Saturday, June 24, 2017

Khadija Saye

Khadija Saye was a young photographer killed in the Grenfell Tower fire. There has been an outpouring of grief in the photographic community, with dozens, perhaps 100s, of retweets of the "such a loss, so sad" form.

Interestingly, this vast outpouring of grief generally just copies (automatically?) the same handful of tintypes from a recent show of her work someplace.

I am going to go on the record and say this: I had never heard of her, and I do not believe that most of the grievers had either. In general, they cannot be buggered to even google her and see if she did anything except these tintypes. Even the online "press" (PetaPixel, PDNOnline) simply copies the same pictures. You have to go to her obit on BJP's web site (or, you know, her own damn web site) to see if she did anything else.

I offer no grief here, beyond the general sense that it is always a tragedy when a life is cut short, whether that life had promise or not. Was she destined for greatness? I do not know, and it does not matter. The tragedy is the same whether she was to be the darling of the Fine Art set, or a grocer.

I will say that she did some interesting pictures. Here is her web site. I commend to you especially the Eid project, which works, for me, on several levels. I don't know anything about it. It appears to be a religious gathering, and also a gathering of people from perhaps a shared culture, and also a beautiful study of color. Saye could see, she could edit, she could sequence.

Note the colors of the carpets, of the robes (religious?), of the "street clothes", and on the floor itself. Perhaps this group of people just happens to use the same color palette for everything, but even so, that in itself is a nice observation.

I think her use of color, and her observations of contemporary African-descended peoples, are both much more interesting than some staged tintypes of.. well, of we know not what, honestly, other than the line or two about "migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices" which really tells us nothing.

But your opinion may differ. Regardless of any considerations of your opinion and mine, she at least deserves our attention to all her work if we are to attend to her at all.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Putting the Depth Back

Susan Sontag argued, long ago, that the photograph replaces reality in our mind. Sally Mann echoed this in much more recent book, remarking that where there are photographs, her memories are of the photographs rather than the people. Darren Campion over on his excellent blog spent a little time thinking about Sontag (part 1, part 2) and makes the claim that Sontag is a little too obsessed, and that photography need not do this, that this is just one common way in which photography behaves.

Me? I kind of think it's baked in to photography and the human psyche. It strikes me as basic. It's possible that I am just slavishly doing my best to agree with Sally Mann, though. Anyways, that hardly matters. The point is that photography frequently does behave in this way. The photograph of the thing frequently replaces the thing itself in our mental space.

This is somehow related to Equivalents, although it's not the same thing, but that's not where I am going today.

Consider the "primitive man" to use a no-doubt almost criminal expression. It's so much handier than "humans living long ago, pre-technology, in smaller communities more closely integrated with the world around them" though. These people did indeed live in closer contact to their world. Their worlds were far far smaller than ours, in some meaningful way, and they lived in that world largely without the help of Media. In those communities, a few of which still exist, the answers to the most trivial questions can be infinitely complex, because these people often perceive far more of the interrelated nature of things. The see the web of cause and effect, or relationship, that extends infinitely far in space and time. Where there are gaps, they gloss over with a god or a sprite, but often they have a far more nuanced and detailed understanding of their little worlds.

The modern world is vast. Not just geographically. We have medicine, science, space, planets, other nations, other cultures, machines, and creatures from far away, all available to be understood. After a fashion. To make sense of it all for us, we have the Media, broadly construed. We have handy books and television shows and web features that will tell us about why WWI started (the assassination of the Archduke, of course!) and which will boil damn near anything else we care to learn about down to simple causes and tiny soundbites.

It is inevitable. The world is too vast to be grasped in anything like the way an aboriginal person of 500 years ago might grasp the relationships between certain plants and animals in her environment. We actually need simple explanations for things. "It's Trump's Fault" or Obama's, May's, Merkel's, or Modi's. In fact, this is basically never true. Anything we might conceivably blame on Trump is surely the result of 100s of actions by 100s of players, at least. Trump, at best, it the most recent and most influential of a cast that has been working on this plotline since the beginning of time.

This, incidentally, is why anarchy won't work. People haven't any interest in returning to the narrow, simple, worlds of the past. Burn the media down, and the people will instantly construct another one. We demand simple answers and a complex world. Someone is certain to step up with the answers for us, and as soon as you have a Media, you'll have all the rest of it in short order.

Alright then. The media is an inevitable product of modernity, as well as a supporting structure of it. Photography with its special characteristics is integrated fully into the media, along with everything else. Photography is one of many modes which provides simple answers. It replaces deep understanding, and memory, with the simple picture that shows us The Truth (as whoever is in charge at the moment wishes us to understand it).

I've written a few times about various notions like trame and network, suggesting that Good Photographs should at any rate hint at the external world they're drawn from. I think one might usefully re-frame these remarks as suggesting that the photograph -- while it will inevitably do its dire work of replacing memory -- ought to at any rate replace memory with something that has the same connections outwards to reality as the real memory would have.

The photobook, the essay, can do this far better even than a single photo. If Gene Smith's Minamata does nothing else, it teaches us that this is possible.

My understanding of the tragedies of Minamata is not the real understanding. I cannot grasp it in the way the people who lived it do, nor in the way the later generations living with the outcomes do, nor even in the way a Japanese citizen grasps it. Mine is further removed, mediated through this book. The book, however, by its design, does not encyst a version of The Truth into a neat little package, a small world unto itself. The book, by its design, remains connected to the messy, interconnected reality.

While it would be better, um, in some sense, for me to understand Minamata first-hand, that is impossible. I am the wrong age, in the wrong place, of the wrong parents. A mediated understanding is all that I can have. Better, I think, a mediated understanding of this sort than the other sort, or none at all.

This permits me both the larger world of modernity, with the necessity of Media and therefore Mediation, without the grotesque fallacy of the pat answer, the nifty package of false Truth.

This, I think, is something to strive for.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Photobook as Equivalent

If you've spent any time knocking around the history of photography, you've probably run into Stieglitz's "Equivalents", these pictures of clouds that he claimed were "equivalent" to some emotional state, or something like that. Minor White went on at some length about this idea of "Equivalent", and seems to have considered it fundamental to photography, or at least to the photography he thought worthwhile. It has something to do with the idea that the photograph represents real things, but that upon viewing it evokes something quite different in the viewer. I think it's more than an evocation, though, it is that the viewer seems the picture as a symbol, an embodiment, of what the viewer feels. There is, in short, something like equivalence, natch.

Anyways, this is one of those concepts that has always felt a bit dodgy to me. I've never seen anyone write about it in anything like a clear fashion, which is rarely a good sign.

Minor White seems to think that, whatever it is, it might be pretty personal, pretty subjective (rather than intersubjective!). Everyone might get something different out. White also seems to subscribe to the theory that only some people can do it, that you might need to be specially attuned, or specially trained in order for an Equivalent to work. I find this notion to always be pretty offensive and useless. Art is bullshit if you need to go to night school to "get" it.

So what am I on about with the Photobooks?

When I look at a picture, I can kind of fill in a world the picture lives in from my imagination and experience. I imagine, at least a little, what's outside the frame, what happened before and after. So I fill out things "horizontally", but there's also a "vertical" filling-in. I react to that "horizontally" expanded view of the picture. I might have some emotional response, I might enlarge my mind on a good day, all that sort of thing. However you put it, even a crappy picture probably ripples outwards in several dimensions in my mind. Whether that's an "equivalent" or not, I can't say, but it certainly happens.

Let's suppose that a functioning "Equivalent" is one where that multi-dimensional space of mental ripples is roughly related to what the photographer had in mind, and that the photograph reads as some sort of symbolic representation of those ripples, rather than simply a thing that kicked the ripples off.

I visualize a photograph as a sort of grappling hook the photographer throws toward that whole complicated mental space, hoping perhaps to hit more or less near a specific spot. Weston seems to want to hit the "sex" part of my brain, which is a bit of a cheat because, let's be honest, it's a huge target.

A portfolio gives the photographer many casts of the hook. The idea can become clearer, there's a much better chance of a portfolio of work doing that "Equivalent" thing, surely, whatever it is.

A photobook is one step farther, since it allows the artist to shape the relationship between the photographs. Consider Keith Smith's notion of the book as, really, a single composite picture built up in the viewer's mind by reading the book, present and complete only after finishing the book. The book, considered this way, is perhaps a single cast of a gigantic grappling hook, ideally so large that it cannot help but get a piece of whatever the artist is aiming for.

Of course, it is also multiple casts of the hook, like a portfolio. So, in a way, it gives the artist several different ways to hit the mark.

