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Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Drawing Your Daughter's Tombstone

picture by Philip Toledano

Philip Toledano has another book out. It's the story of his sister, Claudia. She died when he was 6. It's a heart-breaking book in which snapshots, notes and personal memorabilia are shown alongside a skyscape of floaty clouds. In the years after Claudia's death, Toledano was obsessed with skies and stars and universes. He doesn't remember those years of grief so in the book these serve as a celestial substitute (think of Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death).

They grief is recalled through boxes of keepsakes he found after his parents died. He shows one of the cardboard boxes and then the pages open to reveal pictures of what's inside; a blue checked school dress, a lock of hair, a picture drawn in felt-tip. "To Mummy and Daddy. Love Claudia," it reads. Coiled within this memorabilia is a tight knot of grief. It's a very small leap to guess what went on over these boxes, the tightened stomach and the spasms of tears. It's there on the page. Now, Toledano is a photographer and a father, so there is a double loss, that he feels as a brother and that he feels as a father. And with time there are more complex resonances. He becomes a different kind of son and feels the echoes of his parents' grief, expressed through emotions that he never quite remembers but he is reliving now through the prism of his new fatherhood. We see a picture his father drew of the headstone  that was to be made for Claudia, and then we see the words Toledano wrote.

"My sweet, gentle father.
What must that have been like?

To draw his own daughter's

The paper is black and complicated and sometimes backed in super-gloss olive-drab. It's the kind of colour you used to get in Airfix kits of Spitfires and Messerschmidts, but I'm sure that's nothing to do with anything. I'm not sure what it's to do with but it doesn't matter. The story comes  through a mixing of image, memory, text and relationship and it reaches out to us in a most direct manner.

Toledano productive and puts it out there using all the means available to him, which might be many. He takes a chance and he tries to get an audience, a big audience. I like that and I think it should be something of a lesson to those of us who delight in our niches.

Not everyone likes his work though. Anouk Kruithof did a blog post earlier in the year along the lines of, so then, there are so many lists of top 10 photobooks, how about a list of a book that you hate. So after doing the books she loved (and it's a great list even if it goes a bit Nathan Barley at times), she did the book she hated. She selected Toledano's Reluctant Father.

I kind of understand what she is getting at, but ultimately the reasons she doesn't like the book are the reasons I do like the book. That might be my taste. I like grand narratives and archetypes. I love Bollywood and anime and Calamity Jane. I am easily moved and I like being moved. And The Reluctant Father does move me. It is a really good attempt to express something that is not often talked about but is a very common sentiment, a male equivalent of the post-natal depression and domestic overload and suppressed infanticide that new mothers so often have. Toledano uses his picture and tells a story quite consciously and to as large an audience as possible. He uses sentiment and he uses emotion and takes us on a journey. And he's quite right to do so. That's what story telling is all about.

Kruithof's post was passed over in silence. Averted eyes and online clearings of the throat gave a "er, yes, well, let's move on from here" feeling to things. Nobody wanted to volunteer their own thoughts, even though there are plenty of people who HATE plenty of books. They just didn't want to say it. They weren't as brave as Kruithof. She had an opinion that asked for more critique and she expressed it.

The truth is photography is full of different worlds; your commercial, your editorial, your fashion, your art, your academic, your photobook and so on. We like to stay cosy in our own photographic orbits. It's all very easy to critique somebody outside your immediate firmanent (that's why saying Jimmy Nelson is crap doesn't count for dickshit!) but somebody who is in the same orbit. That's a difficult thing to do because we don't like to piss on people in our backyard.

And of course these photoworlds overlap all the time, in these little tectonic photo-shifts where one culture comes up against another. Toledano comes from a more commercial world and I quite like the energy of this commercial  world, both for its ability to get things done without agonising about it endlessly, but also for its ability to see beyond the immediacy of itself and its self-awareness that what it does for a living is often actually crap. The cliche of the photographer who makes a good living from photography (that's the mythical commercial photographer) is "the personal work keeps me sane." We all make nonsense at times, but perhaps it's only those who make the most transactional nonsense are honest enough to admit it.

It's a rare thing to get anybody making 'personal work', writing for an academic journal, publishing a self-indulgent photobook or receiving an arts council grant to confess in public, for the record, that "actually, this stuff that I photographed for my latest project is a load of unadulterated dreck! That's why I shoot weddings. It keeps me grounded and stops me being a tosspot." It's a rare thing but it shouldn't be so rare because it is often true. But for people who make work commercially you hear it all the time. From Blumenfeld and down, it's a constant refrain and a recognition of the different photographic strata you need to simultaneously inhabit.

