Tuesday, April 18, 2023

The Research-Based Photobook

Jörg Colberg published a review of Lewis Bush's recent book within, I think an hour or so of mine. His opinion is somewhat different. In his review, Colberg describes this as a good example of something he terms a "research-based photobook."

What the hell is this object? Well, obviously it's a photo book where someone does some research. I can think of some examples, but I haven't read most of them, so I can't really judge. But let us take Bush's book as a good example of the form, because Colberg says it is. Let's consider it as the product of a body of research.

The citations are interesting. Bush read a lot of stuff, a surprising amount of it is fiction, but most of the rest is what we'd call secondary or tertiary sources. He's reading books that other people have written about men and things, and pastiching information taken from them into his essay, like a gigantic high school book report or, more exactly, like a Master's Thesis. He seems to have read no files, no original letters or writing, he filed no FOIA requests.

This is not an indictment. I don't read a lot of files and I've never filed a FOIA request in my life. I don't intend to. What I mean to point out here is that what we think of as traditional research is, if present at all, present in a kind of lightweight way.

What Lewis did put real effort into was traveling around taking photographs of von Braun related places, and rendering these photos as cyanotypes. This is pretty typical of the form, I think. Long time readers will recall my remarks on Monsanto, which is a similar kind of thing. The text there is a dumb recitation of a standard leftist position, up to and including the factual errors. The pictures are just thoroughly dull snaps of random locations of places where something happened once upon a time.

What I think of as research is a much more in-depth thing, a much more thorough gathering of facts and a synthesis of those facts.

This is a very specific thing, a Western Scientific thing. An Enlightenment Thing, if you will.

I'm pretty sure that what Colberg and Bush and all the rest are up to is almost explicitly rejecting Enlightenment thinking (which rejection is something of a hobby in academia today) which, well, ok. I think this way of approaching knowledge and the world has done some pretty neat things, and I'm not convinced by the argument that the many bad things flowed out of the method. I'm not convinced that the Enlightenment caused colonialism, for instance, I think maybe it's just a thing that happened at the same time. But what the hell do I know?

My suspicion is that these people are essentially theorizing a new way of knowing, a new epistemology (as the kids would say) that is built around seeing things in photographs.

Somehow, I think the idea is, that by looking at a bunch of blurry archival photos of von Braun, and by looking at some blue tinted photos from Peenemünde, we will come to new knowledge about the thing the book is about. Somehow, as "faith" in the religious sense can be seen as a kind of a way of knowing, this new way of knowing will inform us and enrich us in ways that Enlightenment epistemology cannot. This sounds kind of dumb, but it's not as dumb as all that.

Anyone who travels knows that there is a way of knowing a place that comes from simply wandering around it a bit. You don't know facts about the place, although you'll pick a few of those up most likely. What you're getting is some sort of partial sense of the place. It's recognizably a kind of knowledge, but not something you can write down very easily, nothing you can summarize as a set of bullet points. Call it flaneur-epistemology. The way of knowing that comes by wandering around.

There are some photo books that do transmit, in some sense, this kind of thing. Robert Frank's The Americans is maybe the most famous one. Does it teach us about America? There seems to be no doubt. What, exactly, does it teach us? Well, that's hard to explain, and it's most efficiently explained by showing you the book. Some flavor that is recognizably "knowledge" appears, somehow.

So, there is some precedent for this kind of visual/vibes way of knowing things. This kind of visual "epistemology" of whatever it is, and we know it can be done for a place.

Blaustein's book, Extinction Party I think offered up something as well. On the one hand, there's nothing we don't know in it. On the other hand, a bunch of pictures of colorful stuff does give us something that is, at least if you squint, recognizable as new knowledge. Not new facts, not new information, but something you didn't have before. At least a different shading on how you "know" about consumer culture.

Does it work for history? Or a "topic" like rocketry? I don't know. I don't think that Lewis's book accomplishes it particularly? But perhaps it would work better for someone who didn't grow up with the Time-Life book "Man and Space" on the shelf.

I think that it is a lot less effective with topics that are not places. Maybe Blaustein's book argues that it works for "culture" in some larger sense, as well, or maybe "place" is just a special case of "culture."

Photographs take you to places, specifically the place in the photograph. There is a pretty straight line from looking at a bunch of photos from somewhere, and literally wandering around in that same somewhere. That kind of flaneur-epistemology translates directly into a photo book.

