Let’s Pretend! The Contemporary American Photobook

Most of the boxes that hit my doormat come from Japan, but more recently with the approaching sneak preview of the 10×10 American Photobooks project, which I am co-organizing with Matthew Carson and Olga Yatskevich, I’ve been receiving a lot of domestic parcels. Rather than Japanese postwar photobooks, my office table is filling with contemporary American photobooks from the past 25 years – books from lists supplied by the ten specialists who have each recommended 10 books for the reading room. As I spend time with these photobooks, before they are carted off for photography, I naively keep asking myself, “What ties them together?” I’m aware that this is a risky exercise with most responses either too simple or too open-ended — yet I persist. With these limitations in mind, here are some observations about the American photobooks that have been passing through my office.

“Have a nice day,” the sunny words that grace the front of those ubiquitous cheap plastic bags with the image of the yellow smiley face. That is what repeats in my mind as I close many of the American photobooks that await shipment to the various 10×10 events that will happen over the next four months. There is an unabashed sensation of artificial optimism, despite many images of destitution, decay and dysfunction. It is a strange sort of optimism, one that comes from a conceptual blurring of fact and fiction. It is not a visual blur, as in the are-bure-boke (rough, blurred, out-of-focus) aesthetic of Japanese Provoke era photobooks, but rather a mash-up of documentary material, personal diaristic archives and snapshots, appropriated pre-existing content, artificial or Photoshopped constructions, and vernacular imagery of the banal. It’s a world where narratives are often based on role-playing and a culture of “Let’s pretend.”  Many of the photographers responsible for the photobooks in 10×10 American Photobooks have been raised in a cultural cocktail that filtered the cheery glow of the Disney channel and its artificial universe through the reveal-all sensibility of reality TV and social media. There is this nagging interest in all the books to mix the ideal and artificial world that we are all supposed to have and yearn for with the raw, unraveling and totally damaged world of our realities. This seems to be the common ground. The blurring of fact and fiction to create a third reality that is then repackaged and given to us in book form as the contemporary American photobook, with many variations explored: the road trip, family diary, beautiful losers, archive of banality, and re-purposed images of identity constructions courtesy of social media.

Pretend You’re Actually Alive (2008) by Leigh Ledare is one of those books that on the surface might be viewed as a “factual” family album comprised of ephemera, photos and journal-like entries. It intimately explores Ledare’s relationship with his mother, a former aspiring ballerina who is desperately trying to hold on to and repackage an identity shaped by feminine seductiveness and youth. Now working as a strip club dancer, images of Ledare’s mother in various states of alluring dress or undress are mixed with more banal family snapshots. The result is a factual account that liberally intertwines the fictional dreams and aspirations of Ledare’s mother with the desperate dysfunction of her reality. Pretend We’re Actually Alive is a book that taps many conflicted emotions and leaves viewers uncomfortable in the best sense – all the while wishing them a nice day.

A wishful optimism, but this time focused exclusively on youth, is also at work in the “beautiful losers” themed books of Ryan McGinley, Ari Marcopoulos and Tim Barber. Growing out of the skateboard, graffiti, indie fashion and music subcultures, McGinley’s self-published The Kids Are Alright (2000), a book selected by one of the 10×10 online specialists, chronicles the photographer and his drunken friends as they hang out at home, on the road and in New York’s East Village. Often cited as an heir apparent to the drugged up sexually violent youth culture images of Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) and diaristic snapshot aesthetic of Nan Goldin, McGinley’s images lack a similar angst as they radiate a carefree optimism. They lean more towards an idealized lifestyle commerciality than social commentary.

Ari Marcopoulos, who first gained recognition photographing skateboarders and graffiti artists, is represented in 10×10 with his limited edition book Out to Lunch (2012). Printed on matte paper for the most part with the exception of two glossy contact sheet pages, the gritty images in this book span most of Marcopoulos’ career. There is a palpable sense of urban-ness within this very tactile book held together by a visibly stitched spine. Yet, inserted within his raw factual record of street, music and urban counter-culture, Marcopoulos has included portraits of friends and family that are simultaneously fierce and fragile – all presented through an empathetic eye that is conscious of the myth-making power of photography.

Tim Barber’s Mystic Heather & Virgin Snow (2008) is a fairly unpretentious, almost zine-like book that was one of the last photobooks to hit my desk. It is deceptively simple on first viewing. Named after the Manic Panic hair dye used to color the book’s subject Julia’s hair, the portraits have a carefree innocence to them. Shot in Western Massachusetts and New York City, Julia projects a self-assured youthful presence as she plays in a field, stands naked holding a copy of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, and is caught mid-stride in an urban stairwell wearing a “Sex Sells” T-shirt. The images and their sequencing, which combine a beautiful losers aesthetic with the adventures of a road trip, have the casual feel of snapshots uploaded to Facebook.

Archiving the banal and re-appropriating identity in a blurring of fact and fiction à la Disney, Alyse Emdur’s Prison Landscapes (2012) is emblematic of the optimistic “Have a nice day” sensibility that masks many of the books that deal with dysfunction. Growing up with an older brother who was incarcerated, Emdur regularly visited him in various New Jersey prisons. Upon rediscovering a photo from one of these family visits, Emdur was reminded of the painted scenes in prisons that provide backdrops for family portraits on visiting day. For Emdur, these idealized landscapes and urban backgrounds were always in stark contrast to the grim reality of prison life and its oppressive architecture of confinement. In 2005, Emdur began corresponding with prisoners with the goal of creating a series of prison portraits against these ubiquitous fantasy backdrops. The resulting images, presented along with snippets of correspondence from the pictured prisoners, highlight a fictionalized American welding of picture-perfect freedom with the reality of incarceration. Emdur’s snapshot-like photos transform prisoners and their families as she and the prison portrait studio place them into artificial scenes typical of a family vacation.

A similar artificiality is at work in the images in John Divola’s Continuity (1997), a collection of pre-existing 1930s film set photographs from Warner Brothers Studios.  All is perfect in these black and white images of lavish dining rooms, elegant living rooms, familiar office hallways and suggestive bedrooms with ruffled sheets. They project a flawless optimism crafted through the seamless perfection of cinema. All is as it should be and as we dream it to be. Divola collects the discarded and timelessly perfect banal spaces of cinema. They are familiar and pleasant, as they also feel empty and dead.

Archival tendencies are a common thread throughout many of the books in 10×10. One of my favorites books that showcases artist-as-collector of pre-existing banal images is Diane Keaton’s Mr. Salesman (1993). Sequenced from archival 1940s and 1950s Jamison Handy industrial photographs of salesmen and sales culture, the book reads like a film noir with high contrast matte black and white images of men in dated suits at company meetings. Through clever sequencing, Keaton transforms banal corporate photos into cinematic narratives, crafting tales of intrigue and adventure.

Perhaps the same can be said for Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Familiar (2008), another book included in the 10×10 American Photobooks reading room. In this case, the rooms pictured seem ordinary, but upon reading Simon’s extensively researched captions for each image, one becomes aware that these are secret and undocumented spaces that are the site of covert and rarely seen activities. Simon, through these beautifully lit and carefully staged images, asks us to reassess our opinion of the banal and commonplace. Nothing looks out of place, but her captions tell us otherwise. In these images, we are asked to suspend our optimism and no longer “have a nice day.” In fact, Simon is directing us to stop pretending and extract fact from fiction.

10×10 American Photobooks will preview in NYC from May 3-5, 2013.

Opening Reception: Friday, 3 May 2013, from 7 to 9
4-5 May from 12-8pm
Ten10 Studios
10-10 47th Road
Long Island City.

Further information can be found at:

Books Mentioned in the ICP Library:

Leigh Ledare. Pretend We’re Actually Alive (2008). TR179 . L43 2008.

Ari Marcopoulos. Out to Lunch (2012). R TR179.5.M369 .O98 2012.

Taryn Simon. An American Index of the Hidden and Familiar (2008). TR647 .S56 2007.

Diane Keaton. Mr. Salesman (1993). TR681.S2 .K43 1993.

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