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  • Photo du rédacteurArthur Genre

Entretien avec David Campany

Historian and curator

Grand palais / Paris photo le 7 nov 2018

(retranscription with help of Sebastian Hau)


Hi David

I am working on a PhD about digital and photobooks. My main argument is that a new history of photobooks is emerging for 15 years, due to an explosion of publishing pratices directly connected to development and accessibility of digital technologies.

In 2014, you wrote a short text on Aperture Photobook review, « Photobook, What’s in a name? », an important text for my research because you pointed that the term « Photobook » was not really used in historical and theoritical texts before the 2000 years.

« The term ‘photobook’ is recent. It hardly appears in writings and discussions before the twenty-first century. »


DC_

No, there are a few mentions of "photobook »… In a way it's interesting that it wasn't thought about that way.

If you go back to the twenties, which is the beginning of the kind of modernist Photobook … what's interesting about that period is that nobody knows who bought those photobooks or why. So if you imagine August Sander makes Antlitz der Zeit, Face of our time, year 19228 or 1929, nobody knows who bought it, Because Photography was understood to be at the intersection of so many different discourses and perspectives. You could read that book as Art, as Documentary, as Anthropology, you could read it politically, you could read it as a book about fashion, about sociology… The idea that it would be just a photobook, that it belonged to the history of photography’s books completely misses the point, that what made photography so exciting. So I think once the term started to be used, it must be a sign of things having changed. I think since you are interested in the digital, the online experience alerted people to the specific difference between the book and the online. It also made it possible to collect books as never before, to buy them easily as never before, so the kind of dark shadow of the rise of the Photobook is the internet.


OC_

Coming back to yourself, for me you represent the perfect example of what the contemporary period allow. I mean you are an historian and a curator and you combine freely theses professional skills to make something that we can evaluate that as an artistic practice..


DC_

That"s true but in a way I feel that come out of that generation of the sixties and seventies who thought very hard to be able to do what they wanted : if they wanted to write, they could write, if they wanted to curate, they curated, you could do what you wanted. I don't relate to that portfolio of different activities as a recent thing, and I can understand that maybe other people are in similar position to me who think about that way, but for me it's much more to do with the generations of the sixties and seventies that just felt free to do anything they wanted.

Coming back to the question, it was curious, when I was making that book with Mack called Gasoline, it's all about old press photographs about the oil crises in America; And you could say that, oh well, that's a book ! very analog, about old press photographs, also very analog. But I was buying them on ebay, which is not very analog ! And that's a curious mixture.


OC_

How and when did you enter the photobook world? Were you photographer?


DC_

Well I was doing a very unusual undergraduate Photography course which was half writing half practice and there aren't many courses like that. So I always understood that making things and thinking about them could take many forms, as long as you were being with images. You could be with them in many different ways. I was having lots of exhibitions just after I graduated, but it was at a time when the art market was really developing, and I didn't think that the work I was making was particularly marketable, and I didn't push hard so much to be an exhibiting artist and I always read a lot, or was invited to write things, and that was fine too..


OC_

Is there a specific book that marked you or convinced you ?


DC_

Yes, a book called Between by Victor Burgin, which I think Michael Mack is going to reprint. It came out in 1986 that was a combination of shorter and longer writing, images and text. And he was always someone who was an artist and a writer and a theoretician, and I still think there's nothing quite like that book. It had a big impact on me early on. I saw Roma and Tokyo by William Klein very early on and i saw Bill Brandt's The English at home,… I think I understood the book was very significant.


OC_

you were studing in the eighties ?


DC_

Yes I studied my undergraduated courses within '87 to '90.


OC_

Coming back to digital and photobooks, what do you think of the explosion of self-published photobooks from the past 10-15 years?


DC_

I guess the appeal is : if you want, you can do everything.

The book is a sort of « miniworld » : you can be the photographer, design it and edit it if you want, work with your friends who are good at that.

I think in the end I don't care if it's published by Phaidon or you only made ten copies on your printer at home, I don't really think about wether it's selfpublished or not, I just think about wether it's any good or not. I mean especially from a sort of social perspective. I'm sure it's important that people have access to the means of production and they get to do it, and they get to make their books. But production and distribution are different questions. have you ever read that book that Bill Owens put together, Publish your own photobook? That came out in the seventies, after the boom in independent publishing in America, and he wrote to other photographers, asking them how they did their books, Robert Cummings, Sultan and Mandel, … and always the issue they discussed was distribution, getting the thing printed is one thing, but getting the thing distributed, that was where all the effort was.


OC_

One of my hypothesis is that the self-publishing movement - which I am myself a part - with the help of digital, create a kind of similar condition of production for artists, as for the avant-garde artists and bookmakers of the sixties. I mean the possibility of conducting the creative process entirelly, from the conception to production, diffusion and distribution, … Do you think we can compare historically these periods?


DC_

You could do, but there is a difference, you have to distinguish what you mean by the digital, are you talking about networks distribution, are you talking about the aesthetic effect, are you talking about layout, the making of the … ? ..


OC_

Yes everything, The lay-out, the softwares to make it, the network diffusion and distribution, the influence on the content, the form, etc..


DC_

I mean those things have to be separated out from each other, in a way,… there are overlaps of course, but I a way there is no such thing as the digital. It has to be broken down. It’s curious I just edited the latest issue of the Aperture Photobook review which is about editing : who does the editing for books ? how is it done ? you know most of people still print them out, and arrange their pictures on a table, .. and I spoke to Roe Ethridge, and he said he does everything on Indesign, it's amazing how happy accidents happen on Indesign, You put the pages that you don't like at the bottom, or suddenly you dump in images that you don't like and suddenly these chance things happen, but you weren't thinking about it. And also he says that working with images on a screen, even though you are working on a book, looking at them as pure image is much more helpful for him that printing them out and making a maquette. It will be interesting to see if people react to that, because I don't think that many people do that.

