By Kerim Aytac
This is a review of a photo-book. It is the review of a photo-book not as work of art, but of its value as a possession, on my shelf. It’s a great book but that’s almost beside the point. Click on the image to get a little insight!
I’m from probably the last generation who, as teenagers and bar a rudimentary amount of tech savvy, had to really pay for music. I have 18 year old students who have never paid. Painful as it was, this taught me some valuable lessons in anticipation of the photo-book mania that has engulfed the niche community that collects and desires them, and my soul. On a limited income and with CD’s at 15 pounds a pop, my budget could only really allow for 2 or 3 (at most) CD’s a month… Choices became agonising. Should I really commit to my fan loyalty and buy yet another Waits or Springsteen album (I wasn’t that cool back then) or essentially gamble on buying something unheard? Should I test out a new artist by sampling their difficult early work or buying the album that had broken them into the mainstream and therefore my general awareness (I wasn’t that cool back then)? I would spend hours in music stores, picking up, putting down, picking up again and then sometimes leave without having bought anything at all. It’s hard to get nostalgic about. I lament the demise of the cultural retail space as much as the nest thirty-something, but compared to say a Video Store, there was a lot less fun to be had. Renting a video was impulsive, throwaway, and frivolous; buying music was anal. You were buying something to own, a hopefully essential part of your collection that would come to define you in years to come; a possession.
There was one universal law, understood by all, and to which all adhered. No ‘Greatest Hits’ albums. There were some instances in which it might be permissible: Queen maybe, Bon Jovi (what’d I tell you) or music from the pre-album as concept (or significant period in an artist’s musical development) era, but you were not getting laid with a Springsteen compendium on your shelf (you weren’t anyway), unless you had all his other albums, in which case it could be interpreted as the act of a completest.
The greatest hits album, though probably exactly what you wanted in terms of listening pleasure, held no cultural value and was worthy of scorn. It indicated a lack of commitment and a failure to grasp the time and effort needed to truly comprehend a musician’s artistic development. It was the sign of a frankly appalling ability to approach music in terms of single tracks taken out of context, and to have invested in such a travesty was truly the sign of a heathen. It made economic sense though, it terms of bang for your buck, and there were, alas, some hidden away at the back of my cupboard.
So I bought my cd’s, imagining the biographical value they would eventually have, carefully, meticulously building my collection only to one day throw them all away in favour of a little white machine. Not only that, but singles were ok now too, acceptable in the age of the download. I loved throwing them away; I wasn’t ever any good at looking after them anyway. No longer would I be judged, as to actually have one’s pod scrolled through could only be the result of some serious getting to know one another action. And it didn’t matter anymore anyway. Quantity mattered. Ironic play lists and retro reveries. Eccentricity was the new cool.
I loved throwing my DVD’s away as well. Walls emptied and space revealed itself, with everything now stored in small digital boxes. I could become a minimalist and live in huge empty spaces with only a desk and some speakers. Books were next. I never re-read them, and though I did keep the majority, their absence of the ones I threw away was no loss. To be clear (I’m cool now godammit!) I love reading and am a verifiable film nut, but it felt freeing to rid myself of these possessions. I am more than the sum of my parts, I told myself, far too complex to be reduced to my taste in cultural trinkets. Wasn’t that the only point of collection anyway? To project an identity and try control other people’s judgements? I both kept and kept buying photo-books, however, as I was a photographer after all, and those were books I did come back to often; and they cost a lot of money.
Then I freaked. In the aftermath of some personal upheaval, I looked at the bookshelves in my formerly co-habited flat and was terrified by how inadequately they represented me. I am far more complex than the sum of my parts, I told myself, but it’s not adding up to much at the moment. I have now re-bought some of the books I’ve thrown away, started to re-build my DVD collection and spend hour upon hour debating which photo-book to buy next. Forgive me Lord, for I am weak. ‘Fred Herzog Photographs‘ is the last one I bought and it is a ‘Greatest Hits’ album.
To a certain extent, the same rules apply. Fred Herzog is from the pre-monograph as concept (significant stage etc…) era. A retrospective is the only form in which his work can be made into a book. So it’s ok. The work is wonderful, despite some of the heavy handed sequencing one might expect from this type of book. Having had to sift through an entire archive, it is understandable that editors would have found parallels and be tempted to juxtapose suggestively. Organised loosely by chronology and location, with excellent printing, the book reflects the excellence of this seminal early colour photographer. Numerous forewords, including one by Jeff Wall, outline his influence and significance. It is a very well put together package that fits neatly into the ‘colour before colour’ sub-genre alongside Saul Leiter’s Early Colour, Ernst Haas’s Colour Correction and Ohio from Joachim Brohm, all published by Steidl. Indeed there are similarities with Leiter in particular, thought the use of glass as refractory, be it steamed, stained or shattered. He was essentially a street photographer, with a thankful lack of decisive moments, seeking to depict a space and its inhabitants, and is at his best when crowding the frame. The few abstractions and still lives disappoint as singular images, but contribute to fleshing out these tender and compassionate portraits of Vancouver, Mexico and Portland.
