JACK FRENCH

Beyond The Visual Landscape

I’m looking forward to the next Photobook Bristol event, Beyond the Visual Landscape, on 7th November. Or maybe now it’s called Music, Word and Landscape: The Limits of the Visual. Anyway, I’ve just bought a ticket for it.

It will be a day of talks looking at how landscape, words, music and sound connect us to ourselves and the places we photograph. I’m familiar with the work of some of the landscape photographers involved: Susan Derges, Paul Gaffney and Jem Southam. Ester Vonplon is new to me and her work looks intriguingly different from most landscape work I’ve seen.

I’ll write about Susan Derges separately in my next post because I know more about her, having followed her work for over 20 years. For the other three I’ll note here what I’ve learned about them recently and what I like about their work. 

Mostly, I’m interested in approaches and techniques that make photography of places feel less objective and more intimate and personal. Beyond just saying ‘here’s something I saw’, to carrying some sense of what it might mean to to the photographer. You can get some of that from choices made in sequencing and juxtaposition of images in a book, but I also want to know more about how to think about such projects from the outset.

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I saw Jem Southam talk about his work at the Bristol Photography Festival a few years ago and I like his approach of patient observation of changes at a single location over months or years, following cycles of decay and renewal, with his series like Rockfalls and the Pond at Upton Pyne. It’s about paying sustained attention, revisiting a site regularly, and never finally closing that relationship. 

He uses a large format camera to capture a high level of detail, but eschews grandeur, finding a subtler scale instead, via long walks through the English countryside, experiencing nature in a slow way. 

Series, structure, and creating a narrative dynamic are important to Southam as ways of making a work multi-layered. He also uses texts and maps to help present his work in a book or exhibition. His advice is to not imagine you can solve all the problems yourself and find the right people to work with. A curator or editor works as a kind of broker with the audience.

There’s a nice, detailed interview with Southam at Seesaw and an excellent gallery of images at Sientate y Observa (en Español).

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Whenever I’ve seen Paul Gaffney’s photographs, especially when looking through his book, We Make The Path While Walking, I’ve been struck by how similar it is to some of the work I’ve done and want to do. It’s made me rethink some of my approach because I don’t want to be seen as ripping him off. For Gaffney long distance walks immersed in nature are a means for meditation and personal transformation. He uses the form of the photobook to evoke that sense of negotiating the landscape and engaging the viewer in the walk, inspired partly by The Pond by John Gossage, which is also one of my favourite books.

Like The Pond, We Make The Path While Walking is unspectacular, showing quiet images of anonymous landscapes. You get the impression of a wandering mind making small discoveries along the way. 

Gaffney’s doing a Practice-led PhD at Ulster to develop a more intuitive approach to photographing nature and creating an immersive experience for the viewer. I’d like to ask him how that’s going. I work at a university where we kind of specialise in Practice-led PhDs and I’m thinking of developing a project like that myself. 

There’s a wide-ranging interview with Gaffney at Artdependence, which goes into detail about his experience of self-publishing and selling his book. 

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Ester Vonplon allows chance and circumstance to play a part in her work by preserving accidents and imperfections and incorporating glitches and noise. She mixes the signal paths of digital and analogue to introduce effects such as grain, soft focus, hard contrast. Her techniques are explicitly part of the process of photographing and the final presentation of her work. Somehow it makes for a more personal, intuitive and emotional engagement with her surroundings, explicity mediated by technology.

In Vonplon’s photographs nature shown as mysterious and primitive, austere and threatening, with ghostly silhouettes, ruins and fragile traces.

She reminds me of Daisuke Yokota’s rough and ready approach and it turns out they’re both part of a collective, AM Projects.

As an introduction to Vonplon’s work ahead of the November event Colin Pantall has written an insightful piece about her photobook of glaciers in Switzerland.


Sequester

At Auto, at the beginning of the day we were asked to introduce ourselves to each other and name a favourite photobook. The first that came to mind for me was Sequester by Awoiska Van Der Molen, which came out last year. It’s not necessarily my all-time favourite, but it’s a good example of the kind of work I want to do and it’s a book many people have heard of, because it’s been a great success. Later in the day, when the facilitators were looking through samples of our own work, the first book Colin Pantall recommended me to look at was Sequester. 

So I wanted to look at the book again and consider its design as well as the pictures it contains. It’s designed by Hans Gremmen, who is also one of the publishers of the book at Fw. You can find an excellent interview with him about designing photobooks at Conscientious.   

