The PhotoBook

December 10, 2009

Future of Photobooks?

Filed under: Photo Book NEWS, Photo Books — Tags: , — Doug Stockdale @ 5:31 am

Andy Adams of Flak Photo contacted me a couple of days ago to participate in a discussion about the future of photobooks. Seems that this discussion is a spin off of a brief article posted by Joerg Colberg on Conscientious regarding his thoughts on cutting-edge photobooks, found here and potentially summed up by “I have been noticing that there isn’t much of a variety in photo books”.

Thus, the ensuing discussion that is being posted on LiveBooks by Miki Johnson with Andy here, regarding what do you think photobooks will look like in 10 years. Essentially this a crowd-source blog post about photobooks. And of course, you are absolutely free to comment there as you are very welcome to share your thoughts here.

I find that the question of what photobooks will look like in 10 years an interesting futurist question. I don’t think that this is the question that Joerg was asking nevertheless. What might photobooks look like in 10 years still may not be “cutting edge”. So at this moment, I will provide my thoughts on the 10 year question and safe Joerg’s question for another time. (Which is to say, I have not given that aspect of photobooks much thought, but I have been noting what different photobook publishers have been doing in pushing the traditional limits)

First, what is the purpose of a photobook and how might that change in 10 years? For the books that I review on this site, the photobooks are another means of extending the reach of a cohesive photographic project, body of work or series of photographs. A published book can reach out beyond the walls of a gallery or studio, city, state or country to a much broader and wider audience. A photobook can extend the life of a body of work almost indefinitely, well beyond a large one-time exhibition, even beyond the life of the photographer, thus a photobook creates a body of work that is immortal.

A body of work that is currently in the pages of a book can become digital content that can be electronically disseminated even farther. So the question begs, where will the internet and electronic data be in 10 years?

Having help support the initial SoFoBoMo (Solo Photo Book Month) a couple of years with Paul Butzi (the ringleader) and a few other photographers, I was really interested in the alternatives to a printed photobook, primarily the PDF book and other electronic variations. After mulling this over for a while, I recently decided to “publish” a recent photographic project titled Milan Fashion Week and use an alternative blog format, which is here.

Likewise there are the current Flickr, FaceBook, static web-sites and other collections & compilations of photographs, but at the moment, they lack cohesiveness and clarity of intent. Perhaps in the next 10 years, we will see the development of additional design infrastructure by individuals and companies that might improve the experience as well as improve the contextual relationships.

As a self-published (Blurb) photographer, I have been thinking about the current economic issues of self-publishing and how this might change in 10 years. Yes, I can self-publish a nice hardcover photobook, but the single issue cost is prohibitive compared to traditional off-set publishing, and the overall quality is lacking, especially the binding processes. Second,  the margins between the high cost of printing and potential selling price are too small to be seriously considered by a bookstore or gallery, unless all of the profits are provided to the book distributors. So one thing that might occur in 10 years is the continuing revolution in print-on-demand production processes that might eventually allow a single printed hardcopy book equal in cost and quality to a traditional book. Regretfully, today the potential profit margins in print-in-demand for fine photobooks are being enjoyed by the various publishing suppliers who provide the service, not to the photographer.

What will happen with the traditional photobook? I think that the current traditionally printed photobook will still be here and traditionally printed 10 years from now. Maybe not in China, but some other third world country that has decided to invest in the publishing infrastructure to provide low-cost books. There are a lot of people who just like to hold a book while they read and enjoy the content. The bookstores for these books may become more virtual over time. Likewise, there are certain qualities of a photobook, the printed image, paper weight and hand, quality of the binding and book’s heft, that many people are interested in experiencing before purchasing. Perhaps the trend will be for the high quality photobooks to be sold in photo-gallery bookstores or book boutiques than main-line, big-box bookstores.

One recent change we have seen is the rise of many small press photobook publishers, those who choose to invest in a given photographer and traditional print their photobook in smaller edition sizes. These publishers recognize that the traditional photobook is still considered an object, that something you hold in your hands has a certain esthetic presence, and that it has appeal to readers, photographers and collectors. Most of these small publishers also offer a limited edition or deluxe edition in addition to the trade book commonly found in the big book stores. I think that the trend of creating a limited edition will continue and become more common in the next 10 years, and that these limited edition books will become more lavish over time. Also the barriers to entry for the small press publisher continue to erode, we will probably see even more of these small publishers coming into existence over the next 10 years. And these are the publishers most abt to try new and innovative designs and potentially cutting-edge books for the next 10 years.

Okay, this has not meant to be inclusive and I will come back to this again, but these are some of my current thoughts on this subject.

Best regards, Douglas

December 9, 2009

Nan Goldin – Variety

Photographs copyright Nan Goldin 2009 Courtesy Skira Rizzoli New York and photo-eye

Bette Gordon’s famous, perhaps infamous, 1983 independent film Variety evolved from an earlier series of cinematic narrative photographs created by Nan Goldin. A few of the photographs from Goldin’s Variety were incorporated in her earlier opus, The Ballard of Sexual Dependency. This photobook is the first cohesive publication of the entire Variety project.

This staged storyline is not too complex by today’s standard, but for the early 1980’s, it incorporates a dark and sexually risqué theme, challenging the current morals. The story portrays a young woman, Christine, who ventures into the world of pornography, and eventually seeking sexual satisfaction with anonymous partners. It questions the definition of appropriateness of behavior, female sexuality and the accepted norms for a man being equally acceptable for a woman.

The story progresses serially, with Goldin continually shifting the viewer’s orientation, disorienting the frame of reference. We are initially the voyeur, watching as the story unfolds with tight framing, becoming intimately part of the story. Then the frame of reference shifts and we become Christine, seeing through her eyes the shared looks, glances, being observed while assertively observing, being “sized up” and “checked out”. It leaves us unsure if we are the spider or the fly. A quick shift and we are back to observing Christine, then back to being Christine once again. The story finishes with the reader as voyeur and with more questions than answers.

Frequently the lighting within the photographs is low, with deep and mysterious shadows or bathed the in reddish hues of the peep shows, sex shops and porn theaters, a hot and almost liquid, exotic light. These lighting conditions create a level of sexual tension amongst the characters, with some photographs just out of focus or slightly blurred which enhances the feelings of discomfort.

Variety is a bumpy and uneven cinematic narrative, but one that allows for many alternatives. It is not always clear as to how this story is progressing and what the ending might be.

The essay by James Crump’s provides a wonderful external context to frame Goldin’s project in the turmoil of NYC’s Lower East Side and the female “sex wars” evolving in the early 80’s. The embossed hardcover book has a dust cover, and is printed in Singapore.

by Douglas Stockdale

  

December 8, 2009

Chris McCaw – Sunburn

Copyright Chris McGaw 2009 courtesy Cavallo Point Resort

I enjoy McCaw’s frankness in how his project Sunburn came about, the effects of “whisky” and not being conscious to close the shutter of his camera after a night long exposure. Rather than trash the results of the night, he decided to follow serendipity and chance to investigate the results. And there was something that awaken his inner spirit to further pursue this random act of creativity.

Whereas most of us have been repeatedly told not to focus our camera’s lens on the sun, which could ruin the film, the shutter and who knows what. McCaw found himself running counter-initiative to this sage advice, because in fact he wants to sear, burn, destroy, deteriorate, degrade and otherwise trash his film or enlarging paper when loaded in his film holders. The name of his project, Sunburn, is very descriptive of his creative intent.

Incidentally, this book has brought back memories as a kid, wondering around trying to create havoc with my little handy-dandy plastic magnifying glass, later upgrading to a glass, an even more destructive model. Melting crayons, frying ants and trying to start little fires, the things very young guys seem to be attracted to. I was fascinated with what this simple little device could perform in conjunction with sunlight and a little skill and dexterity in focusing it into a small little intense point of light. Oh, yes, and I quickly learned not to focus that bright sun-spot anywhere on my skin or clothes.

I also wonder if there is some subconscious link back to McCaw’s youth and what little fires he has started from time to time. So in one sense, this body of work has a playful, but sinister quality, to its conception and creative inquiry.

McCasw creates one of kind photographic objects with indelible marks on paper and film substrates. This series can be segmented into two genres; minimalist abstract marks on paper/film or photogram light-drawings. Both employ various burning patterns and processes, not an entirely controllable process. The results are born both of experience and serendipity, couched in mystery.

His marks made on film usually have hard edges, appearing like glowing orbs, molten balls, with a white stark center and a dark circular ring. Occasionally these orbs are a little thicker on the bottom edge, adding weight and creating a non symmetrical circular design. His marks on paper generally have softer edges. The circular patterns, orbs and streaks are cerebral, vague gestures, employing random patterns, frequently created by multi-exposures.

His abstract minimalist photographs are monotone fields with a series of marks. His designs vary from wide open expanse, populated by of streaks and intermittent orbs, to a field of marks, much like a shot-up sign you might find in the deserts of Nevada. He employs a multitude of designs, searing strokes, pinpoints or soft radiant spheres. The resulting damage to the film and paper creates subtle color changes, but occasionally with sooty black edges, evidence where the material has been burned and deeply scared.

When McCaw repeatedly decomposes the camera, he creates random and abstract pattern of marks that have varying intensity, with a slight change in modulating colors. Depending on the intensity and duration of the exposure on each type of medium, his marks can have either hard edges or soft edges. A single mark may have an interesting combination of both hard and soft tonalities blending together, simulating a meditative state of being here, while not being here.

The shape of the spheres are much like the sun itself; and are portraits of the sun and indirectly sunshine. When allowing the sun to continuously track through one frame, the effect is a monotone rainbow, gently arching across the pictorial frame. The marks are also a form of “light” writings, a vague language that McCaw has developed.

The other series of photographs is related to the photograms, the earliest of photographic processes first developed by Henry Fox Talbot. A photogram, meaning light drawing, is a latent image created by a long exposure of a subject retained on photo-sensitive paper, a creative process still utilized by photographs, such as the late Jerry Burchfield. A disorienting aspect of photograms is that they are negative images, with a reverse tonality.

The subjects in a photogram are usually not sharply defined, but provide vague shapes and mass that allow some contextual recognition, contrasting with a sharply defined sun-burn. It creates a yin-yang set of opposites, creating dark and mysterious images.

Some of the resulting photograms capture what appears to be a meteor streaking through the sky. Or perhaps documents the landing of alien space craft, or something from the fourth dimension. Multiple images of the sun-burns crossing a dark sky, much like the work of Mark Klett and Michael Lundgren, symbolize the passing of time. There is something vague and elusive, but yet familiar with these photograms.  There is a faint definition of shapes and mass that begins to anchor our memories, but disconnected enough to leave us adrift, wondering what is this mysterious place. The sunburns weave through this stange landscape or create a searing pattern across the reflecting waters below.

Although this creative process could result from playfulness, it is also an act of violence, that relates to anger, frustration and fear. These images are indicative of a love/hate relationship. At a personal level, I sense his love of photography and working in this medium, while the physical mayhem of his medium strongly hints at a deep frustration, perhaps with the process, it’s limitations, control or resulting economic conditions as an artist or other personal issues. These images have a strong emotional content, like a torn and shredded canvas that has been hacked at by the painter.

Attacking his film and paper can also be construed as an attack on the esthetics of traditionalist and modern photography, where a pristine and perfect print is revered. There is no pristine print left in the traditional sense. But the creation of a one of a kind photographic object is the antithesis of postmodernism, which denies the idea of the individual artist. So McCaw is working within that in-between place of Modernism and Postmodernism, and I think the evidence will eventually show him to be more in the Postmodern side of this equation.

In yet another sense,  I find McCaw’s photographs reflect an environmental concern with global warming. The patterns and searing marks are symbolic of the possible effects by a sun that is not modulated by a protective outer atmosphere. A tome to what could be resulting conditions for mankind with a sun that burns, sears, and subsequently destroys, and that mankind is indeed playing with fire.

In the end, it is in the act of destroying his medium that McCaw is creating something new and unique. Perhaps like the seeds of species of tree that requires fire and heat to germinate and grow anew. From the ashes of destruction, Hope has been found.

Consistent with the other books in the Cavallo Point series, this is a small hardbound book with nice printing but the usually issues with a print-on-demand glued in binding, although I would not let that hinder a purchase of this interesting and provocative book.

By Douglas Stockdale

December 4, 2009

Holiday photo-book sales – more opportunities

Filed under: Photo Book NEWS — Doug Stockdale @ 7:06 am

Just a note that I continue to add more Holdiay photo-book deals and links on the 2009 Holiday Photo-book page, here.

Sales and discount opportunities are still available at Aperture, photo-eye, Radius Books, AbeBooks, Fotovision and U. of Chicago Press.

Best regards, Douglas

Update: Just added powerHouse and Pond Press sales to the list.

December 2, 2009

Arnoud Bakker – Atropa bella donna

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Copyright Arnoud Bakker, 2009, courtesy Stichting Fotografie Noorderlicht

To be in love, or perhaps in lust, is to experience a kind of narcosis and paralysis, with an inability to focus, while the heart rate becomes erratic. There are other symptoms of which there may be a lack of awareness in the moment; dilated pupils, blurred vision, loss of balance & staggering, slurred speech, confusion, hallucinations and delirium.

