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Tuesday, 3 October 2017

'Fatherhood is a kind of shit-show'

      picture by Timothy Archibald

This blog is 10 years old in a couple of months.

The first post started like this:

Timothy Archibald suggested I start a blog - so here goes. Here is the first image and the last two images in my Sofa Portrait series.

The rest, as they don't say, is a random jumble of stuff and nonsense, some of which makes sense, some of which is utter rubbish, and some of which I'm really proud of. Really proud of! That's why I keep on doing the blog. Carelessly curated indeed.

Anyway, I asked Timothy for an endorsement for my book All Quiet on the Home Front. This is what he very kindly said.

There is a period in parenthood when it feels like it's going to last forever, and sometimes not always in a good way. And there is another period when you wake up and realize that it's actually going to be over: this role and identity you've had for so long is soon coming to an end. 'All Quiet On The Home Front' captures that beauty and anxiety that is the push and pull of parenthood. Grab something and cherish it, but be aware it's also slipping through your fingers as fast as sand.
"All Quiet On The Home Front" has a haunting resonance that asks me more questions every time I engage with it.

I got to know Timothy through his work on his son, Eli, in  Echolilia. This ended up as one of the really great projects on childhood, with images that were inventive, collaborative and bold. They had a massive heart and soul to them and were not always easy to look at or digest. That's part of what made them really great. Great work is always difficult in a sense that goes beyond time-consuming. It teeters on the edge of the table and if you push it the wrong way, it might fall off. It's not bland, it's not neutral, it has an opinion, it goes beyond the image it has a voice, and despite (or maybe because of) its apparent focus on Aspergers it deals with the universal.  It's difficult!

    picture by Timothy Archibald

Echolilia did really well and got lots of exposure and was published in a pragmatic book form (this was the days before Kickstarter and the explosion in small publishers.

So great as far as it goes, but not really utilising the possibilities and never accessible in terms of pricing; the book Echolilia should be hasn't been made yet. In that respect, Echolilia is underachieving. It's one of the very best projects on childhood ever yet it hasn't had the setting to show it.

I can think of people who'd do it proud. Yumi Goto and Reminders Photography Stronghold specialise in turning personal stories into beautiful book form. And with Echolilia going beyond the personal (which let's be honest can get tiresome if you overdo it), the story and the book form with all its myriad paper, folding and insert variations would elevate it to the level it deserves.

The trouble with RPS of course is the ridiculously small editions they have, reaching a low point of 21 for Junpei Ueda's Picture of My Life.

The good thing for photobook buyers is many of the RPS publications are so fantastic that they get reborn in new, larger, cheaper editions by trade publishers, while retaining the features that made them so special. Kazuma Obara's Silent Histories was published by Editorial RM books of Spain with great success, while Yoshikatsu Fujii's Red String got a rebirth from  Ceiba, a publisher which has evolved into a creator of bijou editions that are also incredibly meaningful and very often touch on themes of family and fatherhood.

The latest is Junpei Ueda's book, Picture of My Life and it is beautiful. There is a mix of drawings, paintings,  holiday snaps family photographs, letters and a narrative text that tells the story of the suicide of Ueda's parents one after the other, and the chaos that reigned in the tragic aftermath; the guilt of being absent when his parents committed suicide, an apartment that is spiritually absent, an empty to recover the past through an old family album, a final letter that brings some kind of closure to the events. So it's a photobook as therapy, the main character of Ueda himself going from a state of ignorance to tragic knowledge to rebirth and redemption.

You can do this kind of personal story too much, and there might be cases where the mix of materials becomes formulaic and tiresome, especially when the story told is not actually that interesting - or is told badly, but this is not one of those. This is a heartbreaking story where the images run parallel to the text, brushing up against them, each illuminating the other.

There are some people who find the detailing RPS and Ceiba model of bookmaking (which is borrowed wholesale from artist's books/children's books etc) tiresome and to an extent I can understand why. It can be messy and fiddly and, in the numerous copycat editions that RPS and Ceiba have inspired, the detailing can be used to disguise the lack of a story. A dropped in post-it note is exactly that if there's nothing to back it up.

What's interesting though is how often people decry the RPS/Ceiba model as a form of defence mechanism. I've heard designers who work with very traditional models and materials decry it. But perhaps they protest too much. I've heard publishers who don't want the expense of making this kind of book, and resent the competition complain about them - though I've seen others meet the challenge head on and develop how they make books. And then there are market-oriented booksellers who resent the oddness of shape and the lack of availability and quick turnover these kinds of books have. It doesn't fit nicely on the shelf so it's bad!

So it goes.

While Picture of My Life is structured around its text, Ceiba's other new publication, I love you I'm leaving by Matt Eich has almost no text. In comparison with Ueda's book, this is a simple book.

Ostensibly it's about fatherhood, but it's really about  much more. It's about parental absence in a way, or even more about the absence of a partner. This is from an Interview Eich gave on the Ceiba website.

Being a full-time freelance photographer trying to balance fatherhood is kind of a shit-show. Most parents will agree, or they are probably lying to you. The only way most creative folks I know sustain a working career and family is by having a really supportive partner, and ideally one who has a normal job with a normal schedule, and salary. I’m hesitant to give advice, considering that I feel like I don’t know what the hell is going on in my own life half the time. My personal realization, which shapes my decision-making, is that a lot of the mundane family stuff is actually more meaningful, and memorable than the highest accolades a career has to offer. How to balance the needs of family and work is a constant struggle that I doubt I will ever fully resolve.

And that's what you get, sequences in which 'the mundance family stuff' is anything but mundane. There is a sadness and a loneliness in here, a sense of absence even when Eich is at his home. All this is created of course by sequences in which images reflect death, travel and then go and conflate the two together. It's low-key but it's not low-key at the same time and that is what makes it work so beautifully. The text may be minimal but there is no sense of letting the pictures tell the story because the sequencing is what tells the story.

A grandfather becomes a surrogate father to Eich's three children, as Eich shows himself getting a haircut or sitting with bowed head on the stoop of his home. He's alone in there and it's not just the title that's telling you this.

Even when his partner and two children are photographed in the bath, Eich is excluded not just by his camera, but also by the looks that are delivered to him. He's quite bereft in there and in a way he's telling a story of a rawness that is not at all unique to him or his family. It's a universal story. It's obvious.  It's funny how people think being obvious is a bad thing. I think it's a fantastic thing, especially when nobody talks about the obvious or photographs the obvious. And that's what makes I love you, I'm leaving so brilliant because it's an obvious story that almost nobody tells. Except for Eich, who does with some poignancy but also some difficulty.

There is text, a poem on the third to last page. It ends like this:

What if 
I could promise
To never get in a car &
Drive away from you, ever agin
Even with the best intentions.

And then we're done. Except for the dedication to Eich's grandfather who died in 2017 and who we see in the final picture. In a coffin, with one of Eich's daughters looking on.

It's a beautiful book that has hidden depths. I'd love to see Ceiba do a version of Echolilia.

Buy Picture of my Life Special Edition (regular edition sold out) here

Buy I love you, I'm leaving here.

Oh yes, and...

Pre-order the Subscriber's Edition of All Quiet on the Home Front Here for £100 (price after 20th October is £140). 

Pre-order the Regular Edition of All Quiet on the Home Front Here for £33 (regular price after 9th November is £40).

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