The paper cover is a large sheet folded to double thickness. The hardback of the book is thick grey card stuck onto the front and back of a sheet of black paper bound around the book. This makes for an impressively thick and heavy object, but these are modest materials well put together.

The front cover has an image from the book. The fringe of eerie trees around a dark centre tells you what to expect from the book and invites you to delve into it. The back cover has the title and author. There’s no other text inside except a list of credits.

Inside, the book consists of three sections of 16 white pages each, separated by eight page sections of black paper. The white pages are lightly coated, the black are matte. Each white paper section has eight photos, mostly spread across two pages. There are a few single page images with a blank white facing page. Nowhere do two images face one another.

The use of black paper establishes a rhythm, separating out a series of chapters. These pages are printed full bleed grey on black, with close-ups and details taken from the main series of photos, vague traces of a distant forest, tangled branches and undergrowth, stony ground.

The pictures themselves are all very similar, dark landscapes of woods, mountains and rocky plains, shot in long exposures at dawn or dusk or by moonlight. They summon up a volcanic wilderness, remote and isolated with no one to be seen. I saw a couple of Awoiska Van Der Molen’s large prints at Photo London. Her photographs are very impressive as individual images at that scale, but inevitably less so printed here.

The book, however, is a triumph of book design. It’s a simple and effective (almost minimalist) design that doesn’t draw attention to itself by using gimmicks like inserts, flaps or whatever. It creates an immersive feeling of entering the world of the book and it feels broader than its 24 photographs, and whole and complete in itself. 


Auto: Self-Publishing Strategies

Last Monday I went to the Auto: Self-Publishing Strategies workshop at ICVL, Bristol to learn more about self-publishing a photobook.

The workshop was facilitated by photographers and self-publishers Carolyn Drake and Nicoló Degiorgis, publisher and bookseller Rudi Thoemmes, and photographer, writer and lecturer Colin Pantall.

It was good to spend the day discussing photobooks with them and the other participants, especially about the practicalities of putting a book together, getting it printed and selling it. I would like to know more about planning a project from the outset, before taking the photos, but I suppose that’s another workshop. 

What follows is a summary of what I learned. The most important thing for me is not to wait until you know everything before you get started. Instead, learn from doing it, from your mistakes as you go along. 

Design 

Design of a book is more important than its print quality. Keep it simple. That way there’s less to go wrong and it keeps costs down. Something humble and affordable will get your work out there. 

The cover is the most important thing. This is the hook that will make people pick up your book from a table of 50 books. At Offprint London I was surprised to see so many plain covers that gave no indication of the kind of work that might be inside. When designing a book it’s worth bearing in mind that it may well be displayed among many others. Give the book a reason for people to look at it.

There’s been a recent trend towards artist’s books, an obsession with being tactile. This is what gives print the edge over digital. Show people how to handle your book. Give people a reason to slow down while paging through it.

It’s better when the conceptual part comes at the end of the process. Decide how to start and finish the book, e.g. Carolyn Drake’s Two Rivers starts at the sea and moves inland through the landscape to end at the source.

Having a writer contribute text to your book can help you move towards the audience you want, or add to your audience. 

 When you design your book think from the start about how will you send it out. Get the packaging right so it’s not going to get damaged en route. Take account of standard postage sizes. Paul Gaffney’s We Make The Path By Walking is an example of a book that’s a good size to handle and send through the post.

Dummy 

If you stitch bind a book you can unbind and rebind it, but that can’t be done with a gluebound book. Collect samples of paper. 

It’s good idea to make a dummy with the printer and the materials you will use for the final book, even a dummy with blank pages is worth doing to find out how it feels. A printer using the HP Indigo Digital Press will be able to produce small numbers of copies. 

 Indigo printing is good for showing people how your final book will look and feel. Photocopying is good for editing.

Alternatively, a simple photobook dummy can be made with Blurb or Lulu.

Play within the limitations inherent in the format and process of printing. 

For offset printing less than 500 copies is not worth doing.

Colours come through less strongly on uncoated paper. Print with a second black for extra impact. If a photo looks good on uncoated paper it will look good on coated paper too, but not necessarily the other way round. 

Get a proof made, a big test print of a selection of images. Even with this it can still be hard to tell if it’s right. 

Always check for defects on delivery and don’t send out books until you’ve checked them. Don’t forget as a self-publisher any problems are your fault and it’s your reputation on the line.