Coincidently, these effects are the same for ingesting parts of the very toxic deadly nightshade, a perennial plant found in Europe, especially the species Atropa belladonna. The Atropa belladonna name is derived from Greek and Italian, an admonition, meaning “do not betray a beautiful lady”, a very wise piece of wisdom.

Han Schoonhaven in his essay for Arnoud Bakker’s Atropa bella donna writes:

“Love is a neurosis, a chemical reaction to sustain human kind, but what a fine madness it is! Paul Van Ostaijen wrote about Feasts of Fear and Pain, but I cannot imagine having gone though my youth without the fear, pain, euphoria and little death that are inevitably connected with love.”

The subject of Bakker’s book recently published by Noorderlicht, both directly and indirectly, is the portrait of women, attempting to reveal their inner natural beauty. The photographer also attempts to not betray them in the process, revealing a complex interrelationship of photographer and subject. Implied in Schoonhaven’s essay, Bakker is attempting to “create golden girls on paper… and that girls love cameras and they want to be seen…potentially by as many people as possible….and a woman who is prepared to be recorded, presents herself”.

Bakker is also interested in bringing other types of photographic experimentation into this process working with a tradition large format camera both with Polaroid positive/negative film/print and placing long spans of 35mm negative film across the film holder or using stereo-graphic equipment. There is additional element of serendipity to this analog process, as the outcome is not fully realized until later in the darkroom.

As the women interacts with the photographer’s process, an unknown element is the extent of her revelations, both her surface contours and her internal beauty. This is a complex relationship, one that Bakker likens to the complexity and unpredictability of nature itself. I find that portraits that can capture internal beauty are elusive, a factor that is as much as in the eye of the beholder as the person in front of the lens. The photographer is the medium, choosing the environmental conditions and having sensitivity as to when to make the exposure, and what is extracted in the ensuing image. Another form of natural chemistry that is difficult to analyze and quantify, only approximate and qualify at best.

A question of this body of work, does it indeed create the Atropa belladonna’s bizarre delirium and hallucinations?  I don’t think that these images are necessarily “bizarre”, but they are creative with some unusual book layouts, perhaps may not create a delirium, but might create some hallucinations. Like the berries from the plant, these images pose a danger as they are attractive and slightly sweet. There is rawness and coyness, women explicitly revealing themselves in abandon like a wild night-club stripper, or demurely like a blushing first encounter. I found that these photographs illustrate the potential emotional swings of a romantic encounter, aggression and passiveness.

We do not know if a woman who is photographed half dressed is the in the process of undressing, re-dressing or pausing in mid-thought. Photographed partially undressed, her face cloaked and hidden form view, but her form and contours visible. She temporarily exists between the states of fully revealing and disguising herself, to want to show herself, but yet not be identifiable, a world of fantasy and mystery, lewdness and modesty, a state of narcosis and paralysis.

For the woman being photographed, knowing what is reveled in the studio may become publicly available for all to indulge might be part of the fantasy. Wondering at the moment of the click of the shutter, if eventually someone will pause at this intimate and personal image? And what might the reader be thinking as they pause to study this image? Can they know and understand the thoughts, dreams, passion, nightmares and hopes for the future? That is part of the mystery, for the women who reveal themselves, the photographer who photographs and eventually for us to try to decipher.

Some of the resulting images are sharply focused and well defined, while others are soft and blurry impressions, and many are somewhere in between. The later creates an impression of a hallucination, dreamlike and having a lack of being able to focus clearly, a disruption to the cognitive capacities

This is a relatively small case-bound book, consistent in size with most of the books published by Noorderlicht. The book binding does not allow the book to lay-flat, which can be a nuisance if you want to allow a pair of images to be on display over a longer duration. The essay is by Han Schoonhavon with the text in Dutch and English, and the book is printed in Groningen, The Netherlands.

Best regards, Douglas Stockdale

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December 1, 2009

Lukas Felzmann – Waters in Between

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Copyright Lukas Felzmann 2009 Courtsey Lars Muller Publishers

Water is an elusive essential to both man-kind and nature, without it you will certainly wither away and perish, and if by chance there is too much, you may drown. People have tried to control, manage and harness water, to force it to do what they feel is needed. We ultimately understand how little we know and can accomplish when we become aware of the futility of the task at hand when faced with drought or flooding. Felzmann looks obliquely at a place in an attempt to understand this subject. This place of his choice is fairly non-descript, an agricultural region inhabited by people who have strived, perhaps in vain, to harness the power and sustainability of water.

