Harvey Benge – The Traveller

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At somewhat regular intervals, envelopes postmarked in New Zealand will arrive at my door step. Inside, each one carries a new self-published book by Harvey Benge. These books are all the same in form (a single, stapled signature), but not in content. They’re essentially very well-produced zines. I would have to gather the set I already own to see if the following truly is correct, but I believe they tend to originate from the various trips that take Benge to other parts of the world, Paris being very prominent among them.

If this approach to publishing might sound a bit fragmented (which, in a sense, it is), the photography is as well. The pictures are their own little planets, minute observations of things (or people) that nobody else would pay much attention to. Grander narratives are absent, as are, obviously, “projects”. This is not the time and space to dive into the idea of projects and what might be gained from them. That said, Benge’s work demonstrates that there exists another mode, where individual pictures are not supposed to add up to more than the photographer’s overall vision. Admittedly, this can be a lot.

Making singular observations with your camera, instead of working within the confines of projects, comes with advantages and disadvantages. Being untethered allows a photographer to follow her or his whims, her or his photographic sensibility. But there also is a lot less guidance, and while individual images might excel, seen as a whole, will they add up to more? And if yes, how so? In what ways?

To produce a book, say, or a project out of singular observations is close to working along the lines of those mining archives. There is raw material that has no larger meaning attached to it, and it can thus be selected and shaped into a larger, coherent whole. Benge has used this approach in the past, and he makes use of it again with The Traveller.

The book does not only look autobiographical, it also feels that way. The former will be obvious to even the casual viewer, given the use of photobooth or passport pictures that have dates next to them. The earliest is from 2004, the latest from 2015. These pictures provide a repetition of sorts, a variation on a theme, a face slowly ageing.

This particular device is used not only for these portraits, there are variations on different themes. There is, in particular, the theme of a female nude, pictures of a young woman (or possibly different women), depicted lying prone on her (their) back(s), the frame cutting the full figure somewhere on the upper thighs and just below the chin. For me, the particular framing intrigues and disturbs me at the same time: who are these faceless women turned into objects of male desire here? And these pictures need to be seen against the (clothed) portraits of other (or the same?) women, all of which confront the camera (and the man behind it) quite assertively.

Add to this mix a smattering of other, more singular observations, and you arrive at a photographic autobiography of sorts that is as puzzling as the life of this particular individual must have felt at the time when the pictures were made. Life is, after all, a big puzzle, whether we have our glorious five-year plans or not. We can attempt to produce a coherent picture only in retrospect, a picture that might or might not have found its place in such a plan.

And which autobiography isn’t also fictional? Aren’t the stories we’re telling ourselves (and others) about the things that happened to us, the combination of which amounts to our life story, also fictional, with omissions, whether conscious or not, playing a major role? We don’t remember some things because we can’t, or because we don’t want to, and we might even remember things that never happened.

The Traveller; photographs Harvey Benge; 96 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2016

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.5

Judging a dummy award…

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This year, Cortona on the Move (CotM), the photography festival located in an impossibly picturesque Tuscan village, added a photobook-dummy award to their programming. I was invited to be the juror. I spent the better part of the past week looking at the submissions to whittle them down to a shortlist, and to determine a winner.

I had previously been a juror of another, similar award; but there, the task was to pick a winner from an already determined shortlist in a jury of five. Here, though, I was in charge of everything. So I thought long and hard how to go about it. In the following, I want to share part of my process, examples of books, plus general impressions gained from looking at the submissions.

One of my pet peeves concerning photography awards, dummy or otherwise, is that shortlists often tend to be anything but short. I have come across shortlists that contain 20 entries, at times even more. I have a problem with that. It’s not only that I think a shortlist ought to be, well, short because that’s what that very word indicates. More importantly, inflated shortlists lead to the situation where the impact of every book listed is simply lessened. As a viewer, I might be interested to follow links and look at, say, ten books. But twenty? Or forty? I don’t think so.

What’s more, the moment a shortlist (or longlist) is announced, I find I get emails that point out that this or that book has just been shortlisted. I understand the impulse to share the news. But if you’re one out of forty, what discriminatory power is actually being communicated? In my grumpy moments, I keep telling people that every photobook certainly is shortlisted somewhere. While that’s hyperbolic, it’s actually not that far from the truth.

Accordingly, I decided the CotM shortlist would in fact be short, containing only five books. I made this decision without even having looked a single book, not knowing whether it would make my job easy or difficult (in the end, it made it slightly difficult).

In addition, I decided I would apply a variant of my photobook rating system. Of course, my choices would be subjective. But I needed to make sure that I would apply the same criteria for all books, even though that meant literally rating each and every entry (which ended up taking two days). In the variant of the ratings I used in Cortona, I replaced “production” with “need.” Obviously, I didn’t and couldn’t want to make the production value of a dummy a criterion, especially given that some dummies were more carefully produced than others.

But “need” struck me as being important: would this book actually have to be made? Would it add anything to the conversation? Or was it merely a rehash of something we had seen many times before? “Need” thus mimics a bit what publishers have to think about. Commercial publishers do this all the time, self-publishers might want to start doing this, given there are so many books that, frankly, nobody other than their makers need.

Before going into some of the details of the shortlist and the winner, a few observations. To begin with, I realized that the term “dummy” might mean very different things for different people. My personal opinion is that a “dummy” should simply be a prototype of a photobook. It could be handmade or commercially produced, but it shouldn’t really be published.

Various of the submitted books did not fall into that category. Unless an edition size was listed in the books I had no way of checking. So why can’t a book be self-published in an edition of 50, 100, or 300, only to then find a publisher? But then, if a book is self-published this way, why would there have to be another publisher? Doesn’t this cheapen, lessen the overall idea of self-publishing? I don’t mean to say that I have a clear answer for this, but I do think that’s an aspect of dummy awards people might want to consider.

Looking through all the books, I decided to compile a few statistics, just counting certain things that I thought I might come across. And there were indeed quite a few interesting trends. Somewhat scientific disclaimer: it’s not clear whether or not the set of submitted books constitutes a “fair sample,” whether in other words it is an unbiased subsample of all photobooks being made. In other words, I don’t know whether what I observed truly reflects the larger world of self-published or dummy photobooks.

Roughly a third of the books made use of archival materials, be they vernacular or archival photographs or reproductions of non-photographic materials. That seems like a lot. While there is nothing wrong with the use of archival materials, seeing so much of it had me think it’s about time to stop what looks like a real fad to me now.

Around 15% of the books featured smaller pages or inserts. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, either. But more often than not, the reasons for doing were not very clear. Combine this trend (fad?) with the previous one, and it’s tempting to call this the Redheaded Peckerwood Effect. I quite like that book, as I’ve made clear here. But I’m not sure its strategies need to simply be adopted willy nilly in so many cases — to the point of the archival materials being a lot more interesting that an author’s own photographs, as actually was the case more than once.

Something else I noticed only very late, without compiling any numbers. There was a paucity of human faces. Not sure what this means. But I noticed how the more books I looked at, the more I wished to see a face, and not another landscape or still life, or even someone’s hand or back, or even someone’s torso, with the head cut off.

Having said all this, the shortlist I ended up picking featured (in alphabetical order) Francesco Amorosino‘s Il Libro del Comando, Hiroshi Okamoto‘s Recruit, Miyuki Okuyama‘s Dear Japanese, Carla Rak‘s Eyes as Oars, and Yulia Tikhomirova‘s Baltic.

I picked Miyuki Okuyama‘s Dear Japanese as the overall winner, a choice I was and am quite happy with. Coming home, I found out that the underlying body of work has already been published in a completely different — and as far as I am concerned vastly inferior — variation. I conferred with the festival’s organizers, and we all agreed that given the vast differences, the book would remain being the winner. It really is a great book.

I don’t know what any of my observations or comments above mean for the larger world of photobooks, especially of the self-published kind. Obviously, I have my own ideas and opinions. I will say that I am very happy with the general state of the world of photobooks. Unlike many other people, I don’t think that there are too many books. Ignoring the fact that such a judgment seems to imply there is a criterion for how to assess this. The more, the merrier.

That said, there are too many bad books, whether they’re commercially or self-published. Most books never sell their whole edition — we could take that as one, albeit not very good criterion.

I think the very first question anyone needs to ask themselves before making a book is not who will publish it or how big it should be or whether it should have gatefolds or whatever else. It should be: does this book really have to be made? Will this add something to all of these books that already exist? I felt the books in my shortlist all cleared this hurdle easily. But many of the other submitted dummies/books did not.

In other words, making a photobook for the sake of its own existence — and possibly, to increase its maker’s standing — is not a good idea. There is no gain in standing if a book essentially just adds volume to book shelves. Obviously, we could have discussions about what this really means, “does this add something”? And that would be a healthy discussion to have, a discussion that, I feel, adds a lot more value than debating about whether or not there are too many books.

(French: Un jury à moi tout seul…)

Photobook Reviews (W28/2016)

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People fall in love (and out of love) all the time. Life wouldn’t be as exciting as it can be if that weren’t the case. Our culture wouldn’t be the same without artists of all kinds contributing to re-telling that same story over and over again, without us ever getting tired of hearing it, reading it, seeing it. So there’s much to be said for photographers making work around just that, the idea of love, of falling in or out of it, of pursuing someone, getting rejected (or not).

If you got a good photobook about it, about love, you know you got something special. But most photobooks about love aren’t special, because they try so hard. Or they just wallow in cliches. And then they quickly become insufferable, at least for me, much like a Hallmark card peddling cheap sentiments. Probably the best way to get around this is to keep things as simple as possible. After all, you don’t have to do much extra work, given your viewers will make it for you, having some back story (or baggage or both) that we bring to it.

That’s why and how Thomas Boivin‘s a short story works so well. Boy meets girl, somewhere, and they meet again, and again, and then at some stage, as is often the case, one of them loses interest, for whatever reasons, or maybe the feelings weren’t quite as deep on one side. The details don’t really matter that much because it’s not a reportage or a documentary. Instead, it’s a man looking at a woman, desiring her and being infatuated by her, watching her doing all kinds of things, every one of which somehow is so important (because isn’t having a crush or falling in love just that elevation of even the seemingly most mundane detail of a person into something special?).

The book tells this story well, using text and creative layouts of a kind that of late have become a bit rare. Open older photobooks, made in the 1950s to maybe around the 1970s, to see a lot more of it, with images clearly being used in a larger (invisible) grid. The combination of text and the not necessarily tremendously exciting photographs, in combination with layout/design, make a short story work. I mean that’s the thing, you don’t need spectacular photographs for a spectacular photobook about love. Because if everything in the book adds up well, then the book is more than merely a collection of pictures.

PS: I do realize that the book is sold out and thus probably hard/impossible to get. I thought about not reviewing the book for this reason. But somehow, that felt wrong, given how good the book is. Maybe its maker will think about a second, larger edition (if he hasn’t done so already).

a short story; photographs and text by Thomas Boivin; 108 pages; self-published; 2016

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.1

We just had love above, and love might lead to merriment. But that’s not the only way to have a good time. Merriment can be more easily had in a variety of ways, including, of course, going to a place that promises just that, provided there is an exchange of money in return for, let’s say, drink. Just like in the case of love, there also are photobooks about bars. The OK ones cover the merriment, the better ones don’t. Instead, they focus on whatever else might be going on or might be connected to the idea of bar, and that often centers on the consequences and/or reasons for seeking out drunken merriment or even on its absence, the person’s presence in the bar notwithstanding (think Krass Clement‘s Drum).

Henrik Malmström‘s Live is One Live it Well can now be added to this mix (btw, the title makes more sense if you imagine it being two lines, “Life is One,” and “Live it Well,” as it is written out on the book’s cover). Photographed in one of the grimiest parts of Hamburg, St. Georg, the book is a hefty package of photographs, which, much like the bars, require some stamina to approach. For a start, the bars depicted therein aren’t the most scenic ones. If they have seen better days, then those days are in the very distant past. Possibly, they have never seen better days at all.

With almost equal attention to (seemingly) every outlet, every cable running in the wrong place, every torn or tattered table cloth, the photographs possess a visceral power: the grime is almost rubbing off. But the book’s edit feels way overdone. As much as I appreciate many of the photographs, the book could have lost its first third completely, and that would have vastly helped the viewer. There are, after all, only so many run-down details you can look at before it gets tedious. After that first third, things become a lot more interesting, with people (literally) entering the pictures, and they interact in a variety of ways.

