Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Excel Food, Focus Group Photography


Skinnerboox is another new publisher making photobooks that lie at the boundaries of mainstream photography, books that are never going to be hitting the Amazon Top 1000 Photography and Video Titles.

In case you're wondering (and discounting the Ansel Adams and Sierra Club Calendars) the top sellers are The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Humans of New York, Humans of New York Stories and Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide, and The Dogist: Photographic Encounters with 1,000 Dogs.

Skinnerboox are well and truly in the Photobook Village, and you get the feeling that is where they choose to live, It's an ungentrified village, and they live in a run-down cottage with the roof falling in, right off the green, a short stroll up from the pub. It's a crowded, poor little place filled with publishers, photographers, students, busy-social-network bees and a rag-tag of wannabe this-and-thats as well as a whole bunch of creative or work-shy odds-and-sods.

They could get out their SUVs out and go and live in the Photobook Suburbs where people have better skin tones and speak a bit more professionally, but really why would they? Photobook Suburbia is a part of town you really don't want to live in. They have books like The Dogist in Photobook Suburbia. The Dogist got me excited for a minute but then I saw that it had a chapter on 'Dogs in Fancy Outfits' and my I realised it was neither a Showdogs nor a Park. The very words The Mask of Dita von Teese leaves me more than cold, and whileI know there are people who get excited by Star Wars (I have a nephew who thinks the original one is the greatest film ever made - which makes me smile, then weep, then cry, then bash the walls with my fists), I'm not one of them.

And Humans of New York? Oh, I tried to like it, but really it's much more fun (and very unfair fun I admit) to manufacture some outrage about its inherent mawkishness. There's a pub near where I live called the The George. It's in a beautiful location by the Avon and Kennet Canal, it has a captive market and it's pleasant enough for a quick pint if you're going somewhere else except that it's chronically understaffed so you always have to queue. The reason for that is it's built to maximise its income from food sales, but as a restaurant it is the most dispiriting place you can imagine; a place that serves food and drink that has been conjured up on a boardroom menu, that has had all the life and flavour cooked out of it by an attitude that has a spreadsheet as the main ingredient. It's food that comes on a plate with little signs that are supposed to stoke up the taste buds and satisfy the conceit that you've been out for a meal. But basically it's Food in a Suit, it's Excel Food. Humans of New York feels a bit like that too; Focus Group Photography, Photography in a suit!

But it sells a lot of copies, tells a simple story, and gets a massive audience. So maybe it's doing something right. It's always worth remembering that. While also remembering that there's a really good reason why I hate it.

Anyway, here are three books by Skinnerboox, all of which share certain similarities, none of which tell the story in the most simple or direct of manners.


Aliqual by Massimo Mastrorillo styles itself as a 'modern version of Gulliver's Travels. The title comes from the game of repeating a word until it loses its meaning. Say photobook over and over and you get the idea. Aliqual is a new formalist junkyard of a book, its shiny pages replete with images of deserted interiors lit by hard flash and inhabited by the detritus of a dead civilisation? Our civilisation? So there's a dusty pile of shoe boxes with the shoes spilling out; some old, abandoned warehouse? There's the grime-splattered windscreen of an unused car, a window ledge covered in a mound of bird droppings, and a pile of chairs rusting and rotting in an inglorious heap. The final picture is of a half-completed jigsaw of an idyllic thatched cottage, a nod to what might-have-been, what-should-have-been, what never-will-be.


Apparitions by Gustavo Sagorsky is a book that continues a metaphysical investigation into the fragments of existence. Skeletons, skulls, glimmering specks of a shattered windscreen, mutilated lizards and curious snails all present moments that have happened and then repackage them  into an opaque photobook enquiry into the nature of both existence and the image. Apparitions is about how we link images in our minds and how these images make themselves into a larger narrative. What that narrative is we never quite know. It's an open-ended question.


The First Day of Good Weather by Vittorio Mortarotti also uses textures and destruction in its visual narrative but it also has a personal take. The story is based in Japan and the images connect to the 2011 tsunami, the death of Mortarotti's father and brother in a car crash, a bunch of letters from the brother to his Japanese girlfriend, and the bombing of Hiroshima - that's where the title of the book, The First Day of Good Weather, comes from. Here the wrecked cars have an emotional charge, the darkened pictures are flicking into personal, geological and historical patterns of destruction and the layers of mortality float from the landscape to the portraits and back again - again, in a manner that is not always that easy to pin down. It's a book about grief, the past and the future, and how the one can never change and nor can the other. Everything is connected.

Read an interview with Mortarotti here. 

Buy the Skinnerboox books here.

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