The Shadows of Doubt: Art, Distance and Truth

Spectrum analysis of Cuban intelligence radio broadcast
From Shadows of the State

Journalism has traditionally rested on certain core truths which are often taken to be self-evident and beyond question. The Hungarian photojournalist Robert Capa’s often quoted dictum that ‘if your photographs are not good enough, you aren’t close enough’[1] would seem to encapsulate a particularly important one, the axiom of proximity. This idea that a journalist should seek a certain closeness to the story, that is to say a spatial rather than emotional closeness, has long been regarded as one of the most important routes to insight and revelation, as well as being central to the journalist’s role as witness to vitally important events. The implication of Capa’s aphorism might have been true when he first spoke it in the early part of the last century, but his world was a strikingly different one from the one we occupy today. Profound and ongoing changes in every arena call his words, and journalism’s emphasis on proximity, into ever greater question.

In a present marked by unchecked environmental collapse, by undeclared wars fought with increasingly autonomous aircraft, by aggressive multinational corporations, and massive data surveillance, spatial proximity to the story in the traditional sense implied by Capa is often simply no longer an option for many journalists. The news of today occupies spaces which are often too remote, too dangerous, too abstract, or where the machinery of public relations are too effective to permit any sort of useful access. Even where such physical proximity to the issue remains possible is it any longer a guarantee of journalistic insight, because even where such topics can be ‘seen’ such sight often offers little comprehension of the systems and processes which make them possible. The playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, a contemporary of Capa, had already observed this truth in the 1930s when he perceptively argued that ‘… less  than  ever  does  the  mere  reflection  of  reality  reveal  anything  about  reality.  A photograph of the Krupp [armament] works or the AEG [general electricity company] tells us next to nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification  of  human  relations—the  factory,  say—means  that  they  are  no  longer  explicit.  So something must in fact be built up, something artificial, posed’[2]

The equivalent today of Brecht’s armaments factory might be one of the high tech facilities where the subsystems of military drones are manufactured prior to integration, packaging and delivery to the battlespace. It might, still more abstractly, be a server farm humming with exabytes of data, a resource now as important to our world as Krupp’s steel was to Brecht and Capa’s. Whichever the more appropriate modern analogue, witnessing or photographing these places in any traditional sense of these words tells us as little and perhaps even less than Brecht’s factory photographs, so abstracted have the relations that underlie them become. The work of the artists Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, who have extensively photographed the infrastructure of high frequency stock market trades, reveal this difficulty[3]. Their photographs, which are the product of lengthy and difficult negotiations for access, depict the workstations where the algorithms that execute these transactions are monitored by their human retainers. Geissler and Sann have managed to reach the center of the labyrinthine financial empires being made possible by these new technologies, but at the heart of the labyrinth they have found no Minotaur, and nor even its human thralls, instead only a series of uncompromisingly blank screens. What their photographs are unable to directly reveal are the relations, and specifically the networks which make such deals possible, nor can they fully reveal the relations that they create.

Ours is a world defined less and less by the power and significance of specific, discrete geographical sites, but increasingly instead by the collective power of these sites, as nodes in networks made possible by the communications superhighways of the 21st century. The use of drones as part of ever more network dependent wars[4] is an apt example of this, an activity conducted in a highly-distributed manner with hundreds of sites across dozens of countries joined together in real time via undersea fiber optic cables and communications satellites in order to ‘find, fix and finish’[5] those who are its targets. In finding ways to report, document or respond to such a war, witnessing the existence and even the activities of individual nodes is less revealing than the documentation of the relationships between them, and the relationships which make these activities possible. The military contracting, the political lobbying, the legal wrangling, and the international alliances and agreements without which one human being in a cabin in Nevada would not be able to release a missile on another human being on a mountain side half a world away. This is a networked war in an informatics sense, but it is networked also in the sense that in a globalized world everything is inescapably linked to everything else. Conflict, social inequality, unbridled capitalism, environmental degradation, man-made disasters are, if I may be momentarily unemotional, nodes in a network which sync, reverberate, and feed back into one another. But as has often been observed the network only recognizes what it is taught to recognize, and we, as nodes ourselves, have been taught to ignore what is right in front of us.

