The Question of Audience

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Michael David Friberg

A spectre is haunting photoland — the spectre of audience. In some way or another, it appears to pops up its head everywhere. In an obvious sense, discussions about so-called social media center on the question of how to build and grow your audience. Given many (most?) of those discussions tend to be self-referential there often is little to be learned there, though: to what end is this being done?

Colin Pantall has recently been writing a lot about photobooks and their audience, that niche group of people I belong to as well. An aspect of it is the photobook festival, which to me at least increasingly looks like the same small group of people traveling from location to location, staging essentially the same festival only in different locations (much like a circus — feel free to think about who the lions and who the clowns are). Offprint here, Offprint there, Offprint everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, in principle I like the idea. In practice, however, I’d like to think that the goal should be to grow the audience for photobooks, and I’m not sure that’s happening.

And just the other day, I came across an article by Michael David Friberg. “We spend thousands of dollars and years of our lives on projects,” he writes, “only to publish an expensive photo book that will probably only be seen by a handful of other photographers, editors and photo geeks etc etc.” This obviously overlaps with the preceding. But there’s more: “The incredible myopathy of our industry is staggering when you think about it. We have been looking in all of these pre defined spaces for validation when they are in all reality, probably not the best ways to disseminate work.” (my emphasis)

In some sense, Friberg is wrong. These myopic outlets are the best ways to disseminate work: they’re easily available, and there is an audience, however small it might be. But the real question is whether that’s the audience we all want to play to, and that’s Friberg’s actual point here. Should the following scheme described by Friberg really apply? “Grant applications (that you won’t get) > project work > pitching the project > maybe a magazine runs a few of the photos in print > runs in a big fancy photo blog > published in a limited edition of 500 monograph > gallery show > goes on your website to die.” (depending on what part of photoland you operate in, your version of the scheme might omit a few parts)

In other words, what looks like the most obvious way to reach an easily available audience, however small it might be — is that the way to go? Or are there alternatives?

Isn’t it a bit absurd that photography currently is one of the most popular media, maybe even the most popular one, yet large parts of the people engaged in it in a professional manner operate in a miniscule niche that for the most part is completely invisible to all those who happily snap photographs with their phones and tablet, and who then share those pictures and look at other people’s pictures? How can this be? Or rather: can we change this?

There probably are many ways of thinking about audience. I could be entirely mistaken, but it seems to me that many photographers think of their audience as whatever section of that pre-defined, already existing audience in photoland they can get. And audience is thought of as an afterthought. You go about your work, and then, once you have the end product, you think about your audience. That might not be the best approach.

The more we think in terms of fine art, the more problematic thinking about audience becomes. If you worry too much about your audience, in particular what to do for that audience, you risk catering to an audience, reducing your art to essentially being entertainment. Per se, there’s nothing really wrong with it, and some well-known photographers have been very successful with this approach. But the question what the end result amounts to often comes up with very little. The opposite approach would be to brood in your studio until it’s all done, and if people don’t like it, they can go to hell. Somewhere in between those two extremes, there have got to be other viable spots.

Assuming that as an artist you actually want to break out of the scheme outlined above, there are many options. You just have to start thinking outside of the box. You will also have to face the fact that if you want to engage with a new audience, things won’t necessarily be a huge success right away (they can be, of course).

For example, if you want to make a photobook, does it have to be a photobook that targets the photobook niche, a highly specialized and stylized publication? Make no mistake, there’s nothing wrong with the photobook per se. But I feel that in its current form, the medium is being considered in oddly narrow, limiting terms.

In much the same fashion, you can exhibit your work in ways other than the white-cube gallery, which usually really is just a boutique for the well off.

I’m not sure to what extent photographers consider these kinds of questions. I’m not saying they have to. But those who are not content with operating in a fairly small niche, one whose cards are pretty firmly stacked against most of those interested in getting a piece of the pie — those photographers might want to consider different ways to reach an audience. An audience, not the audience. And this would have to start out with the work, the photography itself: who might be interested in this? And how can those people be reached, regardless of whether they’re part of the niche?

That might mean not traveling to Arles, for example. Don’t get me wrong, Arles is probably great (I’ve never gone). Photoland loves going there. But you probably won’t find any of that new non-niche audience there.

If you’re one of the recent graduates of any of the MFA programs, you’re likely to face that very question right now: where am I going to take things from here? Graduates often ask me how to approach publishers or how to get that gallery show… Are those really the only options? Are those options the ones that you want to be pursuing?

That photoland pie is pretty limited, and the crumbs you might be able to pick up here and there aren’t overly nourishing. Given there are more and more photographers interested in if not some big piece then at least some crumbs, it might be time to look for a piece of some other pie. And part of the work needed might be not to think of the audience you know, but about the audience you don’t know, yet.

(this piece in French: La question du public)

A couple of unrelated things:

First, my sincere thanks to all of those who contributed to my fundraiser! If you haven’t donated, you still can.

