I read nothing of this material before I published my own remarks, and then turned to his latest draft, which delighted me (naturally) and which I am sharing with you now below:
The Trouble With "Photobooks"
(and a review)
By David Smith
Our Host Andrew Molitor believes "photobooks" are the Holy Grail of photography, because 'all the photographs have already been taken,' and this burgeoning midden of derivative work may yet be organized into an infinite variety of (hopefully) more interesting "photobooks." I think this is meant to give renewed purpose and meaning, in Our Host's febrile imagination, to the strangely pointless busywork that photography has become, among aspirational “Art” photographers.
I have a love-hate relationship with "photobooks." To begin with, I reject the run-together spelling. I mean, are "photobookcritics" so jaded and lazy they weary of hitting the space bar? Plausible, given the output. Let them keep their cutesy little nonword, I'm having none of it.
I just bought sight unseen a new, hot-off-the-press photo book, "Endless Plain" by Tony Fouhse. I had stopped buying the things several years ago, due to a coals-to-Newcastle home situation: I own plenty already, maybe 20, now 21. There are limits. With few exceptions, latest addition being one, the photo books I own are histories, exhibition catalogs, compilations, and monographs (the usual suspects). The newly-purchased photo book is the au courant kind. This article started out to be a review of it. Hold that thought, I will eventually circle back to it.
I also like to make photo books. I've built up my own, sizable midden (an early photo acquaintance called these things "photo morgues") that cries out to be 'curated' – another word debased through misuse and overuse. I'm psychotically fond of my most recent productions, I begin to see flaws in earlier attempts. But I digress.
I've read a shit tonne of "photobook" reviews, and chased down online images of the photos, the better to see for myself what the fuss is about. Based on the preponderance of evidence, most of these books would be better not printed. My photo books (i.e the ones I make) are virtual, online, and FREE to download. For photographers who can actually turn a dollar at this little pastime (both of them), such an approach is a non-starter. For the rest of us, it's the only thing that makes any kind of sense – so please stop foisting your little hobby onto Planet Landfill !
Sequencing, the [black] Art of
As someone who has essayed the photo book, albeit in an unprinted format, "sequencing" – picking photos out of the midden, and arranging them in order – is an aspect (the aspect, some would have it) I have also turned my hand to. It is the subject of much rumination, angst, and online workshops offered by the self-appointed "photobook" experts of "photoland," the fathomless social media blob of sad bastards with nothing better to do.
For those who may be interested, this is where the real money in photo books is: teaching rubes how to make 'em.
"Sequencing" a photo book has been likened to editing a motion picture – if all the shots were stills, there was no sound, and precious little action, not even Ken Burns-style “action.” Instead of watching a movie on a screen, putative consumers of this art form are looking at a book: the model falls at the first hurdle.
The typical photo book "sequence," photographs often related solely by authorship, is more like "free verse" poetry; seemingly random juxtapositions adding up to not much more than a bound collection of random photos. An acquired taste, feigned by the players in this space, who truly are more interested in gaming social media 'likes' than coherent products or commentary.
What's the Prize, Again?
For creative pursuits, we must consider the motivations of all the players: the artists, middlemen, and consumers. I put it to you that the main consumers of photo books are…photographers (and their moms, I concede). Most people who collect photo books, or are even cognizant of the notional publishing genre, have skin in the game. They are seeking a foothold in social media strata. This is a problem. Scratch that, it’s the problem.
Anyone who is not in denial, or hasn't been living under a rock, knows by now the catastrophic harm (no joke, no exaggeration) visited upon human society by social media.
But how, specifically does social media determine the shape of photo books and the way(s) they are perceived? Of course, photographers/publishers want to generate interest in, and sales/distribution of their products. In order to rise above the noise of a gazillion “photoland” releases (remember all those workshops), they resort to increasingly desperate and absurd measures, to which photographic values are suborned and bastardized. Thus photography is ‘elevated’ to a kind of social science, or is ‘revealed’ to be “fake.” The science is indeed faked; this is the fault not of photography, but rather the particular practitioners and their social media cheerleaders, dissenting takes routinely blocked.
So here’s the drill: shoot a bunch of photos (or ‘discover’ a bunch of someone else’s photos); “sequence” a selection from said photo midden; self-publish (e.g. Mack, Blurb) at your own expense and/or via fundraising; beat the social media drum; get a shout out from whichever gatekeeper(s) you’ve groomed; sell some books (maybe); eat the loss (probably); rinse, repeat.
Want to play this lottery, to win, I mean? You better have friends in high places, and deep pockets.
“Endless Plain” by Tony Fouhse, the photo book I bought
The above may be read as a preamble, looking through “Endless Plain” prompted me to write it out. Credit where it’s due, eh? Also, just so we’re clear, none of the above applies to Tony Fouhse!
In his book, Tony provides no text explaining what the book’s about. Fine, it shines through anyway. It does have an afterward by Daniel Sharp, which I would characterize as speculative; one person’s reading of the photographs.
Tony does write a subscription-based (free) e-newsletter “Hypo,” and a Twitter account with occasional promotional announcements about Ottawa art events, brief conversations, and (most importantly), out-of-the-blue, enigmatic pronouncements concerning what he does and (more often) doesn’t like about contemporary photography. If I had a Twitter account, I’d want it to be just like Tony’s, acerbic and spare. Alas, I’m certain it would instead be a train wreck.
Tony tweeted recently, “I don’t want my photographs to look like, or allude to, paintings.” This is pretty salient to interpreting “Endless Plain,” and it piqued my interest. For the record, though, I think painting is an incredibly rich source of visual ideas for photography, and vice versa. The two media have been trading/stealing such since photography’s inception as camera obscura. It’s inescapable? So yeah, that’s a proverbial mike drop right there. Um, also … Daniel Sharp is a painter.
The photos are reproduced in straight-up halftone (not duotone), with maybe a 133 or 150 lpi line screen – I can make out the dots with my naked eye. Myopia has its advantages. Deep shadows and highlights are a tad attenuated in some few shots. This turns out to be the perfect vehicle for “Endless Plain.”
Daniel Sharp’s afterward describes a mood for the book, and how (for him) it functions like a “storyboard.” My take: the mood is dark and ugly. The sky by turns sullen or glowering. A building sports a crown of thorns. Corpses wrapped in winding cloths are stood up at the edge of a wood – a warning? An ageing pop diva spreads sequined wings over high-voltage power lines. A disfigured hand paws at a shoddy Jesus rug/tapestry. And so on. I find myself wondering, how would these look in colour? Some cosplaying actors offer brief respite, here and there. Weird is better than dark, right? This is all quite interesting, and thought-provoking. The world, what we’ve made of it, is a horrible place. And that’s here, in Canada! Ouch.
Does it work as a “storyboard”? Not for me. There’s no narrative glue holding this thing together; it’s all mood music. Maybe for a funeral.
Looking over Tony’s oeuvre on tonyfoto.com, it’s easier to place this book as a part, and only a part, of his vision, his aesthetic predilections. This book adds something to that, it fills out ideas hinted at in previous projects, with something a bit more definitive and final. It’s pretty near in mood to “After The Fact” (another of his books), but that was in colour. I think he needed to see how the mood would work in black and white. Pretty well, it turns out.
I don’t get any sense that Tony has (or ever had) some urgent message for humanity. This is just how he sees it.