French publisher IIKKI books specialises in hardback photobooks accompanied by a vinyl LP. This, their third edition, is a series of photographs made in Iceland by Ester Vonplon with ambient music by Taylor Dupree and Marcus Fischer.
The pictures are from within the Arctic Circle at the summer solstice. Here we are far from the sharp-focused clarity, impeccable perspective and saturated colours of conventional landscape photography. Unpredictable conditions make photography difficult and Vonplon goes along with that loss of control, using the wildness of the place to evoke feelings instead of making precise representations. For this work you don’t necessarily need expensive gear or advanced technical skills. What could be called mistakes of framing, focus, development and printing Vonplon embraces as part of the process. She’s more of an artist than a traditional photographer.
With a palette of hazy greys and pale blues as smudged and blurred as Impressionist sketches, these are photographs as traces, smears of light, damaged prints discoloured and faded, dreamlike as a long ago, half-remembered wintry journey. Documents of an explorer’s expedition, perhaps.
This is an elemental, primitive, desolate world of black water and dark-edged mountains, cracked and broken ice, floating and melting, seen from the air, from out on the water or standing alone. Not a soul to be seen.
Some of these images approach abstraction in near white-outs of ice and snow. Scale can be impossible to gauge. Multiple exposures, light leaks and other artefacts of the analogue process make it occasionally hard to tell what we’re being shown.
The music is a fitting soundtrack. It’s typically ambient, Eno-esque in its drifting, faded textures and slow, sustained decays like vapour trails across the sky. It crackles like melting ice.
The book is beautifully produced; a thick and heavy construction of soft matte paper, substantial and detailed enough to make you want to go slow through its pages, weighty enough to command your attention.
It’s divided into sections that correspond with tracks on the LP, although there’s no particular reason why one piece of music should go with one set of images instead of another, so the relationship between the two seems slightly forced to that extent. Does a photobook need its own soundtrack? Perhaps not, but this music is nice to listen to while going through this book, creating a slow thoughtful atmosphere of quiet contemplation.
Further reading & viewing:
My interview with Ester Vonplon at LensCulture:
I’m mid-way through a course of photopolymer printmaking at the Spike Print Studio in Bristol, taught by Martyn Grimmer.
When I signed up for this course I was looking for a way of printing photographs that lent them a character and depth that I’ve found lacking in commercial printing with a digital indigo press. I wanted to work hands-on with analogue machines and materials instead of being at a computer. Like most people, I spend enough time with screens.
For years now I’ve been attracted by the photogravure course that runs over the summer at the Centre for Fine Print Research at UWE’s Bower Ashton campus, but I was put off by the cost and the full week duration. It turns out photopolymer is an updated version of photogravure and the two courses cover the same ground. I’d rather do an evening class over 10 weeks because it allows more time to let things sink in between sessions.
I had only a vague, idealistic notion of how I imagined my photos would look printed like this, imbued with some kind of gothic atmosphere from the mid-19th century, and somehow, right from the first attempt, with beginners luck, I was getting what I wanted. A dream come true.
I’ve enjoyed every aspect of the course, including working together with my classmates in the studio, with everyone engaged in making their own images, but helping each other out too. The procedure is quite complex, but it’s really just a question of remember to follow all the steps in the correct sequence. It’s a slow and almost meditative task of inking up the plate and rubbing it down and then running it through the press before lifting the paper to reveal the printed image. We’ve done Chine Collé as well, which adds an extra dimension, a layer of delicate Japanese paper.
I feel at home with printmaking in the old fashioned way. I want to pursue it, make the most of it. I can use what I’ve learned to make photobooks as artist’s books to represent some of the photography projects I’ve done over the last few years, to bring them to life and create a coherent body of work.
I’ve not yet followed up my Nordic Songs & Fairytales book because I felt something was missing. I wanted to make a book entirely myself rather than relying on commercial printers. I bought a big expensive digital printer to that end, but I could never make much sense of it. It comes back to being one step removed, behind a screen. Now I’m getting somewhere, with new skills and old technology.
I’ve not been able to find many articles about photobook culture in academic journals. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more scholarship about the current scene, so I think it’s worth a closer look at a couple of interesting articles I did manage to find. These are ‘Ofer Wolberger’s Visitor and the Larger Context of Self-Published Photobooks’ by Larissa Leclair and ‘Self-Publishing as Emancipation’ by Agata Szydłowska.
Szydłowska discusses A Beginner’s Guide For The Independent Publisher, a Polish DIY manifesto, on ‘creating books without the help of professional editors, graphic designers, and printers.’ Leclair’s article takes Wolberger’s book, Visitor (2011) as an exemplar of independent photobook publication.
The boom in self-published photobooks seems to have been sparked by the publication of The Photobook: A History Volumes 1 (2004) and 2 (2006) by Martin Parr and Garry Badger, encouraged by the growing availability of affordable print technologies and sustained by the use of the internet, especially social media, to create a globally-distributed community and marketplace. As Leclair says, it has now become impossible to keep track of the number of self-published books as ‘self-publishing and collaborative imprints are mainstream for a new generation of photographers.’
Of course, being ‘mainstream’ among photographers is nothing like achieving popularity in the wider culture. Production of self-published photobooks has exploded, but the number of buyers in the market doesn’t seem to have kept pace. It’s still largely photographers showing each other their work.
László Moholy Nagy ‘believed that the book form was the ideal format for photography’ and self-publishing can be an affordable way of making work accessible, if only to a limited audience. Leclair characterises the ‘photobook as a self-contained exhibition able to be revisited’ as opposed to ‘the ephemeral existence of exhibitions’. Of course, the web also offers many opportunities to put photographs on permanent display, but the physical, tactile nature of a printed book allows the photographer different creative possibilities as well as more problems to solve.
Szydłowska sees the photobook boom as an outcome of ’the desire to maintain a sense of materiality, tangibility (and) the direct and lasting interaction it provides with a piece of art in a given time and place… a way to put your art in the hands of the viewing public’.
In a book, ‘photography regains a haptic quality, materiality… its objectivity, through its existence in the private sphere.’ Rather than being seen in a gallery, you can take photographs home in a book and rather than looking at a screen you can hold it in your hands and turn the pages. So for collectors ‘self-publishing can be seen as an intimate phenomenon’ that also maintains ‘even the sensuality of a given piece of art’.
In Szydłowska’s view ‘art zines rarely aspire to become collectors items’, but photobooks often do just that with signed and numbered limited editions in low numbers. She suggests that (big, expensive) art books (as opposed to zines) are ‘attempting to maintain the Benjaminian aura’ but I think zines do this better than those books because they’re produced in much smaller numbers (even if they’re not editioned) and can usually only be obtained via the author or a specialist bookshop. Only cognoscenti buy zines or independent photobooks. Few other people even know they exist.
Leclair goes on to declare that ‘the distinction between traditional monographs and self-published books is no longer meaningful’, but I have books on my shelves published by Steidl which are traditional monographs by Edward Burtynsky and Saul Leiter, for example, that feel very different in presentation and substance from self-published books. I think those distinctions are still useful and an amateur approach bears different kinds of fruit. Leclair lists alternative formats for self-publishing, such as zines and newsprint, print-on-demand and handmade artist’s books.
She also makes use of ‘the analogy of established versus “underground” that parallels the traditional publishing paradigm and the uprising of the self-publishing movement.’ While I would not agree that there’s a revolution going on, in the sense of anyone actually being threatened by self-published photobooks; traditional publishers are not at risk of being overthrown by any uprising. ‘Underground’ carries connotations of a dissident political movement, of samizdat publication and distribution, but photobooks are not really subversive, not even of established art publishing. There are, perhaps, elements of the philosophy and aesthetic of punk zines and certainly the DIY impulse has carried through, although this is not necessarily or essentially punk. Fanzines long pre-date that period and scene, having originated in the American science fiction fan culture after the Second World War.
Szydłowska sees self publishing as a means to free the
photographer ‘from the art market and mainstream media, but also from galleries
and curators… the entire artistic establishment’. It has an ‘emancipatory
potential, which places its work beyond the boundaries of the art world, and
the market for that matter’. What lies beyond those boundaries? The photobook
scene has created its own parallel world, somewhat self-enclosed, with a small
crowded market in which it’s hard to make any money. I’m not convinced many
photographers really want to be released from the art world. Indeed, I expect
many of them regard self-publishing as a means of gaining entry to it.
To Szydłowska curators, institutions, gallerists and others are ‘intermediaries… between the artist and the viewer’, but surely their role is to enable a connection with audiences that are harder to reach without them.
Self publishing can, however, act ‘as a surrogate or alternative to institutions… not so much an active opposition to the establishment, but rather an attempt to get by without it’. As Szydłowska points out, photobooks are ‘a relatively inexpensive way to distribute photography, particularly in the light of the difficulties of selling photographs’. She is right to say that ‘creating and publishing art books at one’s own expense offers authors a unique opportunity to freely select texts without outside editorial pressure.’ This, however, assumes that the editor is an authority figure imposed on the project, an influence to be resisted at all costs. Of course, a commercial publisher won’t want to fund a publication likely to lose money and the project may be better realised as an expensive artist’s book or a cheap zine.
Szydłowska’s independent publisher ‘chooses his own photographs, writes his own text, and in the end promotes shows, and distributes his own work using his own money.’ It’s good to be able to do that, of course, but it sounds like a lonely and expensive way to go.
For Leclair the process of publishing insists that the photographer engage with a much wider range of knowledge and skills, to cultivate what Leclair calls ‘the sensibility of the artist as bookmaker, book designer and book editor’. Self-publishers need to know how designers and printers work, if only to enable them to have more useful conversations with the professionals they’re working with.