In the context of the changing form of global problems new hybrid practices have emerged to offer us ways to report and understand these things. One, which we could call network centric journalism lies closer to traditional journalistic practices. Another, perhaps the binary of this new journalism, is the practice often called documentary art. This is also a hybrid or Chimera, combining the real world concerns and methodologies of documentary and journalism with the visual, conceptual and disseminative strategies of art. Such an approach is not entirely new, and Brecht himself was an innovator in this field. His most remarkable effort, the 1955 book Kriegsfibel, combined appropriated press photography with poetry in an attempt to reveal the truths which he believed lay hidden within these photographs, and in doing this the truth of the Second World War. This book includes the very same image of a Krupp armaments factory which he had before decried for its muteness. Brecht’s compatriot Hans Haacke is a more contemporary example, an artist who has often used journalistic research blended with conceptual display strategies to ask uncomfortable questions, not least of the art world in which his work circulates. His 1971 installation Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, sought to reveal the activities of a notorious New York slum landlord and was withdrawn from exhibition amid speculation that it suggested connections between Shapolsky and members of the Guggenheim Museum’s board of trustees.[6]

This blend of art and journalism then has an impressive lineage, and it continues to gain in traction and acceptance, both within the context of galleries which might have regarded such unambiguously worldly and political concerns as vulgar and uncouth, but also in magazines and newspapers which once might have been suspicious of using experimental strategies to talk about contemporary matters. The latest manifestations of documentary art frequently raise and discuss issues which elude traditional strategies of investigation, and often indeed also reflecting on the muteness, and indeed sometimes complicity, of traditional media in the face of these problems. This is the case for example in Edmund Clark’s investigations of the consequences of the global War on Terror and in particular in Body Politic, a video piece produced in collaboration with Max Houghton, which juxtaposes the realities of state secrecy and redaction with the false narratives of the press conference. Likewise in the work of Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips, or KennardPhillips, juxtaposition plays an even more direct role, placing vastly different realities side by side in the same frame in order to reveal the falsity and opportunism of populist press reporting of the recent refugee crisis. It is precisely this type of layering and building up that Brecht had argued was required to penetrate the reified reality of the armaments factory.

The work of KennardPhillips also reveals part of the great attraction of this borderland between art and journalism, that it is not bound by the same codified rules as journalism, the same ethical constraints, and the same burdens of truth. Documentary art labours under none of the diktats about staging images or later manipulating them, there no thresholds for the proof of a claim, and the risk of libel action while certainly not absent is generally regarded as far less present in this field than in traditional journalism. This is of course to say nothing of the reality that many traditional journalistic organs are owned by private owners who may exercise an editorial control in line with their own political priorities.[7] Liberation from these restrictions can be advantageous in reporting certain subjects, and indeed it is telling that a significant number of people who previously trained and operated as traditional journalists have made the migration to this border land, including Laura el-Tantawy whose installation In The Shadow of the Pyramids offers a deeply personal and impressionistic look at the Egyptian revolution of 2011. From one shadow to another, in my own project Shadows of the State I reveal the communication networks established by the world’s intelligence agencies during the Cold War, and which in some cases continue to broadcast to this day. Locating these sites has relied on comparisons of large quantities of public information, some of it highly questionable, and throughout I have been aware that much of this information would likely not pass the conventional journalistic thresholds for reliability. That in a sense is what the work is about, about traversing a landscape of ambiguities, where nothing can be taken at face value.

This in turn poses as yet unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions. In particular when artists make work about important contemporary issues one must ask what burden of truth lies upon them, and whether it is ever acceptable for an artist to ‘not let the truth get in the way of a good story?’ [8] While most journalists adhere to the notion of an objective truth, the possibility and indeed desirability of such a truth remains far less clear in art, where it is often tacitly recognized that the artist is, in Plato’s words an imitator or ‘manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.[9] Imitation can of course reveal truth, as for example in Jeremy Deller’s The Battle Of Orgreave which recreates the events of a notorious 1984 confrontation between striking miners and the police in a form which hovers somewhere between theatre, living history and crime scence re-enactment. Further important questions which demand discussion are how this hybrid of art and journalism fits with the art world’s proclivity for self-aggrandizement, and the old fashioned expectation that artists position themselves as visionaries, in the process often eschewing and downplay collaborations and the many others who play a part in the creation of their works. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Ruth Berlau, Brecht’s collaborator on his Kriegsfibel, has been often written out of the subsequent history of that work.[10] Journalism is perhaps more than ever a collective enterprise. All the more so in the era of investigations involving vast data leaks which sometimes require networks comprising hundreds of journalists across the globe to work cooperatively to marshal the facts and break stories. The journalism that surrounded Edward Snowden’s revelations into the activities of the American National Security Agency would have been inconceivable as a solitary effort involving as it did the review of as many as 1.7 million documents.[11]