It's a rough idea at the moment, but I might almost believe in the possibility of a book (or book-like object) of photos behaving as an Equivalent, in a pretty general and accessible way.

Monday, June 19, 2017

More on Sequencing

I'm probably going to keep writing about sequencing, which is odd, because I am increasingly thinking that most people who think about it at all overthink it. We treat it like composition "If only" we think "I could get the right sequence, then my work would suddenly be amazeballs." In reality, if you have good content I am pretty sure any sensible sequence is fine. If you have awful content, no sequence will save it.

Colberg's book drags on at length, but is largely concerned with how to get from one picture to the next. Notably, he advocates the "print 'em all out and agonize over it forever" approach, which has the following very interesting consequence:

You can't do repeats. You've only got one print of everything

And once you see that, you see immediately that this approach makes a lot of stuff hard. There's no clear way to visualize collages, or repeats-with-changes (what if I want to foreshadow with an ultra-low contrast version of a picture?)

I think, to be honest, that you need to spend time with the pictures, but more time away from the pictures, imagining things.

Right now, I am thinking about pacing a lot. Keith Smith points out that boring/repetitive material picks up the pace. 10 blank pages in a row would get flipping quickly. 10 identical pictures, much the same. 10 similar pictures with obvious differences, much the same. 10 similar pictures with extremely subtle but important differences -- the exact opposite effect (assuming the reader notices).

Imagine a picture A, with some subtle variations. Maybe A1, A2, A3 are all just successively tighter crops of the same photo while B is a completely different picture. Imagine this series of pages, denoting a blank page with a lowercase b:

A b A1 b b A2 b b b A3 b b b b B

I visualize the pace picking up, faster and faster, even perhaps a little frustration, and then suddenly B appears and the flipping stops. STOP. What possibilities are there in the reader's conception of the relationship between A and B? And how on earth would you imagine this if you were fixated on sorting and re-sorting a pile of physical prints?

What is A1, A2, and A3 were not just tighter crops, but also printed smaller? Or larger? Perhaps B exhibits a radical size change as you flip wildly past A3 and the 4 blank pages after that, as well.

What if B was a repeat of the first picture in the book?

Keith Smith's book is basically 200 pages of this sort of thing. If your mind isn't bigger by the time you're done with it, you are a blockhead.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Clary Estes Again

This young woman writes pretty well, and is thinking about things pretty hard. While I don't agree with everything, and I think she's naive, I also think she deserves to be read more widely.

Read her recent medium piece on photojournalism here.

The Ugly: Why Care?

I've been frothing at the mouth a bit about the ugly side of photobook publishing, notably the pay to play aspects, and one might reasonably ask why one should care. I've asserted that it's bad for Art and one might reasonably ask on what grounds I make that statement.

As an aside, let me clear up one point, and add some information that I have recently learned! It's obvious that not the whole publishing industry is like this. What's less obvious is that the entire photobook industry is not like this. The biggest fellows mainly publish established players, but Aperture at least seems genuinely devoted to finding good new artists and also seems to minimize the pay-to-play (I cite as evidence: I couldn't find anything about pay to play in a quick perusal of their web site, and Colberg doesn't mention them, so, not that strong a case).

One of my readers has done books with a small/boutique publisher that doesn't demand up front payment. That reader has indeed "leveled up" on the strength of those books. So, there is evidence of a system of real publishers out there. They're all muddled up with the fakes, though.

The pay-to-play model for photobook publishing (and, I dare say, other facets of the industry) has a couple of effects that we could do without.

First and foremost it selects artists based on their ability to raise money. The wealthy, the trust-fund-beneficiaries, the expert grant-writers, all bubble upwards (at least within this incestuous little self-licking ice cream cone universe), and none of those things particularly correlate with talent. Indeed, they take away from the work. If you're constantly busy mooching and writing grant proposals, you're probably not doing your best work.

I have seen it argued that this is not a problem, because it has always been this way, and to that I have two responses, the first of which appears in my second point here:

Secondly, it separates the money from the gatekeeping functions, which diffuses the gatekeeping. In the Badde Olde Dayes, you had a Medici who had, well, some sort of taste and a stack of money. He kept the gate, and he paid the money, and there you were. Good or bad, you sure as hell had a coherent vision being paid for. At least, in theory, and sometimes.

These days you have committees of people handing out grants based on who writes the best bullshit, committees who are surely, at least some of the time, deferring questions of taste and vision to... well, someone else. Then you have the publishers, who are struggling to make payroll, pay leases, and who may be more interested in things like book design than photography doing the rest of the gatekeeping function. As I have noted, I suspect that many of these people are unserious people simply playing at it anyways.

In other words, it hasn't always been this way.

The second, and more important, response to the "well, it's always been patrons and whatnot" argument is that in this modern era it doesn't have to be that way any more. I know homeless guys who have 100% of the resources necessary to do a decent book on blurb. They have a phone. They have enough money to buy tape, a blank notebook, and 4x6 prints to make a dummy. They can use the computers at the library to use blurb's online design tool to make their book, and they can get together enough money to buy a handful of copies. Not that they would but the point is that a literal homeless bum in the USA has the necessary resources to do a PoD book.

The system that Colberg endorses, the system that we are supposed to believe is a necessary part of the Serious Art World, turns artists into grant-writers and fundraisers, and then it consigns them to 18-24 months of development hell to get the book finished. All this is effort and time that is taken away from actually making art.

The old patronage system took the explicit form of "You are my chattel, now go do your thing. Probably with a bunch of restrictions and requests and demands, but do your thing." The modern system of grants and competitions which infests photography explicitly gets in the way of doing your thing. You're supposed to constantly attend events, write proposals, and take meetings. A modicum of success means, mainly, more meetings, more events, more proposals, and even less photography.

The single most important thing a would-be novelist needs to do is write novels. Do you want to be an actor? Then go act. Painters paint. Photographers, apparently, fundraise and agonize over how to best use the 7 gatefold pages their budget allows.

No wonder much of the high end photobook market consists of boring monographs by old men and endless iterations of what Mike Chisholm so hilariously characterized as My Sad Project. I'd be pretty fucking sad too, I guess.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Understanding Photobooks: The Ugly

Colberg presents us with a bit of a problem in this book of his. He is unabashedly in favor of traditional publishing, for reasons that he does not make particularly clear, and he is distinctly coy about the down sides.

He explicitly dismisses Print on Demand, repeatedly. He mentions that, in many cases, the photographer may be asked to pay for some of the costs up front when doing a book, but is too shy to mention any numbers. The number you're wondering about is north of $10,000, often considerably north. Let us recall that the up-front out of pocket expenses of PoD are less than $100 unless you are making a very fancy book indeed. Somewhat less than the $15,000 to $50,000 traditional publishers are likely to want.

Colberg is almost as dismissive of self-publishing, claiming that you want to work with a publisher because they know what sells and how to sell it. A few pages later he notes that you'll have done well if you sell 400 copies and don't make a nickle. Which is it, Jörg? Because it sounds to me a lot like these guys haven't got a clue what will sell, nor how to sell it. My evidence is this: They don't sell hardly any goddamned books.

There are people running kickstarters that sell books on this scale constantly. Kickstarters! Not that this route is easy, Colberg points out, correctly, that order fulfillment can easily turn into a nightmare, and you might wind up losing your shirt if you didn't figure out total shipping costs right, but still. Shifting a few hundred copies does not require the services of some magical Euro elf.

Dewi Lewis lays it out for us, although he wisely avoids doing it all in one place. He says, in Colberg's book, that he covers 50 to 60 percent of the $400,000 to $500,000 they spend on production costs each year. That is to say, Dewi is taking between $160,000 and $250,000 a year from the artists to cover production costs. The Dewi Lewis web sites states that they do about 20 titles a year, and also that unless you are an established photographer, you will be asked to "underwrite the risk". Which I think means, roughly, "If you are not Martin Parr or equivalent, you'll be covering the production costs" which begs the question "why on earth would I not self-pub?"

I asked around, and this is in fact basically the situation. Non-famous people pay up front. God knows what the back end of these deals looks like but given that the publishers appear to hold the whip hand, I assume "not great" is a solid guess.

Colberg hints at the real answer, saying that a Real Book might wind up in the hands of a curator, or gallerist, some influencer.

Let me tell you, if I was about to drop $35,000 into the hands of a publisher to do my book on those grounds, I would want some references. I would want to talk to someone who had gotten some success out of a book with MACK or Dewi Lewis on the colophon. My guess is that after I demanded references they'd simply stop talking to me, but who knows?

