Notes on 2010

Some self- or independently published photobooks from 2010 As the year draws to an end and more top-10 lists (and non-lists) than you can wave a stick at make their annual appearance, I thought I would take a broader look back at the past year in photography. This time last year I focused on the chronic over-use of the word curating, a trend which shows no signs of abating. As for 2010, the major development in the world of photography has to be the exponential rise of the self-published and independent photobook.

This year has seen the launch of Alec Soth's Little Brown Mushroom (LBM actually launched in December 2009, Soth once again proving that he is ahead of the curve), the online listings database The Independent Photobook, the Indie Photobook Library, the Off Print photobook festival in Paris, a big online discussion on the future of photobooks and (perhaps another sign of Soth's prescience) the growth of countless independent publishers like so many little brown mushrooms. This frenzy of activity wasn't only limited to the periphery either: the (deserving) winner of this year's book prize at the Rencontres d'Arles was an independent publisher from Berlin, Only Photography, for Yutaka Takanashi: Photography 1965-74. If there were any doubts remaining as to the importance of this trend in 2010, while writing this paragraph I received an email from yet another freshly-launched website devoted to the self- and independently-published photobook. I think this explosion in 'indie' publishing is a great thing, particularly given what was being said about the future of photobook publishing a couple of years ago. However, although we have learned that publishing it yourself can make you happy, it can also make you very confused, even overwhelmed. It is truly amazing how many photobooks are being made now, far too many for one poor blogger to even begin to get his head around and (surely?) far too many to sell to a very limited pool of buyers. The problem is that only a very small percentage of them are any good. By good I don't mean "containing good photography" but rather good as a stand-alone artwork where the design and production matches, or even enhances the content rather than a brochure for a series of photographs. Not every series of photographs deserves (or is suited) to becoming a book. Hopefully the publishing effervescence of 2010 will give way to a 'more quality less quantity' scenario in 2011.

Another phenomenon that has accompanied this rise in self- or indie publishing is the rise in luxury, super exclusive, VIP, signed, numbered and sealed-with-a-kiss editions. Despite the rise in the number of photobooks being published, only an infinitesimal number of these make any money and publishers are still searching for the winning formula. Rather than the 'limited' print runs of the past (700 to 1,000) it seems that a number of publishers are moving towards deluxe extra-limited editions (100 to 500). To mention just a few examples Germany's Only Photography and White Press are both producing books which will generally set you back at least 80 euros ($100), and in the US Nazraeli Press has completed ten years of its One Picture Book series where (for $150) you get a small original print thrown in with the eight or nine plates in the book itself. One final publishing trend worth noting is the growing number of re-editions of classic photobooks. In addition to Errata Editions' full series of books on books, this year we were treated to a range of re-editions from Takuma Nakahira's A Language To Come to John Gossage's The Pond. Given how much the originals are sell for at auction these days, I'm grateful to be able to get my hands on some classics without having to sell all the other books I own in the process.

Press opening of the Larry Clark's Kiss the Past Hello exhibition

And what of photography itself in 2010? Looking beyond the book, this year feels far less exciting. As with the rest of the art world, photography galleries are still gently and nervously probing the market with little space given to new or 'difficult' work, while museums are staying well away from anything risky with big-name blockbuster retrospectives, shows assembled from their own collections (which is not necessarily a bad thing), or shows lasting from 4-5 months instead of 2 or 3. Just as with books we're also seeing the reedition of landmark exhibitions, with the New Topographics show touring the US this year. In terms of museum shows a special mention has to go to two examples of ludicrous censorship: the recent removal of a video by the artist David Wojnarowicz from the exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington after the Catholic League and members of Congress complained that the piece was sacrilegious due to a sequence showing ants crawling on a crucifix, and the Paris Museum of Modern Art's Larry Clark exhibition which got itself an X-rating from the government and therefore a shed-load of media attention.

On a positive note, a more interesting trend has been the use of Google Street View by several artists as a new photographic tool. Michael Wolf (see the grid below), Doug Rickard and Jon Rafman have produced exhibitionsbooks and tumblrs of images taken from Google Street View's online tool. This is clearly not everyone's cup of tea and, particularly in street photography circles, there tends to be a "that is not photography" response to this kind of work. Whether you like it or not, it raises a number of interesting and important questions about the way the practice of photography and the hypocritical rules governing it are evolving .

Michael Wolf, FY (forthcoming 2011)

Another technology-related trend has to be the massive growth of online social networking in the photo community. Of course this is a phenomenon that is by no means limited to photography, but it is astounding how quickly Facebook has gone from an interactive high-school yearbook to a major marketing tool (alongside its younger cousin Twitter). Some have even used it as a tool through which to publish a series of photographs steadily over time. I'm not sure how this is going to affect photography (if at all) and others have thought about this harder than I have, but it will be interesting to see where this goes in 2011.

