Essay by Emma Wilkins and Wes Foster
Photography by Emma Wilkins
The white washed gallery wall is typically a vast vertically and horizontally extended space, and is sanctified by the eerie quiet of the reverence we award to work situated upon it. Compare to this the page of the photobook. A body upon which shades of light can perform, waning in visibility as shadows fall in concaves, and in geometric compositions that arc in a push-pull clinging rhythm, as the volume’s spreads are leafed over, one after another. And then there is the spine. Strong, centralised, a book’s spine is a tree's trunk and lies in parallel with its namesake, the series of supporting structures nestled within the human body. In this way the body of the printed work is a kind of Real Fiction. It is a textual flesh. The photobook reflects the structural, sculptural qualities of the human body. Without consideration in the design stage of the work, the perfect bound book cannot be leafed fully apart without a splitting, without a varying quantity of visual information, whether negative space or printed visual element, being lost to and immersed invisibly within the gutters of the spread. Such qualities, by comparison to the gallery wall, my feel incongruous and antithetical as exhibitor of photographic art.
Unlike anything else, the photograph is nearly entirely dependent on its context – which is why photography uses so prolifically the white wall to display work, this act is to get rid of extraneous information and allow the ideas of the work to be sat alone, dependent on nothing. Yet the image is also the thing that we see all around us – it is the thing which informs daily, and has allowed our transition into a much more visual culture. We now see hundreds of images a day – as I write this on Word, an image of a highlighter depicts the tool to highlight, an image of a rubber depicts the tool to erase. Either because of the way technology has developed, or the way in which we have learnt to read the world around us, images, and symbols are the basis of our culture. We think of a painting as an object, separate to us. Though the contexts can be changed when we look at a painting through a book or a television screen, it is still historically fixed to the way we read art, we still recognise the painting as an object of art. The photograph is not afforded this luxury – the photographic image is dependent upon whatever is around it in order to find its meaning. It has no fixed place. One moment it can be a snapshot, the next an advertisement and then find itself in a gallery, as part of an exhibition. This is of course a rather crude example, but it gets the point across that whilst the image may never change, the contexts in which it is seen give the meaning to it, according to what is around it. No other form is capable of that, even if we see a painting in a restaurant or a living room it is an object of art – the photograph is not, and is transient, ever capable of being re-contextualised; much like drawing it is seen foremost as a recording of information. The nuance of order has huge implications in photography upon the way the work itself is rendered and encoded: the putting together of a photobook then is very selectively considering how each work complies or jars with the next: like in the editing any book, or essay, it is making sure that the pieces fit together in the right order to still make sense or not make sense. It is the creation of something which is supposed to be read in a certain way.
If photography is a referential medium, it is because, broadly speaking, it lacks the pictorial qualities associated with painting. If we are to use the well used (and better contested) mantra of the photographic as the Pencil of Nature; Its referential quality means that, in staged and performative photographs, ceremonies are played out on the level of the personal, of the real, the banal. In terms of the subject, there exists multiplicitous ways that photography can re-present the range of human experience and activity. These methods may combine and evolve to embody a kind of fluxus sensibility; combining of mediums to create a more of a total work, take for example the ongoing collaborative projects by Rut Blees Luxemburg & Alexander García Düttmann, which include the Self Publish Be Happy-published The Academic Year, which, draws equally from the languages of literature and the photographic by being offset printed, the book presents drawings, photographs and type, upon traditional paper pages of a Penguin-style paperback novel, with the visual quality and execution of an artists book.
The self publish movement of photobooks and visual art publications has contributed to a seismic shift shift in the power play of how photography in particular is disseminated and experienced at large. The focus and control, moves from curators, gallery directors, to artists and viewers. This process is analogous in observing the book in comparison to the gallery exhibited work; one may typically see their own reflection in the plexiglass or perspex housing, behind the bordered glass framing of an art object, while the photobook, and in turn the photographic publication, subverts this mirroring and degree of separation between viewer and work.
Where a wall may be marred and dirtied by a stray bootprint or finger-smudge, the photobook equally is dignified in its capacity to be manipulated, dog-eared, in an orphic process of discovery. Like the modernist concrete of the 20th century, the work of art that is the photobook becomes an envisagement of completion only by decomposing, being handled and worn in a series of intimacies with its viewer. Before the contact with the interior commences, the closed book, like Bataille’s closed mouth, is as beautiful, and as resolutely inviting as a safe. Then opened, at will, one can rub, scratch, tear the self-aggrandising ‘artist’ from existence, and simultaneous non-existence. Or, a book can be hollowed out and placed upon a dining room shelf and be made to contain all manner of things; indiscretions, precious sentimentalities, or a pistol.
