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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

A Crisis of Faith

First, I am not dead. Sorry.

I've been out of ideas for a long time, and am having a hard time focusing on photography. Partly, I'm doing other things, and partly I'm having a little crisis of faith around photography. I think many of my readers will approve, though! Let me explain.

For some years now I've been working on how best to impose meaning on a sequence of photographs. In what ways might we arrange pictures and other materials to "say something" as specifically as possible, or in the best possible way, or whatever. A few recent books have nudged me pretty hard to more or less give up the struggle, and think about things differently.

On the one hand we have Bush's book on Wernher von Braun, and a bunch of other books from the same flock of people. These guys are all about imposing meaning on a sequence of pictures, and as a rule imagine they have succeeded. Bush's book is essentially an uninteresting essay which repeats the conventional wisdom, and a bunch of pictures that add nothing whatsoever; but, it is apparently revelatory of the Secret History of the US Space Program. Somehow. We might also look at Jörg Colberg's book which appears to be a bunch of grey pictures of stuff, but is (apparently) about the rise of fascism in Europe?

These are in the end fairly silly books. They represent a kind of apotheosis of the will to impose meaning on sequences of pictures, on the will to make something substantive and meaningful around "the photobook."

Ultimately, the trouble is that we already have an excellent technology for making explicit remarks with definite meaning. That technology is language, and we have a bunch of add-on tech which lets us record language on paper. You can just write "fascism sucks" on an index card, and you get more meaning than Colberg can cram into a book of photos.

The conceit, as I have remarked elsewhere, seems to be that the photos add a different way of knowing. You can, somehow, grasp that Monsanto/Fascism/Nazis are bad in a different way, a way that somehow adds something (depth? emotional weight? I have no idea) if only the author includes a bunch of photos and makes some weird rendering choices.

To be blunt, I don't think it's true. The photos have a string tendency to distract and muddle the message, and it turns out that the message is usually pretty lightweight in the end anyway because Serious Artists don't have much to say about Issues of Global Importance. They're been busy screwing around with cyanotypes or something.

At the same time, several of my readers have sent me things over the last few months which are not this at all. These things lean in to the traditional photo book methods: the graphical coincidences, the repeated colors, repeated textures, repeated objects. They are much more open documents, you are at liberty to make what you like of them, within some bounds. I like these objects a lot better, and they make a lot more sense to me.

By now I've made any number of photo books, and they're all over the place. Some of them are definite attempts to impose fairly strict meaning, often because there's a bunch of text. Photos illustrating text is a thing, I guess, and that's fine? There's probably a spectrum of some sort from the "text" through "text with illustrations" landing somewhere at "here's a bunch of photos in a row."

My thinking at the moment is confused, it's a tangle, but I think that there needs to be some sort of opening up, a willingness to abandon strict meaning as you move away from text and toward pictures. There's probably something to be said about poetry in here as well. A technical report means something pretty strict, but a bunch of free verse is a lot more open? Either trying to make the poem strict, or the technical report open is going to be a mistake. Form does not dictate function, but it sure as hell influences it.


I am coming around to the conclusion that they kind of got the form about right in the 1950s and 60s, and the more modern efforts are essentially doomed and always were. Certainly nobody likes the modern photo book except people who make modern photo books.

There is certainly a temptation, one might even say an imperative, to alter a form, to apply a form in new ways. Oil painting was altered by the impressionists, and then the cubists, and then the next batch of guys, and so on. I don't think the modern photobook represents an advance, or even a functional alteration, on the form more or less perfected in the 1960s.

It's possible there is something that could be done, a new movement that takes the old thing and makes something genuinely new from it, but this ain't it.


  1. A confused mind is an open mind. I do not have set rules to live by when it comes to my images. Sometimes a story emerges or I gather images to tell a particular story. Sometimes images stand by themselves. Sometimes I have no idea what to do with an image. In that case I keep creating and go back every now and then and and sometimes I find out.

  2. One thing you won't see, outside of this blog, is a lively debate about photographs, books, and visual ideas in general. It's harmful to the hype? I don't get it.

  3. I don't pay a lot of attention to the modern art world. Most of my knowledge actually comes from your blog. I do read every word of it and don't just skim it. I believe that presentation matters and I have played around with it a bit in the past. Back in the 80's I took a photography course where I re-photographed a series of my pictures and presented them with two projectors that dissolved between them and a musical sound track. I think that modern presentation should use modern methods. Probably someone is already doing something using spoken word, music, dissolves and such that you could view on a phone or tablet. Basically, using the strengths of the medium that everyone has access to. Pictures on a page or a print in hand are my preference but my grand kids don't seem to care. Glad you're still alive, thanks for publishing.

  4. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, but couldn't the issue be that you're seeking to "impose meaning"?

    Better than imposition is to go with the grain, to utilise what meaning already exists rather than somehow foisting something that may not be there.