The PhotoBook Journal

November 3, 2009

Bill Jacobson – A Series of Human Decisions


Copyright Bill Jacobson 2009 courtesy DECODE Books

The title of Bill Jacobson’s recent book, A Series of Human Decisions, has an interesting double meaning. Jacobson is photographing those things that can represent the artifacts of decisions we as human’s make, and the process of photographing reflects the decisions that Jacobson is making, thus hinting at an autobiographic body of work.

I am not familiar with Jacobson’s earlier work, but it is neatly described in the interview between Jacobson and Ian Berry, with some examples in the afterward. Suffice to say, Jacobson has been earlier exploring the concept of memories by creating out of focus images for about fifteen years until 2002. This current book is composed of sharply focused images, all in a square format, although Jacobson states that he is using a 4x 5” view camera, we can deduce that there is some cropping involved in his creative process. So this leads to one of Jacobson’s decisions, why the square pictorial format when in his interview, he states that he is drawn to rectangular shapes?

Jacobson’s credence in his interview can probably be seriously questioned as he states that he had to re-learn to photograph in sharp focus, meanwhile he states that his day job of photographing art work for museums and galleries requires him to do just that; create sharply focused photographs. Sheeeese. I hope that he was not referring to the mechanics of photography, because that appears to me as to what he is talking about.

Befitting his book title, the subject of his photographs are those things that are man-made, but without the presence of man within them. This has more of the feeling of a Candida Hofer than a Bernd and Hiller Becher body of photographs, about the work of mankind, but without the direct presence of mankind. Jacobson investigates a wide range of manmade objects, furniture, office and home interiors, material patterns and remnants, that reflect many layers of decisions that have occurred over time. Most of his compositions are at close quarters and usually tightly framed, with objects and lines flowing out the pictorial edges.

The book has an odd cadence, with the paired images occasionally working off each other and the content reinforcing an underlying emotional feeling, and other times creating a non-harmonious tension. When this pairing works, such as the window and the painted over wall, below, the rectangular shapes and color scheme play off each other well. Deconstructing this pair of photographs, questions arise about each decision that had been made, such as why the color and texture of the building, paint, wood trim, concrete, and for each and every nuance. You might understand how a rectangular window could architecturally occur, but when painting over a wall, why use rectangular patterns?

Overall, I found that this book has a disconcerting unevenness to it. Perhaps as though Jacobson was trying too hard to make his concept work, which on occasion I feel it does work, but not consistently. There are some great images that invite a multitude of questions as to what was the thinking when the underlying decisions were made to create the resulting objects and situations. There are other photographs of subjects that the theme appears to be forced and have no harmony with the remaining body of work. These photographs, although capturing the work of mankind, are also the decisions of the photographer who isolates these subjects out of their external context.

The book is beautifully printed, with a binding that allows it to lay flat while open, making it a delight to page through and read. There is also a list of plates, but do not expect any additional contextual information about the photographs.

By Douglas Stockdale

Updated note from John Jenkins, publisher: I should probably clarify a couple things about Bill’s book and work. You are correct that he crops his images from the original negatives but they are cropped to be nearly square – they are reproduced 7 x 7.25 inches in the book. I know that this was a conscious decision on Bill’s part for this body of work. The rectangular shapes he is drawn to are within the photographs and you can see it time and time again in the photographs.

I believe when Bill said he had to “re-learn” to photograph in focus he meant that he had to learn how to see in focus photographically for his personal work. In his day work for the museums and galleries he is reproducing the paintings and drawings on film and, yes, it is in focus. But he is not adding his personal vision to the work – only his technical ability to capture the artwork accurately on film. When you are presenting work that is out of focus you are dealing with generalized shapes, tones, and colored areas. In this body of work everything is in focus and so everything has to be paid attention to.

John, Thanks!






  1. These are fantastic. I can’t wait to see the book.

    Comment by steven marker — November 4, 2009 @ 6:40 am

  2. […] Bill Jacobson – A Series of Human Decisions (Decode, 2009) […]

    Pingback by 10 x 10 American Photobooks | The PhotoBook — April 25, 2013 @ 5:35 am

  3. […] into another. I have been a fan of Bill Jacobson’s photographs and I curated his photobook A Series of Human Decisions into the recent 10×10 American Photobooks exhibition in Tokyo last year. Prior to this book, […]

    Pingback by Untitled RSM 174038 | Doug Stockdale's Singular Images — April 7, 2014 @ 2:02 am

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