Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Occupy the Press

By Jeff Downer
For Artist Publications: Kathy Slade
November. 22, 2011

Since the advent of the medium’s conception in the nineteenth century, photography has been identified with the printed page format, rendering photography almost synonymous to that of a collection of bound prints, termed a photo-album or a photobook. When William Henry Fox Talbot first ascertained that salts of silver were sensitive to light, he would make impressions or outlines of various materials and objects in a two-step process with a rather rudimentary emulsion. Exposing the objects on top of the silver salts to light presented Talbot with what we know today as the negative, an echo, if you will, of the very object’s contours and dimensions, and a sheet of paper that documented how we perceive the object on a two dimensional plane, this being the positive or the print. Talbot would later publish a series of these experiments in what is called the first ever photobook, “The Pencil of Nature,” published between 1844 and 1846. Photobooks, and photography in general have obviously come a long way since this rather elemental inception, both formally and conceptually the photobook can undoubtedly be seen as an autonomous art form, with the imagery, design and presentation of the book that makes it an independent object in itself. Artists’ books (an independently published book with limited editions) have doubly fostered this idea that the book is to be considered a self-contained work of art, even a portable exhibition of the artist. Some photographers in more recent years, have engaged with this medium, allowing them to bypass the art world and allowing their work to be seen by a larger audience. To deviate from the gallery or museum wall was not only a choice for photographers, but an inherent strategy, like in the works of Paul Graham or Alec Soth, whose very forms and subject matters fit the narrative confines of a book much more readily than they would an exhibition. Yet these narratives are not bound by a rigid concept or ideology and are somewhat cryptic in their reading, challenging our accustomed way of perception and understanding. And, it was photographers Nan Goldin and Larry Clark whose independently published photobooks offered a first hand experience of new art and a thorough documentation of a visually repressed demographic of drug-users, transvestites and youth culture to the conforming domestic aspects of their time. It was through the very subject matter that Goldin and Clark showed, and the rather conceptual narratives of Graham and Soth, that contested and changed the way traditional photobooks and photography operated within society, and how the medium is consumed and perceived en masse.

One palpable strategy that has been quite successful throughout art history that aims to challenge mainstream ways of seeing and consuming visual culture is to shock the audience through subject matter. Such is the case when it comes to photographer Larry Clark and his photobook Tulsa, with his “unflinching view of a previously undocumented drug culture in middle America” (PHG), that includes teenage-sex, guns, and domestic violence and presents itself to an audience who is quite removed from this type of behavior. Published as a photoessay from photographs taken between 1963 and 1971, Tulsa operated as a “true photo-diary” in that Clark was able to reconfigure the documentary mode where “instead of it being a view from the outside...here [is] the authentic view from the inside” (Parr, Badger, 260). It was an intimacy that Clark had with these subjects, his cohorts if you will, that enabled him to be around this culture and to shoot them with his camera as they simultaneously shot amphetamines and guns. Clark states that he is “just one of the people, one of the guys” and his relationship to his subjects has “never been [as] a distanced observer” but rather “it’s always been autobiographical” (LC), making Tulsa’s success within the photographic community partially bound to this apparent authenticity. Tulsa not only “extended the boundaries of acceptable subject matter for photographers” but became “one of the most talked about and important books of the decade” (Parr, Badger, 260) and it was on behalf of Clark’s publisher, Ralph Gibson’s Lustrum Press that the photographs and their subject matter started to creep into the private and comfortable realms of the public household. Ralph Gibson, a photographer who moved to New York in 1969 started a publishing company that enabled photographers to have more control over their own books unlike major publishing companies that saw photobooks as a commodity with which to make revenue. Lustrum Press is considered by many as “the best of the small American photobook publishers of the 70’s” (Parr, Badger, 260) and is not afraid of controversy exemplified by publishing and disseminating Clark’s project that automatically molds its viewers into a unrevealed voyeur within the impervious confines of their homes. An idea that probably coincided with Clark’s intentionality that these photographs were to become a book, and not an exhibition (for who would exhibit such controversial subject matter in the first place?). Clark wanted his work to enter into people’s homes where it could confront and provoke their relationship to these subjects, and also to themselves as observers, all the while giving expression to an otherwise abject culture.

