The Beat Goes On: Photobook Bristol 2016

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Still from Pulp Fiction (1994)

I’ve just returned from a weekend at Photobook Bristol, an informal congregation of photobook makers, publishers, designers and enthusiasts who gather in the city each year to hear talks, see books, share ideas, inspiration and woes, and to generally just party (it’s a great opportunity to see how photography’s finest perform on the dance floor, it turns out that Danish legend Krass Clements has some serious moves on him). It’s also a great place to catch up with far flung friends, see what they are working on, what get a sense of what work might be next to explode into the photography world. Despite my mounting misgivings about the pseudo-revolutionary hype around them, photobooks clearly remain a capable and relevant platform for disseminating exciting work, and this was really evidenced by the number of important names in photography who were speaking at the event, ranging from Susan Meiselas to Laura el-Tantawy. It is needless to say a rather questionable activity to attempt to judge a huge and international field of publishing based on one festival since all such events have their predilections and prejudices, but I feel I ought to at least attempt to summarise a few of the trends in what was discussed.

Perhaps one of the most notable things, and one which underpins many of the other discussions had over the weekend is that the conflict between form and function remains alive and well. It seems that the photobook remains closely aligned with the exquisite artist’s book much more so than more mass produced forms of trade or consumer book, and that continues to create tensions between the aspirations often held for a book and the reality of what it is able to do. It was interesting to hear discussions taking in different generations of photobook makers (notably a discussion between Susan Miselas and Oliva Arthur chaired by David Solo) where there were noticeable similarities over time but also changes print run, design, form and more, trends towards smaller runs and more complex design. Another interesting talk came from Yumi Goto of Reminders Project where she discussed a series of books published by the organization and some of the approaches and techniques used. Interestingly she referred to the number of copies published of each book not as an edition of say, 45 books, but as 45 editions, a linguistic subtlety which seemed to nicely reflect the fact that photobooks are still often rather unique objects which can incorporate some quite handmade, unique elements even when they reach larger print runs. I saw relatively few books over the weekend which really eschewed a fussy form (whatever happened to print on demand?) and it seems in this ever more competitive world that is less and less an option. On this topic a breath of fresh air came in a talk from designer Ania Nalecka who cautioned photographers against over design or complex design divorced from the meaning of their work.

Another issue often discussed was the question of the photobook’s relevancy and accessibility to wider audiences. There was much discussion of how the book can push beyond the niche of devotees and those wealthy enough to buy what remains essentially a luxury item. This is clearly related to the previous point in some respects, since design remains closely connected to the issue of cost, with more complex designs invariably demanding costlier production processes. There are of course exceptions, Craig Atikinson’s Café Royal Books being the most obvious representative of the alternative model, and Craig marked reaching the landmark of 300+ publications with a talk at the festival. Another interesting talk came from Julian Germain, discussing amongst other things the free citizen produced newspaper the Ashington District Star which he helps to organise and edit. The issue of relevancy and availability is also linked to other issues, for example distribution (a word my spellchecker perhaps rather aptly wanted to change to ‘devotion’). The fantasy of photobooks appearing for sale in supermarkets which I recall being aired at the previous year’s festival remains out of reach, but it remains a worthy aspiration. At the same time there were some interesting talks from a number of people who are comparatively new to photobooks, including an interesting collaboration between Mark Power, poet Daniel Cockrill and designer Dominic Brookman to produce a hybrid book aimed at poetry and photography enthusiasts. It was also a thrill to hear from the veteran Ghanian photographer James Barnor, who has published the first book of his work at the sprightly age of 87. He modestly prefigured his talk by saying he wanted to speak little and leave plenty of time for questions, because if a dinosaur came back to life then he imagined people would have plenty of things they might want to ask it.

Connected to the above, the issue of making out of prints books available in alternative and more accessible formats was also something I often found came up in the conversations between talks. It’s something I’ve always been keen on and have done with a few of my publications which are no longer in print. During the weekend I chatted with a few people about this including with Andrea Copetti of Tipi Bookshop about this and we had an interesting dialogue weighing up the pros and cons of making PDFs of unavailable books available versus offering high resolution videos of the physical books. I came down more on the side of the former, he on the latter, but clearly both have advantages and disadvantages and both succeed and fail at representing the nature of a physical book in different ways. The thing that I think most of the people I discussed this with agreed on was that small, closed editions and artificially unattainable books only really benefit collectors and perhaps sometimes publishers, not photographers and audiences. Solutions are much needed and having better opportunities to see and understand the seminal books which have come before can only benefit the vibrancy of photobook making. Certainly as a teacher there is a list of books both contemporary and classic which I would love to be able to show my students and which I think they would learn much from, but which are unfortunately impossibly rare. To some extent I sense that many of the issues that remain troubling with regards to the photobook stem from that prefix ‘photo’ and some of the most exciting books I saw and heard about over the weekend were those where the photographic element is almost secondary to the book fulfilling some other function, whether as strange documentation, journalistic investigation or something else entirely. I’ll be picking up on some of these titles in more detail on Disphotic very soon. In short the photobook remains alive and well but by no means completely resolved. There remain plenty of rather existential questions about the book that it’s more reflective adherents need to continue to discuss and address.