Finally, I get the feeling that there is a bit of a reemergence of street photography going on. With in-public's 10 (review here) and Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren's Street Photography Now. This may be because we're all photographers now and the most obvious place to start is the street, or perhaps because people are growing tired of the cold, detached formalism that has dominated recent contemporary photography, or maybe even the fact that the abuse of anti-terrorism and privacy laws is making it more and more difficult to photograph in many of our cities and that street photographer's tend to like a challenge.

To wrap up this look back at 2010 (despite last year's rant) seeing as we all love lists (because we don't want to die), here are a few highlights from the past year in no particular order:

Is the photo-album giving way to the mixtape?

I recently attended a 'conversation' at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris on the impact of blogs on photographic criticism. A hugely disappointing evening on all counts, including an extended discussion of image rights and how many photos it's ok to include in a single blogpost, however one idea did emerge which piqued my interest. André Gunthert an academic specialised in 'visual history' and the founder of the online platform, Culture Visuelle, referred to the fact that academic research in the field of visual studies has been transformed by the availability and accessibility of images through the internet. Gunthert's point, if I remember it correctly, was that disciplines like history of art had quite limited access to images before the internet due to the expense of image rights and the basic difficulty of getting your hands on a decent reproduction. Nowadays papers are presented supported by a healthy stack of images of all kinds for virtually no cost and this has changed the framework of analysis as it provides an essentially infinite comparative potential.

This struck me as an interesting evolution and got me wondering about the impact of websites and photo-blogs on the way that we consume photographic images. One parallel would be the increasing obsolescence of the album as a musical format. Although artists still produce music in this way for the most part, only a small percentage of listeners are likely to listen to an album from start to finish anymore. The album has essentially been replaced by the mixtape, where music is consumed according to a style, mood, or that little iTunes robot that Apple mistakenly decided to call Genius and its ADD-ridden cousin Shuffle.

Something similar has happened to photography when it comes to the online world. With the proliferation of photographer websites, blogs, online webzines and, most of all, facebook posts, photographs get to us in increasingly fragmented ways and as most enthusiasts get their fix through a daily mix of all of the above (with an extra meta-layer courtesy of an RSS reader) this fragmentation just tends to get compounded. The most extreme example of this in my experience is probably Tumblr where 'following' 50 or so tumblelogs leads to a never-ending stream of single images for you to like, reblog, or simply choke on.

There are limits to the comparison of course as these online media don't just shuffle images into a random order and we still tend to consume photographs in a more-or-less intended sequence. However, although they remain essential, it does seem that photobooks and exhibitions represent a steadily decreasing slice of the photographic pie.

So what impact is this all having on photography? On the positive side, we could hope to see new connections being made between photographers and groups of work that may be geographically remote but linked through their approach or their subject matter. I think it is also safe to say that it is a lot easier nowadays to get a more general sense of what is happening in photography around the globe. At the risk of stating the obvious, on the negative side we are all at risk of drowning in a sea of images from which it is very difficult for anything to stand out for more than a brief moment.

From my perspective, I find it quite difficult to identify any major trends emerging from the chaotic growth of photography online. In terms of blogs, I think that posts involving an image or two and a 'thumbs-up'-style comment linking to the photographer's site are on the decline and are being replaced by a cluster of interesting hubs with some kind of dominant flavour which you can count on for a little stimulation. Following on from Andy's discussion on whether Facebook is replacing photo-blogs, despite the astonishing explosion on that platform in recent months, I certainly hope not, as Facebook is a pretty inflexible and ugly way for presenting photographs. Apart from resurrecting old work and giving it a new audience (cf. American Suburb X) one of the only positives I have seen on Facebook is Blake's example of Craig Hickman who has been posting photos at a daily rate on his Facebook wall from his series Fictional Photographs. This strikes me as a genuinely new way of building and disseminating a series of photographs.

To return to my earlier analogy, it could be interesting to see photography going the way of music where the mega-stars of the 1960-2000 years have been replaced by an incredible range of cross-bred music of every imaginable form and provenance, and where it is fairly easy to completely ignore anything overly commercial or mass-produced. That world may be some people's idea of hell, but I'd definitely be keen to pay it a visit.

A dirty word?

As a lot of readers out there will be aware, a recent essay by Paul Graham, The Unreasonable Apple, has been making some waves (ripples?) in the photography/art world, and of course in our beloved blogosphere. I apologize for wading in on this discussion so very late, but it seems to me that there are a few points that have not been raised as yet. The main thrust of Graham's piece is that, "there remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get photography. [...]  [P]hotography for and of itself—photographs taken from the world as it is—are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag." This is a question that is unavoidable to anyone interested in photography who has stepped beyond the confines of the photography-only community.

