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.