Monday, October 23, 2017

Conscientious, Palladium, and Found Photos books

This week, Jörg brings us more reviews, and one of the books reviewed has a helpful video which lets us actually look at the thing. Note that while Jörg recommends the book and expends a lot of words in the section that is ostensibly about the book, when you check closely you see that he actually devotes a grand total of 157 words to actually reviewing the book.

Apparently making books out of found photographs is A Thing, and I have to believe it can work. That this can work is an inevitable consequence of my philosophy of photography. On the other hand, I don't think that it always works and I am starting to think that contemporary, mainstream, ideas about photobook making prevent it from working.

Here is a video about an artist making such a book with MACK which I watched some time ago, and which gives a lot of insight. You can peruse a short preview of the actual book here.

Here is a video of someone leafing through Palladium, the book Jörg reviews. Turn the sound off so you don't have to listen to the absurdly twee "movie soundtrack" crackling and, for reference, it looks weird because they had the person leaf through the book back to front and reversed the video, just to raise the "twee" level to idiotic and desperate heights.

Looking at both of these books, we see more or less the same stuff. Little fuzzy photos with weak blacks and grey whites on big white pages, often verso and recto, sometimes only recto with full bleeds (invariably printed without any understanding of the gutter, just slapped down there) sprinkled in at random. Strand's book has some poetry in it, and a little bit of "design stuff" sprinkled in, whereas Palladium does not. There are other interesting similarities between the books which could be completely random, but might also indicate some tropes that the Serious People are borrowing from one another.

Hilariously, in the video with MACK, we see Mack himself worrying intensely about the ways the photos are rendering on the printer. Dude, these are newspaper clippings and shit, fussing about midtones or whatever is pointless and makes you look like an idiot. Obviously Mack is performing for the camera "ooo, look what a dedicated printer I am, I am so fancy, I'm just as fastidious as Steidl, but not as weird" which makes him look even sillier.

I see a bunch of things going on.

The first thing I notice is the aesthetic. Apparently the way you signal that this is An Important Book Of Found Photos Sequenced By A True Artist is you make the pictures look shitty. Now, I'm on board with a shitty looking picture from time to time. A full range of tones doesn't earn you any prizes from me. But still, it looks like these people are willfully making things that look like newsprint (on, no doubt, very heavy paper.) You can tell, in Palladium in particular, that they're doing this on purpose since all the pictures enjoy exactly the same weak tonal range. Strand's book is more varied, but I still suspect them of "vintage-ifying" pictures as needed.

The second thing is that I suspect strongly that the way you make these things is you sit on a huge pile of nothing pictures sifting and sorting them until you go slightly mad and start to see meaning and pattern where none exists. It's possible that Palladium is rife with cultural subtext visible to Europeans, or former Soviet bloc citizens, or whatever, but to me it looks like all these pictures could have been taken in NYC in one of the seedier theaters in a neighborhood with some Russians. The sequencing and design is dunderheadedly simple, which is exactly what you want when the pictures are awesome. These pictures aren't awesome.

Palladium's sequence is very structured, to the editor's credit. But it strikes me as structure without meaning, without purpose. It's a folly, not a church.

This book appears to me to be simple "box of pictures" design, and the pictures can't carry it.

Strand's book is more design-forward, and the subject matter of the pictures is far more compelling. I can't really speak to the sequence, but it's clear from the "making of" video that she's using the "stare until you go mad" method. I have my suspicions about the sequence, given that all the pictures are basically "a female human holding a snake" but it's possible that the book actually works in some interesting way.

I am slowly becoming convinced that the whole notion that sequencing is something very very difficult that you must labor over for months is not only unnecessary but actually harmful. I believe you start to see chimeras.

I think you have to see the concept before you sequence, and then you have to do it relatively quickly. It might still take you a year by the calendar, but you mustn't spend that much actual time on it, because you'll start to delude yourself. You cannot afford to bury that first sparkle of inspiration, that creative bolt of lightning, in endless boring sifting and fussing.

These people are fussing over their canvas, painting and repainting, until the whole thing turns into a muddy mess. But by god, they see angels in there.

Once you're making a book of your own delusions, you substantially reduce the chances that people are going to connect with the work, that they'll be able to find something to take away. If you can grab hold of whatever it is that you saw before you went mad, and get that down on paper before it slips away, maybe you've got something.

It's not like anyone ever takes away what you put into the thing, they don't. Maybe what they get is close, maybe it's not.

But at any rate, if you're just putting in the mad delusions causing by staring at a huge pile of snapshots, I you're one more step removed from the audience, and that can't be a good thing.


  1. Indeed. "Apophenia" is the term for this particular madness, and I completely agree with your observations, having gone through several such episodes myself. Besides, as Steidly so wisely says, "Fuck ze mid-tones!"


  2. Interesting part of it is they actually "believe" (can't say "think") they are artists!!!
    ...others may feel cheated.