Relatively speaking, as an art form photography is still in its infancy. This has several implications: firstly, a certain, potentially justified, inferiority complex or sense of exclusion within the photographic community vis-à-vis the art world; secondly a broad spectrum of reactions from within the art world ranging from a wariness or even disregard of 'straight photography' to a seemingly even-handed "who gives a shit what the medium is as long as the art is good"-ness. So where does 'straight photography', "photographs taken from the world as it is," stand?

My instinct in these kind of discussions would be to look at the data (past lives are to blame for this). How much is 'straight' photography represented in major art fairs versus other disciplines, how much does it sell for versus other types of photography and media, how many modern or contemporary art museums show 'straight' photography exhibitions? Sadly this is not information that is readily available to me, so I won't be winning this debate with some beautifully constructed Excel charts and will have to rely on my avowedly limited personal experience.

While I think it is an overstatement to argue that photography is somehow ostracized from or maligned by the rest of the art world, I believe it has yet to consolidate its standing. Until very recently the Tate Modern, one of the biggest contemporary art institutions in Europe, did not have a curator of photography. The Centre Pompidou in Paris does not do more than one pure photography show per year (this kind of unwritten rule doesn't apply to other media). My impression is that many modern or contemporary art museums are still reluctant to present straight photography exhibitions. Where I disagree, reluctantly, with Graham is in his plea for the art world to look up and take notice, giving straight photography its due. Ed Winkleman says it best: "anyone who had been promised that the art world was going to be fair should demand their money back." The phenomenon of artists being widely celebrated (and even a little bit rich) in their own lifetime is relatively recent... I believe Picasso was the first to orchestrate this... and as photography has only been accepted as an art form over the last four decades or so, it seems normal to me that it is still struggling to find its place.

In terms of the commercial art market, photography is everywhere: you won't see a contemporary art fair without a healthy dose of our beloved still images. But, my impression is that straight photography — as opposed to the photography of Jeff Wall or Thomas Demand mentioned by Graham — has less of a place in contemporary art circles. There is a sense that being a photographer does not carry the same weight as being an 'artist.' The word 'photographer' implies craft rather than concepts or ideas, key measures of values in contemporary art, and craft has become a dirty word in the art world synonymous with pottery or glass-blowing (to quote Blake Andrews). Some photographers have even attempted to rebrand themselves as 'artists', presumably to escape the photographic ghetto. One measure I think will support me here is price: I'm pretty sure that if you compared the price of straight photography to the price of 'contemporary photographic art' for lack of a better term, you would see a pretty significant disparity, even between individuals with similar visibility and at a similar stage of their career. If anyone's got an account with artprice or one of those services, feel free to check this out!

Let's say that you accept that straight photography is lagging behind the leaders of the art pack (insert your preferred reasons here), what should be done? While I understand his point that the only thing you can do is to make the 'best' art possible, I was truly surprised by Winkleman's idea that if you "get out there and make better art than anyone else around you ... the world WILL notice." This strikes me as more than a little naive for such a consistently intelligent commentator on the art market. Does anyone truly believe that the art market (or world) is a state-of-the-art machine, constructed to ensure that the better art is, the more it gets noticed (see a previous post on this)? Just take a look at the world of consumerism: products don't sell more because they are better, there are a million other factors that determine their success: advertising, marketing, lack of competition, pricing, demand, the total irrationality of the consumer, etc.. The art market (I am taking the liberty of equating the art market with the art world here, including public institutions and not only commercial galleries) is precisely the kind of market which is riddled with imperfections: it's tiny, full of different hand-made products each claiming to be totally unique and it's ruled by a handful of major players with a controlling market share trying to sell to a handful of buyers who have all the money. And even if the art market were a utopia where the best art would rise to the top, where exactly is this universal yardstick on which the quality of art is being measured?

There is also the notion, expressed by Jörg Colberg, that photographers are just wasting their time worrying about what photography is, that this navel-gazing is causing their self-inflicted ostracization from the art market. The suggestion here seems to be that if they just got on with making photographs they might be taken more seriously. I tend to agree with Blake Andrews on this one: I see this kind of internal debate and questioning as positive signs of photography's health. And even if it bores you, it is by no means restricted to photography: take the major debate over the death of painting in the 1980s for example. Questions on the boundaries of art, on what art is and what it isn't, are not exactly new, indeed they are a natural and necessary reaction to any major artistic development.

The idea that Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Demand and James Casebere are "being taken seriously because they are producing images without worrying themselves sick over whether it’s photography or not" runs counter to the history of art. I am currently editing a book on Impressionism, which features a number of letters by Pissarro, Gauguin and Monet. What emerges from the correspondence of these artists with their dealers, friends or their family, is just how deeply uncertain they are about the new things that they are attempting to do with painting and what reaction they will receive amongst critics, collectors and the general public.