Colberg has about 21 quotes from publishers in the relevant section of his book, and two from an artist (and those deal with how tough it was to do distribution of a very successful self-published book). Nothing on "I published with Steidl and the next day Larry Gagosian wouldn't stop leaving me messages" for instance. Colberg teaches in an MFA program, surely he knows some artists.

So what's going on?

Well, nobody's getting rich. Dewi Lewis is probably selling 10,000 books a year, grossing, I dunno, half a million bucks or so. He's also taking $200,000 or thereabouts off of artists, for revenues of something under a million, which is covering the production costs and a few salaries. I could be off by a few thousand books, a few $100,000, but no matter how you slice it nobody's getting rich.

Here is another small datum. Colberg says that some publishers won't look at a PoD book dummy. I cannot imagine a legitimate reason for this, but it is easy to imagine bad reasons. "You have blurb on you, you are corrupted." At least some of these people don't want you messing about on blurb et al, and one cannot help but imagine that it's because they would prefer that you not discover that PoD is actually good enough for many projects.

What they are doing is having a good time pretending to be publishers.

Vanity Press no longer means enabling people to pretend to be authors, it means enabling people to pretend to be publishers. The correct answer for most of these projects is "Your project is shit. No." but it turns out that the answer is occasionally "Oh, you have $50,000? Let me see those pictures!"

The difference between this and a proper Vanity Press is that these guys are pretty pretty princesses who will often still say no if they don't much like your project. Unfortunately, what they like is often un-sellable garbage.

What I suspect is actually going on here is that there is a substantial ecosystem of Artists, Designers, Publishers, Editors and So On who all work for one another part time, and who publish one another's books as well as the books brought to them by the marks. One of the books Colberg discusses in detail is authored by one person, designed by another, and these two show up elsewhere in Colberg's book as the designers of someone else's book. I think we're looking at a community of a few hundred, maybe a couple thousand, people who wear various hats and who are eking out a living here. A few of them, one assumes the publishers, seem to be doing OK. Presumably they pay themselves the largest salaries, after all, they are the boss.

Somebody gets a grant, borrows a bunch of money from mum, or just saves their pennies from the waitressing job for 20 years, and scrapes up some cash. This goes into the system to support it. Occasionally, some books are sold as well. Well, that's not fair. Dewi Lewis makes 2/3 of his revenues from selling books, which in the absence of other information we might as well take as the benchmark.

So, as a first swag, the Proper Publisher business is supported 2/3 from selling Martin Parr and a handful of other well known names, people who are already famous, and 1/3 extraction of cash from hopefuls, who are wishing desperately that the book will open the right doors.

Probably there is also a set of galleries and whatnot, the same blokes, who will in fact perk up when they see you have a book with Dewi Lewis. So in fact dropping the $35,000 or whatever to do the book probably does actually open these doors. Is it opening doors because you are a proven fundraiser who might be good for another touch? Or, is it opening doors because Michael Mack signed off on your work and so it might actually be good?

Probably a bit of both.

Either way, it's a pretty scandalous business, fairly seedy, and quite bad for artists. It forces the un-famous author into the role of fund-raiser, grant-writer, penny-pincher, mom-can-I-borrow-50,000. Then it runs that un-famous author through a lengthy process of editors, designers, and other helpful experts who will stick their nose into the project over the course of up to two years.

Now, I like collaboration. I approve of it. Being stuck endlessly toiling on a single project with an every-changing cast of collaborators, not all of my own choosing, and who I am increasingly invested in getting along with no matter what, well, that doesn't sound like fun. When you're in it to the tune of $30,000 of mom's money, and 12 months of effort, when the publisher trots out this new friend of his who's a designer, what are you gonna do?

What if you just don't like this guy? What if you think this guy's ideas are shit, are ruining your vision?

You got the strength to fire him anyways, to push back? I dunno. Maybe you do, maybe you don't. It's a tough spot to be in, and while it might not happen to you, it sure as hell happens to someone now and then.

Colberg is colluding with this system. His book is, explicitly, a how-to manual for entering this system in the role of "sucker".

Colberg explicitly and repeatedly urges his readers to avoid PoD and to avoid self-publishing. He explicitly advocates for the system I have described above, while simultaneously painting it in mildly rosy colors.

I won't go so far as to say that Colberg's view of things is a lie, or even wrong. It is distinctly biased and incomplete.