(Critical transparency: There are so many potential conflicts of interest here – ranging from the fact I’ve at spoken at previous incarnations of Photobook Bristol, to my having written an essay for Cafe Royal Books – that I would hardly know where to start with listing them. Suffice to say that if you that think I’m irredeemably corrupt as a critic then these attempts at disclaimers probably don’t help much, but at least I make an attempt at them.) Also My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Volatile Smile by Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann

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High-frequency trading workspace, #14, 2010.
Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann

Like all technologies, photography emerged from a very particular milieu, and in certain ways all its subsequent applications and adaptations will reflect the concerns of that moment. In the context of photojournalism and documentary photography what often feels awkwardly evident and yet rarely spoken of is that while the world has changed enormously since 1839, moving by most consensuses into a new age (whether the age of information, the anthropocence, (post-)post-modernity or something else) photography for the most part hasn’t. Digital imaging is in some respects a dramatic leap forward, but beyond the end of photography’s physical existence in some ways it just represents an electronic emulation of the type of photography pioneered by Niépce, Talbot et al, and not such a dramatic step forwards as is often suggested. Their world was one grappling to visualise and understand things just beyond the vanishing point of human physiology, things like the craters of the moon like the movement of a galloping horses legs. Today we grapple with many issues which are perceptually speaking in different orders of magnitude. When the camera’s exposure is measured in seconds what does it mean to try to use this technology to speak about processes which occur in a thousandth or less of that, who’s major actors are composed of lines of code, and who’s actions leave few tangible traces beyond evaporating energy? Can the camera and the ways that it encourages us to think about and see the world be retooled to meet these new challenges? These are constant and at times crushing questions for me.

Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann are an artistic duo based in the United States using photography to examine a range of subjects, but I think of particular interest for this discussion is their 2014 book Volatile Smile which examines financial markets, looking at them through a series of visual studies of trading spaces and apparatuses, and ending with a series of images of american homes repossessed as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. Marx famously wrote that what capitalism desired above all else was the annihilation of space and time, a potent metaphor which remains useful in thinking about capitalism and technology today. Innovations like hyper-fast algorithmic trading make that latter objective seem ever more real and the consequences of it ever more troubling. Probably the most widely seen part of Volatile Smile are a series of photographs of algorithmic trading stations in the Willis Tower, Chicago, a city which lies on one of the fibre optic laylines that make high frequency trades possible. These workstations are where human overseers monitor the programs which make and lose fortunes in a fraction of a blink of an eye. Rather than usual single or dual monitor of most modern offices (dual monitors already speaking to a sense of information overload), these desks abut entire walls of  blacked out monitors, with other empty supports waiting for new ones to be plugged in to them like some sort of alien life support systems awaiting new dependents. Close ups of the work surfaces reveal little in the way of personalisation one might expect in even the most corporate workspace, the one reoccurring hint of human presence are a series of images of hand sanitizer products, images which I find hard to read except with the implication of a workforce desperately trying to wash themselves clean of something.

Sahn and Geissler are artists, not journalists, but I think their work sheds light on some of the difficulties of contemporary visual journalism. Like those photography projects which seek to reveal the essence of the internet by presenting us with images of shining server rooms, photographs of algorithmic trading desks tell us comparatively little about the context and consequences of these practices, and reveal that the axiom on which photojournalism has long been built is often no longer relevant. Robert Capa famously declared that if a photograph wasn’t good enough it was because the photographer had not been close enough, in other words that good photojournalism was about proximity to the story (a declaration which of course didn’t stop Capa from occasionally reinventing the story and his proximity to it as circumstances required). This traditional approach is part of the angle pursued in Volatile Smile, the photographers have come right to the heart of the labyrinthine financial empires being made possible by high frequency trading algorithms, and at the heart of the labyrinth they have found no Minotaur but instead a series of blank black screens, devices intended for imparting information but which instead remain uncompromisingly blank. In the new era of nebulous and elusive topics, spatial proximity has ceased to be a guarantor of journalistic revelation or insight. In capitalism’s war on space and time and in particular in terms of the way that conflict is represented by journalists and artists, it sometimes feels as if it has almost succeeded in annihilating space, and is well on the way to rendering time as we think of it, an archaic irrelevance.

Spiking the War Primer

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War Primer 3

This piece is an adapted version of a talk I gave at Helsinki Photomedia 2016 on the theme of materialities, and in my talk looking specifically thinking about how elements like material form contribute to the reading and meaning of photographic projects published as books. Over time I’ve become more and more interested in the politics of images, and I’ve found it’s often useful to think about photographs in terms of their having something of a metaphorical genetic code which might be mapped like an organisms genome and then sort of read for insights which can guide the way those images are treated and used. In the real world a genetic code is something we are all born with, but exposure to the environment causes that code to periodically change and mutate, in ways which might become a beneficial evolution or which might prove to be a fatal cancer. I’m interested in the way that different stages in the life of an image might do something similar, mutating the image’s base genetic code in ways which accent or even completely change the genetic code of the image. I’m speaking in metaphor here, but with digital imagery the idea of a photograph having a genetic code clearly becomes much more concrete.

