iPhone fitted with a SLR lens iPhone's have been on my mind recently as E just had hers brazenly stolen straight out of her hand on the metro last week. I may be just a bit behind the curve writing about the iPhone when Apple have just launched their new revolutionary (and badly named) iPad, but I recently received an email from Chicago-based Jeremy Edwards with information about his From the Pocket iPhone photography project, a kind of visual diary of his city, which he is planning to publish as a series of print-on-demand books starting this year. His site comes with a kind of (dis)claimer, "All of the images featured on this site were captured using iPhone cameras. Images were processed using various iPhone photography applications only." Jeremy calls himself an iPhoneographer and refers to photographs taken with an iPhone as a specific genre, "iPhoneography".

This reminded me that a few months back I had been surprised to discover that Joel Sternfeld, one of the big names of American colour photography known for his large-format work, was going to publish a book of photographs of Dubai entitled iDubai taken exclusively with an iPhone (amusingly iDubai is also the name of a 50-storied residential development), and I've caught glimpses of other iPhone photography projects since. The impact of the iPhone is not limited to photography either. There was quite a bit of excitement when the New Yorker featured a cover 'painted' using the iPhone application Brushes and a few 'serious' painters and draughtsmen like David Hockney have begun to use the iPhone instead of a paintbrush or pencil.

In relation to painting and drawing, the iPhone does seem to offer something genuinely new to artists. This kind of pocket-sized touchscreen technology is groundbreaking and it goes far beyond what carrying around a pen and paper can offer. I don't have much experience using computer software to draw or paint, but it seems to me that being able to cut out the mouse and to be able to draw with your finger directly on to a screen must feel far more immediate and intuitive. I have yet to see any iPhone art that I have enjoyed in and of itself rather than thinking, "that is quite impressive for something produced on an iPhone," but I'm sure I will soon enough.

However, when it comes to photography I fail to see what distinguishes photographs taken with an iPhone from photographs taken with any other cameraphone. One of the big gripes people have with the iPhone is that the camera isn't all that great, although that has been improved on more recent models. I find mine to be noticeably worse than on my previous cameraphone. The touch-screen is irrelevant in the process of taking a photograph: what difference does it make whether you press an actual button or one that appears on your screen? So what is it that has made people so excited about the iPhone as a camera. Is it the iPhone applications that allow you to edit photographs on your phone directly instead of having to upload them to a computer first? While I think that apps are really one of the greatest innovations about the iPhone, I don't see how this brings much to the table in terms of photography. Sure there are now lots of applications that are essentially extremely basic versions of Photoshop, allowing you to make a photograph look like a Polaroid or apply a virtual selenium toner, but I don't see the advantage of being able to do this instantly instead of waiting a few hours and doing it on a computer with better quality photo-editing software.  iPhoneography strikes me as more of a brand name than a distinct photographic practice. In that sense it is closer to Lomography, the craze that two very marketing-savvy Austrian students managed to create around the Russian Lomo Kompakt Automat camera.

Word of the Year 2009

curator Firstly, let me apologise for another post that looks back at 2009 given the avalanche that there has been over the past month. I took advantage of a few days of exile to the French countryside over the holidays to think about some of the trends that have emerged over the course of 2009. One thing that I have been particularly struck by is how ubiquitous 'curators' and 'curation' have become over the last year. I keep hearing these terms used in what I would consider to be unusual contexts, referring to the process by which the stuff that is sold in a store is selected (some 'trend watchers' have even labelled this curated consumption), a group of images are put together online, or even to someone making a mixtape. It seems that we now walk around curating all day: which sandwich to have at lunch or which furniture to buy from IKEA. Have I curated my living room or my underwear drawer (I was definitely not aware of doing so)?

We are all curators now, or at least we all want to be: apparently curator ranks as one of the best careers for 2010 in the US. This sounds pretty insane to me given the crisis that is affecting American museums. Maybe it is considered to be one of the best careers because there are so few curator positions out there and this rarity is creating desire? It has become such a popular profession that it has been attracting quite a bit of vitriol from art critics who see the curator as responsible for the bloated state of the art world, particularly the contemporary art one. This is a pretty radical transformation: just a few years ago curators were essentially considered to be overly scholarly caretakers, wandering the dusty corridors of their museum poring over the collection: far from a 'sexy' profession.