Mimicking an aesthetic that has ties to the past, inadvertently summons a dialogue between its’ historical significance and its contemporary usage that can either add to or contest with this dialogue. Photographer Nan Goldin readily appropriates the snapshot aesthetic that began with the advent of Kodak in the 1950’s, along with its spectacular slideshow presentations, enabling Goldin to speak the language of family photography albums. However, Goldin’s “family at that time” (transexuals, transvestites, homosexuals, victims of aids, love, and violence) encompassed a larger subject matter that traditionally “would be deemed inappropriate for aesthetic consideration” (Bussard, 16), since they had been removed from visual representations of society up to that point. Goldin made her visual diary public by screening the slideshow of several hundred photographs that were taken between 1973 and 1985, at clubs and makeshift venues in Lower Manhattan to a small audience of familiars, who were more likely than not to be featured in the photographs. The slideshow started to gain attention within the art world, leading up to when Goldin was asked to show it in the 1985 Whitney Biennale, where it was noticed by Aperture Books’ Marvin Heiferman and Mark Holborn who synthesized it into a photobook one year later, in 1986, with the title “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”. Founded by photographers such as Ansel Adams, Minor White, Dorthea Lange and writers Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Aperture Books, a non-profit, charitable organization, was known to publish work which they personally believed in. Aperture gained a reputation as the “nearest thing to a mainstream publisher for non-commercial American photographers”, in that they were able to disseminate widely, constitute themselves as a household name, and publish what is thought to be “a fair number of the best American photobooks of the 1970s and 80’s (Parr, Badger, 237). The Ballad of Sexual Dependency in book form has been “immensely influential” in that it stands as “the first (and best) of a whole photobook genre” termed the confessional mode that has been “prove[en] to be one of the most popular genres of the 1990’s” (Parr, Badger, 39). Goldin’s family is “far from the bland uniformity of the American dream and its materialism”(Costa), in that they rejected both objective truths and cultural narratives that were rather immutable and influential during the conservative Reagan administration in the United States. The Ballad was so far-reaching in its diaristic mode that it has “set the emotional agenda for much contemporary photography of everyday life” (Parr, Badger, 290), and can still be considered relevant to today’s young photographers as it exemplifies an honest and poetic mirror held up to our times.

Film, in regards to the cinematic motion picture, can be seen as synonymous with the photobook, in that it’s very sequencing of still images creates a narrative that is authored by the photographer. However, two photobooks that apply a narrative structure in a way that intentionally contorts and challenges traditional linear readings, in order to make it’s viewers more cognitive and aware of a possible underlying concept are, A Shimmer of Possibility, by Paul Graham and Sleeping by the Mississippi, by Alec Soth. In A Shimmer of Possiblity, Graham showcases ambiguous, everyday actions, from mowing the lawn, smoking a cigarette, to eating greasy fried chicken at a bus stop. This is formally termed an elliptical narrative (where sequencing is not linear, but staggered and repeated) in order to “talk-albeit even cryptically- about political matters” (Badger, 230). Graham’s political undercurrent “focus[es] on the kind of people more affluent Americans...tend to ignore,” a social profile consisting of Hispanics, African Americans and the homeless (Badger 232). Graham photographs these demographics executing familiar activities, but in a way that highlights their significance within their social role. Grahams’ narratives, using no definitive beginnings or endings, were inspired by undramatic events found in literary realism, extrapolated into an aesthetic so “ordinary that [they] might have been taken by an amateur for posting on Flickr, or even taken by a surveillance camera” (Badger, 231). The book itself, (one of) the “most interesting and significant in recent years” (Badger, 230), is divided into twelve separate narrative volumes, each housing between one to sixty images. This inconsistency makes the work both physically and intellectually interactive, where the reader must leaf through these distinct volumes all the while coming to terms with their own narrative meanings and assumptions.
In Sleeping by the Mississippi, Soth’s narrative is also not bound by a rigid concept or ideology, yet is one that has ties to a spirit of wanderlust, that is formally paralleled in the reading of the book, in that the viewer is shown a poetic document of the people, towns, and landscapes that encompass the Mississippi river and is asked to judiciously traverse the lyrically sequenced photographs. Soth “hints at tales about marginal and disregarded lives” that bestow a sense of dignity and consequence to the subjects pictured, creating a lyrically poetic and dark book. Soth “takes us back to the roots of the photobook” (Parr, Badger, 50), in that the first pressing of the book was self-published and distributed by Soth himself. Using modern technology, Soth conceived the book’s layout on a computer, printed the pages on ink-jet paper, and bound the project, making it “indistinguishable from a conventionally printed book”; an act that seemed to “subvert the notion of the photobook as a mass medium” (Parr, Badger, 16). This maquette (a stand-in or an imitation) of Sleeping by the Mississippi was disseminated more or less through word of mouth, and eventually landed in the hands of German publisher Gerhard Steidl, who, one year later published it. Soth and Graham both worked with Steidl’s “unique philosophy which revolves around the idea of artists as king and publisher as servant” (Jaeger, 252). Steidl is not interested in how much a book project costs as long as he is able to “turn the artists’ vision into reality”(Steidl, 255) through an exceptionally high standard of quality. Steidl is one of the “few remaining publishing houses to be independently operated by its founding owner”(Steidl) who is in total control of the manufacturing process. Today, many mainstream publishers have outsourced a number of steps of the publishing processes to different countries in order to lower the overall cost of publishing, for instance, much printing is now done in China. This distances the artist from their work, in contrast to Steidl’s in-house process, which allows for minute edits and adjustments by the artist who follow their project from the initial layout to the final binding in Steidls’ residency program (on site apartments, restaurants, lounges and libraries) under the name Steidlville. Both Soth and Graham have implemented themselves in the history of photobooks through their commanding narrative structures that take on “filmic haikus”, or a visual journey that has been combined with Steidl’s particular vision of creating remarkable books that entice viewers to reexamine what is placed before them.