If there is a quiet lyricism to Clement’s Drum, these photographs offer the complete opposite. They’re almost revolting, and I don’t mean this as a negative criticism. They’re done well, but they make me not want to be there. The use of flash is harsh and relentless, and there is nothing left to imagine. Nothing. The viewer is thrown right in: “Here, deal with it!” It’s oddly mesmerizing.

Live is One Live it Well; photographs Henrik Malmström; 256 pages; Kominek; 2015

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 1.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.2

I’ll admit that I’ve grown weary concerning photobooks that for the first time publish work made decades ago. That’s just a mass generalization, of course. But more often than not I find that there might in fact have been a good reason for those bodies of work not seeing the light of day. No need to name any names here, whether it’s publishers or photographers.

One day, Paddy Summerfield‘s The Oxford Pictures arrived in the mail, unannounced. Given it said “1968-1978” on the cover, I put it aside and looked at the other book from the same package first. That one I was looking forward to, only to have it find not quite meet my expectations. “OK then,” I thought, “I might as well look at the other one then.” Which I did, to enjoy it tremendously.

Expectations really are the pest you can’t get rid off. You’ll have to wrestle them to the ground, instead of pretending they don’t exist, especially if you engage in criticism. Of course, they do exist. Of course, this critic, much like any other one, is hopelessly flawed in a large variety of ways — that’s the way it is. So I see my job mostly not as pretending to be someone I’m not — a disinterested, objective observer, but as hoping to do a good job despite all the various problems.

I went to Oxford once, as a graduate student — what now feels like ages ago, even though it’s only twenty years. Back then, England (which I visited a lot, given that for a while I was the only member of a British research group) didn’t do much to open itself up to me. I suppose that’s just the way it prefers to see itself (as the recent Brexit has made clear yet again). It felt as if it were living of its past more than its present. It felt friendly, yet incredibly guarded, always making sure that the foreigner would know he was welcome, but aware of his proper place. You’d be welcome enough, in other words — a feeling that was strikingly at odds with the incredible generosity with which I had been treated when I had visited Scotland a few years earlier.

And Oxford just looked and felt dreadfully boring to me. Sure, there were the universities, nicely maintained lawns and all, and historical building, but that kind of history has always bored me. Take it out of its context ever so slightly, and it suddenly loses all its glory — much like an old person’s precious belongings, for example a collection of collectible spoons, that make their way into a thrift shop.

I didn’t really expect to find Oxford in The Oxford Pictures, because that’s how I prefer someone using the medium when they are an artist. I found some of it, though, in gorgeous photographs that I wish I had known before (but then I wouldn’t have had this discovery), this sense of entitlement in a setting that just reeks of beauty combined with ennui. There are a lot of students in these pictures (I prefer those photographs over the other ones by a mile — not sure what this means, but as a viewer and critic I have been craving to see faces and people of late), roughly going through the journey of going to Oxford: here, you enter, there, you graduate.

This device serves the book well, given that it provides for a structure that is simple and that doesn’t impose too much onto these pictures. These are pictures that won’t survive having too many cute or precious or smart ideas put onto them. They just need to be. And that’s good. Revisiting the book, the few pictures of doorways of details of buildings I tend to gloss over here. Maybe that’s a bit unfair, but for me, they’re unable to hold the same weight as the portraits, many of them photographed with the gentlest of touch.

The Oxford Pictures; photographs Paddy Summerfield; essay by Gerry Badger; introduction by Patricia Baker-Cassidy; 96 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2016

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.6

Photography in the Real World

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The distinction between professionals and amateurs has been around for a long time in the world of photography. It’s not the most useful way to divide the medium’s practitioners into two groups. But regardless, I want to propose another way to separate them, based not on who or what they are but rather what they do: The difference between professionals and amateurs in the world of photography is that the former spend a lot of time thinking about what their medium is, whereas the latter are perfectly happy to “merely” take pictures.

I’m suggesting this way of distinguishing the two groups not because I have suddenly developed an affection for snark. I could easily see how my definition could be interpreted that way — in fact, someone out there probably is already writing an angry tweet right now. And, as always, I don’t intend to have the distinction between professionals and amateurs imply any sort of hierarchy. I realize this is the age of populism; and I certainly wouldn’t want to add to the utterly useless discussion of how “elites” or “gatekeepers” or whoever else simply can’t help themselves but get in the way of what “real” photographers do (or want to do).