It’s a nice book. I’m proud to have it. Furthermore it has been nominated for the the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation Book Awards alongside one of my other possessions: Redheaded Peckerwood by Christian Patterson. It’s worth has been cemented by the amount of ‘best of the year’ lists it has been featured on, and it is concept driven, showing one series by a photographer at one stage in his career. Herzog features on a few others too, but I held back until now having established a monograph-only rule. Rather than have an Atget compendium, I have no Atget, The book on books edition of ‘Atget : Photographe de Paris’ looks really good but is akin to deluxe edition reissues of seminal 90′s albums being churned out almost monthly basis (since when was Achtung Baby era-defining?). ‘Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans‘ is also like the reissue, with extra tracks and demo versions, or even a Criterion Edition DVD with specially commissioned extras. Of course you couldn’t have ‘Looking In’ without owning an actual copy of »The Americans«, no matter which of the dozens of reissues it is; that would just not do. I think what Errata Editions do is excellent, and seeing as I will never own the book it facsimiles, I should just bite the bullet. The publisher Dewi Lewis has recently started doing something similar, releasing early Martin Parr monographs and ‘Love on the Left Bank’ by Ed Van Der Elsken.
I really need to get a life.
We’ve all seen or read High Fidelity, and if it is not by now clear that I am a man, then it should be, Can a photo-book enthusiast be a geek? Do horn-rimmed spectacles and low-cut V-necks not deflect such a definition? We have social skills after all; that’s why we look at books in the dark. Indeed, it is easy to forget just how few people actually care about photo-books. Immersed in its world, one loses sight of the fact that few are actually counting the days until the next Mack release, or eagerly following the progress Moriyama’s career just so that one can get one of his books before it almost instantly goes out of print. A niche within a niche. So as I carefully assemble my collection at considerable financial and temporal expense, imagining the gasps and awe of those who have yet to set their eyes upon it, I am ignoring the fact that it will make no sense to almost anyone anywhere!
On a serious note, there are valid reasons to collect these publications, as there are reasons not to shun the compendium. In this digital age, when all material culture eventually ceases to be, it could be argued that photo-books and maybe children’s picture books are the only printed matter that need exist. Artist (not photographer) monographs rarely do the work justice, providing at best, pale imitations of its live experience. It is beyond the limitations of photography to adequately document and capture the stillness or loudness or darkness or brightness of a show. Seeing art is always multi-sensory, and the book can suggest but not capture this feeling. It will be up to technology, perhaps, to come up with new ways to immerse those interested in an installation within a space. The same could be said for Architectural documentation. I take it as given that novels will cease to be printed. Reference books, comic books, self-help books and the rest, could all benefit from, or be forced to shift to, digital forms. But the photo-book is where the photos within were meant to be. The book is the perfect destination for the photographic series. Exhibition spaces rarely have the walls or the inclination to show a series in its entirety, and even if they do, the experience of viewing it is often uncomfortable. Looking at photographs is an intimate, quiet experience that needs to be lived with, much like an album.
My reticence towards ‘Greatest Hits’ and ‘Best of’ compilations lies in the fact they are a collection of ‘singles’, but photography used to be, and largely still is for the amateur and most of those who use cameras, about the singular. The distillation of a moment into a beautifully composed and pregnant frame had been the point in the time of Atget, (although maybe not for Atget himself) but at some instance in the post-’The Americans’ era, photographers were expected to start seeing in ‘series’, be they narrative or conceptual. This is in many ways an unnatural process for the image-maker geared towards responding and reacting to world around him/her and is largely the result of an arts educations system seeking to equip artists for career progression. The compendium could therefore be seen as an even more natural state for a photographer’s work to end up in, as it more closely represents his/her organic experience in making it. For a young photographer to approach a publisher with a collection of his/her best work organised chronologically and concept-free, would be unheard of today, an almost impudent act, which is many ways a shame. The skill of an artist lies not necessarily in hisher execution of an idea, but perhaps in the vision and insight with which the work can be seen to respond.
All in all, the photo-book is one of the possessions I can legitimately justify owning, collecting and obsessing about. Even if no one understands it or is impressed by it, it testifies to the fact that there is still an audience for seeing the work in its best possible light. Will this obsession fill the gaping spiritual void that plagues me? Perhaps not, but something as beautiful as a collection of Fred Herzog’s photograph can certainly the demons at bay. Collecting is anal, but the objects are almost always transcendent.