Selling 

There’s about 2-3000 people worldwide collecting photobooks. Most books sell 250-400 copies. Not many sell more than 800. A lot of Steidl books sell 200 copies.

Kickstarter might work as a one-off, but it cuts out the bookseller and creams off the top of the market and slows down the impact at launch. It’s also possible to use Amazon for distribution, but consider the exposure you get in the photobook market from high profile dealers.

Booksellers need a discount of at least 35% because they will be putting money into selling it. They will have to buy 10-20 copies to make it worthwhile, so they will be committed to promoting it. 

Price sensitivity is low for photobooks. For the general public £15 is too much, so you might as well sell for £30 to the photobook market. Booksellers can’t afford to sell cheap books, e.g. Cafe Royal at £5.

When setting a price for your book of your first book take into account that 10% will have to be free copies given out to people who can promote it. You might sell 25% might be direct sales and the rest through the book trade. Don’t do consignments, firm sale only. You can have a cheaper advance price to pay for printing, then a launch price, then go more expensive for the last few copies. Hold back 5% in case you sell out. You should keep these to show people your work or give to friends and family later.

Another approach is to sell cheap at first to get your work out there. Give copies away to get known. Then when you sell to the photobook market the book can be more expensive. 

Talk to booksellers beforehand and you will get useful feedback. Ask at an early stage. Don’t wait until it’s finished, by then it’s too late.

There was plenty more advice, these are just a few highlights that stuck in my mind, with the emphasis on practicalities. Returning to my original point, Nico Degiorgis went into some detail on printing options and then admitted he didn’t know any of this stuff before he started on his book Hidden Islam. Advice is great, but you learn most from trying it out.

Here’s a couple of photos I took at the back of ICVL HQ in Old Market, Bristol:


Photobook Bristol


I spent last weekend at Photobook Bristol, at the Southbank Club. It was great to find an event like this so close to home. I usually associate photography events with Paris or Arles, or at least Brighton. Not that I’ve been to any of them. I am going to Unseen in Amsterdam in September. 

It was a packed programme and a packed space. The Southbank Club has a convivial feel, with a bar at the back of the main room, but it did get claustrophobic too. Although I was interested in all the talks, I did get tired of sitting in a hard chair in a hot room. There was a book room upstairs, but I felt I’d done enough looking at tables of books at Offprint London recently. Maybe the weekend could have done with a bit more variety, with different ways of engaging with people and perhaps some exhibition space, but that would need a different venue.

It’s always worth listening to people talking about something they’re really into, because their enthusiasm carries you along. Portraits of ordinary people on the street or at home isn’t really my thing, but Eamonn Doyle, Bieke Depoorter and others have certainly found interesting new approaches. It does feel like preying on people somehow, though. People in eastern Europe of the Black Country, the poor, the elderly, working class, immigrants and foreigners. Finding people with difficult and desperate lives and making them subjects for art. Bieke Depoorter approaches people on the street to ask if she can stay the night at their home, then photographs them, with their agreement. It’s more intimate than photographing people on the street. It could be seen as intrusive, but also collaborative as these people have a say in how the scene is set up. 

Martin Parr showed and talked through a selection of his many books. The good thing about an overview of a long term body of work is how techniques and approaches have evolved over time. Parr discussed ways of putting a photobook together, e.g. how to pair pictures across a spread, using coloured pages to match photos facing one another, and his move to doing away with white space around pictures. Photos individually can be boring, e.g. Parking Spaces, but put together in a book the point comes across, aided by the design. Parking Spaces is in the style of a family album and Parr showed his other pastiches, of fashion magazines, tourist guides, and family albums.

He also talked about using unusual tools, like a macro lens and a ring flash for landscapes. 

Jeff Ladd takes a more straightforward approach. He likes to go out and take photos using simple tools that give a clear view of the world. Best known as a photographer of the streets and nightclubs of New York, he’s irritated by ‘artists utilising photography.’ Me too.

Nico Degiorgis also talked about structuring books using colour and pastiche, e.g. his booklet of postcards, La Laguna Di Venezia.

Degiorgis discussed rules to work by, how form follows function, e.g. finding the ideal page size by dividing a standard sheet. For layouts, divide a page into cells like graph paper. Rules can be bent or broken, but it’s good to have them in mind. It helps to establish a house style, like an independent record label, to give a guarantee of quality, or at least to indicate that this work is part of something larger, a series, an ongoing project the reader might like to follow. 