My suggested course of action is that we worry even harder about all this stuff, about the nature of photography and about the quality, relevance and importance of individual photographs, and hopefully some of that "better art" will come out of it.

The art of the caption

Tomoko Yoneda, Beyond Memory and Uncertainty. American B-52 returning from a bombing raid in Iraq. Fairford, England, 2003.

Choosing words to go with photographs is a big issue for us photobloggers. Some of us avoid them, others use them with caution, and some, like me, can't seem to hold them back. Choosing the right balance between words and images is a very tricky thing and this tightrope walk often makes me think about the power of captions and titles in photography.

On his NY Times blog, the film-maker Errol Morris has been writing recently about the idea that photography can somehow translate some objective truth. In one post he focuses on the issue of the caption in relation to photojournalism, showing how a caption can lead to radically different, if not opposite, interpretations of the same image. Morris's example is a little too black-and-white for my liking, but it does provide an extreme example of just how easy it is to modify the way that an image is interpreted by the viewer through its caption.

In the world of fine art photography, the caption is less ubiquitous than in photojournalism. In the former the image isn't required to fulfil the function of conveying specific information. In fact I am most drawn to photography which tries to not have a specific message: images which raise questions or evoke possibilities rather than images which try to show the viewer something. I have written about this before in the context of Ken Domon and Kikuji Kawada or Shomei Tomatsu's radically different approaches to photographing the aftermath of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But even for the 'subjective documentary' of Kawada or Tomatsu their photographs still had some form of documentary function and their titles or captions were written to give the viewer factual information about the contents of the image.

In much fine art photography that documentary function doesn't exist or is consciously avoided. And yet the issue of choosing a title for the image remains, even if only to be able to archive or catalogue a series of images. In this context, I know that a lot of photographers struggle with the process of giving titles to individual images, precisely because they want them to remain as open to interpretation as possible. One photographer told me that he didn't want to give his work titles but that his gallery talked him into it for sales purposes. (On this note, I recommend checking out Olivier Laude's portfolios for a terrific subversion of the often ridiculous text that works inherit when they are released into the art market). And so images are reluctantly given titles or more often just join the brotherhood of the 'Untitled'.

However, for some photographers the caption is crucial to their work. Tomoko Yoneda is a Japanese photographer based in the UK who uses captions very effectively to transform her images. A large part of her work centres on major historical events and Yoneda uses captions to invest extremely banal scenes with great significance (see the picture above). In her work captions are able to invest a single photograph with a profound sense of the history of a place. Her work is the perfect illustration of how what you see is most definitely not what you get. For Duane Michals, one of the highlights of last year's Rencontres d'Arles festival, it sometimes feel like his photographs are there to illustrate his writing rather than the other way around. He uses writing and images together to construct narratives that somehow manage to be both hilarious and sincerely profound. By writing his captions on his prints by hand, he makes the text and the image inseparable.

Duane Michals

Another great illustration of the transformative power of a caption is the website Unhappy Hipsters. The site is a series of shots taken from interior design or architecture magazines with added captions describing the existential angst of the people that appear in these pictures. Beyond the fact that I find it frequently hilarious, the site shows how a caption can completely change the way that we read an image. In the context of a magazine like Dwell, the focus is squarely on the architecture and design; the people are mere accessories to dress the space. But with these captions, the roles are reversed: the image is no longer about some material consumption but about human emotion.

Hiroh Kikai. A polite young man who powders his hands, 2002.

But my favourite use of captions in recent times has to be in Hiroh Kikai's portraits. In an interview with Kikai he told me that he sees his captions and his images as "intrinsically linked". What makes them stand out to me is their ability to suggest a huge amount with a great economy of language. Sometimes just by describing a person's profession ("A bookbinder"), a detail in the picture ("A man with four watches") or even outside the frame ("A man using a wooden sword as a walking stick"), or indeed from a different moment than the frame itself ("A young man about to make a peace sign for the camera"), Kikai gives just enough information to set off questions in our minds which bring these people to life.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that all photographs need captions; actually in my view there's nothing worse than a throwaway title. But the caption is an art form and online, where images get cut and paste all the time without much attention paid to titles, captions or even the photographer's name, one that is too often overlooked.

Plagiarism in photography

There is a bit of a fuss going on at Conscientious and PDN over photographs that look very similar. I am less interested in debating how similar two images are and whether we can consider there to be plagiarism (although if you have a few hundred hours to waste, I imagine that you could devote them all to trawling the internet comparing images by fine art photographers and finding striking similarities), but there are some very interesting questions surrounding this issue in the context of photographic 'art' and hopefully I will manage to turn my thoughts on the subject into a post soon. In the meantime, here is my latest random online discovery of two images that look pretty similar.

Hideaki Uchiyama, Japan Underground II

Andreas Gursky, Kamiokande, 2007