Most of the Serious Artist photobooks are political. Probably most Serious Art aims to be political. Political, that is, broadly construed: who has power, how do they use it; who lacks power, and why they ought to have it.
A political statement, in general, will in the first place remark on how things
are now, the present state of affairs, but as a rule will add on to that any number
of things. It may propose that a different state of affairs is desirable (or, sometimes,
not desirable.) It may propose that someone or other should not have power
(usually, whoever has power now should not have it, but sometimes it is the aspirant
who shouldn't.) The proposal that someone ought not to have power involves usually
some combination of coherent argument, and straightforward character attacks.
Roughly, we can consider political statements to rely on, at least,
these three things: testimony as to the past and present, speculation about the future,
Thus it is that we come across a fundamental problem with the political photobook.
A photograph testifies to that-which-was. That is its fundamental operation. It shows us
something from, necessarily, the past, and offers itself as proof that whatever it was,
was so. You can do other things with photographs, to be sure, but at that point you are
arguing with the fundamental mode of the form.
In particular, photographs don't want to speculate, and they don't want to caricature.
We see this most plainly in photographs of divisive political figures. The very same
photo is seen as proof of so-and-so's venal nature, or as proof of their essentially
good character, depending on the party affiliation of the viewer. A proper caricature
leaves no such room for interpretation. Attempts to "read" photos as caricature invariably
fail, because they do nothing more than reveal the political alignment of the reader.
This leaves us with only one facet of the political. The photograph testifies, like nothing
else testifies, to that-which-was, and this is certainly a vital component of a strong
political statement. The photograph leaves it right there, however. No speculation, no
Sometimes this is enough, perhaps.
Robert Frank's The Americans manages something political, despite being literally nothing
more than mute testimony. It offers no speculation, no prognostication, no proposals. It caricatures
nothing. It doesn't assign blame. It simply testifies, and somehow that succeeds, after a fashion.
Whatever happens to the photo book form, and I do believe in the form, it must accept that
the photograph begins and ends with the testimony of that-which-was.
You cannot take a picture of a forest and claim that it supports the thesis that Nazis are bad.
Well, you can, but it's stupid and makes no sense to do that.
Nazis were and are bad! To be sure! But a photograph of a forest is not evidence in support of
that, any more than my shoes are, or a fried egg is. If you've gotten some grants and are inside
the White Cube, you can claim anything and get away with it, including (probably) that a fried egg
is an anti-fascist slogan. This, however, doesn't mean you're right, it just means you're in the Cube.
If we are to be serious, rather than Serious, it behooves us to see what the medium actually does
and to use that, or defy that, according the the needs of whatever we're trying to accomplish. Defy
away, if you like, but know what it is you are doing. If you want to try to caricature with
photography, give it a shot, but know that you're arguing with the medium.