One does not "go to" history, or rocketry, or linguistics. One cannot wander around there and gather vibes.

It is not at all clear that the basic operating characteristics of photographs, the "how photographs work" has an interpretation that really lets things like general research-based photo books work. I am not sure that there is a way that looking at a bunch of pictures produces any kind of knowledge, novel or otherwise. Certainly the books don't sell, and the only people who seem to get anything out of them are those with a deeply vested interest in the form.

On the one hand, I think this is a thing which can and sometimes does work. It certainly can work for a place. What I can't tell is whether it cannot work for, say, Wernher von Braun, or whether Lewis simply failed to make it work. Is it impossible? Is it very very hard? Or is it actually fairly easy, in the right hands?

I suspect that it is, at the very least, very very hard, but that's just a theory.


  1. I only recently realized how much von Braun was idolized and promoted by Walt Disney, who loved space travel stuff. I believe von Braun became a popular public figure largely through his appearances on Disney's shows. As a kid I lapped it up. The great rocket scientist with an accent! Does Bush mention the Disney connection?

  2. You're right to put quotes around "research" here, I think. You might as well say you're researching the supermarket when looking for ingredients to cook a meal. In the process of my research yesterday I discovered that Tesco now sells first-pressing soy sauce, which is a major finding, worth sharing. Only after it has been peer-reviewed, of course.

    It troubles me that art-school students -- rarely the most academically-inclined people -- are being encouraged to regard themselves as essentially "thinkers", not makers. To present a half-baked thesis in illustration form is not the same thing as writing a half-baked thesis (I know, I've written two).

    Someone who is good at taking photographs or painting is not thereby gifted with philosophical or sociological insight, and should not be expected to demonstrate anything more than exceptional visual acuity, which is an inchoate sort of knowledge and gift enough, but different in kind. Universities that award PhDs for artwork projects should be ashamed of themselves.


    1. The use of the word "research" is definitely a bit of a scam, intended to lend gravitas where there isn't any. I'm not convinced that the form isn't *something* but it's not a particularly good way to explain or illuminate a "topic."

      Indeed, PhDs in "art" are just stupid. If it was a teaching credential, or a (real) research credential, sure, but the PhD in gluing shit together and blabbering vague politics is ridiculous.

  3. This is very well stated Andrew. The phenomenon before us is an excellent example of the misguided effort to make the photo book format do the work of a film.

    Problem is, films almost invariably deliver an order of magnitude better exposition, and are more engaging than photo books for this sort of documentary subject.

    It's a tell that Colberg's review commences with a lengthy screed about how ordinary people (presumably unconscientious types) uphold and actively contribute to extraordinary evil, touching on his expat German identity. This is Jorge's hobby horse.

    Does it hold lessons for today? Sure. Who will now absorb these lessons? I'll wager not one single purchaser of Lewis's book is persuaded to change their minds about Werner Von Braun and the military nature of space programs generally. They're already in agreement!

    Lewis's book should really be evaluated as an art object, rather than a manifestation of research. The research angle and resulting text both would seem to be perfunctory box-ticking to fit a concept that may be traced back to Hans Haacke: disturbing facts about the rich and powerful, married to loosely associative imagery (these are the culprits, here are their offices, they own this mansion, this luxury automobile yadda). Sticking it in a major museum to rub their noses in it provides some added frisson -- until they go and buy it. This was novel and daring when Haacke did it.

    Unless your research unearths shocking new information not already in the public domain, there's not much point to a do-over. This doesn't mean you shouldn't try, but it does mean there's no value in reifying what we already know, not even if you make it blue.

    There's also a marketing angle to consider. Lewis has been relentlessly touting his 'research' as a major selling point of this book, even though it has a remarkably thin pretext. Lewis is something of a social media marketing master, with laboriously prepared videos and shots of e.g. the book orders wrapped for the post office, and a numbers sold countdown for the FOMOs. It wouldn't be a stretch to say he is a successful influencer, at least for a particular sect of like-minded folks.

    1. Lewis cosplays as a rabble-rousing outsider, a hard-working and yet overlooked artist, struggling to put food on the table, but it's largely bullshit.

      He gets grants and fellowships, he owns a house in London, he's in a PhD program. He's not Jeff Koons or Grayson Perry, but he is neither impoverished nor overlooked. He's absolutely a fine upstanding member of the Art Establishment.

      Pretending to despise the club is a non-negotiable requirement of membership.