Category Archives: Books

‘Textbook’–early book planning

Book Planning-2

At present, I am expecting a book to form some part of the submission of the ‘Textbook Project’ for Assignment 5/Assessment.  One possibility is that I do a hand-made book, bound into the original cover of the old Textbook of Photographic Chemistry, where it all began.  I still have the cover, as illustrated below, though I probably wouldn’t use the paper outer sheet.  My idea would be to print one of the ‘patterns’ onto a man-made/nonwoven fabric that I have sourced and create a jacket from that – but, not to get ahead of myself!

Textbook Project JPEG Slideshow-82

I have been doing a bit of research on design and on bookbinding.  Regarding the former, it isn’t something I’ve ever studied and I don’t propose to turn myself into a graphic designer overnight, but, just to get a feel for the ‘basics, I have been reading Graphic Design School.  It covers a lot of ground, in a clear, readable and (as you would hope!) visually well-presented format.  It isn’t that I expect to use that much of what I’ve read, just that I wanted to have some general idea of what a designer would be thinking about.  On the bookbinding side, I came across some excellent video tutorials on YouTube, here Crafty Loops Tutorials.  I haven’t tried to put any of it into practice yet, but it doesn’t seem beyond ones capabilities, with a bit of care and planning.  I had already figured out that these book sections, called ‘signatures’ are formed from eight folded sheets, creating 16 page faces in total.  The original book had 20 of them, printed on thin book paper, of course.  I’ve tried making 8 of the right size using drawing paper and I reckon that, with printed images attached, that won’t be far off filling the book – and it broadly fits with the number of images I have from the project.  A final version might have photographic paper bound into it – but my plan, at this stage, is to maybe produce a mock-up that will form part of the Assignment 5 submission.

The graphic design book encourages the preparation of a planned layout of pages for brochures, booklets etc, which makes good sense.  As illustrated at the top of the post, I’ve made a start.  The image shows one of three A2 sheets that I’ve divided up with the correct number of properly-proportioned pages.  The images stuck onto them are not in proportion to each other or the proposed book – it’s just a way of working on the sequencing.  The larger images do, however, represent the points at which I would plan to insert a double page spread.  Eagle eyes might spot the occasional pink ‘x’ – that’s where the signatures would join together.

That is a far as I’ve got with it at the moment – a principle to work to and a rough ‘first shot’ at a sequence.  I’m going to be at the Rencontres d’Arles next week, at which there has been a competition/exhibition for mock-up books; so a good opportunity for some further research.

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Offprint London

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Last weekend I spent the day in London, including an excellent couple of hours in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall where the first ever ‘Offprint London’ was taking place.  This was a photobook fair with around 150 participant organisations, mainly independent publishers of ‘photobooks’.  I’ve introduced the inverted commas because it was actually a wider range than that word might suggest – books, zines, posters, prints, even vinyls – and wasn’t entirely focused on photo-based work either.  However, coinciding with Photo London at Somerset House, the emphasis was on photobooks, and it was an opportunity for some informal research for the eventual outcome of my Body of Work, particularly the Textbook project. The chief value, for me, was, I think, the casual browsing rather than any specific ideas or information.  This post will just record some general impressions.

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There are clearly a lot of independent publishers out there, many of them artists who have, I guess, published their own work and then taken on collaborations with others.  Perhaps the biggest ‘name’ present would be Aperture, and other well-known names would include MACK, Self-Publish-Be-Happy and Morel Books, but the vast majority were small organisations, chiefly and understandably, European.  I would have to say that I didn’t come away with any strong feeling of innovation in the form of publications.  There were a lot of zines – low cost, low ‘aesthetic’ publications, sometimes produced in limited editions – that didn’t greatly impress me.  I can understand this as a simple and inexpensive form to publish creative work, but it doesn’t appeal to me personally (though I have been doing some work on a ‘red-top’ tabloid for my Portraits).  I was interested to see whether there were examples of people doing something different in the actual ‘form’ of the book, but I didn’t come across many – best of all being a book where the pages were screwed directly into a broken piece of a skateboard, with two wheels still attached.  For some reason – not sure why – it did prompt the thought that I could bind a self-printed, one-off version of my Textbook work into the original board cover; definitely worth thinking about, though I wouldn’t then be able to burn it!

On the ‘The Everyday Press’ stall, I got an opportunity to open up some consideration of the copyright issue that will, inevitably, need to form part of my thinking for any publication of the Textbook project.   There were some examples of what one might term ‘re-publications’ – 1976 Argos Catalogue by Sara MacKillop; The FoxThe Everyday Press is artist Arnaud Desjardin and I took the opportunity to sound him out about copyright.  He thinks (and I will need to research this properly, of course) that the Textbook of Photographic Chemistry will still be in copyright. His approach (with The Fox magazine, for example) has been to ask the question but to go ahead and publish if no specific objections occur.  He encouraged that I could publish the project without much issue, if I choose – more of this in Sustaining Your Practice when I get there.

Other than that, there was the chance to pick up and browse some books that I’ve not been able to get my hands on – notably Lucas Blalock’s Mirrors, Windows, Tabletops.  The book was a 1000-off limited edition that is now ‘sold out’, but they had two copies on the Morel Books stall – one for browsing and one still wrapped.  Useful to have a look through the former, but the latter was only available at three times its original price, so I didn’t purchase!

A very useful piece of research which I thoroughly enjoyed and which has certainly triggered a few thoughts for my own work.

Nice one, Joan!

Surface Charge Theory 4

Surface Charge Theory 4

As the tumbleweed rolls across the screen of this blog and I peer through the cobwebs …!

It is almost two months since I last posted on here.  It has not been an unproductive period; there is progress on some further portraits and more studio-based work has emerged, including the image above.  But it has also been a period of mental struggle; primarily with Contextual Studies and how to articulate some meaningful connection between what I have read/studied and the work I am producing.  It isn’t that I haven’t been able to deal with what I’ve read/studied (though it can certainly be demanding at times); and it isn’t that I can’t feel a connection with my Body of Work (I certainly can feel it, and quite powerfully at times).  It is the structuring and articulation that has been a problem – and remains so, to an extent.  I can identify any number of reasons – the differences between the two broad strands of my BoW, which might fit differently into a theoretical/critical context; an excessive concern with the clarity of articulation when, in a creative context, such issues are inevitably far from clear; a tussle with moving from the general to the specific in a complex situation; plain old muddled thinking, maybe (or maybe not …)!  Whatever the reason (or reasons), it has been heavy going at times, but I am making some progress.

Which brings me to Joan Fontcuberta.  A few weeks ago, I bought the new translation of his book of essays Pandora’s Camera, and I’ve just finished an initial read through.  I had sensed that it might help with my contextual struggles, partly because of Fontcuberta’s oeuvre, which frequently operates within the spaces in and around photography and fiction, but especially because these essays deal with the digital technological shift and, as the title suggests, explore the extent to which it spells calamity for some and liberation for others.  (I have not, as yet, been able to see ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ at the Science Museum, but it is coming up to Bradford eventually.)

This post is prompted, primarily, by the last essay in the book, entitled ‘Why do we call it love when we mean sex?’.  It has nothing to do with either love or sex, of course, but (having got our attention!) it does focus on the challenges/opportunities for photography today – and it seems to link effectively with some of my other reading/studies, so helping to confirm and clarify where I am going.  For, as he puts it, “… artists and other toilers in the vineyard of the image …”, photography, at its birth, could be seen as a pure translation of visual reality onto a surface, in an instant, extraneous to the human will (beyond a ‘superintendent’ role performed by the photographer).  The history since that point has not, Fontcuberta asserts, been well-written – notably in its apparent failure to successfully integrate pictorialism into a coherent narrative.  Photography has retained its documentary association.  The hybridisation of image-making in the postmodern context in the 70’s/80’s provided a new challenge to that old association but it is the introduction of digital technology and image processing software that has “… transformed the original paradigm …”.

