Artists’ Photography Books: A Different Kind of Order
A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial, is a global survey of contemporary photography and video and will be on view at the ICP Museum from May 17 to September 22, 2013. The exhibition includes an installation of recent photobooks from 2009 to the present which testifies to the extraordinary boom in self-published and small-press photobooks now occurring around the world. The book component of the ICP Triennial was co-curated by Joanna Lehan and Matthew Carson (me).
Photobook Installation Checklist PDF
The imposing structure of scaffolding is the first thing that you notice. At first it does appear that it might be too much. But then the sublime weight of it begins to register. As each book contains an entire gallery of work and given the amount of books here on display one can only conclude that this scaffolding is a necessity for such heavy and heady materials.
There are three book platforms on a solid scaffold, five book shelves and comfortable seating for the perusal of the books. The books selected here are not so much about the individual items as they are indicative of a very authentic practice and process which is of this time. The books are accessible to the public. The books can be touched and the books can be sniffed. You can feel the bones, stroke the pages and fondle the spines of the books. It may seem extraordinary to some, but these books exhibited in a museum can be handled.
This is immersive theater of the artists’ photography books. The books here compel you to interact with them. This is not your Grandfathers library. This is a photobook laboratory of sketches and experiments. Speaking from a place that is not really represented anywhere else. These materials are of the compulsion to make, to record and to document. To produce using all the available means – utilizing self-publishing and print-on-demand (POD) services to create if not something that can be called an arts-and-crafts or traditionally handmade artists’ books then it certainly falls into the category of artists’ publications.
I think that for the uninitiated it is often hard to truly understand the importance of photographic artists’ books. Photography and the book have always been great companions in terms of concept and sequencing. The initiated know that these books are primary tools for many contemporary artists. They are part of their practice and integral to their process. These are books that often encourage you to make books. Help you to explore the DIY concept as an individual or a group and even as a reader. Looking at these book structures you may see how you are going to make your own books. OR you may be seeing what books you are going to collect. Your book vision is bewildering as there are so many new playful varieties and so many new messages. It seems to me that not everyone understands why someone would want to/need to self-publish a book or make an independent photobook, especially if the appearance of the thing is “unprofessional” or “unfinished”. There is still a lot of aesthetic conservatism when it comes to the book. More than a few times I have encountered a library patron who on discovering an intentionally loose page or insert in an artists’ publication has reported the book to be “broken”. There are photobooks here that include elements and devices such as: inserts, letters, intermittent high-gloss pages and different types of paper, newsprint, vinyl stickers, pull-out posters, unusual bindings, creative boxes and packaging, drawings and sketches, historical materials and archival materials. It seems that there is still a sensibility that dislikes some of these unnatural book behaviours.
Where are they coming from? Why are they being made? How do you know what is good? What are they trying to say? The photobook in this context is used as a sketch of too many ideas. It is a diary, a notebook, a reflection of practice and then a dialogue with that practice. It is often an internal dialogue. There are many autobiographical works here. There are many invented biographical works here. There is a lot of intimacy in these books. Photographic artists use these books in a myriad of different ways. They can be notations and impressions and ‘riffs’ upon ideas. They can be very personal. They can be books that explore archives or books that explore other books. They can be encyclopedic in nature. They can be visual prose or poems. These books are often collaborative and cooperative with many artists, writers and practitioners working together in teams to create a product. It is in this way that this “new artistic photobook community” continually informs and educates itself. Mimics itself. Bookmakers here often eat themselves and regurgitate the offerings. Multiplicity. This is a cooperative expression of personhood and agency.
One photobook maker explained it to me thus:
“Why people make books? I don’t know why other people do it , My reason is very simple I just like the little dirty bastards of books, and the more unprofessional and cheap they look The more I like them…”
A compulsion to make is paramount for these makers. Another bookmaker, artist and friend explained to me:
“Outside of the BIG publishers – the big publishers of the past for photobooks – Aperture, MoMA? Well, photography was formally the main element. The photobook now becomes the voice of the photographer – as opposed to prints or a body of work because it can circulate with an ease that an exhibition or ephemeral publishing (journals, newspapers, etc) cannot. The book has a public presence too, more akin to a blog than say a discreet project.”
Another book creator friend said:
“Some years ago, when I was mainly involved in independent filmmaking, and when Blockbuster looked as though it would take over the world with its video stores, a woman said to me in all naivety, “Blockbuster has everything.” Well, no it didn’t. When she made this remark, I couldn’t imagine finding anything I cared about in a Blockbuster store. I didn’t have any intention of insulting this woman, so I said nothing in the way of a response. But I had the feeling that she and I, while living in the same place as defined by geography, didn’t inhabit the same mental world at all.
I had a very different experience many years before. During my undergraduate days, an older lady I didn’t know at all saw a zine I was reading and asked me what it was, because she had never seen such a thing before. I tried to explain, and in doing so, I used the word “subversive.” This provoked a lot more questions, and after a while, I began to suspect that the person doing the asking was an FBI agent. I shouldn’t have worried. In talking to her further, I found out she was a member of an Ethical Culture group, and she had just attended a memorial for the recently-departed Garry Winogrand. She just wanted to know what young people were up to, and she saw a hopeful sign in the fact that a few of them were making their own publications.
There are lots of people whose interests are not reflected in the selection of a typical bookstore, even a good one. Suppose you love books, but are not interested in self-help guides, coffee table books, or any of the other established genres; and furthermore, you see nothing especially exciting in academic publishing, either. What do you do? The only solution is to make your own book, then hope for the best, and look around for other perverse souls who, despite all economic forecasts of disaster, are engaged in more or less the same activity.”
The books represented here at the ICP Triennial: A Different Kind of Order are inconsistent and vulnerable in their sheer brilliance. Many different narratives are represented here and there are many connections to be made. The books reflect a lot of activity and productivity. They reflect what is happening now.
As one book maker summed up: