Tuesday, 9 September 2014

"For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness" at the PhotoBookMuseum, Cologne. August 19th - October 3rd

Launch of the PhotobookMuseum, Cologne © Daniel Zakharov

The ongoing elevation of the photobook from it's lowly perch on the margins of art (admired and collected by a relatively small group of enthusiasts) to being widely accepted and even fashionable, has received another boost thanks to this summer's launch of the PhotoBookMuseum in Cologne, Germany. At the moment it’s actually a large scale temporary exhibition in a vast industrial space, but the organizers have serious ambitions to establish a permanent institution dedicated to the appreciation of artist's photobooks. 

The PhotobookMuseum, Cologne © Daniel Zakharov

Photographs and books were made for each other. The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot was published as early as 1844, only 5 years after the birth of the medium. Photos are generally modest in size, inherently and easily reproducible and they naturally lend themselves to story telling by assembling images into series’ and sequences. Careful placement within the pages of books enhances this potential and Gerry Badger’s now famous proposition that the photobook sits somewhere between the novel and the film as a means of expression, perfectly describes the enormous creative possibilities that are offered by the form.

Photographs somehow retain their integrity in the transition from darkroom (or digital) print to being rendered in ink on a commercial printing press. This affinity with the original material can never be true of books of paintings, sculptures, installations, and so on. So while it is possible to produce a beautiful book featuring illustrations of paintings, it is not really possible for that book to actually be the work of art. This is precisely the status the photobook has achieved - an authentic work of art for the price of a book, that ordinary people can afford to buy and keep on their shelves to view at their leisure. 

Despite this, until the end of the 20th century, printing and production costs for a high quality book of photographs were so prohibitive that relatively few were produced. When I was a student at Trent Poly (1981-4) the library’s photography section was a revelation and an inspiration to me - in fact it was probably the most important element of my photographic education - yet there were still only a hundred or so proper photobooks in their catalogue. In those days, a couple of visits per year to the Photographer's Gallery and Creative Camera bookshops in London was all that was required to keep abreast of just about all of the relevant publications from Europe and the US. 

The PhotobookMuseum, Cologne © Daniel Zakharov

Computer aided design (1990‘s), digital printing (2000’s), increased connectivity, a huge expansion of photographic art education as well as other factors, have altered this landscape so completely that the book form is now available to just about anyone and new books by photo artists are released on a daily basis. At this years photofestival in Arles there were several hundred entries for the annual book prize, all of them laid out on a line of tables at least 100 metres long. Books, books and more books snaking their way through the enormous old railway factory exhibition space. It was an impressive and indeed a daunting sight.

Books about photobooks are now amongst the books we want to have. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger have produced 3 hefty volumes since 2004 and there are also impressive publications about the history of the South American, Dutch, Japanese and Spanish photobook as well as books about private collections and critics choices. There is also the excellent Errata Editions, a publishing house dedicated to re-presenting “rare photography books which are unavailable to students and new generations of photographers”.

I’ve already seen a few survey exhibitions of photobooks and, enjoyable as they have been, the challenge is always the paradox between the fact that the primary joy of a book is the one to one intimacy between the object and its reader (the whole work sitting within your hands for you to explore in your own time and space) and the reality of being presented with an array of unreachable objects, displayed behind protective perspex or on screens and monitors. Nowadays, it’s not just the historical books that are too rare and valuable to be touched. If any contemporary book is considered worthy to be included in such an exhibition it will almost certainly have rapidly sold out and be extremely difficult and / or very expensive to acquire, which to me is a shame and somehow against the true spirit of the form.

It’s therefore very pleasing to report that “For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness” is going to be back in print in the next couple of months and that it’s included in the show in Cologne. As well as the original book and maquette (in perspex vitrines) there are some other bookworks from the project as well as several framed prints, set against large scale backdrops of Charlie’s photo albums blown up to fill entire walls. It is a pity that these two events won’t coincide but you can’t have everything!

The PhotobookMuseum, Cologne © Daniel Zakharov 

Monday, 1 September 2014

Mothers and Babies

Julie and Leanne Patten, 21st January, 1981

Earlier this summer I was invited to participate in Dresden Public Art View and took the opportunity of showing this 'found' portrait, a faded snapshot I borrowed from the Patten family of Sunderland. It portrays Julie Patten, aged just 16, holding her newly born daughter Leanne, on 21st January, 1981. Originally, I included this picture in a slide show of family pictures of Leanne I put together for a video work called Mother's Grief - commissioned for a BBC event around the Easter Passion story by the North East Photography Network. The link to grief, is that Leanne died in 2009, aged 28, from cancer. The video work featured a film portrait of Julie responding to my chronological selection of pictures of Leanne that were being simultaneously displayed on an adjacent monitor. None of the pictures feature the illness at all, but Leanne's death is obviously a haunting presence and it makes for a particularly emotive piece, although ultimately, the work is about the way personal photographs have the capacity to connect us all with real past experiences and evoke powerful memories.

But for me, this one particular photograph has developed a life of its own, apart from the video project and from everything that happened after the shutter was released. It's an image that has become etched in my mind like no other I have come across all year.
Composition and pictorial elements seem irrelevant. I believe its strength lies in the lack of any artistic purpose or ambition. It is just so direct and simple, an utterly unpretentious statement about existence, the most honest record of the most fundamental human experience - giving birth - which I, a father, can only begin to comprehend.

The acclaimed Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra has produced a series of portraits of mothers with newborns including, coincidentally, one of another woman named Julie entitled, Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29, 1994, which is held in the Tate’s collection. They are hugely impressive, highly detailed and physical works and extremely revealing, yet any sense of intimacy is curtailed, probably because they have been methodically planned and are very skillfully and rather systemically produced. Dijkstra’s presence and her intent as an artist is palpable. 

Julie of Den Haag is facing Rineke and her large format camera while it seems to me that Julie Patten’s youthful gaze reaches way beyond the lens. She is looking at me just as much as I am looking at her and I find myself transfixed. I feel I can read everything and nothing in her expression and I am floundering in the complexity and meaning of it all. Such a beautiful thing, the way that sometimes, a humble snapshot photograph somehow manages to express feelings that can’t be put into words.

Needless to say, I have now started actively collecting amateur photographs of mothers and newborn babies so please do contact me about any pictures you feel may be of interest!
© Dresden Public Art View, July 27th - August 7th, 2014