The essay compares the pixels to a painter’s brush-strokes and suggests a return to “… the iconic structure of painting and writing …”.  Indeed, he goes a step further and asserts that “… analogue photography is inscribed and digital photography is written …” – inscription and writing being two stages of epistemological competence, from description to story.  Hence, he says, the crisis of the documentary in photography.  The essay has opened with a provocative quote from artist Christian Boltanski, addressing a meeting at an Arles Photo Festival – “Photography is photojournalism; everything else is painting”.  So, at his conclusion, Fontcuberta accepts that we may be ‘post photography’ and that (for once) finding the right nomenclature for what follows could be important.  But, until an angel appears to give us the answer, he wonders why we insist on calling it love when we mean sex!

The notion that digital image manipulation has much in common with painting compares directly with another article – Lucas Blalock, writing in Foam Magazine, in the Spring of this year, where he compares his work to drawing.  It’s why I put Surface Charge Theory 4 at the top of this article.  This image pushes my appropriation and manipulation of material from A Textbook of Photographic Chemistry to another level, so that it begins to look more like a Bridget Riley painting than a photograph.  It may yet go through further stages of development that bring it back into the still-life/photographic/realism space – but these creative processes, like those of Blalock and others, are concerned with the very edges of what is ‘photography’.

It seems possible that, as I had hoped, Joan Fontcuberta has helped bridge the gap.  I have Hal Foster in The Return of the Real explaining the recurring role of the avant-garde in shifting art into new directions;  I have Vilem Flusser in Towards a Philosophy of Photography extolling the role of the ‘experimental photographer’ who is “… playing against the camera …”;  I have Fontcuberta confirming that the original paradigm has been transformed; I have Charlotte Cotton (in that same Spring edition of Foam magazine) writing that the works of Lucas Blalock and others “… are active contemplations of the role of the artist and the meaning of the photographic within the evolution of our visual and cultural climate …” (and also referring to signs of human mark-making and painterly gestures when describing the work).  I am, perhaps, beginning to find relevant contexts through which to articulate what I am doing and where I am going with my Body of Work.

I can still, however, express a word or two of caution – such as whether this is still all too general to work effectively in Contextual Studies (though that should be for consideration elsewhere, of course) and whether my portrait work does really sit comfortably in the context described.  But the very fact that I am articulating something in the ‘public domain’ is progress.

Whoof … there go a few more cobwebs!

“Autofocus: the self-portrait in contemporary photography” – Susan Bright

Autofocus

Just read this – Susan Bright – “Autofocus: the self portrait in contemporary photography” (Thames & Hudson, London, 2010).  First point to make is that it’s my first ‘borrow’ from the Huddersfield University Library, having joined for £25 pa, as a Public Member.  It’s a good scheme; Huddersfield runs a Photography degree, so reasonably well stocked with relevant books and I can borrow up to five books at a time, for two weeks, with online access to their search facility (from home) and the facility to renew/reserve online, should I wish.

This book is on the extended reading list for Level Three modules, but I specifically looked at it as a possible source of context and ideas for the notion of a major project based along the lines discussed at the end of this earlier post – here.  To some extent, ‘context’ is for Contextual Studies, and the confirmed guidelines are that there must be a clear distinction between the two modules when it comes to Assessment, so any detailed discussion, should it be relevant, will come there.  But I’m sure I can, at least, say that this is a very useful ‘survey’ of the use of the self-portrait by contemporary photographically-based artists, with a little bit of history thrown in for context, and a reasonably broad definition of what constitutes a self-portrait.  She sub-divides the ‘genre’ into five headings – Autobiography; Body; Masquerade; Studio & Album; and Performance – but there is inevitable overlap and flexibility.  It has certainly introduced me to several artists/work that I had not seen before, some using ‘Masquerade’ & ‘Studio & Album’ in interesting ways, such as Aneta Grzeszykowska, Tomoko Sawada‘ and Yasumasa Morimura; as well as some that I already knew of, such as Joan Foncuberta & Gillian Wearing.