These intimacies are analogous with that of one with his paramour; dust jackets and belly bands implore the viewer to commits the acts of undressing, of entering. As the contents of a volume unfurl, are exposed and explored with eager hands as one strives to demystify, the bookish body before him. The content, revealing, illuminating, can then become the familial, like temperately warm bathwater. The pages of the much exalted saccharine-kitsch photobook works of Martin Parr and Tom Woods vibrate with this curious, enveloping notion that the reader is not merely observing something, but instead is absorbed into the shared cultural history emanating from the papers surface. From this we analogise, transform the photobook from complete work of art to kind of alternative photo album; in its physicality renegotiates our notions of the private and public, the personal and universal. The photobook satiates our primordial desire to have and to hold, and more than that, to take ownership of the visually referential; with what we interact with on a tactile level. The content of the printed pages may encompass the antitheses of absurdity and plausibility, of legibility and incoherency. Each contribute, through their presence and inclusion on the page, to a process of revelation, of exposure where the attention and manner of reading is as central to this process as the work’s curator, or the publishing house’s image editor.
To read is to perform, to perform is to commit an act. Just as when we take in a series of images it is also a performance – whether or not we feel that we are passive towards said images, we are still performing the acts of seeing and looking. Making an image is in itself an act – the camera is held up, in a position at which the viewfinder can be seen and then within the moment that the thumb or index finger presses down on the shutter button, an image is made in the ‘prototype’ form. This performance is not about the creation of an image; it is about the creation – or at least the preservation of an idea. From the idyllic landscape, to the portrait, it is about the act of making what we see into something more solid, ideally the ‘stereotype’ – the reproducible copies of that frame as that idea or moment. The entire history of image making is within that thumb or finger press, and the choices which come with it. Just as is true with the painter and the designer, despite having a slightly slower process take part in the same act, as does anyone that makes something. Do we take or do we make a photograph? To make implies consideration in the thought process, in the composition of the camera, whereas take implies a brief momentary act. To create an image is parts of both – it is reacting to a moment, whether that be transient or immediate. This act boils down everything within that moment, despite how long it may be, into one form, frozen. The performance here then is the summation of the idea for the communication of and to others.
Each innovation in technology or method recontextualises and forms anew our relationship with that which may be deemed anachronistic, arcane or surpassed. it may be appropriate therefore to think of the photobook as a kind of champion of the Situationists’ slogan ‘Down with telecommunication, long live communication’, expressing a desire to stay true to shared experience and physicality, that makes use of, rather than condemns, our currently available, and ever evolving, array of information technologies. In its sensorial and interactive qualities, the photobook challenges the notion that analogue is and has been superseded by digital image making and sharing technologies. Exemplifying this is the rise of the self publish movement, spearheaded by Bruno Ceschel and Self Publish, Be Happy, promoting the movement towards the democratization and popularisation of the photobook. Ed Ruscha, author and photographer of 1963's 26 Gasoline Stations, aimed, in the production of the later editions of the book, to “produce a mass-produced product of high order.” The pushing for a freeing and horizontalisation of the field of opportunity for artists, makers and art lovers echoes the spirit of the values embodied by modernist architectural projects, such as Berthold Lubetkin’s assertion that ‘nothing is too good for ordinary people.’
Unlike other ‘mediums’ photography is a visual language which is readily legible – we read photographs every day, and unlike painting or other forms of communication, it has less enshrined in it certain codes (codes which are only accessible to those that are educated to them) of how to read the image, how to make sense of it. Perhaps this comes from photography’s ties to reality – in that we always see an anchor point within the image that we can relate to, something familiar and recognisable; or perhaps it comes from our (now especially) constant interaction in both the consumption of image and the making of images, across society, following the ever proliferating mechanical, and now digital, means of reproduction at our disposal. Whatever the answer, photography can communicate arguably more effectively and efficiently than anything else. Language is a key part of this – as much as photography has a language, it is also part of language, on a larger scale as we have transferred into a visual culture. This accessibility that photography has is like no other – it puts photography into a place in which it is not just another ‘medium’ of art, it is not in itself a technique, it is not just another means of communicating ideas. This is why we have struggled to categorise photography, and still eternally ask, ‘What is photography?’, and perhaps rather than trying to answer this question, we accept that photography is. That question, in part, is exactly a symptom of trying to make photography into a definable, tangible thing, in turn used to justify value.
The death of wonder has been cancelled. In parallel to the array of technical considerations available to artists is the heterogeneous divergence in genre, stylistic aesthetic, and narrative considerations of the content of the photographic image itself, and the possibility for pushing the envelope regarding what can be considered to be such. The diorama of possibility offered to photographers, is reflected in the myriad of potentials to approaches in photographic arts, and their distribution in photobook form thereafter. This can be discussed in terms of 1967 John Szarkowski’s suggestion, in 1967, that the new generation of photographers, had begun, rather than provide an aspiringly objective eye, and to present the world merely as it apparently is ‘but instead, ‘to know it.’ From diaristic modes of production to the vastly constructed tableau, or the candid portrait, the abstract alchemic deposit in silver nitrate; all routes present photography's place as a medium in allowing the directed rendering of the theatre of imagination. Daisuke Yokota and Hiroshi Takizawa's photobooks negotiate what the photographic is and can be considered to be, creating nebulous imagery combining alchemy and performance in their materials-based experimentation, the visual results are seductively abstract but simultaneously disarmingly visceral. The editions of Effect Twins, bound in small runs as live performances at events such as Photo London and Tate Modern’s Offprint. Their approach highlights the opportunity for the ephemeral and the ethereal to, rather than impend and do detriment to the other; allowing their distinct (but not always) separate natures to compliment and illuminate the other in their idiosyncrasies. The two are moon and ocean; distanced but agreeably bound.
