Last year, FOAM, the Amsterdam photography museum, presented Photography – In Reverse, an exhibition with work by Dutch artists who, as the press release stated, are concerned with the fundamental changes that the medium of photography has undergone in the last few years. The exhibition included installations, videos and drawings. Photography in the classic sense did not play much of a role. More recently, the Amsterdam Centre for Photography mounted One of Two Things, by artists Tania Theodorou and Eva-Fiore Kovacovsky. Here too, there was very little ‘old-fashioned’ photography to be seen, but sculptures, installations and collages. Both exhibitions illustrate how complex talking about photography can be. As a discipline, it comprises diverse strategies and genres that may well refer to a photographic tradition, but which now, in terms of form and technique, go way beyond that.
This is also true for photography books: a difficult-to-define, heterogeneous medium that embraces artists’ books, biographical and journalistic works, documentary and fiction. Moreover, the book of photography is itself – between the covers – a mixture of text, typography and visual images. The most direct and concise definition of the ‘photobook’ can be found in Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s two-volume, The Photobook: A History (2004). They write that a book of photography, with or without text, is one in which the message of the work is carried by photographs. In analyzing that definition, we have to look at Michael Ponstingl. In Wien im Bild: Fotobildbände des 20. Jahrhunderts (2008), as well as his article for Cahier magazine (2008, edited by Steven Humblet), Ponstingl claims that it is more productive to view the photo book as an arena or meeting place for several media phenomena (image, text, design, typography, looking, feeling and smelling), all of which challenge one another and engage in various interrelationships. The purist model, that of Parr and Badger, which centres on a single, individual art form, leads to a dualistic and unproductive understanding of the division of responsibilities and functions (text versus image, eyes versus nose, photographer versus writer and so forth). In the reality of making and ‘reading’ a book of photography, these functions and responsibilities melt together.
It is striking that the history, impact and technique of photography have been richly described by researchers and specialists, while the phenomenon of the photography book has only attracted serious attention in the last decade. This is all the more remarkable because they have been in existence since the very beginning of photography, in the 19th century. Between the two world wars, photographers such as László Moholy-Nagy created photographs especially intended for book form. For photography, exhibitions are in fact a new form of presentation.
The grande dame of photography, Susan Sontag, was not very impressed with photography books. In On Photography (1977), she wrote that these books may well be the most influential way that we can arrange photographs, preserve them for the future and present them to a wider audience, but they are not a very satisfactory means of circulating photographs. The sequence in which photographs can best be looked at is already indicated, but the reader does not have to stick to that chronology, nor is there a predetermined time that he or she needs to devote to it. According to Sontag, films such as those of Chris Marker are a better way to package photographs, because the viewer is unable to alter the order and pace. Photographs presented in film form, however, are not collectible, an advantage that is offered by the book.
The very idea that one can decide the tempo and the sequence for the viewer sounds resoundingly naïve to the multitasking media generation. The media landscape and the broad range of circulation of images is now completely different than it was in the 1970s. In her most recent work, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Sontag reconsiders a number of her standpoints published in On Photography in the light of 21st-century circumstances. Regarding the Pain of Others is about looking at images of cruelty, their power of attraction and at the same time the impossibility of these images to keep alive the suffering that they represent in all its repulsiveness. Sontag writes that the weight and seriousness of this kind of photography survives better in book form, where people are able to view them in peace and solitude, without being distracted.
It is precisely this space for concentration that a book offers, also for images that are not cruel and off-putting, that is one of the reasons that make photography books an interesting medium. Never before have images and information been so easily accessible. The excessive profusion of unfiltered, un-concentrated information and visual images, the mishmash, even the diarrhoea of our information society, causes us to yearn for the intimacy and the boundaries of books. Suddenly, looking at photographs in book form has become a serene experience. We often hear commentary about the disintegration of the units of time, place and action because of the Internet. ‘Folk philosopher’ Alain de Botton recently commented in The Guardian on the fragmentation of our spirits and the resulting need to put ourselves on ‘mental diets’. There is almost nothing more that we can do without just doing something else at the same time as well. The chance that you will actually finish reading this article without checking your e-mail, updating Facebook, or Tweeting here and there is extremely small. Books – which is to say, good books – restore a certain wholeness in which our hands, eyes, our bodies and hopefully our spirits can finally – with a sigh of relief – be occupied with just one thing at a time.
A photography book is a thankful, or if you like, an easy means of ameliorating that fragmentation of our minds and spirits, even when it does not refer to ‘eye candy’, but, for example, a structuralist or semiotic exercise, such as A NOT B, by Uta Eisenreich (2010, ROMA Publications, designed by Julia Born). In this book, a well-considered series of photographs filled with subtle references to all imaginable kinds of orders and alphabets, language and representation are deconstructed. Photography books suit our visually oriented and image-centred times. They are forms of fundamental, image-based communication that do not require too much effort, but which give back a great deal. You can and may simply look, allow yourself to digest the images and the effect they have on you, look for a story that forms the narrative between one photograph and another.
There are more reasons why photography books still make sense. According to Parr and Badger, for photographers, the ‘photobook’ is perhaps the most important vehicle for showing one’s work and translating one’s own vision for a wide audience. Add to that the fact that traditional platforms (newspapers and magazines) now have less funding for photography and much contemporary photography is too conceptual for that market anyway. Books of photographs have more than ever become a crucial link in the careers of photographers, as well as many artists. Moreover, as designers Mevis & Van Deursen noted in an interview, for photographers, there is nothing that surpasses an outstanding print. Even when images in a book are pictures of pictures, as Sontag also says, because the original is itself a printed object, photographs lose less of their essential qualities in a book than, for example, paintings do. For purely digital consumption, good prints are simply not possible: every screen has a different resolution, colours are distorted, your screen reflects light, and so on.
There is also still such a thing as the love of books, a greedy, perhaps sometimes even fetishist need to have beautiful books – the collectability of the book, to which Sontag also refers. The materiality of (photography) books is crucial. They not only offer solace as defined spaces of concentration in times of digital bombardment, but also as physical, perusable, glossy or matte objects in the touch-screen age.
It has already been implicitly stated that selection is decisive. A good book of photographs is a good selection, that is where the work is. It sometimes seems, as Sontag wrote in On Photography, that everything has already been photographed. Cameras are becoming ever smaller, the technique is much cheaper, and everyone with a camera is suddenly a photographer. A photography book is consequently first and foremost a selection. Then it is a sequence. This is what distinguishes it from Google Image Search, Flickr and our own picture collections. It may be a cliché, but it is no less true for that: we used to deal with photographs far more selectively. There were only a limited number of possibilities for success with a roll of film, and then we arranged the photographs in albums or projector carousels. There too, selection and sequencing were crucial.
Internationally, Dutch photography books are doing well. Thanks to a productive subsidy climate, strong traditions in photography and design and independent publishers, we have the space for autonomous and conceptual books. These offer an antidote to the syndrome of the coffee-table book, which the world is suffering from thanks to Taschen and their confederates, amongst others. But why, despite this positive climate and our autonomous conceptual tradition, do photography books all look so much alike? Why do we so often have the feeling that we have already seen something? Perhaps it was not Tokyo, but Singapore, or it was a slightly different archive being documented, or perhaps we saw that cleverly caught amusing touch there, not here. Photography books have a limited number of registers in which to operate. They can be a record of a life, a city, or a country. They can show found materials or autonomous work. They can be about documentary or about journalism. Within these frameworks, repetition holds court. It does indeed already seem that everything has already been photographed.
In terms of their form as well, photography books also strongly resemble one another. To put it bluntly, the variations lie in whether there is or is not a white margin and the choice of paper and format. Mevis & Van Deursen endorse this fact: because it is the skill and professionalism of the photographer that counts, freedom in the design of the book is limited. Designing books of photographs is therefore perhaps primarily an exercise in style, in which the decisions are about format, paper, binding, the white margins around the photos and of course, selection and sequence. They emphasize that this does not mean that you do not have to achieve the best possible results within that framework. If you ask photographers, graphic designers have a crucial role to play in the process of selecting and arranging the photographs.
Curator, gallery owner and publisher Willem van Zoetendaal finds this prominent role of graphic designers understandable. It is always difficult to take a step back from the visual and emotional bond with your own work, something that one can better delegate. Within this limited space to manoeuvre, Dutch designers are good at taking on the responsibilities of selecting and ordering, and they know how to achieve strong results with a highly refined vocabulary. It consequently indeed makes no sense, to follow Ponstingl, to differentiate between all the possible protagonists of the book of photographs. Each and every one is an orchestrated engagement on the part of the photographer, the publisher, the writer and the graphic designer.
Some of the publications to be released during the next few months:
Dana Lixenberg, Aglaia Konrad, Gert Jan Kocken, Ringel Goslinga, Jan Kempenaers, Dirk Braeckman (ROMA Publications), Paul Kooiker and Harold Strak (Van Zoetendaal Publishers), Elodie Hiryczuk and Sjoerd van Oevelen (Jap Sam Books), the Oswiecim project by Hans Citroen and Barbara Starzynska (Post Editions), Paulien Oltheten (NAi publishers) and Jacqueline Hassink (Aperture).
The city portrait is a familiar and beloved genre amongst photography books. One recent example is Thomas Manneke’s: Liège (2010, Schaden, graphic design by Van Lennep). In the book, the city and its inhabitants are portrayed in black-and-white or colour with great care, a precise eye, a sense of detail and love. The book tells the story of Liege, with its bitter and its sweet moments, from the crack of dawn (attending Mass) to deep in the night (worn-out café ladies). It includes countless photos that you want to highlight, for example of the woman with the two coins on her eyes or the cows grazing at the edge of town. But the most touching pictures in their feeling of life-as-it-is are two black-and-white photographs at the heart of the book of a mother and her child. The book is a carefully filtered selection of photographs in meticulous sequence, giving us a wonderfully recognizable sense of time in a post-industrial city as it scratches its way up and sinks back down again.