Similar to the awareness of the human presence with confronting the interior of a building, there is a palpable presence of water, whether it is the heavy humidity of a fog bank, lush grasses, looming rain clouds, flying waterfowl or a small boat hanging from a crane. The direct presence of draining dirty water, dark places throughout a calm mash, a partial lake view, flooded road, water puddles amongst the mud is easier to comprehend. Even an arid landscape, a dry wash or burning brush, conjures the thought of water even in its absence.

Over time, water can creates it own form, flowing to move mountains, change paths, randomly redirect itself and overcoming almost anything in its way. It has a plastic quality that becomes evident with longer exposures of film. Over a long enough time, water wears away a rock and can deteriorate metal, rotting vegetation and wood, wear away paint and in combination with sunlight, can eventually destroy plastic. The sun is another uncontrollable variable in the constantly changing the balance of water in nature, as it can evaporate what water that might remain.

Water can overflow the banks of a river and overtake, erode and flood all that is adjacent to it. Some who have misunderstand the flow of water and what force it is capable of having. Ask a fly fisherman who is standing in relatively shallow water of a strong flowing creek, how it can suddenly take your feet out from underneath you.

Likewise, water can also renew, refresh and revitalize both people and nature. It can cleanse and wash, taking away the surface grim. We observe that with the new green growth as well as the overflowing spring run off, a duality that can be daunting to try to control.

In one sequence, Felzmann photographs swirling water, with the flow of surface bubbles looking very familiar to the heavens above. Or the swirling current as it darts down a drain, appearing like a solar system drawn into a black hole. At first glance, it appears that he has captured the stars, planets and solar systems above. It gives cause to think that if in this small river a similar design of the universe is evident, what other universal patters are also surrounding us? I am left with awe and wonder in the possibilities.

A quote from the publisher provides these clarifying thoughts:

The photographer Lukas Felzmann was fascinated by the very thing that some driving past would find boring, flat, and disconsolate: the vast Sacramento Valley, located just a hundred miles from San Francisco. Felzmann discovers with his camera the hidden charms of that seeming nonplace. For him, exploring a place means both walking around and lingering quietly, until the valley opens up like a book, with stories that cry out to be read and discovered. With his camera he traces how time, determined here by the growth of the plants, slows on the plane, and how the horizontality of the surface becomes a reassuring balance to the hectic city of millions nearby. The photographs show the diversity of the plane: the original landscape in its natural state, the large swaths put to agricultural use, the modern provincial towns, and the transitional areas in between. Photographs of water in all its facets run through the book, just as water runs through and forms a valley.

In talking about this body of work, Felzmann states:

My intention has not been to produce an inclusive documentation, but to construct an empirical archive, to weave a story out of fragments, a sort of poetry of ruins. Transitory zones have been important in this collection because they reveal something about the essence of a place but can also point outside themselves. Whether looking for the geological edges of the valley, places that indicate the control of water, or photographing the luminous breaking edge of a fog bank, I was searching for structures that speak about nature and cultural conditions.

Generally I find Felzmann’s photographs to be somber with a hint of sadness and melancholy. He is drawn to decaying refrigerators, broken windshields, swampy and unlikable water, broken, barren and fallen trees, overcast and moody skies, abandoned and collapsing buildings. There are very few people within the photographs. The effect is further enhanced within the black and white images by a heavy amount of grayness in the tonality, creating somber tones. This may also be due the flat overcast lighting that he frequently chooses (or was available at the time). There are some exceptions, but overall I am left with a sense of concern and seriousness about the subject, to be wary and on guard and not take water for granted.

The book encompasses several general themed sections that require personal investigation; marsh, ghostpile, currents, machines, food, house, road, animals and crossing. Each theme requires your imagination to piece together the general connotations, with the section titles providing tantalizing hints. Although a terrible metaphor, nevertheless this book is truly like an onion, there are many layers of meaning that continue to revel themselves over time.

The book is unpaged and with a minimum of text, the individual photographs are without captions, with the exception of chapter headings. The photographer’s implied intent is  for you to experience of the body of work with only a few hints and draw your own conclusions. There are a few short excerpts and essays by John Berger accompanying quotes from Angelus Silesius, a doctor of philosophy (1624-1677). The color and black & white photographs are frequently printed with a full bleed to the edges or provided with a minimum border. The effect is to imply that reality is extended beyond the limits of the edges of the page. Double page spreads loose little content as the lay-flat binding, allowing he book to fully open and divulge its contents, minimizes any image loss in the gutter. The book is case bound and has the unusually appearance of a text book.

Felzmann’s book is working its way up my list of favorites for 2009.

By Douglas Stockdale

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