The Photo Book World: A Cult not a Ghetto

kurtz-photobook

Colonel Kurtz reads a book,
Still from Apocalypse Now (1979)

Late to the party as usual, I only recently read this piece by Colin Pantall hitting back at the commonly held view that the photo book world is a ghetto, an attitude which is easily extended to documentary or art photography, or even art in general. There were a few points in it I think are worth picking up and running with, because they chimed with some things I’ve been thinking and occasionally writing about lately. Issues around the perceived and actual role of the arts in society, who has access to the arts and what they gain from it, how the arts can be more open and less hierarchical for both makers and audiences, and who’s responsibility it is to push in that direction.

First off I have to confess I really hate the use of the word ghetto in this context, although I equally know I’m quite guilty of using it myself at times. For reasons Pantall rightly hints at in his piece, using a word with the sort of history that ghetto has attached to it to talk about something as privileged as art or photography shows a really obnoxious lack of self-awareness. To compare the choice of working with a relatively niche media, to being marginalised and constrained in the way that the various groups historically confined in ghettos have been is just utterly naff. So for the benefit of this piece and in future conversations I’ll transplant ghetto for cul-de-sac, not because it means the same thing, but because in the context of this conversation cul-de-sac has different but still suitable connotations, of suburban conservatism and general closed-in-ness. I know that swap won’t be popular with some in the photo book community who would probably prefer to see themselves aligned with ostracised communities than with affluent suburban curtain twitchers, but I am sure they will cope.

Anyway, in his piece Pantall argues that the photo book world isn’t such a cul-de-sac as its critics (and some insiders) often suggest. He points to a relatively diverse list of photo book makers winning plaudits today, and ends by making the point that anyone can participate in this world simply by making a book. It’s open to anyone to get involved. That’s all quite true, although it needs to come with some caveats. For example saying a democracy is open for anyone to participate in simply by going out and voting might sound good, but it’s pretty meaningless if a society is structured in such a way that large swathes of it don’t know their rights as voters, or can’t reach a polling station. You could say there are comparable issues with photography and the arts in general. On the face of it things might be open to anyone to turn up and participate, but the reality is that some groups feel far better able to do this, and others don’t. The Arts Council have some interesting statistics here on things like gallery attendance that flesh this out more and show that while we might assume things are always getting better and audiences are getting more diverse, that’s not necessarily the case.

Which returns us back to the idea of the photo book world as a cul-de-sac closed to outside interest. As Pantall says, the photo book world is not that actively exclusive. Like many people with fringe interests we love it when people from outside our world show interest in it, but not to the extent that we are all that willing to talk about why the arts are so privileged and niche, nor to do very much about it. Beyond that we also don’t really engage with the fact that the world outside the photo book cul-de-sac generally isn’t that aware or interested what we do. That’s partly because sure, the photo book is a relatively newly recognised medium, but I think part of it is also because most photo book makers don’t make any serious steps to speak to that world. I often feel that we are the ones relegating ourselves to our obscure cul-de-sac with a sometimes unquestioning adherence to a medium which might be very beautiful and often very appropriate to the stories we want to tell and the ideas we want to share, but perhaps often isn’t remotely appropriate to the audiences we sometimes think we want to speak to.

I think Mark Neville’s work on Port Glasgow is an interesting case study, both of another model for disseminating photography and photo books, but also of the reactions of people who maybe wouldn’t normally buy something like this. A problem I think is that most photo book makers primarily want to speak to a very, very small audience, influential within the cul-de-sac but not so much outside it. Pantall suggests that if there were a photo book ghetto then Martin Parr might be the mayor, and it often seems that book makers are trying first and foremost to catch the attention of the group who rule over their little patch of territory; critics, collectors, curators, etc, hoping that their approval will mean the rest of the cul-de-sac follows suite. It’s an interesting irony that Neville’s book has attracted such approval, which along with it’s unconventional distribution (and the occasional mass burning), may explain why copies of it now attracts such high prices.

With this in mind, from where I’m sitting the photo book world sometimes starts to feel more like a bit of an unhealthy cult when you see tokenistic items exchanged for ridiculous prices and bands of people orbiting around a few charismatic or influential figures, desperately and uncritically seeking validation from them. To hear some of these people talk can feel not entirely unlike an interaction with Dennis Hopper’s deranged photojournalist at the end of Apocalypse Now with his unhealthy and unquestioning obsession with the renegade Colonel Kurtz. You might even say the cult like qualities of the photo book world extend to that rather unrealistic view of it’s own place in the world, and the reasons it’s not as diverse and large as it could be. Evidently I’m being somewhat provocative here, but seeing our world through this prism just for a moment, maybe it becomes easier to understand why fewer people take up the invitation to join us. Perhaps though the truth is really that any real world comparison whether to cult, ghetto, or cul de sac is just pretty unhelpful, creating false equivalences and seeming to offer solutions to problems that are not the same and need to be solved differently. In truth the the photo book world with all it’s good and bad is really only like one thing, which is, you guessed it… the photo book world.

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