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Friday, 5 June 2015

Vienna Photobook and the Entertainment of Photography

"My mother was quite disappointed. She hardly knew him. But my father thought my mother was wonderful and he was very happy. Emotionally, he was a fairly reticent person; he would happily give me a great bear hug but for the finer things he wasn’t quite with it. So really my mother wasn’t that happily married but did her duty."

So my talk at Vienna is going to be about my German Family Album (you can see some of the pictures here and more of them here) and the stories that Photobooks can tell.

The problem for me is how do you tell family stories, and they are quite tragic and sad story when those stories are overshadowed by the horrors of Nazi Germany.

How can I uncover the layers of different histories through the conflicting recollections and non-recollections of family members? How can I organise the mixed strata of a series of family albums; albums in which there are both the conventional representations of family life as well as pictures where little cracks appear, ambiguities become apparent and an ultimate sadness of life in 1930s Germany is brought to the fore.

It's White Ribbon meets Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (aka Generation War), and it is devilishly difficult to do.

The problem is combining a visual narrative with a textual one, while negotiating the interference caused by the mass of film, literary and historical material on the matter, one in which my family is set squarely on the wrong side. It doesn't give much leeway. How can I tell the story with pictures and words and is it a story worth telling? The reason for making this the subject of my talk is to give me some ideas, but to be honest it has only confused me more.

But it has given me an excuse to revisit some great photobooks and see how they handle telling a story, and that has revealed to me how very rigorously people are engaging with story telling through photobooks.

One of the major problems with photobooks (which I mentioned in these posts from earlier this week on the supposed Golden Age of Photobooks) is they are subject to interference.

So often the tone is set through academia and this infects the timbre of the photobook. You find yourself seeing these great pictures, or really intelligent visual insights, but it's spoilt by the words that accompany it. This is why the day when photobooks become the subject of serious academic study is probably (not definitely because academic study can be a blessing) the day that all the energy and madness and chaos of the current photobook market is dissipated.

We all love Azoulay, Barthes and Baudrillard, but you are killing your audience if the book starts with the dense essay that ticks off the names of the usual suspects. It might tell people how educated you are in conventional photographic theory, but that really means diddly-squiddly to most people. If you want to tell people about your intelligence, rather than spending your £15,000 on making a photobook,  you might as well print a bunch of flyers saying how smart you are, and stand on the corner of the local High Street handing them out to whoever is daft enough to take them. You'll get a bigger audience and at a cost of say £100 (for 1,000 flyers if you design them yourself) you'll save yourself a bunch of money and get a far bigger readership.

But then I suspect that sometimes people don't want an open audience, they want an audience that is closed, an echo chamber of other people who are doing the same kind of thing, and the bigger the budget the amplifying effect it has on the statement you make. Which is fine, as long as you are self-aware enough to understand the essential tedium and irrelevance of the whole two-ring circus.

Making a successful photobook is not about ticking boxes or showing your scholarship. It is about telling a story well. Using pictures, using words, using design, using paper. It can be smart, it should be smart, but no matter what the subject, it should look outwards rather than inwards. That is where the energy comes from.

I read Primo Levi's If this is a Man and the Truce again recently. I  couldn't put it down because he tells the story (which is horrific) so brilliantly, uncovering the tiny, transactional details of the horrors of Auschwitz and revealing the psychological strengths and sheer good luck needed to survive. And he reveals the strange medieval chaos of the months he spent getting home after the war. It was like a Brueghel in print, being part of the this mass of moving forces in a Europe that was traumatised and stunned in equal measure. We recently had the Victory in Europe celebrations here in the UK, but reading the Truce just made VE Day seem so irrelevant and our UK wartime experience so easy in comparison.

So Primo Levi tells his story and he does it beautifull. He's a story teller and the story came out naturally. He said that If this is a Man was there in his head in Auschwitz and wrote itself.

Levi's book sold and so did Art Spiegelmann's Maus. Again this is a book where the focus is on reaching an audience and telling a story in an engaging manner. Spiegelmann was inspired to write about his father's experience in Auschwitz after seeing the trial of Adolf Eichmann shown live on American TV. This was the first documentary of its kind and one where there was the idea that the TV show was more than a sober documentary about the bringing to justice of a Nazi war criminal  - it was also a TV show. It was, in its own way, 'entertainment.'