The photo ghettos you get within different photographic genres (are they genres? What are they?) are echoed regionally. In the UK, there are little photo-ghettos in Brighton, South Wales, Birmingham, the Black Country, Belfast, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Bristol, all divided and split between little generic factionettes. Oh, and there's a whole bunch in London. Some are community based, some academic, some photobook, some a bit punk or self-consciously cool, most a bit of a mix of everything. Most of these communities don't have much money, some do. Some are open-minded and welcoming, some are more closed. There's support and communication for the most part, but also a bit of bitchiness, envy and resentment - everywhere.

And that's leaving out the biggest photographic communities, photo clubs and online groups that deal with travel or wildlife or cars or certain kinds of landscape. They are the photography communities, the ones that I rarely deal with in these blog posts, interesting though they undoubtedly are. And there's a reason for that. Which I shouldn't have to go into. I already do this blog to keep me sane from other stuff.

The photobook world is a strange one. In this article, Francis Hodgson (whose writing I always enjoy. He's got opinions and they're not silly) wonders at the photobook world and why certain things are considered photobooky and others aren't (the example of Donovan Wylie may not be the best. I have the impression that Wylie is much more of an white-wall man rather than a book man). Like Kruithof before him,  Hodgson asks where the quality is and by extension where the non-quality is? And why the photobook world is not mass market?

Again there are different photobook worlds, and I suspect that Hodgson is talking about something beyond what goes in the world I like to think I write about. The photobook world is small, but it is open. Anyone can join it, it's quite welcoming. It's quite democratic. Anyone can write about any book they like; a catalogue, a monograph, a collection, a novel illustrated with archive pictures. I know I do.

But making a photobook is also a  very lived-in and a very visible process. It's shared. In a quiet way, it can be a performance. That's what both Toledano and Kruithof understand. Toledano's Days with my Father was a hugely successful  project that went way beyond the photobook world and engaged its viewers both through the publication and the preceding social media version of the project. It was moving and, as with The Reluctant Father and When I was Six, was intended to move. He tells a story and he tells it extraordinarily well.

Kruithof's books are very different. They are a documentation of her socially involved photography. In Untitled, she looked at how we curate pictures, how we look at them. And she got us to look at them by not showing them. She made us slow down in our viewing of the pictures. She addressed their slippiness, but in a sparky, slightly chaotic way, which is at odds with the stereotype of the cool design-obsessessed Dutch. She goes beyond cool. Which I really like.

That's what the best photobooks do. They make us slow down in our viewing of images, they build up ideas and stories and pictures.  Few of them are the ultimate finished article. They are part of a way of using images, words, layout, colour, design, emotion and a hundred other elements essential to telling a story that has at least some kind of visual element. They take chances.

Toledano published his book with Dewi Lewis, with Lewis covering the costs. Kruithof self-publishes most of the time. And that costs money. In the past, she's done the artist's book overlap, so between them they cover most of the photobook gamut from the rough-edged handmade to offset, clothbound, from an edition of  a few hundred to one of a few thousand. Either way, within that gamut everyone can make a photobook (and if you can't reduce the edition to ten or twenty and make it by hand). Everyone can buy a photobook. Everyone can write about a photobook and say it's good or it's bad and why that might be the case. this section has been edited so a few corrections have been put it here

It's a bit punk in other words, but with the proviso that we're not quite at the stage where people in Iowa, the Potteries or Fishponds are hanging around bus stations in charity-shop jackets with Akina or SPBH or Dalpine written on the back. We're not quite at that stage yet.

The photobook world is very open and accessible. It's not a closed world or a self-selecting world in the way other photography environments are. We can't all get access to a fine print, or an archive or even get to the big city to see an earth-shattering show. Not even online. But with photobooks, even online, we can often see what is not at our fingertips. There are people showing the work, writing about the work, selling the work.

It's social in other words. At the lower end of the photobook food chain, people are making an effort to make books. And they are doing it in a community-minded way. It joins up and it's supportive. It's supportive for the simple reason that most of the people making photobooks don't have much money, are doing it independently and they're finding it difficult. They're struggling but they're doing it. That's reason enough to support them.

For the big monographs and the exhibition catalogues there is a different market. They feature as free content in newspapers, magazines and online. They have a far bigger audience than, for example, most of the books featured on this blog or on Photo Eye. And quite right too. More often than not the photography is great and the stories are great and the pictures are great. In a trade kind of way, sniff sniff - (the other side of the whole punk analogy is that there is that fetishisation of small labels, the obscure and it could be incredibly exclusive. And it only lasted a few years and ended up transmogrifying into something awful and then the eighties happened and god help us! Who are the New Romantics of the photobook world. Find them and kill them all before it's too late).

