Kim Kardashian's Selfie does now (so what's changed?).
The other reason that is cited for it not being the Golden Age of Photobooks is the over-elaborate design of photobooks. It simply isn't feasible for publishers to make photobooks with masses of inserts, glued in post-it notes, tipped in photos, or elaborate folding mechanisms.
In the same way that it isn't feasible for booksellers to stock or sell these books easily; they bend, they break, they don't stack. But that is the bookseller perspective (it's the same perspective that has Rudi Thoemmes of RRB cursing white books - 'Why does anyone publish white books!' he says. 'They're hell to sell because they mark so easily and you can't sell a dirty copy').
Which is not to say that white books are inherently wrong. And nor are intricately designed books. There is no reason that a photobook should come in its traditional form. And having books that are different to what we expect makes it fun, engages us, gives us something nice to touch; I like books that integrate different layers and use texts, folds, and papers in different ways, or come in boxes, or are covered in felt, or have bits of plastic in them, or little pop-ups, or musical accompaniments, or look like playing cards, or come with a poster, or are a poster... or a jigsaw...or a production line.
And truth be told, none of these designs are new, but they are popping up all over the place left, right and centre simply because people can make them. And they are coming into trade photobook publishers too, despite all the costs and difficulties involved.
The argument is that the design often disguises the mediocrity of the book, and that there are too many mediocre books. Too true. There are so many mediocre books it is sometimes hard to fathom exactly why they were made. And as well as the mediocre self-published books that come with a fancy design that isn't going to stack on a shelf, there are the mediocre books made by trade publishers that do stack on a shelf.
And although this is slightly unfair, when it's a toss-up between a mediocre book made with a boring design and a mediocre book made with a chaotic and experimental (and maybe not always terribly well thought-out) layout that goes beyond InDesign, I'll take the latter any day of the week.
I've heard lots of people argue against mediocrity. "Do you want to contribute to the ongoing mediocrity of photography?" is something Martin Parr said to a friend when he showed him his work. It's a great quote and one that we might bear in mind as we continue with our onward outpourings of pictures, books, exhibitions and writing.
Excellence is much better than medicocrity. But then mediocrity is much better than downright dullness and stupidity.
But at the same time, perhaps we should embrace mediocrity a bit more and accept it for what it is. Mediocrity is everywhere. You can see it in the booklists of trade publishers, you can see it in the tsunami of self-published books, you can look at in the pages of the BJP or the FT Magazine or Guardian Weekend or New York Times. If you watch films or read novels, good luck finding something that isn't mediocre, and as for TV, well shoot me and die,..
I'm writing a mediocre blog post and later will have a mediocre meal made with mediocre ingredients from a mediocre shop. And so on and so on and so on.
Their is mediocrity everywhere in photography, even at the most prestigious of places. You will find it for sale at Paris Photo, on show in Tate Modern or, in the next few weeks, on the book stalls at the Kassel, Bristol or Vienna Photobook festivals (and you'll also find excellence at all those places, make no mistake).
But. that is to mistake what the enthusiasm is for photobooks in particular. It's not for the excellence of the books. It's for the process of production, promotion and dissemination and all the cack-handed discussion that goes on in the spaces in between. There is an energy about photobooks and the people who are involved in making them - and the fact that so many are self-publishing books or engaged in making dummies or short runs is part of that energy. It's a tactile energy that also translates into quite a positive social energy. It's a mixing of the physical and the visual and it does not really translate into financial reward - not for the photographers, nor the self-publishers, nor the booksellers.
It's an energy related to photobooks at the moment and it creates a forum where people can experiment, try things out and express opinions. It's an active energy and a positive energy and one that is absent in other more rarified branches of photography where people are maybe more nervous about getting out of their ivory towers and expressing an opinion in public in a democratic manner.
So if there is a Golden Age of the Photobook, it's not to do with sales, or design or excellence. It's really to do with that energy, positivity, communication and lack of pretension of the people involved in photobooks enjoy. Essentially, the Photobook World is small, but it punches way above its weight just because there are so many people with so much to say involved in this world. And when that energy ends or shifts elsewhere, or if it gets too incestuous, pretentious or self-consciously cool, or if it just reduces into an essential pointlessness, as it will one day do, then something else will have a Golden Age; the exhibition, the print, the projection, the decorated plate, whatever. Except of course it won't be a Golden Age at all. It'll just be smoke and mirrors. Because that's all anything is.