One example of these mutational changes maybe is the context of your encounter with image, the situation you first see an image in (whether gallery, book, magazine, etc.) and the material qualities of the image in that encounter, whether it is printed, projected on a screen, or something else. You might take the example of how the presentation of forensic images in an exhibition like The Burden of Proof already prefigures how you understand these photographs, before any further context is provided for them. A second example is what the photograph actually shows, and perhaps just importantly how it shows that thing. Thirdly, going right going back to even before the ‘birth’ of the image, the technology that creates it is important to it’s politics if you feel as I do that the circumstances of any technologies creation become an irreducible part of it. For an example, the fact that contemporary civllian mapping satelites are the direct descendents of optical surveillance satelites is not something which can be separated from the images they produce, nor is the fact that the rockets that launch them are the direct descendents of rockets intended to flatten cities. These things all impart important elements of the genetic code of any image which results from them.

This will all probably seem very obvious to some people reading this, and in many ways it is obvious, but I think it’s those obvious things you can easily forget to include in the equation. Engaging with the politics of how images are made and disseminated is valuable because if you work in appropriative way as I sometimes do, or in a way which is commenting on the production and circulation of images, as I also try to do, this offers a way to identify how powerful images might be, at the risk of horribly mixing my metaphors, defused or ‘spiked’. For the uninitiated spiking is a method of sabotage once used to disable heavy cannons in wartime. It involves simply hammering a small pin into the channel which is used to light the main charge, thereby rendering a huge cannon is as good as useless with a piece of metal not more substantial than a nail. I’m drawn to the grace of this image of sabotage and this is more or less what I have sometimes attempted to do in my work as a photographer, to take a perhaps rather dangerous form of imagery developed, created or employed by powerful interests and to try to find a way to twist or subvert that visually in a way which turns that power back against the original owners and creators. I wouldn’t say I’ve always done it successfully, but that’s one of the consistent aims I have when I make work.

And so an example of where I’ve attempted to do this is with my book War Primer 3. This is an appropriation of an appropriation of an appropriation, where each level of appropriation mutates the physical form of the book to say and do quite different things. The first iteration of this was Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, the name given to the 1998 English edition of his 1955 book Kriegsfibel. This is a fascinating, creative and at times very moving analysis of the deceptive qualities of press imagery particularly in the context of war and politics. In essence it’s also a way of slipping semiotics in through the back door, and teaching people that press photographs can’t be trusted as objective information. The teaching element is also evident in the name primer, which implies a children’s textbook, and the physical form of the original version of the book very much plays to that. It is a mass produced, affordable and essential work. From a photography perspective what I think is really interesting about War Primer is that Brecht is sort of employing similar strategies to those that make his plays so compelling, primarily the idea of alienating an audience, showing them the cracks in the narrative and the medium sued to create that narrative, and in the proccess hinting at the arbritariness of reality, and the idea that reality is not a fixed thing but something we shape by our actions as individuals and societies.

The second iteration of the book is Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2. Again a fascinating work, the duo build on Brecht’s book by adding new photographs over his originals. This new images are intended to resonate with Brecht’s original poems and critically they all relate (more or less) to the global war on terror. In effect the duo thereby make the argument that many of the issues of censorship, propaganda and manipulation that frustrated Brecht remain present today, albeit by making a somewhat dubious equation between the Second World War and the War on Terror. More problematically for me, the method of production involved in the book turns it in to an unattainable art object. Even more problematic was the use of interns to produce the work. As with Brecht’s original I think there is a form of alienation taking place here, but it is less the alienation of Brecht’s epic theatre and more the alienation of Marx’s critique of capitalism, i.e the alienation of a workforce from control, profit or credit of their labour. I should say at this point I’m not a Marxist, my relationship with theory is much more that if something as resonances for what is happening in the world it is useful, and I think that’s the case here.

And so finally we come to my version, War Primer 3, which in turn appropriates Broomberg and Chanarin’s book and updates it into a piece about the global economic conflict that is capitalism, and which highlights various examples of the fallout from that. It does this by combining images of economic inequality and disaster with the text of Brecht’s poem A Worker Readers History, which is very much a eulogy to the forgotten workers, soldiers and slaves of his history. One imagines interns might have featured in it as well. But besides these interventions a very important part of reworking the book was to return it to a material form closer to Brecht’s original intentions to make a book which was mass produced and everyday, like a child’s school book. Given the material resources available to me the only logical solution seemed to be to disseminate the work online as a PDF, so that’s the form it took. A physical book of War Primer 3 exists which served as the base for making the PDF, but the physical book is not the book, the PDF is. And I think an unintended but quite pleasing consequence of that is that when you search for War Primer or War Primer 2, my book appears scattered about the results. So while I haven’t perhaps nullified all of the things in it’s predecessor which I perceive as problematic, and while War Primer 3 also undoubtedly introduces problems of it’s own, it has for me been one of the better successes for me in terms of appraising the politics of images and then using that knowledge and a material form to try and spike them.

Ken. To be destroyed by Sara Davidmann

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Ken. To be destroyed by Sara Davidmann

If the archive is defined as sort of memory technology for gathering fractions of a complex and disintegrating present so that it might later be retold, it is not hard to see why it holds such allure for photographers. Photography in a sense is a very similar practice, and photography as a medium has tended to carry similar expectional burdens to those of the archive. Expectations about objectivity and neutrality which are often misplaced and found wanting in the final account. Perhaps because of this closeness photography practice has undergone an archival turn in recent years, as a growing number of photographers and artists have turned to disparate archives for influences, ideas and material. To cite just a handful of examples you could consider Simon Menner’s interventions with the archive of the East German Stasi, the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition which included a rambling display drawn from the esoteric Archive of Modern Conflict, or more recently The Burden of Proof exhibition which makes extensive use of imagery from criminal and other institutional archives. The archival turn is an interesting one, particularly for someone with one foot still planted in academic history, but what I find is often missing when photographers make these turns are important questions about exactly what archives are, the politics of their making and survival.