By employing visual devices in art that affect an audience through content or subject matter, mimicking an aesthetic in a way that defies historic predispositions, or creating a non-linear, malleable narrative housed in book form, artists significantly provoke conventional methods of how visual culture operates, and is consumed and perceived by its viewers. Such is the case with photographers Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Paul Graham and Alec Soth, who successfully used these tactics in their own practice. But it because of their publishers: Lustrum Press, Aperture, or Steidl, that their work is able to be disseminated throughout the public where it remodels and furthers the visual culture of photobooks and photography in general. Books and photobooks alike, can be seen as conveyors of ideas, and when we place them in the context of history, they become mementos of civilization; an extensive way to invoke cultures at any given time. In the art world, books of important work are more accessible than that of an exhibition, and can be referenced periodically throughout time, underlining the importance of the printed page for dissemination purposes, that assists the work in becoming more pervasive and significant within society. Independently published work has become a unique, separate entity from that of the exhibition, in that it bypasses the conforming influence of museum culture, allowing the artist to be in direct dialogue with an audience without the neutralizing or liberating commentary that is often embedded in the exhibition. “Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books the development of civilization would have been impossible” (Tuchman, 13).

Works Cited

Parr, Martin & Badger, Gerry. The Photobook: A History volume I. New York, NY. Phaidon Press, 2004.

Parr, Martin & Badger, Gerry. The Photobook: A History volume II. New York, NY. Phaidon Press, 2006.

Badger, Gerry. The Pleasures of Good Photographs. Elliptical Narratives: Some Thoughts on the Photobook. New York, NY. Aperture Books, 2010.

Jaeger, Anne-Celine. Image Makers Image Takers. New York, NY. Thames & Hudson, 2007.

PHG. “Exhibitions 2011: Larry Clark Tulsa” Presentation House Gallery. September 10- November 11, 2011.

Steidl, Gerhard. “About Steidl” Steidl. 2011.

Costa, Guido. Nan Goldin. New York, NY. Phaidon, 2005.

Bussard, A. Katherine. So the Story Goes. Chicago, IL. The Art Institute of Chicago, 2006.

Works Consulted

Swanson, Virginia Mary & Himes, D. Darius. Publish Your Photography Book. New York, NY. Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

Clark, Larry. Tulsa. New York, NY. Grove Press, 2000. (Second Edition)

Goldin, Nan. Ballad of Sexual Dependency. New York, NY. Aperture Publishers, 1986

Graham, Paul. A Shimmer of Possibility. London, UK. SteidlMACK, 2011. (Softcover Edition)

Soth, Alec. Sleeping by the Mississippi. Gottingen, Germany. Steidl, 2008. (Third Edition)