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Monday, 14 May 2018

San Sebastian and the Brilliant Photobook Phenomenon

The Photobook Phenomenon exhibition at the San Telmo Museum in San Sebastian (executively curated by Moritz Neumüller)   is a wonderful exhibition on the photobook - and more importantly on the photobook and its function in society. It takes place in a museum that blends a contemporary facade with a cloister off which runs a chapel decorated with the paintings of Sert. It's an amazing building for a start.

Step into the exhibition and you see one space that is dominated by part of the collection of Gabriela Cendoya-Bergareche. Gabriela has been a huge supporter of photobooks over the years and donated her collection to the museum - a donation which provided the impetus for this exhibition.

In the exhibition itself, you see her books both on the shelf and also on a table surrounded by bean bags, there for you to view at your pleasure. They are also housed in the museum library, so providing an amazing resource for anybody visiting the town. This collection has a contemporary feel so if you want to see anything significant that has been produced in the last 20 years, this is the place to go with both regular and special editions from Akina books, Reminders Photography Stronghold, Beijing Silvermine and beyond giving it a really international feel that combines with the idea of the book as an object. This is a place where paper, bindings, and touch come close.

Move beyond this and there for you to open and leaf through at your leisure, are some of Martin Parr's best 57 books.

On the walls there are presentations of works by August Sander. Henri Cartier Bresson's ideal library of 90 books is shown with his portraits of writers and artists on the walls above, and there is a feature on William Klein's New York work.

All well and good. I thought that was going to be it, but then you slip into the next room. Here you get a collection of photobook histories that you can look through and cross reference with the books featured earlier; global histories, Dutch histories, Chinese histories, Latin American histories, Spanish histories, you get the idea. You can spend hours on this table alone.

But if it was only about books it would be a bit limited. The Photobook Phenomenon is about how photobooks act as a focal point and sounding board for wider political trends. You see that as you head into the protest and propaganda section. Giant vinyls featuring images from fascist Portugal, from Nazi Germany, from protest books that run from Laura El-Tantawy's Shadow of the Pyramids or Veronica Fieiras's The Disappeared back to screen based presentations on Chinese propaganda and original copies of Willem van der Bol's Nazi Hel.

At the end of the room there is the centrepiece, a wall of covers from Der Führer magazine. It's a wall full of Hitlers. And there to one side is a veritable snowstorm of the 1945 publication KZ. KZ (as in Konzentration) consisted of  pictures of atrocity from newly liberated concentration camps. It was a blunt and direct message to the Geman people of the regime they had supported, and the snowstorm represents the airborne means of delivery of the magazine to German cities.

The final room has another change of mood. Here things are more contemplative. There's a presentation of the post-911 Democracy of Photographs, and then we're into the contemporary photobooks with interviews, slideshows and books to handle from around the world. It's global, it's diverse.

I was hugely impressed by the whole exhibition (as were other people who believe this sets a new level for the presentation of photobooks ). There is a danger with books to over-rely on the books and the interest of the audience in photobooks. You can have too many books, as anyone who's ever been to a book fair will know.

Here the giant vinyls, the prints, the videos, and the text all lead into a fantastic presentation with a balance between the book as object, the book as information, the book as entertainment, and the ways in which it is a reflection and a creation of news.

It wasn't preaching to the converted, or even attempting to convert, but highlighting, through the visual, the lingual, and the tactile, the relevance of the photobook. You could see how this could be developed further and the avenues that were being explored, because this was an opening of photobooks, an engagement of the book form with how we understand the world.

Because books do reflect the world around us, and are a product of the world around us. In the evening I was part of a panel of speakers on the relevance of the photobook. I gave a talk on All Quiet on the Home Front - which is all about how my relationship with my daughter developed through the landscape.

    picture by Gabriela Cendoya-Bergareche

Laia Abril gave a talk on her brilliant new book On Abortion (one of my books of the year so far together with Carmen Winant's My Birth) and the process of making visual information engaging and accessible. On Abortion is a reflection of the world, a response to the misrepresentation and hijacking of women's control of their own bodies by the religious right and other reactionary forces.

A few weeks ago I asked some photographers, editors, and publishers about the future of photojournalism. One version of the responses was photojournalism is dead. That's it! Forget it, you're not going to be the next James Nachtwey, never mind that Time ran a whole issue of his pictures. It's dead. Photojournalism. Move along please.

But the other side of that is that photojournalism is in the process of redefining itself. It's become about working in different ways, representing events in different ways, and developing a new visual language. It's about enlarging the world and representing it in all its diversity and complexity, something that has been lacking in the past (and the present). That's something that is now being recognised. That's a start.

It's also about emphasising the personal, and ultimately creating your own content. Because why surrender your work to a publication owned by some reactionary conglomerate that is guaranteed to misrepresent that work - and in another section, undermine it completely thanks to the publication's editorial position (photography has always been the shadow of a liberal conscience in otherwise reactionary newspapers. It's the beard!).

In the mythical old days, the rationale was that you got paid for doing this and a photographer could get a good spread and the image was king. Once that's gone, well what's left.  Not much.

I see Laia's work as being part of that new way of working. It's a long-term project that goes beneath the surface but also uses design, video, and persuasion as tools that connect culturally and politically to external events that have roots that go way back to broader historical currents. It's the new photojournalism if you like, a photojournalism which is actually incredibly more sophisticated and demanding than what came before.

That's one way of looking at it. If you want to be a bit anal with genres and labels, you can say it's not photojournalism - and in many, many ways, it's not. And then you're left with the idea that photojournalism is dead. But I prefer the other model.

Next up was Julian Baron who talked about his practice, and the ways in which the book can be made accessible and moved from the private to the public sphere. Being in Julian's company is like being in the presence of this amazing energy, an energy you always end up learning something from, an energy that is firing on all cylinders in all directions, all at the same time - in a lovely and very open and welcoming way. You also end up questioning what a book is, and opening up the idea of what a book is or can be, something that is challenging to one's complacency and so ultimately invigorating.

In the group discussion led by Jon Uriarte that followed, in which he talked about how books and their design provide an avenue into a different way of considering ideas, understanding images, and disrupting images. His latest book (which you can download here) is a case in point. It's a book that was taken to the street in Peru but is also  a downloadable book that is free. But if you want to have it as an object you can buy the screenprinted cover, copy off your download, and bind it yourself. This was one of those rare occasions when the talks ended too soon. But that's a good thing too sometimes. Short and sweet can be good.

Brilliant is also how I would describe Julian's book-jockeying skills. I took part in a book-jockey duet with him. Brilliant is not how I'd describe my book-jockeying skills. My attempt was a bit like  John Malkovich's first puppeteering performance in Being John Malkovich.

But the location was amazing, in the San Telmo chapel with giant paintings by Sert decorating the chapel walls. It doesn't get any better than this. This was as good as it gets. I take this opportunity to announce my retirement from book-jockeying at this dizzy peak. You've been fabulous. I couldn't have done this without you. I love you all.

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