The contents of Sara Davidmann’s book Ken. To be destroyed belongs to a particular genre of archive known to practically all of us, the family photo album. In many ways it reveals the sometimes misleading and constructed nature of these collections in a way which is not dissimilar to the supposed neutrality of bigger state or institutional archives, where some things are hidden, left out, or forgotten. The book tells the story of Davidmann’s uncle and aunt, Ken and Hazel Houston and the family’s discovery soon after their marriage in 1954 that in private Ken was transgender, something which in the context of the time was little understood either medically or culturally. To put things in perspective regarding British attitudes towards sexuality, 1954 was the same year that Alan Turing committed suicide after being convicted of ‘gross indecency’. Despite the discovery Ken and Hazel remained together pursuing joint interests including ballroom dancing, and Ken’s transgender identity remained a family secret up until and beyond his death in 1974. Despite Davidmann having worked for some time with transgender people in her own practice she only made the discovery in 2011 while clearing out her mother’s house. There she discovered several packages labelled with the four enigmatic words which are the title of the book, parcels which contained letters and photographs sent throughout the fifties and sixties between Hazel and her sister, Davidmann’s mother. This cache has allowed Davidmann to reconstruct the narrative of this family secret.

This reconstruction is achieved primarily through the letters, which recount events from Ken and Hazel’s first meeting through to Ken’s correspondence with doctors in an attempt to research and understand his condition. These letters are shot through with a very strong sense of a particular era in British social history, from the couple first meeting by writing letters to each through the British Friendship Society, a sort of analogue penpal service, to Ken’s tentative first contact with the Beaumont Society, an early advocacy and support group for transgender people. Alongside the letters are also reproduced a series of photographs of the couple, including a number taken by Ken of Hazel, which resonate strangely between affection and a tension produced by the sense of a photographer looking intenesely at another person who was what they themselves could never be. The photographs are initially reproduced unaltered and at approximate scale, but as the book goes on Davidmann intervenes with them in various way, for example tracking in close to the image, forensically scanning it for marks and traces, and in the proccess very much calling to mind Jacques Derrida’s obsession with the ‘substrate’ of archives, only in this case the concern is with literal substrate of the photographic print. In other cases Davidmann intervenes more dramatically, rephotographing or reprinting the images, overlaying them with objects, printing them as chemigrams and collaging them together. In one series Ken’s head is collaged onto Hazel’s body, an attempt Davidmann says, to imagine how Ken might have looked had he been able to openly liven as a women.

Ken. To be destroyed is an attempt to bring a particular story or record into the light, but there is a sense that it is also an attempt to resolve or settle bad history, to offer some sort of retrospective retribution however delayed. This will be an inclination familiar to anyone who has worked with archives which tell stories which ring with a sense of injustice or personal loss, and where the temptation is always there to try and heal the wrongs of the past, if only by the act of allowing them to be witnessed and remembered by the present. For the French historian Jules Michelet the task of the historian labouring in the archive was imbued with an almost ressurectional power. In the preface to his 1844 History of France he wrote of conjuring the forgotten of history from their slumber amongst the dusty documents of the Archive Nationales. ‘Softly my dear friends, let us proceed in order’ he wrote, ‘as I breathed in their dust, I saw them rise up. They raised from the sepulchre, one the hand, the other the head, as in the last judgement … or as in the dance of death’. The archival proccess as a sort of death dance is perhaps most apt, since the historian or the photographer must always know that any hope of restoring the dead to life is pure performance and illusion. For Derrida this was in the essence of the archive, as a place very much the product of the Freudian drive towards death, whatever the aspirations of the archivist or historian, the archive could only ever remain a form of tomb.

(Critical transparency: Review copy provided by publisher. Sara Davidmann is research fellow at London College of Communication, where I also teach. However we do not know each other).

Review – Spirit is a Bone by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

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The Arbitrator
from Spirit is a Bone by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

One of my aims for this year is to drastically reduce the number of reviews I publish here. For a brief period this way of engaging with work was good for me, and I felt a vague sense of satisfaction when people described me as a critic. Increasingly though I dislike the word with it’s implication of being an all knowing arbiter or judge of what is good and bad in photography. I would much rather use this platform to share thoughts which more generally reflect on the shape and direction of the medium, rather than as a way to pronounce judgement. It seems a little suitable to draw my reviewing phase towards a close by returning to a new title by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, a duo who’s work I have often written about in the past, sometimes quite savagely. In spite of the commonly held belief that I have some sort of vendetta against the pair, I think that of all the work made in recent years on the fault line between art and documentary practices, theirs is amongst the most interesting. War Primer 2, for all my criticisms of it, was also quite brilliant, as a photographic strategy and as a critique of contemporary events. In general it’s always been a policy of mine not to write about work I really hate, because what after all is the point of expanding energy on something which you consider to beyond hope?

