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Thursday, June 24, 2021

A Zine

Long story short, I made a zine that's "about" the year 2020, in some sense. I did not talk about it here because I embargoed pandemic talk something over a year ago. I intend to maintain that embargo for the forseeable future, but am going to slip this one set of remarks in because some people are interested in the zine and, anyways, it's been a damn year.

For those of you interested in the thing itself more than the blather, you can download a copy from this link: Jesus Fucking 2020 which is a print-ready PDF (i.e. the pages are all a muddle, on screen.) Print it black-and-white double-sided flip-on-short-side, fold and, if you're feeling fancy, staple.

If you're feeling very fancy, trim.

The zine is, ultimately, the confluence of 3 or 4 separate random thoughts that were bouncing around in my head during the fall of last year.

In the first place, it had been in my mind that the year 2020 was a subject worth doing something with, duh. Everyone was taking a stab at it, endless photos of discarded masks, empty streets, portraits through windows, worn-out ICU nurses, blah blah blah. All very well, to be sure, but both obvious and overdone the moment anyone thinks of it. Still, it seemed like maybe there was something to be done here.

Second, I had been steeping myself in Gian Butturini's book London off and on for some months and was quite fond of the aesthetic. Somewhere along the way I gathered from someone wiser than I but alas forgotten that London rips off the style of a short-lived Japanese publication named "Provoke" and a little research suggests that this is likely true. "Provoke" is all high-contrast super-grainy weird crops, in your face. Harsh graphical design to go with harsh photos. It's very punchy and hard edged and somewhat hallucinatory.

Third, I had in mind, as I do every year, the MACK Books First Book Award. It costs only postage on your book dummy to enter. You won't be shortlisted unless you meet a specific profile, mind you. This program is about promoting artists at a pretty specific career stage: working photographic artists with a few years of limited success under their belt, some book-related experience, but no official publishing deal as of yet. If you haven't been shopping your book dummy around the right book dummy shows, you're probably not in the running. Nevertheless, there's nothing stopping you from mailing them a thing, and I like deadlines, and I like mailing things to people. It's kind of my thing.

Also, of course, you still can hope, even though intellectually you know you're not their jam, and hope is fun! Maybe this is the year they decide to throw in a wild card!

Fourth, it was Halloween. If you're not from around here, that probably doesn't mean as much to you as it does to us, but it's definitely a thing here in the USA.

I cannot recall what order these things occurred to me in, but I do know that on or about Oct 28th it occurred to me that this was a theme. The "Provoke" aesthetic was perfect for the really fucked-up year that was 2020, Halloween served as a strong metaphor to build the thing on, and the MACK Book thing provided a handy endpoint to force me to go through with it. Accordingly, I started taking photos.

Now, everything in the book was shot during the day, I just plunged it all into darkness in post, cropped heavily, all that good stuff. I shot the entire thing, with the exception of one photographs, over two days, collecting ephemera entirely from within 320 feet of my front door. At some point I decided I wanted some screaming faces, so I drafted my kids, and then my neighbors, to scream for me. These faces, emerging from the gloom, form the core of the zine.

My neighbors, a bunch of college kids, are awesome. They were totally into it. Everyone wanted to scream. The whole shoot took no more than 10 minutes.

I made one peculiar choice along the way. I decided to lay the thing out in print-order, so there is literally no original version that has the material in reading order. The whole thing was laid out as a landscape document using OpenOffice (which is kind of a Microsoft Word workalike, but it's free) with the pages in order for printing.

Why I made this choice I do not entirely know. Partly, surely, it comes out of my goals for distribution. When I make a thing, I usually have some pretty clear concept of who it's for, and how large an edition: "I will make 3 copies, one for me, one for so-and-so, and the third I will release into the wild" is a pretty common conceit for me. In this case, I decided to leave it open, I would give copies away broadly (to date, I have given away about 40 copies.) This leads directly to a "make it cheap" decision, so, black and white, small, and "photocopied" (actually, printed from a PDF at Kinkos, but that's just the modern equivalent of photocopying.) It costs me $3 all up to put a copy into the hands of anyone in the USA: printing, staples, envelope, postage, all up.

I recall aiming for a low-tech DIY aesthetic here, aiming at a traditional "shitty zine" flavor, which I think I hit. Some of it is synthetic. Some of the text was printed out, deliberately stained and damaged, cut up, pasted down on new pages, and rephotographed to give it a synthetic pasted-up and photocopied look. The photos, as noted, are post processed to hell to create fake darkness.

The text was written at great speed, over a total of no more than a few hours. Again, the aim was for a raw feeling, not a polished one, so if there's a clunky phrase or two that's good. Not necessarily on purpose, we're actively trolling for serendipity here, but definitely appreciated.

The one photo I did not shoot in the 3 days it took to make this thing was a photo of cops. At some point, fairly late in the development, it occurred to me that I wanted a photo of some police. They are an important element of the story of 2020, from my perspective. I poked through my archives of protest photos to find something that would suit, cropped a thing heavily, and stuck it in. I wasn't committed to some notion of when and where photos got taken, it's merely that I was mostly able to get what I needed on the 28th and 29th, very close to my home.