It is intentionally provocative of me to suggest that journalism’s emphasis on proximity is now completely irrelevant. Many of the works discussed in this essay clearly reveal that spatial closeness still has an important part to play even in the reporting of even the most abstract of modern issues. Equally alongside these new terrors of drone and algorithm our world is still afflicted by many of the same problems that troubled Capa and Brecht, and in the reporting of these things proximity to the story, and in particular to the human subjects of the story, remains an essential part of journalism’s function. Alongside this though perhaps what is also required is a different form of distance, a view which takes in and which can critically make visible and understandable the macro as well as the micro. Without this wide view, the sense of how a humanitarian crisis, environmental collapse and corporate malpractice might all be connected, journalism will always be chasing the effects and affects of it’s subjects rather than the causes and the culprits. The two practices of art and journalism are still in a state of fusing, and they still have much they can learn from each other. It is less a case of an either-or scenario, or a replacement of journalism’s functions by these new approaches, than it is a case of two different practices which share fundamentally the same concerns and have an enormous capacity to support each other in important ways. In a world racked by a problems which seem to grow more abstract by the day it is not enough however to continue as it has always been done. The reified power relations which make our world what is must be drawn out of the shadows, and exposed to public scrutiny even if to do so requires, in Brecht’s own words, that something must be built up, and something artificial posed.

This essay is an adapted version of one originally written to accomplish Very Now, an exhibition exploring the intersections of art and journalism, held at London College of Communication in August 2016.

[1] Robert Capa, Slightly Out of Focus, xi.
[2] Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography, p.24
[3] Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, Volatile Smile, 2011
[4] Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garska, Network Centric Warfare: It’s Origins and Future, 1998
[5] The Intercept, The Drone Papers: A Visual Glossary (Oct 15, 2015 )https://theintercept.com/drone-papers/a-visual-glossary/ (accessed 19th June 2016)
[6] Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 http://collection.whitney.org/object/29487 (accessed 19th June 2016)
[7] The Elephant In The Room: New report on UK media ownership http://www.mediareform.org.uk/media-ownership/the-elephant-in-the-room (accessed 22nd June 2016)
[8] Usually attributed to Mark Twain, it seems apt that there is much doubt whether he indeed ever said this.
[9] Plato, The Republic X, 27
[10] Berlau edited Kriegsfibel, wrote the preface to the original publication , and may have contributed some of the core ideas behind the work. Yet reference to her is notably absent from much subsequent writing about the book.
[11] NSA: Snowden Stole 1.7 Millionn Classified Documents And Still Has Access To Most Of Them http://www.businessinsider.com/how-many-docs-did-snowden-take-2013-12?IR=T (accessed 22nd June 2016)

Arles 2016 Dispatch #4: The Discovery Award

2016-WAI-cat10

Seeking to Belong, Stranger in Familiar Land series, Kibera, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. First I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which look at ideas of European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Next I discussed on two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and 9/11 focused the group show Nothing but Blue Skies. The day before yesterday I focused on two more humorous exhibitions, Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western. For my penultimate post I want to look at some of the ten photographers nominated by five international selectors for the the annual Discovery Award shortlist, a €25,000 prize for photographers who ‘have recently been discovered, or deserve to be’.

First up, Florian Ebner head of the Photographic Collection at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, has selected Stephanie Kiwitt and Frank Berger as his nominees. The latter’s series Weissenfels responds to the oft repeated observation by Bertolt Brecht that a photograph of an armaments factory reveals little about the relations that take place inside it. Berger’s answer to this problem is instead to rephotograph the same locations outside a German slaughterhouse repeatedly over an extended period of time, which are then shown as a multi-screen projection. While these images certainly tell us a little more than a single image (if only in that we can see the passage of livestock in one direction and lorries of schnitzel heading in the other) they don’t really offer a solution to the problem Brecht identified, nor do they at all critically examine what his idea actually means when applied the best part of a century later to a world already awash with repetitive images.

Independent curator Mouna Mekouar has selected Basma Alsharif and Daisuke Yokota as her nominated artists. As someone often on the lips of curators and critics at the moment my money would be on Yokota to win the prize. His use of space is certainly the most ambitious and engaging in this year’s awards, with long rolls of half developed photographic paper coiling down from a ceiling gantry (still reeking of developer), and walls padded with spiky acoustic foam. Unfortunately, the descriptive text on the wall which describes photographing at night and relying on senses other than sight to identify subject matter seems to bear little relation to what is presented in the space and I felt rather disengaged with the work despite it’s scale. I sometimes wonder if it is Yokota’s adherence to comfortingly old fashioned analogue processes in an age of digital uncertainty and dematerialisation which appeal to his adherents as much, or perhaps more, than the actual ideas his work claims to explore.

