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Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Live Mediocre, Love Mediocre, Be Mediocre.

Detail from The True Golden Age of Photobooks  from the South Netherlands School: Reviewers critique photographers of mediocre dummies during he 1475 Brussels Photobook Festival.

Why this is not the Golden Age for Photobooks! That's the title of this article that appeared in Time yesterday. 

In some ways it's not. Dewi Lewis and Maarten Schilt ( both book publishers) mention how, in one way, this supposed  Golden Age can't be a golden age because the Golden part of it is not translating into sales of photobooks through traditional photobook publishers.

Looked at from that perspective, the Golden Age of Photobooks was probably sometime in the 1950s when there were very few photobook publishers around and the highest grossing photobooks would sell in the tens of thousands - much as Kim Kardashian's Selfie does now (so what's changed?).

The other reason that is cited for it not being the Golden Age of Photobooks is the over-elaborate design of photobooks. It simply isn't feasible for publishers to make photobooks with masses of inserts, glued in post-it notes, tipped in photos, or elaborate folding mechanisms. 

In the same way that it isn't feasible for booksellers to stock or sell these books easily; they bend, they break, they don't stack. But that is the bookseller perspective (it's the same perspective that has Rudi Thoemmes of RRB cursing white books - 'Why does anyone publish white books!' he says. 'They're hell to sell because they mark so easily and you can't sell a dirty copy').

Which is not to say that white books are inherently wrong. And nor are intricately designed books. There is no reason that a photobook should come in its traditional form. And having books that are different to what we expect makes it fun, engages us, gives us something nice to touch; I like books that integrate different layers and use texts, folds, and papers in different ways, or come in boxes, or are covered in felt, or have bits of plastic in them, or little pop-ups, or musical accompaniments, or look like playing cards, or come with a poster, or are a poster... or a jigsaw...or a production line. 

And truth be told, none of these designs are new, but they are popping up all over the place left, right and centre simply because people can make them. And they are coming into trade photobook publishers too, despite all the costs and difficulties involved.

The argument is that the design often disguises the mediocrity of the book, and that there are too  many mediocre books. Too true. There are so many mediocre books it is sometimes hard to fathom exactly why they were made. And as well as the mediocre self-published books that come with a fancy design that isn't going to stack on a shelf, there are the mediocre books made by trade publishers that do stack on a shelf. 

And although this is slightly unfair, when it's a toss-up between a mediocre book made with a boring design and a mediocre book made with a chaotic and experimental (and maybe not always terribly well thought-out) layout that goes beyond InDesign, I'll take the latter any day of the week. 

I've heard lots of people argue against mediocrity. "Do you want to contribute to the ongoing mediocrity of photography?" is something Martin Parr said to a friend when he showed him his work. It's a great quote and one that we might bear in mind as we continue with our onward outpourings of pictures, books, exhibitions and writing. 

Excellence is much better than medicocrity. But then mediocrity is much better than downright dullness and stupidity. 

But at the same time, perhaps we should embrace mediocrity a bit more and accept it for what it is. Mediocrity is everywhere. You can see it in the booklists of trade publishers, you can see it in the tsunami of self-published books, you can look at in the pages of the BJP or the FT Magazine or Guardian Weekend or New York Times. If you watch films or read novels, good luck finding something that isn't mediocre, and as for TV, well shoot me and die,.. 

I'm writing a mediocre blog post and later will have a mediocre meal made with mediocre ingredients from a mediocre shop. And so on and so on and so on. 

Their is mediocrity everywhere in photography, even at the most prestigious of places. You will find it for sale at  Paris Photo, on show in Tate Modern or, in the next few weeks, on the book stalls at the Kassel, Bristol or Vienna Photobook festivals (and you'll also find excellence at all those places, make no mistake). 

But. that is to mistake what the enthusiasm is for photobooks in particular. It's not for the excellence of the books. It's for the process of production, promotion and dissemination and all the cack-handed discussion that goes on in the spaces in between. There is an energy about photobooks and the people who are involved in making them - and the fact that so many are self-publishing books or engaged in making dummies or short runs is part of that energy. It's a tactile energy that also translates into quite a positive social energy. It's a mixing of the physical and the visual and it does not really translate into financial reward - not for the photographers, nor the self-publishers, nor the booksellers. 

It's an energy related to photobooks at the moment and it creates a forum where people can experiment, try things out and express opinions. It's an active energy and a positive energy and one that is absent in other more rarified branches of photography where people are maybe more nervous about getting out of their ivory towers and expressing an opinion in public in a democratic manner. 

So if there is a Golden Age of the Photobook, it's not to do with sales, or design or excellence. It's really to do with that energy, positivity,  communication and lack of pretension of the people involved in photobooks enjoy. Essentially, the Photobook World is small, but it punches way above its weight just because there are so many people with so much to say involved in this world.  And when that energy ends or shifts elsewhere, or if it gets too incestuous, pretentious or self-consciously cool, or if it just reduces into an essential pointlessness, as it will one day do, then something else will have a Golden Age; the exhibition, the print, the projection, the decorated plate, whatever. Except of course it won't be a Golden Age at all. It'll just be smoke and mirrors. Because that's all anything is. 


Julia said...

Maybe we should reframe this issue. Do we make an effort to reach audiences outside the niche that is the photobook community? I don't think so. Every year, I see books with mainstream appeal that could function as entry points for novices that are completely ignored in year-end lists, or worse, mocked in forums as "too commercial", which I find very sad.

colin pantall said...

it's a good question. 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?

Ah... there's my next blog post...

Thanks Julia. What do you think? Should it try to expand the market?

Australian Photograph Collector said...

My passion for collecting things photographic is driven by the diversity of items that underpin the history of photography. Photography has been driven by changes in technology and has also driven those changes and all along from the earliest days there has been the photobook. And so the photobook itself is also diverse. One could not possibly collect every photobook. Before the modern era I know of a dealer whose ambition it was to collect every book containing a woodburytype print. I collect those photobooks which interest me and which I can afford but in particular contain a tipped in print and I think therein lies the potential for a great collection. But also I collect photographic postcards and these are diverse as well. A favorite is the postally used set issued by Magnum for the Postcards From America series. And so the diversity and interest for all things photographic rolls along driven by history and change. Indulge the passion collect photography in the form that engages you.

colin pantall said...

Yes, right on. I think your tastes are very different than mine, but photography is a huge and diverse place - and the more we de-ghettoise our minds and recognise that we have our own tastes, obsessions and interests, the better. I think the problem comes when a small sect places them above other photographic factions - it's a strange and wonderful world out there and photography and people interested in photography should engage with it. Which is what you're saying.

John W MacPherson said...

In 20 years time a crappy photobook will likely still be kicking around, being thumbed, getting fingermarked, possibly even enjoyed by some and then...lo....rediscovered and hailed as being from 'The Golden Age'. Existing in the flesh no less. Unlike the much better stuff that never got beyond pixels and foundered in the great Cloud Storage Crash of 2039. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Brian Steptoe said...

Remember the mention by Gerry Badger of John Szarkowski's story, that instead of typically printing 1000-2000 copies selling at $10-12 (at 1960 prices), a much larger print run of a Garry Winogrand book enabled an economic price of $2-3 per copy. Result: the same number were sold as for photobooks at the higher prices.

Photobook Collector said...

My incorporation of your discussion: