The current interest in photobooks is nothing short of a revolution, or so we are told by a coterie of people with much to gain from this idea, with manifestos to sell, and cadres eager to be led. And yet history teaches us that revolutions, if they even are such to start with, cannot remain revolutionary indefinitely. The longer they continue to profess their radical credentials, the more likely it is that they have slipped into stasis, becoming in fact the orthodoxy, and the status quo.
It is not hard to see why photographers were, and remain, so excited by photobooks. In them it seems we have found for ourselves a small sanctuary. No longer do we need to justify the artistic credentials of our medium in order to carve out space in galleries alongside ‘real’ artists, or place our images in newspapers and magazines where they are frequently treated as second rate illustration to the real business of text. In the photobook it seems we have a space of our own, with relatively few middlemen between us and our audiences. A space which plays in many ways to the unique characteristics of photography, and gives us an autonomy which we have long craved.
And yet, as year by year I have made more and more books, I have come increasingly to feel that there is something about the book and photography which are not quite such a natural match as they once seemed. The photobook might go back to the origins of the medium with Talbot and other pioneers, but it is also hard to escape the sense that it is only a continuation of forms of illustrated book that go back centuries before the conception, let alone invention, of photography. The book in truth is not a space that is photography’s own, rather it is a spacem like the others, that we have temporarily inhabited. We are I think just borrowing it until something better comes along, something that at last reflects in its own form the constant shifting dynamism of photography.
For all the clever aesthetic, physical and narrative things that we can do with the book, it remains a profoundly limited form. With many of my book projects I have looked for ways to push what the form can do, but increasingly I find the options that remain are ones that are only innovative in the most narrowly academic sense, or which restrict the accessibility and reproducibility of the finished project. And that word reproducibility perhaps reflects my biggest problem with the book, that like the limited-edition print, the photographic book remains largely an item of enforced rarity, a fact which runs in complete counterpoint to the most inherent quality of the medium it acts as a container for.
In my latest project I am working with augmented reality, something I have never used before and which I have been wary of because of the hyperbolic claims made for it, and the fleeting faddishness of much that it has produced. The reasons for finally making this leap stemmed partly from the desire to make a piece of work which critically discussed the politics of automated seeing and computer vision, and used a form of computer vision to do this in way which created a sort of reflexive cycle between form and content. By producing a smartphone application able to recognise pages of John Berger’s 1972 book Ways of Seeing, new material can be made to appear over these pages, virtually updating Berger’s book in real time, creating a new virtual book which encompasses material a physical book never could, while at the same time retaining many of the appealing narrative qualities of a physical book.
Working on this project however has led me to feel that augmented reality is perhaps the home that photography has been waiting for, certainly since the advent of its digital era, and perhaps for much longer. A home which is as dynamic as the camera, and mutable as the photograph. In the first chapter of Ways of Seeing, Berger quotes a passage from one of the manifestoes issued by The Council of Three, a Soviet film making group founded by the Latvian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. The text breathtakingly captures the freedom of the camera ‘Freed from the boundaries of time and space, I co-ordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be. My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you.’
Virtual reality technologies are still nascent, clumsy things, at the threshold of usability even in locations where most people have access to sophisticated smartphones and fast internet connections. Cinema cameras were similar in Vertov’s time, and photographic cameras in their turn were the same in Talbot’s era. But as I noted in a review of an augmented reality recreation of the first photographic exhibition, contemporary virtual reality like early photography shows in its imperfections the remarkable possibilities that lie ahead, not least the possibility that photography finally finds a home all of it’s own.
The prototype of Ways of Seeing Algorithmically will be on display at Paris Photo, 6th – 9th November 2019.