Broomberg and Chanarin’s new book Spirit is a Bone does what I would say the duo do best, which is to collide quite different photographic sources and influences into something very interesting and maybe just a little messy. The best resolved and polished projects are sometimes the least interesting, the ones with frayed edges often the most thought provoking and the most open to intriguing readings, and I think that is particularly true of their work. In this case they are colliding the structure of August Sander’s seminal documentary project Face of our Time with a contemporary surveillance technology. Sander’s work is so well known as to hardly require introduction. It consisted of a huge and somewhat idiosyncratic attempt to document the make-up of early twentieth century German society through an extended series of portraits. Documenting people by profession, vocation, politics and other esoteric markers, Sander produced hundreds of portraits between 1911 and 1929 when the book was published, quickly becoming a key work of Neue Sachlichkeit. The work was overshadowed by the rise of German Nazism, both because the Nazi party reacted badly to Sander’s vision of what Germany was, but also perhaps because in the longer term the use of systems of racial and political categorisation in Nazi repression has cast Sander’s own methods in a light which can seem awkward to contemporary viewers.

The surveillance technology which Broomberg and Chanarin employ is a form of facial recognition software system developed in Russia from ANPR. This new system creates a three dimensional model of a subject’s face by compositing viewpoints from multiple CCTV cameras as they move about a city like Moscow. The result is what the developers call a ‘non-collaborative portrait’ in reality a point cloud but rendered as a three dimensional photograph imperfectly mapped with skin and other details for the benefit of human viewers (a good reminder that what we think of as facial recognition vision is never what the machine sees). Using this technology Broomberg and Chanarin have photographed a series of contemporary Russians whose occupations or identities correlate with the categories used by Sander to title his portraits of early twentieth century Germans. Facial recognition technology has evolved since its earliest days in a cat and mouse game between it’s developers and those who are conscious of it and seek to evade it. As each side innovates the other must respond. What this technology takes account of it that while clothing, hairstyles, expressions and other features might be changed to fox cruder automated recognition, the shape of the face, and the underlying skull, are unique and permanent. In this sense this technology then has a resonance with the discredited practice of phrenology, the determination of character through measurements of the skull, something very much in vogue in Sander’s time, and in which photography had an awkward complicity.

The 3D images (I hesitate to say photographs, but perhaps that’s exactly what they are) that result from this contemporary surveillance technology are compelling and strange, disembodied faces which at times disintegrate into seams and glitches. The duo have compared them to digital death masks, but this comparison, while undoubtedly making for a catchy headline is less apt I think than describing them as digital life masks. The life mask has been overshadowed in contemporary knowledge by its rather more morbid sibling, but for a time enjoyed a similar vogue and there was particularly a market for life masks of the celebrities of the day. In the era before photography, the life mask was something with some comparable traits, an object which bore a direct and very tangible physical relationship to the person it represented. The process of making one was long winded and in some respects quite coercive, also not unlike early forms of photography. Reportedly when Beethoven sat to have his made in 1812 he panicked mid-way through the process, overwhelmed by the intense feeling of being smothered by the heavy plaster mould, and in the panic the mask was destroyed and had to later be recast.

There is an apt metaphor buried in here I think for our relationship with technology and the way that surveillance is less a subset, category or consequence of technology. Rather it is starting to feel like something which is inherent to almost all the technologies we own and use, from smart-phones to smart-kettles, and even technologies which were never intended for surveillance now seem to be routinely retro-programmed to fulfil this task. We live within a web of devices in public and private which survey and monitor and which we only occasionally and briefly feel the burdensome weight of as they cast their sensors across us. In the rapidly progressing field of automated visual surveillance, the technology featured in Spirit is a Bone is now relatively out of date, an acknowledgement which inevitably makes one wonder what new nightmares are currently being developed and deployed. In an interview included in the book, Professor Eyal Weizman of Goldsmith’s Forensic Architecture Centre draws the conversation towards the algorithmic anticipation of behaviour, a practice with evident resonances of phrenology, and another growth area of surveillance, often justified by it’s proponents by reference to the imperviousness of terrorist cells to traditional forms of infiltration and observation. To think these technologies and their ramifications are simply limited to the presumed future-guilty is a mistake, they judge us all, and make potential criminals of us all. At what point I finally wonder will the weight of these technologies induce more than mild curiosity or slight alarm. When will begin to feel the smothered by our digital life masks.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself, also NB in case you didn’t read the first paragraph closely I have some form with the work of Broomberg and Chanarin)

Review – Deadline by Will Steacy

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I’m conscious that I’ve reviewed relatively few books on the blog this year. If I’m honest I find reviews less and less satisfying to write, since the experience can often feel rather like banging your head against a wall. Sometimes I feel the urge to review again when I come across a particularly intriguing or brilliant body of work, but even when this happens I often feel I don’t have the time that a decent review really demands I commit. Sometimes you have to make time though, and having published a couple of posts recently on the ways that I think narrative and design contribute to a really interesting book project I thought it would be good to follow that up a real example.

If you’re being pedantic Will Steacy’s Deadline isn’t exactly a photobook, it’s a newsprint publication but this actually makes what he has done with it all the more impressive. Plenty of people are snobby about newsprint I suppose because it’s innately ephemeral, hard to preserve, and can’t compete for photographic print quality with other formats. Many photographers complain about these issues and avoid the medium because of them, the smart photographers though turn these characteristics into strengths which complement their work and this is exactly what Steacy has done here. Deadline charts the decline of the Philladelphia Inquirer newspaper over a five year period. Photographing the newsroom and printing plant of this nearly two hundred year old newspaper, Steacy’s project is a fascinating microcosm of things taking place across an industry struggling to deal with rapid technological and cultural change, and facing gradual erosion.