Critic, curator and director Stéphanie Moisdon has choosen Marie Angeletti and Christodoulos Panayiotou for her selection. Panayiotou’s work which explores ideas about power, capitalism and globalisation manages to be engaging and subtle without being overly oblique, thanks in part to some short but useful wall texts for each piece (notably absent in some of the other displays which are desperately needed them). Three improvised water sculptures create a calming aural backdrop but also have a serious point to make about the value added by clever arrangements of objects or proccessing of natural materials. The perception of power is also another central idea in Panayiotou’s photographs of underwater piping systems constructed to feed the fountains of the French palace of Versaille, a potent image of the monarch’s power and one which reputedly consumed as much water each day as the city of Paris. The last of the three pieces in his display is a photograph of artificial flowers in Hong Kong, taken as part of what the photographer describes as a sort of reverse pilgrimage to the sites of globalised power.

Aida Muluneh founder of Ethiopia’s Addis Foto Fest has shortlisted Nader Adem and Sarah Waiswa as her two nominees. Adem’s series Life as a Disabled Person is a surprise amongst a shortlist of photography which, as last year, is very much more on the conceptual rather than descriptive side of things. By contrast Adem’s work is traditional documentary, black and white photographs of Ethiopians living with an array of physical disabilities. In the context of a prize like this one it might be seen as rather brave to nominate a work which many in the contemporary photography world might see as quaintly naive. Probably my favourite of the Discovery award was Muluneh’s other nomination, Sarah Waiswa, and her series Strange in a Familiar Land, a series of portraits of an Albino woman in Nairobi’s Kiberia slum. Alongside a print each frame contains a pertinent object, in the most touching case a tear stained letter in which the author speaks desperately of wanting to belong and to be considered beautiful. In many of the photographs the jeers and goads of passersby are palpable in the background, although it is unclear if they are aimed at the subject or the photographer.

Finally Stefano Stoll, the director of the Swiss Festival Images, has selected Beni Bischof and Sara Cwynar as his two artists. Bischof’s display is an anarchic assemblage of defaced and reworked images from mass culture. His appropriated images are burnt, daubed with chewing gum, and Photoshopped into monstrous pastiches of their original purpose. Garish signs scattered around the space invoke audience members ‘Detox your thoughts’ and ‘Disturb reality’. Despite the complexity of the display and Stoll and Bischof’s attempts to talk up the work it is remarkably underwhelming, like a weak update of the First International Dada Fair held in 1920 in Berlin, but with little new added in the interim and no real challenge posed to the audience, an assessment which might stand for quite a few of the other works in this year’s shortlist.

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Spiking the War Primer

war primer 3 spiking the war primer

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.

Artists Shrug: Other Realities Are Available

atlas and hercules

‘Hercules takes the burden from Atlas and bears the cosmos’
Stich von Heinrich Aldegrever, 1550

Only reading books which agree with your world view has always seemed to me to show a basic lack of confidence in your beliefs. Far better to intentionally encounter books which rub you up the wrong way, whether politically, intellectually or stylistically. If you emerge from that encounter with your original convictions still intact, then either they are pretty well reasoned or you are just robustly delusional. At the very least you might emerge with a different perspective on something, a fresh set of ideas, or a better understanding of the people who take the opposite stance from you. To this end, when I was about seventeen and interested in testing some of my nascent left wing views I read Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, a book which runs counter to my politics, not to mention my taste in literature, in almost every way. Atlas Shrugged imagines an alternative United States which has started to grind to a halt, as its innovators and producers – in the novel mostly represented by industrialists and entrepreneurs, rather than artists – are being sucked dry of their energy and genius by the majority of the population who Rand portrays as parasites unable to produce or innovate themselves. In response to this a growing number of the innovators start to disappear to join a secret organisation, leaving their industries to collapse in the hands of those who have appropriated them. As the rather obvious titular metaphor implies, when Atlas the Greek Titan who bore the globe decides to shrug, the world will feel it.

While I could write a post on why I think Atlas Shrugged isn’t a great novel and why I find it’s politics broadly objectionable, this blogs remit does not include literary and political criticism. What I really want to talk about instead is the core idea of the book, that of dictating the terms on which the products of one’s labour circulate, or perhaps of withdrawing those products all together. In this climate of scarce opportunities and numerous creators often arrayed against each other in unnecessary competition, the work which we invest so much into is also often seen as a deeply disposable commodity, which requires little emotional or creative investment from viewers, or from the people who publish it, a tendency tied also to the idea that art is self-indulgent and without importance. All too often creative work is treated like filler to take up space between the really important content of adverts. My heartache of yesterday is today’s click bait, tomorrow’s broken link. It hurts to see the way so much hard work by talented people investigating important issues enters the meat grinder of the internet, is churned through click bait sites that offer no insight or thought of their own to the work but just want to use it to generate some page viewers, before being spat out the other end into the dustbin of ‘unexclusive’ or ‘overexposed’ content. The problem here for me is that while I don’t believe art deserves the rarefied (and largely financial) status generally afforded to it by contemporary art galleries and auction houses, I do believe that art has a range of very important functions in society, and processes and activities which deflate and erode art’s societal status need to be treated with as much concern as those which unrealistically overinflate it.