So what exactly do we mean when we say 'curator'? This is a question that I am deeply interested in as I work as an independent curator. The term can be confusing: in French for example it is split into two terms 'commissaire d'exposition' and 'conservateur' which cover different aspects of what a curator does (or at least used to do). These days the term 'curate' is often used for any process that requires somebody to make a selection from a large group of some form. In my view, that falls well short of what curating should be. The major transformation is that curating is something which is now done far more in the business sphere than in the artistic one. By appropriating the term, brands and retailers are hoping that its high-mindedness will wash off on them. In a 2.0 world, it makes sense that people need to be told that someone has gone to the trouble of whittling down this infinite choice to a manageable handful of only the best items. But is this really the same thing as what a curator does in a museum?

I think the crucial difference is that curating should really imply more than a process of selection. Ideally it should not only be based on in-depth research into a particular area, but it should also attempt to contribute new ideas that shed light on some unseen aspect or that allow us to see things in a new context. When I think of the best curated photography shows over the past decade, they were all based on several years of painstaking research and all attempted to say something new about their subject. Curators also have a crucial role to play in terms of collaboration with artists. Just as there is some concern about self-publishing because it generally implies that there is no outside editorial input, exhibitions curated by the artists themselves tend to be messy affairs.

What is ironic with the current rise of the 'curator', is that museum curating seems to be going through a particularly difficult time. Budgets are being slashed left, right and centre, shows are being extended from 2-3 months to 4 or 5, and many museums are resorting to blockbuster shows to get the maximum number of people through the door. Despite the criticism that has been directed at them of late, I hate to think of what the museum world would look like without them.

Update: This post seems to have led to some kind of Facebook discussion (courtesy of Andy at Flak Photo), so check that out for some more opinions on the subject.

Some more fuel on the photo-book fire


The debate about the future of photo-books is not exactly new, but it's not dying down either. I'm not sure where this particular strand of the debate started, but in recent days Jörg posted a few provocative thoughts over at Conscientious, which are feeding into a "crowd-sourced" blog post that has been set up by Andy from Flak Photo and Miki from liveBooks. So here are my two cents...

Firstly, there is the question of technology. This debate should be placed into the larger context of the debate on the future of books, period. This has been stirring up the publishing world for some time now and there are enough questions in that sphere to fill a book (pun intended), let alone this post, so I won't delve too deeply here (for some interesting insights check out this Monocle podcast that was done following this year's Frankfurt book fair). From what I have gathered, the general sense is that the e-book revolution is primarily going to affect non-illustrated books. Firstly there is the question of size: looking at a photobook, or most illustrated books for that matter, requires a certain scale. I can't imagine many people stuffing a photo-book sized Kindle in their pocket before they walk out the door. In addition there is a stronger affective and emotional relationship with illustrated books than with paperbacks: people relate to the book as object and not just simply to its content.

Spread from Purpose No. 9, At Work

Another interesting indicator of the resilience of the book form is the amount of websites that try to replicate a printed publication format online. One example, Purpose, a pretty good online photo-mag based in France, is made to resemble a print magazine as much as possible, down to an optional fold in the center of the the online mag to give it more of a print feel. I think that once the possibilities of the web are explored further on their own terms and less in terms of what we are used to in print, there will be a greater recognition of how web and print do different things well and therefore of how complementary they can be.

The second aspect of this technological issue is the advent of relatively low-cost digital printing combined with the emergence of web 2.0 and print-on-demand sites such as Blurb that make it possible for pretty much anyone to print their own photobook (just as digital cameras made it possible for pretty much anyone to call themselves a photographer). In an already very niche market where print runs tend to sit between 1,000 to 2,000 copies for most photo-books, does it make sense to have specialised photobook publishers like Aperture, Hatje Cantz or Nazraeli or should people just do-it-themselves and then distribute thanks to the joys of the internet?

RJ Shaughnessy, Your Golden Opportunity Is Comeing Very Soon

Although RJ Shaughnessy's Your Golden Opportunity Is Comeing Very Soon was a great example of DIYism, I think that photo-book publishers are essential and will not be going anywhere. Firstly, a quick survey of the posts about Blurb and co demonstrates that they have some way to go to convince professionals in terms of quality. There is nowhere near enough control afforded to you through these sites to be able to get the same result as you do with a printing house where much more fine-tuning is possible. They provide a great affordable and decent quality alternative to lugging a portfolio around with you or to test a book project concept, but for most fine art photographers, this isn't enough. Perhaps their most important function is to provide amateur photographers or pro-sumers (whatever the hell they are) with a terrific, inexpensive way of experiencing other aspects of photographic practice, such as sequencing, editing, graphic design and production, which is welcome in an age where millions of images are being produced every second.