Steacy photographically explores the news room inch by inch and from end to end, hoovering up a mixture of candid and posed photographs of the staff, and a large number of still life photographs. The portraits are competent and fairly engaging but as is often the case the devil is in the detail and still lives are really where the story takes shape. Stacks of paperwork, stamps, notes, newspaper clippings, a Pulitzer prize, scrawled notes, motivational (and demotivational) signs, used coffee cups, and cartoons. For anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom these details will be richly evocative, brilliant reflections of the paradox that a newsroom can be both an intellectually stimulating and equally banal, bureaucratic place to work.

Steacy revisits the same locations from the same vantage points over the course of five years, showing the gradual changes in the newsroom until it is finally left empty and abandoned by the downsizing newspaper. A series of photographs of the ridiculously overloaded desk of Don Sapatkin, the Inquirer’s Deputy Science and Medicine editor, is an nice example of this, with Sapatkin’s desk overflowing with papers in the first photograph, and in the final photograph all that is left is a stained mark on the carpet. It has to be said the choice of newsprint means that some photographs don’t have quite the punch printed in black and white than they do when seen in colour. These photographs charting the growth and dispersal of Sapatkin’s paperwork were what made me really fall in love with the project when I first came across them online. They lose something of their potency in newsprint but are still fantastic.

The decision to publish Deadline as a newsprint publication rather than a traditional book is a brave one for some of the reasons listed above, but it’s a choice which really makes this project work. Newsprint makes perfect sense for the subject and the added knowledge that the project has been printed on the Philladelphia Inquirer’s own presses somehow makes the work all the more pertinent. The final act of asking journalists from the paper to contribute stories to the newspaper and styling it accordingly round Deadline off perfectly. The contributed stories both chart the broader rise and virtual fall of the Inquirer, and recount individual journalist’s experiences, a nice reminder of the tensions between news titles as monothlic brands, and the individualism and ambition of the journalists that staff them.

‘Never become part of the news’ were the watchwords of more than a few journalists I’ve known, and Deadline is a great look inwards at what happens when an industry is so busy reporting on the outside world that it forgets to scrutinise its own practices and becomes in effect, old news. Deadline is a wonderfully conceived and executed project, right down to the smell of ink and the smudge of newsprint it leaves on your fingers after a viewing. There is a constant tension in the work between knowing that this is a sort of historical document or record, and knowing that the newsprint it is published on will inevitably yellow and fall to pieces in time.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)

A Photobook Manifesto II: On Design

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The 1998 Libris edition of War Primer (bottom) and the 2015 War Primer 3 dummy (top).

In response to a few requests I wrote a piece last week setting out how I start to think about and approach a new book project. I talked about the importance of considering whether a project is really suited to being a book, and then spent most of the piece discussing narrative and editing strategies that I’ve found have worked quite well when teaching. It might have seemed a little odd to give over so much of the post to discussing something which isn’t directly related to book design, but the way you construct a narrative from a series of photographs is I think the single most important thing about a book. Every other element can be amazing, but if the order of the images is vague, or worse, without any extractable meaning, then it’s all for nothing. As anyone will know who has ever been shown a very version of a project which still looked amazing, a book live and dies by the order of its pages and too many books labour over a beautiful design while being are willfully or accidentally obscure and arcane about their messages.

Assuming you’ve constructed a narrative that works for your subject, the next question for me is how I get this narrative to sit on the page, and what design details I incorporate to really try and pull the whole book towards the topic. For me a well-designed book is one where all the elements speak to the central topic, but not in a way which is flashy, over the top or distracting from the core subject. Naïve or clumsy design is one thing, far worse for me though is a book that’s been completely over-designed, to the extent that the photographs and other content are overwhelmed. If you’re looking to work with a designer I’d be wary of anyone who doesn’t seem sympathetic or engaged with the subject or seems too eager to put their design signature on the finished book.

Once I’ve established a narrative the first thing I start to think about it layout. In truth often narrative and layout start to evolve and suggest each other at the same time so like many of the categories I’m talking about here this is something of an arbitrary distinction. I tend to use layouts structured around grids which is a somewhat rigid way to design but makes it far easier to be consistent through a book and to arrange things in a way which echo things on other pages. For example with Metropole a grid structure made it easy to have all the texts in the book echo the size and positioning of the cover title, a minor detail but an important one to the design. It also helped in lining up elements within some of the photographs.

At this stage the book will be starting to look pretty complete and I might start to think about any smaller elements that I might want to include in the book to tie together the design or theme. In The Camera Obscured I found that I wanted to leave quite a few blank pages but these looked a little odd, so I spent some time researching old printers marks looking for one which fitted the theme, until I found one shaped like the sun. I also felt the cover, which was text only at the time, needed something extra and spent some time researching old treatise on optics looking for decorative elements I could extract and use. Personally I think less is more with these details, and once again they always need to tie back in to what the book is ultimately about.

I’ve left fonts until last to mention, but in practice the choice of a particular font can occur at any point in a project. Personally I like to use fonts which have some echo of the central theme of the book but without that echo being overwhelmingly obvious. Sometimes I have one in mind even as I’m still shooting, at other times I spend hours searching through font databases looking for one with the right character. For Metropole I used Gill Sans Light for it’s slight art deco styling which I thought neatly echoed the origins of the book’s title. Sometimes the choice is defined more by practically and for Numbers in the Dark I knew there would be a great deal of text so I looked for an easy to read font that also had an echo of a computer or typewritten font. I eventually found what I wanted in one called Inconsolata.

I know there remain a host of topics I haven’t discussed, but I hope that the guiding principle of considering how each decision relates to the topic you want to talk about will answer many of these. I also know I’ve made it sound rather like a book can go from a scattering of photographs to a finished item in one easy draft. In practice it often takes many redrafts and revisions. Metropole is only thirty pages long and went through about six versions, and Numbers in the Dark has been through eight versions so far and is only just reaching a finished state. Whether you’re working on a ten page photocopied zine or a hundred page leather bound opus, take your time, think about every detail in relation to the topic and the book will reward you for it.

A Photobook Manifesto I: Narrative

metropole-draftsDrafts of Metropole, earliest at top left, final book at bottom right.

One of my motivations for setting up this blog was to get away from what seemed to be the preponderance of practical blogs and websites out there, focused far more on mandating the specific ‘dos and do nots’ of photography than about trying to articulate a general philosophy of photography that would serve to answer many of these questions if applied to them. Writing regularly has helped me to build up an inner framework of ideas about what good photography is which has really helped me when it comes to make work, and I hope might have also helped others a little. All the same, I get more and more requests for specific types of posts and quite a number have asked that I write something about book making and design. I’m not willing to go so far as to sit down and explain how to make a book from start to end. There are plenty of sites out there already that deal with everything from making an edit of a series of photographs, to the physical craft of binding.

What I thought would be more interesting would be to articulate the philosophy of book making that I’ve gradually formed over the past couple of years and through the dozen or so books I’ve made. I’m by no means a book designer or binder by training, my knowledge is limited and so is my time and ability to learn new tricks and crafts. I keep things simple, hopefully relevant to the subject matter, and as affordable as possible. These simple guiding lights, acquired mainly for practicality, have helped me develop something resembling a style of my own. It might not be for everyone, and it might not come anywhere near rivaling what a professional designer can offer, but so far it works for me.

So, when it comes to thinking about a new book project the question I increasingly ask myself is should this project even be a book? Photo books have become so much the default form that it’s easy to not even consider that other formats might make more sense (or that a hybrid form like a book and accompanying website might be more effective). I’ve written about this before and so I won’t labour the point, but as someone who looks at a great deal of books I see many projects which would have been much better served as something else, and that can be a real shame.

Assuming though the answer to that important first question is yes the next step for me is to start to think about how the photographs I have can form a narrative and how this will relate to other content I want to use, for example text or illustrations. Before I even begin to try and construct this narrative I often use an assortment of strategies to figure out what the photographs I have are actually saying to a viewer, and how they might relate to each other when strung together in a series. For example one technique I often use with students is to ask them to try and put aside what they know about their work and put themselves into the position of a viewer. Then to go through their photographs and think carefully about what each image is saying on two levels. On the literal level of what it shows, and how this might fit into a purely descriptive story, but also on a slightly deeper, almost semiological level. What is the over-riding emotion, idea or image that they take away from each photograph? Can it be reduced to a single word?

Once I have some idea of my building blocks I start to build the narrative itself. The form this takes obviously varies enormously from one project to the next, with some projects taking on a very traditional and linear story telling narrative, and others adopting much more unconventional, fragmented narrative forms. One of my projects, The Memory of History, even dispensed with the idea of a fixed narrative altogether, pushing the onus to construct a story on to the viewer instead and in the process trying to encourage them to think about how historical narratives are constructed. Some might consider that a creative cop out, an example of not taking responsibility for the most important job, but for that project it seemed to make perfect sense.

And that I think is the essential thing, that the narrative approach makes sense for the topic that’s being discussed, and doesn’t become an attention seeking gimmick or a homage to some passing photographic fad. Some subjects are essentially lacking in narrative, particularly when they’re photographed in a very straight typological way. A current project of mine, Numbers in the Dark, is an example of this, with the images presented in quite a regular pattern throughout the book. At the same time there are hints of a narrative contained in the photographs, with the distance between the camera and the subject producing a sense of ‘closing-in’ as the book progresses (which in turn contrasts with the accompanying texts, which imply a distancing and a growing uncertainty about the veracity of these images and the true nature of the subject these photographs purport to reveal).

Sometimes it works very well to try and instil some sort of rhythm of pattern to the narrative. I’m a classical music addict and I’m particularly obsessed with Bach and the way he often constructs a piece of music with a very simple theme which is thoroughly explored, broken down, seemingly abandoned in favour of something else and then finally returned to. This seems to me like a nice analogy for how some of the most interesting book narratives work. Not hammering away at the same idea in every photograph, but using the core idea or leitmotif as a jumping off point from which to explore other things, before recapitulating on the original topic as the narrative draws to an end. Once I have a clear idea of the sort of narrative I want to employ it’s only then that I really turn to the matter of designing the book, something which I’ll be discussing in more depth later in the week.

Review – Predator by Jean-Marie Donat

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I was relatively underwhelmed by Les Rencontres d’Arles this year, but one of the highlights was an exhibition housed in an old church and simply titled Vernacular. Curated from the collection of Jean-Marie Donat, the exhibition consists of three series of vernacular photographs each of which focus on very particular and rather eccentric subjects. One consisted of photographs of people in blackface, another featured images of people dressed as incongruous and slightly threatening polar bears, but for me the stand out was a series of images simply titled Predator.

This series had such an impression on me that I found myself still thinking about it three months on, and I finally decided to buy the book of it. Predator consists very simply of a series of vintage vernacular photographs where the shadow of the behatted photographer has intruded into the frame from the bottom of the photo. As a concept for a short series, let alone a 200 page book, that might seem very slight, but Predator is a great example of how a simple idea can be repeated and varied in subtle ways that gradually build up into a strangely engaging narrative.

As a viewer you know that the photographs in the book are all taken by different people, but a part of your brain can’t quite release the idea that it’s the same individual behind the camera each time. The photographs themselves are often so so sparse and the information in them so repetitive that one searches each new image carefully for significant information, incorporating anything that stands out into the mental image that you have started to construct of this odd and dimly threatening photographer.

An early group of photographs are all of children mostly smiling or bemused but occasionally more ambivalent or crying. While you’re already wondering what the photographer’s relationship is to all these very different children might be, the appearance of crying children starts to seed the thought that it’s something sinister. After all who stands there and takes a photograph of a crying child, rather than attempting to comfort them? The hatted shadow starts to call to mind a film noir villain, perhaps from Peter Lorre’s sinister if pitiful child murdered in M or Orson Welles’s kingpin Harry Lime in The Third Man. Later photographs of young men similarly conjure the image of Robert Mitchum’s predatory preacher Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter.

I never thought I’d praise a book for providing it’s viewers with almost no information besides photographs, but this is exactly what makes Predator work. Because information is so scant the interpretation of the book is left very much to your imagination, and that might be the only weakness of the book in that to those with little imagination it will just appear like a catalogue of visually connected images. The structure of the book hovers somewhere between an actual narrative and a series of loose themes. It starts with photographs of children, then animals, then adults, before breaking into a mixture towards the end. In truth there probably is no real narrative, but because the photographs aren’t strictly typological I found myself irresistibly drawn to search for one.

In short the conceptual simplicity of Predator belies a book of surprising depth, which I found myself spending far more time with than I imagined I would. It illustrates so many things about photography, from the way context alters meaning, to the irrelevance of a photographers intent, in defining how a viewer understands an image. If you have the imaginative energy those photographs can act as springboards for all sorts of strange narratives, and the book is a great reminder that a photographic series doesn’t need to be complicated or even consist of particularly different photographs to have a powerful narrative effect.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)

Review – Missing Buildings by Thom and Beth Atkinson

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“When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on their memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly― Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

Unlike so many other great European capitals, London has defied all attempts to order or plan it. The travel writer H.V Morton described it as a series of villages submerged by bricks and mortar as the city overgrew its Roman walls and spread out into the green fields of the surrounding counties. From the narrow medieval lanes of the City, to the anachronistic names of its further flung quarters, the London we know today was only made possible by this slow and disordered growth, which absorbed and amalgamated rather than destroyed it’s past.

Equally important though to the city’s present character though have been brief periods of immense destruction. The Great Fire of 1666 swept away two thirds of the city, only stopping when it reached the ancient walls. But it left the ancient street plan in place but offering space and light for new buildings to grow like seedlings in the wake of a forest fire. The air bombardment unleashed on London from 1940, had a similar effect, wiping clear great swathes of inner London and pockmarking it’s outskirts with random destruction. Many of those erratically distributed bomb sites would later become the site of the new post-war social housing, resulting in a city where people of all social and economic tiers often live in a jumbled proximity which is sometimes surprising to visitors.

Despite the comprehensive rebuilding of the city in the years after the war traces of many of these bomb sites remain in the city, for anyone who is willing and knows how to look for them. Thom and Beth Atkinson do know how, and their first book Missing Buildings consists of a collection of photographs of these strange gaps in the spatial fabric of the city. Like psychic scars, these empty spaces with their precarious hovering fireplaces and pale outlines of long vanished roof-lines are a lingering reminder of the indiscriminate destruction that rained on the city during the Second World War, and the speed with which the order and fabric of urban life can be shattered be conflict.

The photographs are straight and typological, each site photographed in the grey light of an overcast London day, often at a forty-five degree angle which displays both the frontages of the intact surrounding buildings and the markings left on their sides by the missing building. In some cases the missing has been replaced, with varying success, and so post-war prefabs and sixties brick builds appear incongruously inserted amongst rows of Victorian terraced houses. The surviving neighbours of some of these missing buildings often look as if they are not long for this world themselves. Wapping’s Old Rose pub stands like an isolated Victorian promontory in a sea of wasteland. It’s windows are boarded up, and it looks rather as if it is waiting for the bomb which will at last arrive seventy years late, to send it to join the buildings that once surrounded it.

This could be a case of me projecting my own interests and concerns too forcefully, but I find it hard not to view this book as a commentary on the process of demolition and reconstruction which is sweeping across London today. As the value of property has soared and even the most meagre scraps of land are acquired for ‘redevelopment’ the sights and sites shown in this book become fewer and further between as they are pulled down, sealed up or built over. ‘So what’ one might well say, these derelicts and empty spaces offer the city no quantifiable or easily defined benefit to the city. But as the Roth quote above implies, some things of importance are beyond measurement. These missing buildings are the memento mori of the city. They are a reminder to us all that while order is illusory, life is short, and our own time will come, the city does not readily forget it’s own.

(Critical transparency: review copy provided by publisher)