Instead, I’m interested in something else. There exist considerable confusion, consternation, and outright despair over the state of the medium photography, the combination of which finds its outlet in the form of articles or even museum exhibitions. Especially in New York City, photography curators seem to be obsessed with trying to come to terms with their medium. The latest installment of this saga is an exhibition at the International Center of Photography‘s new location, entitled Public, Private, Secret. I have not had a chance to see it. Reviews have been, well, mixed.

This flurry of articles and exhibitions creates a bit of a lopsided discussion around the medium, which, if we just accept the numbers of photographs taken every day, appears to be quite popular. Unfortunately, these lopsided discussions contain a variety of assertions that fly in the face of what’s really going on. You have probably seen any number of articles that tell us how people have become so narcissistic because they take all those selfies (have they, though?), or people aren’t really enjoying anything any longer, whether it’s food, a museum, or a concert because all they do is to take pictures.

Theories are fine. After all, I used to work as a theoretical physicist. But in physics, just coming up with a theory wasn’t good enough. You’d also have to allow for it to be tested, if you weren’t doing that yourself.

I mean, just ask yourself this: why would millions of people constantly take photographs of their food, or at events, if that resulted in a decreased enjoyment of whatever activity it was they were engaged in? Does that make sense? Is that what people do? They go to an amusement park, say, and they then make sure that instead of having more fun, they’re having less? Knowing people — this one included — that strikes me as a highly unlikely.

Now there’s scientific research showing that indeed, when people take photographs of their food or at events, this does not result in a decrease of their enjoyment. Instead, taking photographs actually tends to increase enjoyment.

Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, in an article entitled How Taking Photos Increases Enjoyment of Experiences, Kristin Diehl and two collaborators note that “relative to not taking photos, photo-taking can heighten enjoyment of positive experiences, and does so because photo-taking increases engagement” (my emphasis, p. 16 of the pdf). That’s the complete opposite of all of those claims that taking photographs means we’re less engaged: “While taking photos during an experience adds another activity, unlike traditional dual-task situations that divide attention, capturing experiences with photos actually focuses attention onto the experience, particularly on aspects of the experience worth capturing.” (ibid.) And how/why is this? Diehl et al.: “it is the mental process people adopt while taking photos, rather than the photo-taking mechanics, that triggers greater engagement and thus increases enjoyment.” There are a lot of details in the article that make it a worthwhile read.

So maybe museums, for example, can stop bitching about how “people don’t even look at the art any longer, they only take pictures” (not an actual quote, but you can probably find something like that easily — too depressing an exercise for me to engage in right now).

In general, using my definition of professionals versus amateurs, what we — those people who spend time thinking about photography — have to be careful with as are easy and simple conclusions that just fly in the face of what people are doing with the medium. If our theories only make sense in this tiny bubble we have created for ourselves, then they’re garbage. That’s what it comes down to.

In general, I do think that instead of endlessly ruminating on what photography is, we need to start approaching the medium based on what people do with pictures. Last week, I made the case for approaching photojournalistic manipulation that way, vastly expanding the topic at hand. Many of those artists in exhibitions like the one at ICP do great work. But I’m following a vast number of “amateurs” on all kinds of platforms (Instagram, Tumblr, even still rss) whose use of photography makes those “investigations” into the medium look pretty damn lame.

Of course, the problem is that the group of people I call professionals have historically had a very weird relationship with photographs made outside of their small circle. Now, we got a bunch of pidgeon holes for them, whether it’s being covered under “vernacular,” or “appropriation,” or that really strange case where someone is “discovered,” which almost always results in severing that photographer’s connection from the real world and changing it following the terms of this strange bubble we professionals operate in.

It’s time we popped this damn bubble and let some fresh air in.

Photography is not defined by our strange ideas that somehow make sense when we discuss them in a white, air-conditioned cube with like-minded folks. Photography is what happens when millions of people happily take pictures every day and use them for a tremendously large variety of things, some of which, unfortunately, might be a bit confusing for those who only know the insides of the white cube.

There is much gained from trying to understand what this all means, maybe even what photography is. But for it to make sense, for it to have a meaningful relationship to what’s going on in the larger world of photography, a world that of course has to include those millions of amateurs, we need to do a bit more work, and believe a little bit less in convenient talking points.