So I threw it all together, spent some time drawing and rephotographing this and that, and by the 31st it was ready to print, and here we are. Three days, concept to print, while I was doing other things.

I did indeed send a copy off to MACK, and I did indeed fail to get shortlisted. I like to imagine the judges were duly entertained, though.

So what can we take away here? Well. Not everything has to be polished, "shitty" is an aesthetic too, and it's pretty easy to pull off. Not everything has to take months or years, what you lose in subtlety you might gain in raw power. You don't need a lot of complex tools, although some software is definitely useful. I used: Nikon's free Lightroom-alike, the free Photoshop-ish GIMP, and the free Word-alike OpenOffice. There was a camera, some lenses, and a computer involved. None of them high-end.

The result is something I am very very pleased with. It met all of my goals, and then some. People like it. People request copies. I met the MACK deadline and mailed them a copy, exactly according to plan. Daniel Milnor wrote a nice thing about it.

If you'd like a copy, just ask. Within reason, I will send them to anyone anywhere, it's cheap, and — this is important — to distribute widely is part of the intended goal of the project.


  1. do I have a copy of this? am too lazy to get up out of my oh-the-heat-wave-she-is-on-the-horizon-yaahz armchair to review my shelf of acquisitions - it seems familiar? presently I will check, after my heat-induced coma-nap [stone seal]

    1. You do! Possibly as many as thert copies?

    2. excellent! and thank you again [stone seal]

  2. Thank you, I had a look and enjoyed it, and the aesthetic especially. Shitty isn't that easy to pull off. I feel like mentioning to our friends who don't live in the Pacific Northwest of the US: we really do have a lot of spiders here -- just regular household spiders, but lots of them.

  3. As someone who actually sat up all night literally cutting and pasting a political zine in the early 70s ("Strumpet" -- hey, I didn't choose the name) I can vouch that you've pretty much got the look right, though I'm not clear how the "imposition" of the page order works out when assembled, even printed single-sided. I suppose I'll have to try it out and see.

    Such fakery, though! I approve, though I'm not sure that the *other* A. Molitor would...


    1. I have no idea what happens when you print single-sided! Probably all is chaos!

  4. One of my favorite photobooks/zines of 2020, and I said so in a rambling "books of 2020" post back in December or January. Great stuff, and I somehow failed to film an unboxing. I intended to review it this week, but need to shoot a flip through first, so maybe in a couple of weeks. Oh well.

    I didn't get the provoke thing, really, but see it now. I think it leans more toward William Klein (who Provoke emulated and extended), for whatever that's worth.

    There's one picture of a "screaming" person that points, I think, to a bit of blindness on my part: it honestly looks like they're laughing... the cheeks are too round and eyes too smiling to be screaming in frustration (or horror), and this one picture changes the tone of the zine, for me, fully shifts it into the realm of slapstick.
    I'm fine with this. It's a document both of personal frustration and discomfort during the pandemic, and of frustration with people's online performance of pandemic frustrations and discomfort.
    Mack were silly not to even wink at it.

    1. I have no first-hand exposure whatsoever to Provoke! All I know is "London" and a little reading about Provoke, so the influence is very heavily laundered.

    2. Also, everyone who was "screaming" was totally just goofing for the camera. It was definitely a "fun and a bit cathartic" rather than a serious attempt to capture the zeitgeist. I too am fine with it coming across slapstick!

  5. "I did indeed fail to get shortlisted"

    Maybe you're blacklisted?

    1. Technically possible, I suppose, but surely unrelated.

      If you go look at the resumes of people who get shortlisted, they're all the same, and mine looks nothing like them. This isn't a complaint: MACK has a program here, and the program is to support a very specific category of artists of which I am not one. This may not be explicitly stated, but it's certainly not a secret, and it only takes a few minutes to work it out.

      It's open submissions, so technically there's no reason to research the competition, but as a general *rule* one ought to. You don't just waltz in to any random gallery with your portfolio clutched to your chest, you study the galleries around you and figure out which ones have programs that might be improved by the addition of You.

      Ditto competitions. One of the reasons for entry fees, aside from grift, is to encourage people to do the work instead of just randomly sending shoddily made zines off. My submission was, arguably, abusing their generosity. I like to think I made up for it with entertainment value but, you know, here we are.

    2. I think one of the hilarious (and downright misleading) claims of open competitions is that "it's a chance to get your work seen by our distinguished panel of judges". Yeah, right. Just as passing through a busy airport (remember those?) is a chance to get "seen" by the security staff: they *know* what they're looking for, and it's not you.

      Also, there is usually a pre-selection stage, carried out by a non-distinguished panel, when the 1000s of entries are screened down to a small enough number for the judges to handle, and it's at this stage that all the outliers -- including probably some of the best work -- get discarded.