It’s a funny thing that Rand who was an émigré from Soviet Russia and was vehemently anti-communist, was talking about something in Atlas Shrugged not that dissimilar from Karl Marx’s concept of alienation, the process by which Marx believed capitalism divorces workers from, amongst other things, the products of their labour. I’m no Marxist, indeed as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know my attitude to theory is not ideologicaly dogmatic. Rather I try to view theory as a set of spanners, which you try out and discard until your find one which works for the job at hand. Marx’s idea is one I’ve been thinking a bit about recently in relation to art, and particularly forms of exploitative working relationships like artistic internships. As I indirectly suggested in War Primer 3, interns might be seen as part of the proletariat of the art world (to be sure a hetereogenous group which crosses many borders, social and economic groups, from well heeled interns to the construction workers of the newly emerging art super powers). I’ve also been wondering about the extent of the alienation that contemporary forms of display and circulation create between artists and their works. Whether the ‘clickbaitification’ of creative work is as damaging our relationship to our own practices and work as is it’s rareification. If the answer to either of these is yes, then it becomes an enticing project to think about ways to wrest back control over work by taking efforts to very consciously define and control the dissemination of it? In the coming weeks I will be writing more thoughts on how this might be done in ways which are both overt and confrontational, and others which work much more within the systems of exchange and influence that typify the art world. The assumption that the current status quo is acceptable, normal, or inevitable is a mistake. and in art as in the domains we often try to influence through our work, we need to believe that other realities are possible.

Journalism at the Limits of Visibility: World Press Photo 2015

fpcbrxrjfihweegpdbhm

Exposure, Kazuma Obara

It has been observed that some photography critics seem to actually rather dislike the medium, but it might equally be said that many of those who work directly with photography are prone to operating almost totally without criticism of it. One group is perceived to search for weaknesses, where sometimes there are no weaknesses to be found, and the other often seems to prop an ailing medium up, and often refuses to recognise that it has some quite glaring shortcomings. There is a gulf which is often evident between what photography is, and what people want photography to be. It is a gulf evidenced in words and deeds, and a gulf which I myself endlessly fascinated by. Much of my own work has focused on the role of photographs in what might be called systems of power, that is to say the role of photography in generating, supporting, reflecting and hiding the unequal distribution of martial, political, and economic authority in our world. I appreciate that this is a description which is in some ways both overly precise and ridiculously broad, but after several years of trying to trace the thread that ties what I do together this seems to be one explanation which I find consistently remains when all the others have been brushed away. In making this sort of work I have found that photography’s weaknesses can sometimes be as interesting as its strengths, not least in the way that these might under certain circumstances be embraced and twisted into powerful tools.

At the same time though I am increasingly conscious of what sometimes feel like the insurmountable limitations of photography in helping to bring to light and discuss some of the things in the world which seem most vital and urgent. This became particularly apparent to me in working on a recent project which investigates the very different but deeply linked intelligence gathering practices of covert shortwave radio broadcasts and optical reconnaissance satellites. These two practices are inherently non-visual, partly by nature but also to a far greater degree by construction. To turn the camera towards them and find a way to make them visible was an interesting intellectual challenge, but I have also been acutely aware that it is also very tokenistic, and the act of revelation in itself means very little to either my audiences or to the subjects of my photography. This is a problem I have noted in the work of other photographers who focus on nebulous worlds that by intent or accident defy straightforward visualisation. I think for example of the work of Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s photographs of tax havens, or Trevor Paglen’s work on intelligence gathering. One might ask what purpose is served by a series like Paglen’s Limit Telephotography, which uses extremely long lenses to photograph restricted areas like Groom Lake, when high resolution imagery of these sites is readily available on Google Maps. This isn’t to underplay the importance of these works, or to overplay the impartiality of a platform like Google Maps, but rather to suggest that investigating these types of issues with photography is sometimes rather like trying to hammer a nail with a banana, it’s briefly dramatic, eye catching and bizarre, but that’s about it.

Bringing the camera to bear on such issues might expand awareness of their existence, but photography (and I use that term both in terms of the technology and a wider industry) is very bad at exploring or explaining the precise circumstances of this existence, or the circumstances that give rise to them. I wrote most of this post several weeks before the announcement of the 2015 World Press Photo awards, but given some of the issues represented by Warren Richardson’s winning photograph, the timing of this post might feel more intentional than it is. On Saturday I examined Richardson’s photograph in some depth , and in particular complained that the image represented one of the huge problems with traditional journalistic photography, and with photography more broadly. That same inability of the medium to do much more than show the consequences of things, its inability to get the heart of things, and in the process not only missing the point, but also helping to obscure it. To quote Bertolt Brecht writing in AIZ a good eighty years ago, perhaps ‘photography… has become a terrible weapon against the truth’ one which while frequently intending to do good in the world all too often obscures the guilty behind images of their victims. I don’t mean this in the literal sense that photographers should routinely target those responsible for the world’s problems rather than those suffering from them, but I do mean that the informational trail that photography creates should not end at the victims.

What all this increasingly begs me to ask is what part can photography play in a world where a growing number of the problems and processes that define it are either becoming accidentally abstract and anti-visual, or are being intentionally designed out of visibility for reasons that suit the people who make and control them. The arrival of an information age means the world is changing more dramatically than it has in at least two centuries, and yet visual journalism has innovated relatively little. Are we approaching a point where photography is going to really start seeming as inadequate for responding to the essential issues of our day as painting seemed inappropriate for attempting to represent the fast moving new technologies of the industrial revolution in anything but an utterly individual and expressionistic way? As photography reaches more and more of its terminal velocities, i.e. as it reaches the boundaries imposed by the technical and physical nature of it’s processes, will it more and more obviously struggle to still make a useful contribution? In a datafied world perhaps the medium will be relieved of the burden of objectivity and literal revelation by the ‘new photography’ of data, algorithm, and network visualisations and analysis, leaving the ‘old photography’ free to celebrate it’s potential for quirks and individualism. This is an approach perhaps encapsulated in Exposure, Kazuma Obara’s WPP prize winning series on Chernobyl an unconventional and welcome winner in a prize which has always tended to treat so-called ‘conceptual’ photography with concern and caution. Perhaps as early nineteenth century artists like J.M.W. Turner began the process of reinvigorating painting with the tentative first steps towards what would later be recognised as impressionism, a similar approach and a growing acceptance of ‘conceptual’ photography in the fields of journalism will reinvigorate photography as a tool for helping us to understand the world’s problems with the nuance that they so desperately need.

(Critical transparency: Kazuma Obara is a former student of mine.)

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

Spirit is a bone_ 10

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)

A Photobook Manifesto II: On Design

war primer 1 and 3

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.

New Project – War Primer 3: Revised Edition

War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (16)

To mark sixty years since the original publication of Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel I have drastically revised and updated my 2013 book War Primer 3, and republished it as a new e-edition.

War Primer 3 is a reworking of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2 itself a reworking of the 1998 English edition of Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel. In this unique examination of war and photography first published in 1955, Brecht sought to extract the hidden meanings behind images of conflict through a series of short poems modeled on the funerial epigrams of the ancient world.

Broomberg and Chanarin in turn updated Brecht’s book by introducing images from the War on Terror, each intended to resonate with Brecht’s original text. While in some respects brilliant, in other ways Broomberg and Chanarin’s follow up was also deeply problematic. I felt particularly uncomfortable with the book’s existence as an expensive, editioned art object, and the use of uncredited, unpaid workers in its production, things which seemed difficult to reconcile with Brecht’s politics.

In response to these concerns, and in the spirit of Brecht’s playful invocation not to ‘start with the good old things but the bad new ones’ I reworked Broomberg and Chanarin’s book into a work primer, a meditation on inequality, labour and capital. By restructuring the book around the text of Brecht’s poem A Worker Reads History, and adding new images and text, I sought to produce a small tribute to the unacknowledged workers who keep the engines of the world turning.

Producing this new revised edition has involved completely re-photographing a copy of War Primer 2 and using these images to build up a new, high resolution version of War Primer 3. Many of the spreads have been redesigned in the process, with different images used in order to explore the subject of inequality in more depth, and with more nuance. The e-book also includes a comparative section showing the evolution of War Primer across its three versions, and also a selection of essays on the project.

You can now download the e-book of War Primer 3 here.

You can also download a press release about War Primer 3 here.

  War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (18) War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (20)War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (17)

Review – Hyenas of the Battlefield by Lisa Barnard

494A1147

Following last week’s piece on new photographic horizons now seems like an apt time to take a look at Lisa Barnard’s recent book Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden. The book examines the increasingly strange turns that modern warfare is taking, evolving from an event for so long defined by physicality and proximity, but which now appears to be dematerialising, becoming ever more remote and abstract, at least for the antagonist if not the victim. Hyenas of the Battlefield looks specifically at the rise of virtual reality and simulated war systems and the growing use of remote weapons like drones. Barnard employs a scattered approach, looking with varying depth at a range of inter-related topics, and employing an enormous range of visual devices in the process, from traditional photographic documentation, to interviews, to appropriation and collage.

The first section of the book, Virtual Iraq, focuses primarily on an immersive simulation of an Iraqi city designed to aid soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by slowly, safely reintroducing them to the source of that trauma. This is aided by a mixture of virtual and physical simulated environments, props and even bottled smells of garbage and burning tires. The level of detail gone to recreate these environments is exhaustive, and yet at the same time the whole simulation seems somehow shallow and disappointing, more reminiscent of a gameshow set than a warzone.

Also featured in this section are two virtual people developed by the US military. One named Seargent Starr is a recruitment tool for the US Army programmed to answer military careers questions with a series of evasive and inane answers, punctuated by regular ‘Hooahs’. The other simulated person ‘Raed Mutaaz’ is an Iraqi, who can be set to a range of levels of hostility and is designed to culturally acclimatise soldiers preparing to deploy in the country. The strange and rather depressing thought one is left with is the question of how far the simulation is constructed to reflect reality, or how far the user of the simulation comes to view reality as a shadow of that simulation, or an event which must conform to the dynamic created in the virtual reality. It’s not hard to imagine a soldier, having trained with Mutaaz, coming to view all Iraqis as innately hostile.

The second, larger section of the book, Whiplash Transition, looks at tele-warfare and particularly the use of drones, a practice which has become increasingly instrumental in the foreign policy of the United States over the past few decades. Remote warfare was clearly attractive because it seemed to offer the best of both worlds, the ability for technologically advanced nations to continue to project their power around the globe, without the danger of interventions disintegrating into politically unpalatable bloodbaths. Enemies could be tracked, ‘fixed’, and despatched at the push of a button. War it seemed, could become almost without consequence. The reality has proved rather different, and we are increasingly aware that soldiers can suffer trauma even when the act of killing is profoundly distant, performed by semi-autonamous machines, and mediated by computer screens.

This section starts with a relatively conventional series of still life photographs of shards from the Hellfire missiles which drones typically launch against their targets (sometimes quickly followed by a second missile intended to kill those who go to help the victims of the first). These shards are the most literal consequences of these remote foreign policy decisions, proof as it were that these near virtual war still have a real life counter-part. Also in this section is an interview with a drone operator, and as in Omer Fast’s film 5000 Feet is the Best, the operator’s words are a strange mixture of defensiveness, conciliation and pride in his work. The interview text is surrounded by pages of bleak, blue aerial views of mountainous Waziristan, the border territory of Pakistan now indelibly linked with drones.

In the final section Barnard travels to and photographs The Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles International, an arms trade show in Las Vegas. While this seems likely to offer the blandest source material in the book, it actually turns out to be one of the most interesting parts. Barnard photographs the trade show stands replete with sleek black killing machines, their storage crates, and includes plans of the vast show and it’s huge list of corporate exhibitors. As soldiers need to be shielded from war, so too it seems do salesmen and accountants, and particularly intriguing are the exercises in psychic deflection, the simulation and the nomenclature which spare the participants in these trade shows from having to actually discuss or consider the horror they make possible. This is what Julian Stallabrass in his introductory essay describes perfectly as the ‘armoured glacis of corporate bullshit’.

These people are the profiteers of modern war, the ‘hyenas of the battlefield’ as Bertolt Brecht called them in Mother Courage. They ought to remember another adage from the same play, that he who sups with the devil had better use a long spoon. As Fast indirectly suggested in his film, for now remote drones, guided missile strikes and long distance killing are relatively exotic ideas. A small number of countries more or less monopolise these things, and monopolise the right to execute their terrible power on other people with impunity. That imbalance won’t last forever, the machines won’t remain in the garden.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)

Ten Books Every Year: Self-Publishing and Print on Demand

war-primer-3-2
War Primer 3

For a while I’ve been meaning to sit down and pen a few thoughts on the subject of self-publishing, and specifically print on demand publishing. My hand has been forced a little by the appearance of a nice interview with the Artists Book Cooperative over on The Photographer’s Gallery blog. ABC’s members have pretty much written the book (excuse the pun) when it comes to this form of publishing and the interview does a great job of outlining many of the things that I think make print on demand books a powerful means of expression and dissemination for bibliophile photographers.