He likes to use uncoated paper and the same monospace font for all his books, with standardised prices for soft/hardcover. Using an ex libris instead of a logo is a nice touch.

Saturday begain with the Photobibliomania panel of David Solo, Jeff Wall and Martin Parr talking about books about photobooks.

Parr noted that photobooks look great when spreads from them are reproduced in another book. Why not make a book about your own books before you’ve actually published them? 

Solo talked about how photos look seductive on an illuminated screen, but e-books are perishable because who knows if a format will last, if you’ll be able to view it at all in five years? The increasing use of layering and inserts in print photobooks maybe makes them interactive like apps, allowing the reader to switch between different types of material.

Print can be nostalgic. It can also be seen as an antidote to the internet.

Jeff Wall, publisher of Errata Editions, asked are photographic histories just for older dudes? Are young people better off just looking on the internet and doing their own thing? Judging by the age of most of the audience, yes! I was surprised because I didn’t realise photobooks were a thing for older people, since it’s a quite a recent phenomenon. Younger people might not be able to afford to buy expensive publications (or ticket for Photobook Bristol). 

Photobooks are inaccessible not only because of their cost. They usually appear in small print runs that appeal only to collectors and sell out immediately with no reprint. Later, Eamonn Doyle compared this collectibility to independent record labels, but 7” singles weren’t expensive and usually labels would press as many as they could sell at the time. They became collectible later because not many were sold, but photobooks are designed from the start to be collector’s items.

Laia Abril is a designer as well as a photographer. As a designer you should always do something for a reason. Production limitations can be good for decision making. She talked of the importance of research into visual cultures other than photography. 

A lot is being made of vernacular photography these days, getting away from the assumption that a body of work is inevitably by one artist. It’s a collaborative (or exploitative) approach, appropriating images belonging to others, in her case very sensitively. The aim of her work is documentary narrative rather than aesthetics, although her own photos are conventionally tasteful.

I missed Sunday, but I was back in Bristol on Monday for a self-publishing photobooks workshop.

Meanwhile, here’s a few photos I took around the Cumberland Basin over the weekend.


In Mexico

Possibly my favourite photobook in my small collection is In Mexico by Helen Douglas.

It’s a small 145 x 145mm, card-covered concertina book that opens out to 92 pages, in colour. It’s made up of photographs taken in the garden of the English surrealist Edward James, in Mexico and incorporates found images of birds and traditional designs. 

In Mexico is a panoramic collage of many photographs blurred into one long image, printed in saturated tropical colours, all full bleed. It’s intense and exotic, a kaleidoscopic sensory overload. It gives you the feeling of wandering lost in the jungle around an abandoned palace or temple.

Douglas assembles a subtle interplay of shifting views that flow across the spread as it expands as you open the book. It’s horizontal and linear like a frieze, but reversible and foldable so it turns back on itself in a continuous flow. The book feels immersive and enveloping. Its small scale makes it feel intimate and personal. It’s difficult to judge scale, so when people appear they seem tiny, dwarfed by nature.

In Mexico is very fluid and because it’s not a series of individual images, and has no fixed width, it doesn’t have the sense of rhythm and sequencing that’s usually employed in a conventional photobook. That comes from arranging individual images on separate pages in a folio. Here sequencing takes place within the image itself. Any format of book imposes its own discipline and the constraints of a concertina are very different from those of a folio. 

I don’t like complicated, over-designed photobooks. It often seems unnecessary and distracts from the pictures themselves as a body of work. Of course the design and production is part of the work, especially for an artist’s book (and In Mexico is very much an artist’s book), but where possible I’d rather things kept simple. The concertina format is simple, but In Mexico is complex in the way the images are put together. Here the format suits the subject perfectly.  

Links

The artist’s description of her experience of visiting the Edward James’s garden and her decision making in the design of her photobook: 

http://www.bookartbookblog.com/2014/04/a-conversation-with-helen-douglas-new.html

An interview with Helen Douglas where she discusses her life, work and the field of artists’ books:
http://friendswithbooksartbookfairberlin.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/an-interview-with-helen-douglas.html 

A post discussing In Mexico and some of Helen Douglas’s other work, including The Pond At Deuchar app:
http://books-on-books.com/2015/02/03/bookmarking-book-art-helen-douglas/ 

Using Format