But on this blog, on most blogs or online sites, the books featured are made by people who are self-publishing and self-marketing or publish with small publishers. The books they make are built up through enthusiasm and passion and a large degree of trust. Much of the time these books are shown as works in progress, and the people making them put their work on the line digitally as it is made. And they're selling their books through independent booksellers who are as far away from Amazon as possible. These booksellers do it for love too, and add a real personal touch, and don't make much money from it. But they have some fun, and they get things done.

Embedded in this little photobook world, in the Photo-Eye Lists and the Clubs and the Festivals is this basic truth. There is one side of it where making a photobook isn't just about making great word, it's about taking part in something that is very hands-on, giving and social.

And part of the totality of photobooks is the idea that the whole thing is moving in some direction, that there is a development of ways of working, designing and showing photobooks. When I review a book I try to engage with the thought process behind the photography, the book, the way of seeing, the engagement with family or people or place. Or the materials, or touch or size.

It's part experimental in other words. It's small and it's a preservation of our humanity in a detached and disengaged world. And it's enjoyable.

Not many photobooks are truly great. But the whole photobook phenomenon is something that is great, has impetus and punches way beyond its weight. People enjoy writing about it, debating it. I do, Toledano does, Kruithof does.

So that is why I think Anouk Kruithof never got to much of a response to her idea (despite it being a great idea). And why people are not so critical of the smaller photobooks. Because why bother? When life is tough, you don't have much money but you want to express yourself, what's wrong with that? If you're working hard and trying to stay true to something, and are reaching that some place, however imperfectly, why should you criticise it, why should you try to judge the legacy of something that may not have too much impetus in itself but does as part of something bigger.

I can get annoyed by anything and everyone, including myself. I do so on a daily basis. It's all annoying isn't it. But it's tiresom to be constantly annoyed. I'd far rather be happy. I'd far rather take pleasure in life of photography than constantly find it problematic or troublesome. Fuck that for a game of soldiers!

Mudita is the word for taking pleasure in somebody else's happiness. It's the opposite of Schadenfreude. It's a Buddhist concept which is part of a world view where overall contentment and happiness reigns. It's a word that fits Photobook Land, because it is very positive on the whole. "That's a great book," is a phrase you hear so often. And it's one that makes me happy.

I'm happy so you're happy too.  That's the spirit!

Buy When I was Six Here


Dewi Lewis said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Julia said...

The problem I had with Kruithof's critique of Toledano's book is that it somehow crossed over into a personal attack. And like you said, trashing something outside your orbit is too easy. Whereas critiquing something like "Hidden Islam" takes more guts.

colin pantall said...

Plenty of people pick on Hidden Islam - but funnily enough they are people from outside his orbit as well. I had one person characterise them as 'the bullies who pick on the kid who won the race.'

One of the things I really like about Nicolo Degiorgis is his ability to handle criticism (both the constructive kind and the dumbass kind - he gets both) and to engage with it.

Joerg Colberg put something on his ello site in response to this, Julia. The basic lines of it are don't pick on the little people when there are big fish to fry. That's a really bad mixed metaphor (if that) but you get the idea...

And that we are all part of a creative world, one that values something above money and the symbols of success. And perhaps we need to reflect that with how we deal with each other.

And I think we're doing that already very well.


Julia said...

I used "Hidden Islam" just as an example of a book almost unanimously praised by critics. The idea I was trying to get across is that many people (me included) is scared to say that they don't like something lauded by critics to not come across as uneducated or stupid in some circles.

colin pantall said...

Oh yes, absolutely. You don't have to like everything and you should be allowed to say it. With you all the way there, Julia. I think the other difficulty is sometimes we only see stuff online and so it's kind of difficult to say - I don't see everything that comes out, not by a million miles, so it's all guessology.

I suppose the only thing you can do is try to understand where people are coming from and take it from there. Hidden Islam isn't for everyone for sure.

Unknown said...

this is a comment for Julia, doing that: writing that indeed quite extreme list-review piece I did was a loud shout for more critique in this photobook world, which was also clearly mentioned there. And at the same time, that book of Toledano takes somehow part of the photobook world although it's a commercial coffee table book. Luckily I dont have to be an objective critic, or writer, because I am not, I am artist who wants to raise questions and that;s basically what I tried to do there.