Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Booklike Objects

Keith Smith makes the very reasonable point that the standard photography monograph is essentially an archive of the greatest hits. There may be some relationships between the pictures, but that is, in general, secondary to the central idea that "these are the best pictures" from whatever context you have in mind. The best ones from last year, the best ones from such and such a project, the best ones from a lifetime of labor. I've made these things myself.

You pick the best ones out, more or less, and then you put them in some kind of order, and then you press Print.

This is somewhat akin to an Greatest Hits Album (remember those?). The Eagles Greatest Hits, or whatever.

In the 1960s and 1970s, more or less, the Greatest Hits Album was kind of pooh-poohed by people like, well, by people like me. The Concept Album generally meant something poncy and overwrought, but we anyways liked albums built around some sort of an idea, where the songs went together. Ziggy Stardust, The Wall. Now, I'm sure that the artists did their best to make each song excellent, but in the end the songs had to work. They had to serve the concept, the narrative, or whatever overall thing was going on. I'm sure that hook-laden top-40 friendly songs got dropped because they wouldn't work (don't worry, there's always another album, until there isn't!)

One could argue that you ought to simply shoot a Great Picture for that one spot, instead of plugging in an inferior one just to make the structure work, but I submit that there are cases in which what is wanted is specifically not a great picture. Perhaps you want a neutral picture, or a picture that does not jump out, or a silly picture. It might, in short, be necessary for the structure that you plug in a lesser photograph, in the same way that an album composed entirely of top-40 fodder is probably going to lose structure, shape.

What do we see in these kinds of albums?

We see a lot of repetition, interestingly. Earlier numbers are reprised, usually somewhat differently, but clearly recognizable. We see a lot of quotation, but then, we see that in popular music regardless, so that's not much help here.

My favorite example here is Rod Stewart relating how he wrote one of his hits, Mandy, I think. He'd been warming up at the piano with a bit of Chopin, and then started in to work. Pretty quickly he had the bones of the song, and was feeling very smug "that harmonic progression is bloody brilliant, I am a genius" and then a little while later "bugger, actually, Chopin was a genuis."

We see songs deliberately created to fill holes in the narrative, in the idea. We see new arrangements of a prior song intended to serve a narrative which is proceeding forwards (the same song, redone in a minor key because our protagonist is now sad, that sort of thing).

We see the same ideas hammered over and over. If we haven't figured out that Pink is pretty screwed up by the end of The Wall, we're being willfully inattentive. Novelty from song-to-song is actually an impediment. A strong degree, albeit not too much, of sameness is desirable.

All of this has obvious parallels in the making of photography books and booklike objects. I can't actually just write them down, because the parallels, to my eye, explode out in 100 directions at once. I might be able to write a book about it, but it would just be a brain dump.

Two questions, to which I do not know the answers, come to mind:

  • What happens when you give someone a portfolio and say "this is a book" versus "this is a portfolio"?
  • Can you apply any of this to commercial work? Can we usefully conceive of an ad campaign, a catalog, an annual report, as a booklike object?


  1. I think a flaw in much thinking about visual books is the assumption of an invariable left-to-right linear "narrative". For example, as a left-hander, for purely mechanical reasons I nearly always browse starting from the back! I stop when I see an arresting pair of pages or image, and then maybe browse back and forth to see the context -- what you might call "nodes of interest". L-R is a useful working assumption when making a book, but -- unlike a novel or a TV programme -- is not a required or necessary discipline on the part of the "reader" (although I have seen photo-books in which the author pleads for compliance with their intended viewing sequence!).

    Musically, though, I would contend that very few of the "great" pop albums are either "greatest hits" or "concept albums" (Blue? Every Picture Tells A Story? Countdown to Ecstasy? Natty Dread?) but nearly always have a satisfying ebb and flow of texture, rhythm and emotion. And "20 minutes a side" was a perfect structure which, sadly, has been lost...

    Not sure about your questions, though. The second I am not qualified to answer. The first sort of answers itself, doesn't it? You're asking for a different kind of attention, which your portfolio may or may not reward. Might be similarly interesting if you gave someone a portfolio and said "this is an exhibition" (or even "this is a guaranteed weight-loss plan"...)


    1. I the theorize that if you say 'book' you get more front-to-back and less flipping around than if you say anything else.

      Did they know about your back-to-front perversion when you were a librarian, or did you "pass" as a fronttobackian while at work?

  2. Ha! No, I've been an "out" left-hander and contrarian my whole life...


  3. Have a booklike object: