Thursday, 4 June 2015

Photobooks: "These don't sell." Graphic Novels: "These do."

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
Striking Pictures
The Ability to Tell a Story
The Ability to Be Direct
Understanding who you want your audience to be
Understanding Pricing/Design/Marketing
Self-awareness (of yourself and the limitations of photobook land) and the ability not to take yourself too seriously
Being Interesting
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, Philip Toledano, 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.

ViennaPhotoBookFestival 2014

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.

1 comment:

William Ash said...

Writers seemed to have made the medium of the book work? Why not the photographer author? I think one of the problems is we don't have the long history of the book as writers do. We don't make books that engage with people.

But the price thing is really important. Yes, your book might be worth a hundred dollars, but is it worth a hundred dollars to a buyer? There are printing option where we can make photo books reasonable--not Blurb, they are a vanity press that price too high )but at least someone is making money from photo books). And this is where we need to start talking about the economics of publishing. Authors need to understand cost and price. We need to understand distribution and marketing. We need to figure out how to find audiences--audiences are not passive or even one dimensional.

Jorg Colberg of Conscientious commented on this post. He says we should not be making books for money. Why? Publisher make books for money all the time. Should a artist be able to support themselves through their craft? Writers seem to do this. Not photographer? Some photographers do not need income from their work, and that is a very fortunate position to be in, but if we leave cultural discourse and creativity only in the hands of those that can afford to subsidize it, what are we going to get? It sounds like a very narrow point of view.

So people might say they don't want to do "commercial" stuff. But why does a good book need to be commercial? Commercial like Ursula le Guin? Or commercial like Neil Gaiman? You can make work for yourself, but when you make a book you can still think of an audience without the need of photographing blonds in red dresses.

Publishing and making books requires skills. I am afraid, like some of the photography in some of these books, we are not learning these skill. Designing books is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, but I have spent a long time developing skills and continue to do so. Photographers need to start developing our literature, both in breadth and depth, just as writers have.

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