I think photographers forget this sometimes. There are so many photographic niches (and all the interesting ones are tiny, tiny niches) that people get stuck in them and end up circling around in swirls of self-mystifing smoke.

A Sex-Pumpkin! You're Kidding Me. From All Quiet on the Home Front

Pictures get stuck in the mythology of visual narrative (which is why you'll see so many pictures of rocks, waves, lightning blasts, cloudscapes, blossom, hanging fruit branches and other daft symbolism in photobooks - I know that clouds, blossoms and all the rest have a great tradition but really...) and a self-sustaining editing mythology of pairings, breathing spaces and across-the-gutters as though we were all aspiring Brodovitchs, Kawauchis or Moriyamas (actually, they're all great things to be. Oh well, never mind) - while paying scant attention to things like text or storyline or a real narrative flow.

One of the reasons this might happen is because it is difficult to tell a story well. Another reason is that to tell a story well, you sometimes have to be brutal. Primo Levi was brutal, Art Spiegelmann was brutal. They wrote things that were incredibly difficult to say. Most of us baulk at saying things that are far less difficult to say. We do this because we're too polite, we're too afraid, or we have a false sense of ethics that helps to preserve our modesty.

At the recent Liverpool/Look Festival 15, one of the real standouts for everybody who saw it was Richard Ross' Juvenile in Justice. The pictures were fantastic but it was the captions that really did it; short, snappy captions that were so tragic and so revealing of what happens when the banality of how layer upon layer of poverty meets up with a punitive and discrimatory justice system.

But they didn't happen by accident. They were deliberately and coldly thought out to see how they could best affect the viewer. It was difficult but it had its effect and it took you right into the pictures and the lives of the young people who Ross photographed and beyond.

In that sense, it had more to do with modes of documentary or the Seven Basic Plots than with sequencing or layout and perhaps that's what photobook-makers need to address.

Though to be honest I think people are addressing that already. The Epilogue by Laia Abril, In the Shadow of the Pyramids by Laura El-Tantawy, Wild Pigeon by Carolyn Drake, Live Through This by Tony Fouhse or Echolilia by Timothy Archibald all tell very difficult stories using brave and complex combinations of image and text.

They don't bottle it in other words. And that should be a lesson to us all.

And that is what I'll be talking about in Vienna; my German Family Album and the photobooks that have tried and succeeded in telling a story in engaging and entertaining manner. With the hope that somewhere along the line that engagement and entertainment value will spread to me.


Anonymous said...

This article addresses some of these issues from Time magazine, asking whether "What constitutes an object as belonging in a gallery as opposed to a community? Who instituted these boundaries? Is it possible to make art that occupies both worlds?"


colin pantall said...

Great - that's a really interesting article that raises so many questions. And it's by Carmen Winant who I remember as my favourite American Atheist from a few years back.

Thanks so much for this - I'm sure I'll revisit it in more depth after the summer break.

William Ash said...

I think this is where the other creatives in publishing, writers, have developed a literature. I don't mean a formula, although that has certainly worked, but an extensive culture and body of work addressing storytelling. Perhaps storytelling is easier in words, but that does not really explain cinema (or music). We did have a vibrant periodical culture that did storytelling, but economics and public taste (or advertiser taste) impacted that. Have you ever seen Smith's Minamata or Hitachi work? And while journalistic themes seem to be better suited, I think we just think so because that is what we are most used to. I don't think photography is confined to a simple linear narrative.

Every project requires a unique telling. Just as every project is a unique endeavor. But where is a photographer to go to learn the craft of storytelling--writers have loads of resources and opportunities, so do filmmakers. We are still focused on the single image. Where are we learning to make books to understand the spacial problems, to figure out the use of text, to create the images in context of a book project? It just all seems very random.

colin pantall said...

Most universities run modules where students make a book, I give lectures (not connected to the making of books funnily enough, I teach history/theory/culture/writing) on montage, sequencing, narrative flow and modes of documentary.

But the story telling is so diverse that it is random, even though it does go beyond the single image. And the photobook histories don't really help.

Maybe the best thing is for photographers to learn from film. documentary, journalism or literature and take it that way - I think people are already doing that. It's random and it's chaos but it's good.