As Creative Director (together with Alejandro Acin) of Photobook Bristol I've been a little absent from this blog for the last few months taking care of Photobook Bristol Business, including running content on the PBB blog (some of which I'll highlight on this blog as a way of slowly getting it in gear before shutting it down for the summer).
The final post on the the Photobook Bristol gave a twitterfied overview of the festival, but maybe didn't quite capture the spirit of the event possibly because it was virtually unreadable due to all the typos.
And it was the spirit of the event that made it so special. Because it was special. That's what I felt, and that's what even the most cynical, bitter, and hardened photobook festival attendees in the audience felt. Photobook Bristol is very much based in the community; the volunteers, the people who host the speakers, the venue, the food, are all Bristol based. That makes a difference.
Tied in with that sense of localness is an outward looking philosophy. So there were speakers from five continents; in addition to the European speakers, there was Mariela Sancari from Central America, David Solo and Susan Meiselas from North America, James Barnor and Laura El-Tantawy from Africa, and Amak Mahmoodian and Yumi Goto from Asia. Photobook Bristol may be local but it's not parochial.
It's also a festival, not a conference or a symposium. So it's a bit of a pow-wow of photography and photobook types. At the same, it ultimately strips down to a bunch of people involved in photobooks, art, publishing or photography listening to a bunch of other people involved in photobooks, publishing or photography talking. For three days straight.
If this were a conference, this might be a painful thing involving lots of attempts to stop the eyelids from drooping, but what became increasingly apparent this year was that nearly all those speakers involved in photobooks, publishing or photography didn't actually talk that much about photobooks, publishing or photography - mainly because it's not that interesting beyond a certain threshold.
Instead they talked about other things that were much more interesting; like what it is to suddenly find yourself without a home, or the hatred needed to scratch penmarks across the face and eyes of a passport photograph, or the reactions you get when you show art lovers pornography at a gallery opening.
It was entertaining and the talks came with music, with singing, with poetry, with literature, with film. The main intent was to be interesting, to be entertaining even! Deeply serious content was in there as well - but it was secondary to the story. The story exemplified the content and so made it accessible, and not dry.
That indicates an increasing openness of thinking, of a fluidity of ideas and how you can combine images with text, with music, with sound, with sculpture to tell a story, to nail an idea. So it's photobooks going beyond the printed page.
I don't really give a monkeys about discussions on how the photobook will take over, or how to grow the market, or edition sizes, or whether it's a vanity object or not (and there are a bunch of articles on this blog that talk about this). To me it's a niche market of enthusiasts who have passion for what they do, what they make and who they communicate with, and are seeking new ways to do all of these things.
I don't think the photobook market will grow or go mainstream. But I think a lot of the ideas being developed from photobooks will develop and be used in different forms. That's where it will have weight.
Tied in with that openness in the way of working, there is a large shift in the way of talking about work. There is a willingness to experiment and try new things, and in accompaniment with that there is a recognition that not everything always works, that people don't necessarily know how things work. There is a kind of confidence in this lack of knowledge; a confidence in having a lack of confidence. And that was recognised by the audience, and respected and appreciated, So there is a kindness and a generosity in there on the part of the audience. That's very important.
There is also an understanding that an unneccessary opacity and the tendency to linger on points that exaggerrate the importance and voice of the photographer and her/his influence in the world - are arrogant, pointless and ultimately tedious.
You need to be interesting in other words. You need to tell a story. The loosening up of documentary practice has led to a loosening up of the way people make work - and talk about work. It has led to a greater degree of uncertainty in their work, and people seem to recognise this quite readily. And this has led to a loosening up of the way people listen about work.
So instead of an endless stream of questions on the ethics of this or that, or the politics of representation, the questions asked by the audience came more from an equal footing, an attempt to try to understand the how and why of the work. Embedded in these attempts were all the usual questions on ethics and politics. But these things weren't front loaded and so the effect was more of a search for answers rather than an attack dog mentality.
It seems that everybody is trying to understand how images work - on their own, in books, in installations, with music, with text - and there's a recognition that nobody is quite certain. That makes for a discussion and atmosphere that is both invigorating, democratic and, ultimately, interesting.
And I think that is part of what made this year such a success.
In any case, here are a few prize nuggets from the weekend, along with some images.
Dragana Jurisic: "Nationalism is for stupid people”
Sonia Berger of @dalpinebooks . It’s better to have an excess of books than too few books
Ivars Gravlejs: Being a photographer at a newspaper is “like a taxi driver profession.”
Ken Grant: “My dad never told me I could get arrested for driving the transit van to the timber yard when I was 12.”
James Barnor: “When you take pictures of babies you have to be patient and you have to be alert”
Martin Parr: “If you ask most curators, they don’t know who Krass Clement is.”
Krass Clement: “I love the modern world but I can’t support it.”
Krass Clement: “You can’t live without humour and at the end of your life you die. That’s what you’re sure of in life.”
Ania Nalecka on photobook design: “The first rule of design. There are no rules, there are only consequences.”
Ania Nalecka: “A Photobook gives you dots to connect, not drawing the lines. The question is how far you put the dots apart.”
Laura El-Tantawy: “After photographing one, two, three protests, you’re basically done.”
Laura El-Tantawy: “The narrative around the Revolution has been fragmented, and manipulated in every way.”
Mark Power: "What can a foreigner bring, or see in another country that people in that country can’t see."
Dan Cockrill: “Let me shit upon Avon and piss on Shakespeare’s grave.”
And the stand out? There were many stand outs, but Martin Parr in conversation with Krass Clement was something I will never forget.