Reading this book, and reflecting on my idea for a project stemming from the ‘Newsbook, has fired my imagination in all sorts of directions as to what this project could be.  What if I ‘invent’ a number of alternative, present day persona, directly related to pages from the ‘Newsbook’ and then create a series of contemporary self-portraits of me as those persona?  [Bishop Stanley Dickinson; Stan the farmer worker, who stayed in the village (and who might be deceased!); Stan the radical left-wing activist; Stan the forgotten pop lyricist; and so on!]. What if I then construct, through images or whatever, the back story for those persona?  What if those back stories all take different forms?  A newspaper article about the Bishop; a family album and/or Facebook page about the farm worker; a police file about the activist; a blog about the lost lyricist; and so on …  The possibilities for such a project are considerable, which excites me a lot.

Then back to feet on the ground and what might be achievable!  I think I’m approaching a point where I need to formalise a few ideas ‘on paper’ to share with Clive before moving much further forward.  At the moment, my thinking is best summarised along these lines:

  • I remain committed to the idea that my work will explore the boundaries and potential of digital image-making;
  • Extending the still-life exploration also interests me – with the added possibilities associated with the first bullet point above;
  • There is, I feel sure, good potential in looking at ways of extending the use of found images, collages, studio constructs etc, to respond to ‘events’ – as I began to do in my final Level Two assignment;
  • And now, I can see lots of opportunity to create work that explores photography’s ability to construct narrative and identity – initiated by the Newsbook, but then brought up to date with some form of self-portraiture.

I wonder whether, actually, these points can define my way forward.  I need to share and seek input from my tutor.

 

 

Genres – Responding to the archive

Lion Tamer - Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Lion Tamer – Tyne & Wear Museums & Archive – via Flickr Creative Commons

I was looking for something to illustrate my reflections about ‘the archive’ and specifically searched for a photo of an archive.  Nothing came up, but this photograph leapt off the screen at me.  It was, originally, a glass slide, one of a number of fairground images in that format found in a store at the Discovery Museum, Tyne & Wear.  There is absolutely no information about the photographer, the subject, the location, the purpose – nothing.  It is so tempting to begin to speculate, to interpret.  But what right do I have, probably one hundred years after it was taken?  Leave him and his lions (well two of them at least) to stare out at us over the decades; and let whatever is happening off frame, to their right, remain a historical mystery.  This is just one of the billions of images I can access, almost instantly, via the 21st century ‘archive’ that is the internet.  Is there any wonder that so many contemporary artists use that creative potential to seek to create meaning?

Coincidentally, the Tyne & Wear Archive was one of several sources of photographs, prints, paintings, artefacts, recordings and other parephenalia, used by Jeremy Deller in putting together ‘All That is Solid Melts into Air’, which is currently on show at Manchester Art Gallery, and which I saw last week.  To be a little more precise, he sourced from 9 museums; 2 libraries; 2 city archives; 4 art galleries; plus various artists & private collections, as well as creating some of the work himself.  Deller’s working method is very curatorial; and I suppose there might be debate as to whether this was ‘his work’ or just an exhibition that he has curated.  I would go with the former – but I’m not sure it matters.  What he does, with this work, is invite the 21st century viewer to consider and relate to his/her history – specifically to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British people and culture – by a careful and clever juxtaposition of images, artefacts, sounds and creations, from the very recent past to the late eighteenth century.  It is fair to say that, in the context of this note and this section of my Body of Work module, he is working with and responding to ‘the archive’.

The module notes invite me to look at an article written, in 1986, by Allan Sekula, titled ‘Reading an archive: photography between labour and capital’, which appears in ‘Visual Culture: a reader’, edited by Evans and Hall, Sage Publications, London, 1999.  The article links the photographic archive with power, in the context of economic life (pertinent, therefore, to the Deller exhibition).  In essence, the argument goes along these lines:

  • The archive is ‘property’ and subbordinates original meaning and use to the logic of exchange.
  • Meaning depends on context and the archive, by supplying institutional authority and control, shifts images away from their origins and so may release the user (of the archive) from the responsibility to refer to original meaning and purpose.
  • This maintains a hidden connection between knowledge and power.
  • He also questions the validity of photographs as historical documents (or at least he questions history that is based on photographs) and as artworks.  The former tends towards spectacle and exoticism and the latter towards romanticism (if it favours the authorial perspective) or detachment, irony and even contempt (if it treats the photograph as a found object to be ‘interpreted’ – my ‘Lion Tamer’, for example).