Also, I started producing video photobook reviews. There are two available already, one of H. said he loved us by Tommaso Tanini, the other one of Find a Fallen Star by Regine Petersen. They’re each about five minutes. Feel free to send me some comments so I can work on improving whatever needs to still be improved.

Conscientious Fundraiser 2015

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For the past 13 years, I have been working on this site, which is dedicated to contemporary photography. The site has evolved along with changes in technology and my own thinking about both photography and what a website covering photography might look like. I have added new features, while removing or phasing out others. Everything is still available in the archives, which are split between the content up until mid-2012 , and everything that came afterwards . For those who are interested in accessing the thousands of pieces in a different way there is an Index.

Now, in 2015, Conscientious consists of this main site, featuring in-depth critical writing, Twitter for quick and short posts with links elsewhere, and I have been experimenting with Ello as well.

I believe that it is possible to talk about contemporary photography in a way that is accessible (and thus free of jargon), critical, and enjoyable at the same time. And that is really my goal. I also prefer running a site without advertizing and without corporate sponsorships, the former because it does the photography and writing full justice, the latter because it allows me to maintain editorial independence completely.

In the past, I did a couple fundraisers, and I now want to do one again. Working on the site involves a rather large amount of time, plus some money (for website hosting as well as buying photobooks etc.). I’m hoping to raise some funds to

— help cover existing costs
— allow me to buy more photobooks and thus support their makers (which is extremely important especially for self-published books)
— allow me to contribute more to Kickstarter efforts by photographers and to
— allow for more travels to such places as Boston or New York, to visit (and then review) exhibitions and/or meet with photographers.

To this end, I set up a fundraiser at Your financial support will thus help maintain this site. It will help me produce more content, while keeping the already existing content — all 13 years of it — freely available.

Thank you!

Anne Morgenstern: Land ohne Mitte

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What if there’s no hope? What if there do not appear to be any solutions? And what if it doesn’t even look as if anyone cared? Those are bleak thoughts, aren’t they? But they’re not uncommon. I have the feeling they occupy more people’s lives than we’d like to admit. The truth is that there are many among us who are being left out, whose rights to live meaningful lives are being denied, for whatever reasons, whether they’re political and/or economical.

There’s a long tradition in photography to train cameras on some of those people. Curiously, cameras are much more rarely trained on those responsible for the mess, maybe because it would mean directly implicating someone. But that aside, this long tradition in photography has done, well, relatively little to improve the lives of those left out — which is only enough reason to keep doing it.

But there also is a long tradition in photography to provide something uplifting, given that the audience for depressing stories really isn’t that big. We’d like to think, after all, that there is indeed hope, that there are solutions, that things will get better. Those who are left to live in places without hope are then cast out, to be forgotten, but, crucially, to be content enough with what little they have that they won’t raise their heads to, say, suddenly march down the streets wearing brown shirts.

They did march in Hoyerswerda, Germany, in 1991, creating their ausländerfrei zone. The incident shocked the country to the core, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, given its Nazi past. How was this possible? If I remember it correctly many people were very concerned about the country’s reputation, a lot more certainly than about the well being of those refugees who now essentially became refugees in their host country: What might the neighbours think?

Fast forward twenty years, and Hoyerswerda now again is supposed to be a host city for refugees. Meanwhile, the far-right mob now assembles to demonstrate against Islam (you can’t make this stuff up: its founder and leader had to step down after photos of him posing as Adolf Hitler surfaced). Now, all the hand wringing about these kinds of things aside, what mostly gets ignored is the basis for so much of this, a toxic mix of resentment and powerlessness. That mix doesn’t come out thin air.

Instead, it comes out of the air in places where, to get back to the very beginning of this article, it feels as if there’s no hope, where there are no prospects. Pointing out this connection does not and cannot stand as a justification for anything really. But you cannot deprive people of their hope and then expect them to just be happy about that. The resulting resentment that gets amplified in part because there are no debates about obvious problems such as no jobs — that resentment is going to look for an outlet, however ugly.

Anne Morgenstern‘s hugely ambitious and challenging Land ohne Mitte (Land without a center) looks at the land around Hoyerswerda and at its people (the photographer’s website features a large number of images from the project). In a sense, the work is quite specific, given its geographic focus, which ties to a very specific history (Germans, no doubt, will approach the work in a fairly pre-determined way).

In another sense, given that any of the historical facts are at best alluded to, the photographs actually speak less of the land and its quite specific circumstances, and more of an overwhelming sense of dread, coupled with a lack of hope and prospects. That way, Morgenstern has managed to create a body of work that is a lot more universal than the geographic focus suggests. At the risk of being a bit vague with the use of this particular term here, but the story is very universal, and it can be found in many places across the planet, places literally and figuratively abandoned, places left to fester in hopelessness, which, often enough, is a fertile breeding ground for that toxic mix of resentment and powerlessness.