This brings me on to Jörg's recent post, which laments the lack of adventurousness and experimentation in photo-book publishing and questions why we don't see more 'curated' books i.e. "books where someone does in book form what you usually see in a gallery or museum." Unfortunately in my (admittedly limited) experience of publishing, consistently squeezed profit margins and schedules means that editors are increasingly being replaced by or transformed into managers who only have time for a very cursory glance at the content of the books themselves. But if anything, the print-on-demand sites are likely to make things worse by leading to books with off-the-shelf design templates and which are produced in a limited number of standard formats. Worst of all, 99% of the time, there is no editor involved in the process.

There is an ongoing debate in the literary world surrounding how much of a debt Raymond Carver owes to his editor, Gordon Lish, for his signature sparse, economical, yet powerfully evocative style. Editors with this much creative influence are hard to find today, but they are no less important than in the past. Editors of photo-books are just as crucially important, particularly when it comes to reducing a series down to its essence and trimming off all excess fat. In such a small niche as fine art photography, they also have a huge general influence on the photographic landscape. To take my default example of Japan, Japanese photography would look very different if Shoji Yamagishi had not been around.

To go back to Jörg's point, it is true that most photo-books are monographs or exhibition catalogues, but this is only logical given that the sales of photo-books are so closely tied to exhibitions: there just would not be enough copies sold without them. In addition I think that these three forms (monograph, exhibition catalogue or collection catalogue) still offer a huge scope for experimentation. If anything, I think that the photo-book world may even be more experimental than the museum world at the moment. To illustrate my point here are a few examples that spring to mind.

Yutaka Takanashi, No One (Toluca Editions)

Toluca Editions (that Mrs Deane posted about recently) have been around for a while on the Parisian photo scene, producing extremely high-end portfolios of work which are a collaboration between the artist, a writer and a designer. You could argue that these aren't strictly speaking books, but they are a great illustration of how far you can stretch the form. In a similar vein, but with a far more classic traditionalist feel, as part of my work with Studio Equis I have been collaborating with a Kyoto-based printing company, Benrido, that has combined nineteenth century colotype printing techniques with digital technology to produce a series of portfolios with truly exquisite results. Nazraeli are publishing a book next year in which Naoya Hatakeyama has collaborated with a French novelist, Sylvie Germain, who wrote a short story inspired from his series of underground images entitled Ciel Tombé. The book doesn't even exist yet, but this is an example of another way in which the photo-book form is being expanded beyond a group of images accompanied by descriptive text. Artists' books are another hugely rich field: on my last trip to Japan, Kikuji Kawada showed me a copy of the retrospective book he had produced (in an edition of 1) entirely with his own hands made up from several hundred digital prints painstakingly sequenced and hand bound into a mammoth encyclopaedic tome. To indulge in a bit of shameless self-promotion, I was able to get a study of postwar Japanese photography published by Flammarion in English and French at a time (2004) when virtually nothing had been published outside Japan on this period. I will stop there as this post is already far too long, but these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. You may need to go towards the fringes to find it, but experimentation in photo-books is alive and well.

The recent books on books (Parr and Badger, Errata Editions' Books on Books series and the recent Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and '70s) provide evidence that the importance of photo-books within photography is increasingly being recognised. The future looks pretty exciting from where I'm sitting.


Mount Fuji

Hokusai, 36 Views of Mount Fuji Mount Fuji appears to be popping everywhere at the moment: aside from the draw it still has for Japanese artists (Naoki Ishikawa, Ken Kitano, Masao Yamamoto) it also seems to be rippling more and more through the foreign art landscape. The renowned ukiyo-e artist, Hokusai's 36 Views of Mount Fuji inspired Jeff Wall's A Sudden Gust of Wind. In 2007 Julian Opie reinterpreted the Japanese woodcut in a series of video installations and, with his Fuji project, Chris Steele-Perkins undertook a modern day equivalent of Hokusai's journey. It is even starting to appear outside of Japan: in Alain Bublex's Mont Fuji et autres ponts the mountain goes walkabout, turning up in the US and France. In fact it is so ubiquitous that it followed me into the metro the other day.


I can't think of any other major landmarks from Asia that have clear symbolic meaning in the West. The Taj Mahal? The Great Wall of China? Although these are universally recognised, they don't have the same aura of mystique or the same depth of symbolism as Fujisan. Can anyone out there think of any symbols that resonate on a similarly global scale through the art world?