Into the Forest (part 1)

Article main image

Robert Frank gave us his vision of the United States with The Americans. Before, Walker Evans had done the same (American Photographs). William Eggleston‘s The Democratic Forest, in its Steidl 2015 incarnation, is another one. A set of ten volumes of photographs, with a total of well over 1,000 pages, Forest is all that The Americans is not: it is garish, gratuitous, and bursting with unordered life, much like the country itself. But it is also follow Frank’s book, being unapologetic and over the top in a way that seems necessary and not merely self-indulgent.

OK, I might have to walk back that very last sentiment a little bit, but that’s for later.

Three brief diversions:

First, I didn’t consider myself one of the many Egglestonians out there. I was very much aware of his work, but certainly no fan (make of that what you will).

Second, I do realize there is a Berlin volume in the set, and obviously Berlin isn’t part of the US. Neither are any of the other non-US locations. Given the vision presented in that particular volume, the one of a visually adept tourist, this isn’t at odds with the main observation.

Lastly, much has already been said about William Eggleston. Given the quality and provenance of much of that, I can only hope the Egglestonians will forgive me if the following falls short of their expectations.

There is, of course, an entirely different incarnation of The Democratic Forest, a one-volume book published in 1989. The 2015 incarnation and the 1989 book do not have much to do with each other. Granted, they share the photographer, and they share an editor, Mark Holborn (Holborn is the sole editor of the 1989 book; the 2015 version was edited by him and William Eggleston III). But beyond that they might as well be treated as two entirely different entities.

One could argue that the 1989 Democratic Forest is what happened when Holborn attempted to press the work into the form The Americans adopted so successfully. The fact that that exercise did not succeed so much is certainly not Holborn’s fault. Eggleston’s photographs ultimately might simply resist being treated that way.

What do you get then, when you give these pictures the chance to live in an altogether different form of book? To begin with, The Democratic Forest isn’t really a photobook in its traditional sense (please note that where I’m not explicitly mentioning the publication year, I am going to refer to the 2015 Steidl version). Ten volumes – that’s not really a book, that’s more like a collection.

I do think that we gain something from expanding the notion of the photobook to have Forest fall inside, not outside its confines. It does, after all, include most of the aspects that are extremely important for photobooks, such as having a clear concept and a way that concept is communicated (both through editing – down from an original 12,000 or so pictures – and physical form). If we treat the separate volumes simply as chapters, it’s a book.

That said, at least in part the idea backfires with Forest, given that ten volumes of pictures, hundreds and hundreds of them, are just too much to comprehend even with the loosest idea of what “the photobook” might be. That’s a risk its makers appeared happy to bear, and it’s a risk that at least in part points at something deeper in the pictures, in their very nature. I might even be happy to argue that this really is the perfect incarnation of this body of work, at least in principle.

When I wrote “in principle” just now, I obviously had the specific realization of the ten volumes in mind. There are ten hardbound volumes, contained in a slipcase. The chosen format of the volumes is a square, which allows for horizontal and vertical photographs to have the same sizes in individual spreads. The square is rather large, though, (roughly) 12.5” (or 32cm) on the side. So those are large books, and if you stack up ten of them, with a grand total of 1,328 pages, you end up with an object that’s quite hefty, in size, weight (something like 31.2 pounds or 14.15kg), and price (“€550.00 incl. VAT” on Steidl‘s website – free shipping, though). That seems a tad excessive.

I noticed this before in another book review, but I’m not sure Steidl‘s recent tendency to increase the sizes of their books is based on a real necessity. In this particular case, the photographs would have been able to shine just as much in volumes say, 10” on the side (assuming the number of page would remain the same that would reduce the size/weight of the set by one third). I think it’s fair to say that at a certain scale, bigger doesn’t result in any further improvements.

Having said this, the production quality of the books is impeccable. Each volume is clothbound, with an image printed on the cover, wrapping around the whole book (something that worked so well for, say, the first edition of Alec Soth‘s Sleeping by the Mississippi). The printing of course is noticeably different and much improved compared with the 1989 version. The colours are a lot punchier, making the older book look lifeless almost. While some viewers might find the colours maybe even a tad too punchy – especially the reds almost appear to take on a life of their own, it’s Eggleston, and Eggleston is all about the colours. If you have ever seen one of the older dye-transfer prints, you’ll know the importance of colour in this photographer’s work.

With the original body of work having 12,000 pictures, the viewer is exposed to a sizeable fraction in Forest. Anyone already in awe of Eggleston is likely to start drooling over the prospect of being able to now have available many previously unseen photographs. Everybody else also is in for a treat, even those who really weren’t fans at all. Both factions surely must feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store, the only difference being that the former know (or think they know) what to expect, whereas the latter don’t.

My previous comments concerning the sheer scale of it all also apply here. The overall edit could have been narrowed down without losing anything. It’s not going to be the thirty percent I came up with by simply making the books smaller. Still, there are quite a few pictures that could have been omitted. Just to give one type of example, when two pictures of essentially the same scene (with slightly different vantage points) are shown right next to one another, in almost all cases I would have preferred seeing just one. Showing both for me doesn’t add anything; instead, it lessens the better picture’s impact.

Various sections in the individual volumes could have been slimmed down. The reality of Forest is that I don’t think anyone could actually look at all ten volumes in one go. I personally can look at a lot of pictures without getting tired, but there’s a limit. And some of the volumes could have lost some of their contents without a reduction in punch. Interestingly enough, this comment applies differently to individual volumes – having not discussed what they actually are, I will refrain from going into more details for now.

As outlined by Mark Holborn in his introduction, there is a logic to the ten volumes, with only the second one aiming to “define the [photographic] language in the most explicit manner” (quoted from the introduction, vol. 1, p. 8). Holborn also edited and sequenced the 1989 version, so working on this new one might (or might not) have been an interesting exercise. Then, writes Holborn, “a single publishable sequence […] meant about 150 photographs.” Now, it’s a lot more (and that might say something about the photobook market as well), getting more in line with the idea that “it never had a finale. It was truly endless and there was nothing it could not accommodate, hence the title.” (ibid.) But still, there would have to be some sort of sense for a viewer, unless one would allow her or him to essentially become editors themselves. As interesting as that idea might be, it probably would be too radical a gesture.

(this is the first article in a series of two)