Self-marketing and self-distribution also require skills of networking and selling that might be new to a photographer. It’s also difficult to acquire all these abilities to a sufficiently high standard, which is why collaboration is vital.
I discovered Sergej Vutuc at Christer Ek’s blog. He comes from punk/skateboarding and carries across the DIY philosophy and aesthetic of those scenes to publishing photobooks. He brings out a lot of zines. His work is punk, but also soft-edged and blurry, a grey psychedelia. His zines could be samizdats from deep underground, degraded and damaged from being hidden in deep pockets and passed in secret hand to hand.
Čista Zona looks like a zine, but feels weightier. The pages thick and heavy-loaded with ink. It comes inside a glow-in-the-dark, silkscreened, rough-textured slipcover. The book itself is risographed full bleed in black and white, all double page spreads.
Vutuc’s rough approach to printing transforms everyday scenes of the edgelands, shot out of train windows, in abandoned industrial areas, on haunted streets. We come across a few looming figures, some domestic interiors. Ruins, a deserted playground. Where no one else goes skaters take over and make use of the wasteland in their own way.
But the unique quality of Vutuc’s work comes less from his subject matter than what he makes happen on the surface of his prints. Čista Zona’s images come layered with intruding artefacts of film and light, inexplicable white-out shapes, sooty smudges like charcoal drawings left out in the rain. And he’s scrawled over them in writing indecipherable in several languages. Captions, instructions, diary entries? This whole world seems buried underwater, as though seen via reflections in smeared and scratched aquarium glass.
Not to say these effects are just layers added on top. It’s all intrinsic to Vutuc’s invocation of the zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker and of Chernobyl, a dystopian hallucination, all disintegration and decay.
In Edinburgh last week I went to the Surreal Encounters exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and a smaller show of photography by Lewis Baltz at Stills.
The surrealist exhibition was themed around four collections, those of Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. It made me think about how I’ve resisted my own impulse to be a collector. When I was younger I obsessed over my collections of records and comics, but I like to think I’ve grown out of that kind of thing. I suppose I associate music or comics as something young people are really into and when you’re older it’s unseemly to define yourself by things like that. Not that I’ve given up entirely on music and comics, but other interests have come in, like art, photography, photobooks, artist’s books.
I’ve been buying photobooks for seven years now and I have quite a few. The fact that I haven’t counted them proves I’m not really a collector! They are of various kinds: some self-published, some from small publishers, a few from relatively mainstream publishers like Steidl, some are more like artist’s books, a few are exhibition catalogues. I’ve been sampling different things. There’s no totally unifying theme or genre, but there’s more about landscape and nature than anything else. Perhaps it’s time to admit to myself that I’m building a collection anyway so I should take it more seriously.
Collecting doesn’t have to be passive. Edward James was a collaborator as well as a patron, and commissioned some of Dali’s most famous work.
Most of those surrealist collectors bought the work at the time it was made. Right now we’re living through a boom in photobook publishing so why not make the most of it and make a coherent and representative collection of my favourite work?
At Surreal Encounters what fascinated me most were the original surrealist publications - magazines, books and posters - from the 1920s and 30s, shown in vitrines of course. I would have loved to have been able to page through all these. I’ve always been attracted to printed matter. Even in an exhibition of paintings I’m looking for something in print. Probably because magazines and posters are often seen as throwaway, it seems romantic they’ve survived at all, and they usually show their age, with yellowing paper with tattered edges, in a way paintings never do. They’re archival evidence that cannot be tampered with or rewritten.
There are no books on show at the Lewis Baltz exhibition, but the emphasis here is very much on the assembly of series of images rather than any individual masterpieces. Small photographs are arranged in grids on the wall, making them all of equal status to one another so none stand out. There’s no narrative sequence suggested here, but the grids reminded me of uncut sheets of pages on the printer’s table, or an arrangement of photos pinned to a board or lain flat on the floor ready to be moved around into new juxtapositions.
For me it all comes back to books, or possible layouts for a book. I like to look at pictures much more by paging through a book than shuffling around an exhibition. Baltz’s grids on the walls of Stills let you scan a lot of pictures without changing your viewpoint, but it’s hard to get close enough to see anything in detail. Being kept at this kind of remove is appropriate since Baltz always remained detached and unromantic as an artist. He used his camera as a distancing device between the subject and the audience.
It’s interesting how the curator, Sebastien Montabonel, has made these decisions on how the work is presented to highlight these aspects of Baltz’s approach.
Baltz aimed to achieve no style of his own and his subjects were everyday and unremarkable. He wanted his work to look anonymous, like anyone could do it. He wasn’t much interested in photography and saw it as ‘the simplest, most direct way of recording something’.
The minimalist mode is emphasised by the inclusion of a metal floor sculpture by Carl Andre, a grid to be walked on. You use this grid to stand on to get closer to the photographs.