Still I have a few thoughts to add, on the practical and philosophical side, and also a few words of caution for anyone just starting to get into this, ways to maybe save a little time, money and heartache along the way. I’m by no means the most experienced self-publisher, but I am a fairly profligate book maker (you can see a few of them here) and over the past couple of years almost every book I’ve made has been done through print on demand publishers. I’m hooked on discovering all the possibilities this apparently rather restrictive form of publishing offers, and so here are a few of the things I’ve learnt so far.

The most obvious advantage of print on demand publishing is that you don’t need to find a traditional publisher. Experienced publishers can bring a huge amount of expertise and useful connections to a project, but not every project needs those resources or that scale of reach, and traditional publishers can equally be undermined by issues like their commercial considerations and slow production speeds. It’s also worth noting that some conventional publishers expect the photographer/author to invest substantially in the production of their book, which can rule this route out to many of us. While print on demand of course requires some financial investment, the amount you choose to invest is very scalable. I often just order a few copies of a book to start with until I can gauge how interested people seem to be in it. Once I think I can shift a few I scale up the order, maybe to ten, maybe to a hundred.

These low costs and this flexibility and speed of ordering has lots of advantages. For example you can order multiple drafts of a book before you settle on the final design, with no need to rely on an inaccurate dummy or an electronic version to judge your design before sending it for final printing. Equally you can feel free to experiment and rework these drafts by hand, sticking in inserts, customizing covers, even cutting out or pasting in whole sections of the book. The fast speed of print on demand production also makes it very nimble compared to other forms of publishing. For example with War Primer 3 I produced the content in a week, designed the book in a few hours and had a copy of it on my desk about a week after that. This is amazing when the book you’re making relates to a current issue that you want to respond to as quickly as possible.

One of the things that I particularly like about print on demand is that there’s not much danger of getting bogged down in the material faff of book making. I love beautiful books, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve opened a fantastically produced photo book and found the content utterly underwhelming. Print on demand books tend to be rough and ready and while many printers offer premium features they often aren’t worth the money (and in any case can never compete with the quality of a well-produced bespoke book). As far as I’m concerned content is king, and the material simplicity of print on demand books push the photographs and text to center stage and minimise the distraction and fetishisation of their container.

I hear two common criticisms of print on demand that I’d like to both partly acknowledge, and also to some extent disavow. The first is that print on demand can be pretty expensive particularly as books get bigger and more complex. This is completely true, particularly if you start including premium features. That said it can also be astoundingly cheap. One of my books The Camera Obscured, costs so little to produce that I sometimes give copies away as a sort of expanded business card. The book format I use for it is really intended for text publications, not photographs, but when used for the right project and with a bit of tweaking it works just as well as a much more expensive format aimed specifically at photographers. This reflects a truism about all print on demand, that often the most obvious book format for a project isn’t the best one, and you’ll really be rewarded for taking your time and experimenting with different options.

The second criticism is that of quality, which unsurprisingly tends to be lower than you might find in a bespoke self-published or professionally published book. Things like printing and cutting consistency can be quite variable from publisher to publisher, and from print run to print run. This is just something you have to keep an eye out for and have a slightly philosophical attitude towards. Usually you might be the only person who’s going to notice a defect, but I’ve also found that printers are usually very willing to replace books with even rather minor printing defects without quibbling. When you think of the scale these companies work at, printing ten books gratis to keep a customer happy is probably nothing to them.

These limitations just have to be kept in mind when you’re designing a book project for print on demand publication. While it’s not always ideal to have to alter your project to suit the format you’re going to be putting it into we do this more often than we might acknowledge, whether in cropping a photograph to fit a magazine page or down-scaling the quality for web display. I think it is significant that I often hear these criticism from people who seem to want to use print on demand in the same way they would hope to use a traditional book publisher. It frustrates me a little that people often see self-publishing in general as little more than a springboard to recognition from a traditional publisher, it’s less readily acknowledged that it can be a totally legitimate end point in itself (although that has certainly improved in recent years).

Make no mistake, print on demand publishing is as much a vanity project as conventional photo book publishing, but it also has the potential to be much more interesting. Freed from the pressure to be commercially appealing, print on demand books can be very funny, subversive, and reactive. Conventional wisdom often seems to be that photo books are almost like holy objects, which the photographer must sweat and slave over years, producing perhaps one book every decade. I say forget the conventional wisdom. You learn by doing, and when print on demand books are as cheap and readily accessible as they are now there’s no reason not to embrace them.

Don’t make a book every ten years, make ten books every year.