How do we value a piece of art, or how do we value a photograph? Value is something that photography seems to struggle with. It tries to be both part of the art world (limited print runs, concentrating on the reproduced image as a farcically ‘unreproducible’ object) and social reality. Photography confounds capital, as do many things in the digital age, because it takes labour whilst arguably not using up raw material. This makes it difficult to attach value, and instead we attach arbitrary value to the objects, based on the rules and conventions learnt from the wider art world but also from a set of arbitrary rules based on the ‘difficulty’ of making an image. Traditionally an image made on an 8x10 camera will be seen as more complex, and therefore more worthwhile, or difficult, than making an image on a digital point and shoot camera, despite there being roughly the same process. In both the shot can be composed, in both the exposure can be measured, in both it is likely that a light meter will evaluate what the exposure is and then in both the shutter will be pressed. There are more things to forget to do with the older analogue processes, but there is no true difference when actually making the image. Similarly, the same goes for the conceptuality of an image – we attach value to there being a greater implied meaning within what the image is supposed to discuss. And yet a photograph from a nightclub is nothing more than a throw away photograph, a snap shot, because of the context it has been placed in. Arbitrarily we have decided that one image has decided more about the human condition than the other, because of the aesthetics that it proposes, and because of the way we have previously been taught to read art and imagery. Seeing certain photographs as an object of art, and others as not, is an outdated and outmoded system of value which continues an art for arts sake culture.
Photobooks can incorporate the technologies of rendering, three dimensional printing, and app creation. Lucas Blalock's Making Memeries utilises an app that extends the physical object of the book beyond the printed pages, embellishing the viewers’ experience of the printed work. Weproductions, similarly, is a company involved in the popularization of international photo and artist book production and distribution. Works such as Real Fiction: An Inquiry into the Bookeresque, explore, and actively employ the sculptural aspects of the photobook format, the page, and printing methods. The playfully finessed negotiation of congruous and incongruous space demonstrates that the printed book, far from being a static platform, is constantly breaking ground. The results of such work, in being distributed by such organisations, or by zine and print fairs, are bridging the gap to the platinum print, to the precious, sumptuously bound and packaged limited-run photographic collectors’ edition of what may otherwise be similar in terms of content, but financially nonviable. This is beginning to encourage an increasingly universal availability of photographic art, helping to assimilate domestic and institutionalised art spaces.
Every photograph is an object, be it digital, virtual or physical. The photograph is not wholly seen as the subject of which it represents, we see the photograph as a space separate to that, a representation of a time and space not currently present. In looking at a photograph we recognise that, and therefore the photographic image is a summation of everything that goes into it, rather than the image ‘alone’. Previously the only public images of us that would be extensively witnessed would be family photos, organised in an album. They would be printed a certain size, usually 6x4 or 7x5, and held in a plastic sleeve to protect it. Is this to preserve the artefact of the photograph, the memory, or perhaps something else – to give the image the notion of being special, intangible, separating the viewer from the image through a minimal plastic coating. A continuation of that has happened on Facebook, extensive galleries of holiday pictures and family, but also something new – the presentation of drunken photographs, presenting ourselves as the ever important socialite. In both cases, the Facebook album and the classical photo album, the images make sense because ¬they are encoded contextually – that is where these photographs belong. As soon as the contexts are changed then the meaning is also changed – even if a new meaning is not found there is a jarring sense of discomfort around the images. We have learnt intuitively through visual culture how to automatically contextualise, and what suits what. The photograph is still thought of as an image with the subject weighting the entire thing. In actuality every new use of the ‘image’ a new ‘object’ is created, according to subject and form coming together. The object is not necessarily tangible, but it is the viewing of a fully encoded image. The use of white walls in galleries, or borders on a photograph or in a book, is there to ensure the image is seen as only an image, without extraneous variables that effect it – it sterilises the area around the image, to strengthen the original meaning, and separate it from the world. This is turn is an act of encoding: it encodes into the object the ‘aura’ of the transcendent; the elevated piece of artwork, something which in turn links to our sense of value, and our sense of merit. By encoding in such a way, the object of the photograph can be elevated far beyond how ‘good’ or relevant the subject matter is, but because we see it in this context we assume that it is valid, and valuable. Through the works’ re-contextualisation, the socially conventional behavioural codes encouraged towards and around artworks may be subverted. There would be, without doubt, some form of penalisation awarded to the person who dared to do violence to, say the piercing of a museum canvas, but what is the charge for the mutilation of the commodification which an individual owns?