Photography, Sekula concludes, has served as a tool of industrial and bureaucratic power.

Reflecting on this, I note:

  • that it was written nearly 30 years ago, in the context of physical, and largely institutional archiving, as opposed to open and digital archives;
  • that the scale of what might be interpreted as the photographic archive has moved on, as have the means of organising and the scope for searching and selecting images;
  • but the ‘power’ issue is potentially even more important – in the context of online archives, stock photography, sophisticated search engines, and the explosion of web-based vernacular images;
  • plus, the subordination of original use and the scope for new meaning becomes even more significant when ‘ownership’ is a) disputed anyway, with so many ‘orphan images’ circulating the web, and b) even further separated from the originator and any notion of authorial authority.

In ‘The Photographic Image in Digital Culture’, edited by Martin Lister, Routledge London, 2013, Nina Lager Vestberg’s article ‘The Photographic Image in Digital Archives’  confirms that 1980s critical studies of the archive, such as Sekula’s, were concerned with the ‘uses and abuses’ of the archive and approached the idea from a materialistic perspective.  Looking with a more contemporary perspective, she distinguishes between ‘Digitisation’ of images, including those from the old, physical archives, and ‘Computerisation’ of working practics – the latter leading to a changing role for the archivist (interfacing between user and ‘system’ as opposed to user and ‘image) and the ‘invisibility’ of the algorithmic search.  In the context of ‘stock photography’, she also notes the huge increase in staged or modelled images designed purely for stock purposes (Paul Frosh, in the same publication, refers to the ‘wallpaper of consumer culture’); the use of keywords (often highly conceptual in nature) to fuel searches and retrieval of images; and the changes to licencing rights.

Which brings me, directed by the module notes and in the context of keywords, to Taryn Simon’s ‘The Picture Collection’, an exhibition based on selections from the New York Library’s picture archive.  That archive comprises 12,000 folders, with individual titles such as ‘Handshaking, ‘Express Highways’ and ‘Yellow’, to name just three, which contain, in total, 1.2 million physical images, collected together by the library staff, since 1915.  Simon makes her own selection, from a selection of the folders, to create large scale ‘collage-type’ images.  Even without seeing the physical exhibition itself, one is prompted to reflect on the very process of the archive’s compilation over nearly 100 years, and the short video in this link highlights the fascinating juxtaposition of images the archive has produced.  But I am also prompted to relate this work to the concept of ‘Keywords’ in contemporary digital archiving.  The NY Library staff, over the years, have made individual decisions to place each specific, physical image into a specifically named physical folder.  Vestberg quotes just one, relatively insignificant image that she uses to illustrate her article as having well over 100 keywords attached to it – the equivalent of placing it in over 100 of the NY Library folders at the same time, of course.

For me, this is another illustration of the challenge, in critical photographic studies, to keep up with and ‘contain’ (in a critical theoretical sense) the changes brought about by the internet and digital media.  Issues of power, control, politics, economics, meaning and truth, all of which might reasonably be discussed in the context of a photographic archive, become even harder to fully comprehend.  So, one senses, critical theory and study can become more a question of ‘coping’ than of explaining and understanding.  Frosh, in his article in the Lister book above, refers to Getty Images as having an aspiration to become a ‘total archive’.  (He compares Getty to Hobbes’ Leviathan.)  Where, one wonders, does that take Sekula’s questions about ‘power’?

One brief reflection on the ‘Lion Tamer’ – what would he make of these questions?  I allow myself that reflection only to emphasise to myself that I probably have about as much chance of knowing what his life is all about as he has of comprehending mine.  The archive, especially the great archive we call the internet, is a powerful, attractive and tempting source of creative imagery and meaning – but one to be read and interpreted with some caution.