If the land Morgenstern describes with pictures lacks a center, so does the book. There has been a lot of talk of narrative in photobooks lately, and Land ohne Mitte demonstrates how you can tell a story by not doing it. A lot of books attempting to deal with story telling approach the topic in overly prescriptive (and simplistic) ways. This particular book, however, realizes that there is no simple story to be told, or maybe rather that whatever you might think of as the story really is just what you create in your head when exposed to all those little facets of life.

Despite the obvious differences in the visual languages, Land ohne Mitte references the best of the late Michael Schmidt, through its assembly of moments and characters that appear specific and generic at the same time. Those familiar with the work of Tobias Zielony will also find echos of that artist’s work. Here then lies another very important strand of German photography, less concerned with the single photograph’s pomposity than with layering, with rendering the single photograph almost meaningless. And this new book is destined to find itself amongst the very best books to come out of a country that faces a lot of the same problems now widely shared by large parts of the developing world.

Land ohne Mitte for sure is going to be very high up in my list of the best photobooks produced this year.

Land ohne Mitte; photographs by Anne Morgenstern; essay by Christian Ritter, poems by Margrit Sengebusch (both German language only); 220 pages; Fountain Books; 2015

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 5, Edit 4, Production 3 – Overall 4

Incredibly Cheap Photobooks

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Some time last year, I found a copy of Abigail Heyman‘s Growing up Female in a local second-hand book shop. I ended up writing a little piece about the whole experience, and I eventually included the book in the list of my favourite photobooks last year. As much as I enjoyed the book, there was a slight problem, though. The glue holding it together had become very brittle with time, and it had cracked, leaving at least one page dangling quite badly.

Yesterday, I asked a bookbinder friend of mine whether he could re-glue it. I felt kind of bad about asking, though, not because of the favour, but because I could have just bought another copy online, hoping to get one that wasn’t broken. Back when I bought the book (paying $6.00) there were copies listed for as little as $0.75 online. My friend told me he didn’t mind fixing it all, but I went online to see what my options were. Turns out prices for the book have gone up, the cheapest copies are now starting around $11 for both the hard and softcover versions.

I have no way of knowing whether my writing about the book had people buy up the cheap copies. In some sense – whether I have in fact that kind of influence, it doesn’t matter to me. In another sense, it does, though: here was a truly wonderful photobook that was (and still is) incredibly relevant, and you could have it for the equivalent of whatever it is that these days costs $0.75. Something truly didn’t feel right about that.

Photobooks are commonly discussed, especially since the books about photobooks industry started to take off. There are many reasons why those kinds of books are doing the community a huge favour. After all, not only do they discuss the medium photobook in ways that it truly deserves, they also expose a lot of unknown books to a larger audience. Except, of course, that often enough you then see those books listed on Ebay, say, with, for example, “Parr/Badger” included in the subject line.

You know what, I don’t really care about that aspect of the photobook market that much. OK, there might be the occasional book that I would really love to have in my library, and that I cannot even remotely afford (think Michael Schmidt’s Waffenruhe). But the reality also is that for every Waffenruhe there are dozens of other books that you can buy for next to nothing, many of them genuinely good. It doesn’t take much to get these books. All you have to do is to look for them, and you then buy a book that you like (even if you have never heard any of the usual suspects talk about it).

There’s an essay in Gerry Badger‘s marvelous The Pleasures of Good Photographs that talks at length about a large number of female photographers that have simply — so far — been excluded from what we think of as our standard history of photography (“From Diane Arbus to Cindy Sherman: A Exhibition Proposal,” p. 199). I don’t think Heyman is mentioned in Badger’s piece, but it would be straightforward to think of her of one of those who Badger talks about. Seen that way, many of those photobooks that can be had for next to nothing online or in second-hand book shops can also serve as a corrective to photography’s history (or maybe rather the way it was written).

This is not to say that every photobook that appears to have been forgotten is a masterpiece — just like many of the books in, say, Parr and Badger’s series are, well, really not that great at all. But, and this is quite important, the exhibitions that happened in the 1970s — they’re all gone, inaccessible. The same is true for the prints people might have made, which, with a little luck, languish in some museum’s collection (rarely to be seen) or hang in someone’s home.

But the books made during that time, in fact during pretty much any time, are still around. Even though considerable (now mostly virtual) ink is being spilled on a relatively small set of books, most books have become those incredibly cheap photobooks that you can swoop up on Amazon or maybe Ebay for next to nothing and that, with a little luck, you can find in your friendly second-hand book shop for a little — but not much — more.

This is one of the reasons why I love photobooks so much. The kind of access they give me to photography is so much larger than what I can have any other way. I realize that providing examples might ultimately defeat the purpose completely: what if people start buying all these books, for prices to shoot up into the stratosphere? But then, is it fair to a book and its author to simply not mention it just so that it remains cheap, and someone might find it being as lucky as I was? Now that I finally decided to write this piece you can probably guess which side I have come down on.

Btw, Heyman’s book is being repaired right now, so I’m unable to show you any spreads. But I’m including a few other lucky finds here.