The artist’s book is a work of art in its own right, not an overview of someone’s oeuvre or a documentation of a given working period. The powerful publication Slide Projections by Mark Manders (2010, ROMA Publications, designed by Roger Willems and Mark Manders), is made up of two series of ‘slides’, each with its own character and pace. The first series is in black-and-white, and tells a mad and sometimes disturbing story that begins in messy rooms where strange objects, such as casseroles, small dead animals and filled, hanging trash bags are arranged according to an organizing principle based on the number five. By way of an empty kitchen, we are taken underground. We come back upstairs into a second house, to meander through rooms with works by Mark Manders on display. His images of animal halves and human parts – less than halves of people – grate against the domestic setting. Then, just when you have seen enough to be asking yourself what exactly is happening here, you enter a second tunnel, again underground, and return to the cluttered rooms where the number five is king.
The second series, in colour, is shorter. It is a sort of flip-through book, in which, if you leaf through it fast enough (which is possible, given the heavy paper on which the book is printed), you see a hand pick up a book, show it to the viewer, and set it down again. This book in a book is called On the Various Contrivances by Which a Self-Portrait is Fertilized by Its Owner, referring to the title of a book by Charles Darwin about orchids and insects. The two slide series have different rhythms and require different ways of looking at them. In the first, we look for the logic, the secrets of the two connected houses. We leaf through it slowly, turn back and again move forward. The second series shifts through your hands, the faster the better, in order to guarantee the illusion of movement.
In the found footage genre, the photographer is transformed from someone who makes photographs to someone who selects and arranges. Mariken Wessels, for example, worked with a personal archive of photographs, postcards and letters belonging to ‘Queen Ann’ for Queen Ann: P.S. Belly Cut Off (2010, Alauda Publications, graphic design by Wessels, in collaboration with Esther Krop). The material was reworked, rearranged, sometimes re-photographed and complemented with different materials of her own. The result is a constricted photographic novel about the life of a disturbed woman, with aggressive collages and claustrophobic attempts to use photographs to improve her self-image.
The Kaddu Wasswa Archive, by Andrea Stultiens, has a totally different take on the found footage genre (2010, Post Editions, graphic design by Stultiens and Marloes de Laat). This is not about a personal, accidentally discovered archive, but about the archive itself as a political instrument. The book presents the Ugandan man Kaddu Wasswa John, who experiences colonialism and post-colonialism, has seen leaders come and go and lost ten children to AIDS. The archival images are interspersed with photographs (snapshots really) that document Stultiens’s project and show her at work in today’s Uganda. These images translate the project to our own time, and this is, thanks to the obscure material, an understandable effort. Nonetheless, the archival material could easily have stood on its own. Both of these books document lives with which we would otherwise never come in contact, giving them emancipatory and political potential.
The genre of the snapshot embraces a completely different approach: show more and select less. Fringe Phenomena, by André Thijssen, is precisely the kind of book that thrives on the very quantity of images (2010, d’Jonge Hond, designed by Sabine Verschueren). Thijssen shows small fragments of things that take place in the margins of our cities and our lives. The book is divided into two parts, with photographs that he took in recent years in, for example, Palm Springs, Peking, Kassel, Tokyo and Palermo. He himself describes the first section as anecdotal. It is indeed somewhat playful, with photographs of paving bricks that have been incorrectly laid back after repairs or a children’s tricycle dangerously close to a huge cactus. The second part of the book is less revealing. Despite the large number of photographs, the book benefits from a precise selection and a meticulous sequencing. Both Verschueren and Erik Kessels (who made the selections for the first part) were indispensable in the creation process.
In the up-close documentary genre, Hunt, by Bart Julius Peters, designed by Mevis & Van Deursen and published by the prestigious Swiss firm, JRP-Ringier, is soon to be released. Peters stands in the tradition of, for example, Nan Goldin or Larry Clark, but with more glamour, à la Helmut Newton. Grainy black-and-white portraits offer us a glimpse into a dandyish, sexy world with beautiful people, nude breasts and homoerotic tension, framed in marble, Louis XIV divans and ceiling chandeliers. The book has been seven years in the making, with a great deal of time invested in the selection of photographs from Peters’s archives and in deciding on the sequence. The design is exceptional: images sometimes appear more than once, and the photographs also spread beyond the pages. Because of this, there are images that we never see all at once. For example, on the right-hand page, you see a man in classical chic attire staring arrogantly into the lens. When you turn the page, you see a young man leaning over backwards, exposing his muscular torso and turning his head away from us. When you push down the double sheet of paper in order to see the photograph as a whole, you then see the man on the right leaning possessively in the lap of the younger man. He belongs to him – let there be no doubt of that.