I just did a book of Jeff Mermelstein's pictures. First of all I printed them out, and I thought well,… this is an Instagram project ! And I should try to do it on a screen, and in the end I did a combination of both, shuffling and printing, and working … not in Indesign, but I did the first rough lay-out in keynote. I do everything in keynote.

I think the digital has to be broken down, cause there is a difference between what it is esthetically, what it is done for distribution, or knowledge networks, and design. They are related obviously, but I think to get somewhere thinking about it you have to separate those. I think there is a simplification of layout, I don't mean making simpler layout, but that it's easier for people to make quite complex layouts now, and I think that's made an enormous difference, even to quite traditional photographers for example.


OC_

Do you think digital books in the sense of dematerialized book will find a place in the future of photobooks?


DC_

What is a dematerialized book?


OC_

I mean this kind of simulacrum of books that you can read on screens : a mix between slideshows, apps, and pdfs…


DC_

Ah e-books you mean… I think they are something else, they are what they are, but they are not books, maybe we don't have a name for them yet. This is a problem with certain screen-based experiences with images and text, we still refer to pages and folders, and copy and paste and airbrush, … there is a sort of poverty of language for speaking about the online or screen-based experience of images.

When people use the term ebook, and for example Mack made a ebook, of Gasoline, I just don't relate to it as a book. It is fine, it is what it is, fine, but it's not a book, it's something else, and we don't have words for these things, it's frustrating. But it keeps dragging it back to the book term as a point of reference. I don't mean to say digital books are bad, but I don't refer to them as books, they are different. I relate to books as things. When I experience all sorts of images online, I find it frustrating when the model for making them or the language for talking about them, comes from books. They should have their own language. It's developing that language now, but it's already been a generation, so it's frustrating.


OC_

One of my point of reflexion is that all the kind of very first digital forms have simulated the system of use or the vocabulary of their analog version. It’s true with the Indesign software environment and vocabulary, the e-books ergonomy which looks like pages of books. It’s also true with the form of the cameras that still reproduce the container of a 35mm film roll…

I am also very interested in the pdf, which is the link between the analog and the digital.. and one of the most universal and democratic digital form.


DC_

The guy that designed my website is a very good webdesigner and he's also a real connoisseur of books,… and he said, yeah, I will design your website, but I will not put any pdf-files on it. Pdf's are for print.


OC_

We can also consider the Pdf as the « negative » of the book


DC_

Maybe. I take that point, but his point was, « Pdf is a print-format », it comes from that world, that way of organising things, I think there is no reason at all anything online should be organised by pages, … even the concept of the page is not really necessary on a screen. The designer said, « I’ll design your website, but you're not allowed to have pdf's, if you want to have texts, or essays, you just put it on, and design it, and put images on, and it will be it's own thing », but he said « I am not getting involved with it if you have PDF’s». That's really good for someone who really understands webdesign and is real booklover. He's not antibook, he's credibly probook, to the extent he understands they should be kept quite separate.


OC_

For me the ideal website should be the opposite; An entrance page with only links to pdfs. I consider the pdf as the most universal and democratic form, the only form that is perfectly compatible with the screen and the printed page.


DC_

Sure. I can understand that. It's just that most of the time nobody is printing out these pdf's, so you're left with a print-format, that isn't printed, but read on a screen. And you decide : « view as single page », « view as double page », « scroll »,…

I like pdf's of very very complex books, when you can't comprehend the pdf itself. I remember when Michael Mack was working on Paul Graham's The Present. I couldn't understand the gatefolds in the pdf! It's interesting if it doesn’t work in a way, you have to have a real insight and knowledge to be able to make such kind of PDF and imagine what it would be as a book.


OC_

I remember my first book with RVB Books, « enter the pyramid », the book in form of a pyramid. It was impossible to understand for a common reader what would the book look like with the PDF.


Do you agree if I affirmate that digital has influenced the creation of a new contemporary history of Photobooks that started at the transition of our century?


DC_

Yes it has ! With the caveat that you have to separate out all of those digital functions. There is a difference between the influence of the digital in forming a culture around the photography book, that's one thing, … then as design, then as esthetic effect on the way images are seen on screen, … then the way books get edited, and the rythms and the patterns …. The new ways people edit are responding to the online experience of images, so yes would be the answer but you have to separate out what is understood as digital.


OC_

I assume there is also the printing part, the binding, the book form, the self-refering content, the distribution..


DC_

It's hilarious, I can't remember the photographer, I was just looking at a new book, by this American Topographic landscape photographer making 8x10 prints, and the publisher told me : « these are actual size on the page, everything is just analog, true to the medium, like a direct transfer, etc.« … but then I look at the back of the book and it was written : « this book was made by a list of technologies like digital scanning »…

So you just have to think, all of those new technologies has enabled this absolutely analog project to be realized in the most perfect way ever, but there is a sort of denial.

I was just reading this book Shallow learning by Aron Heggart « Shallow learning (?) where he puts his own images into online search engines, and finds similar pictures. That's a different kind of way thinking about the effect of the digital on a books. So yes would be the short answer, but it really needs a long answer.


OC_

Is there a definition of the Photobook?


DC_

NO, no, I don't understand how you would do this.


OC_

Coming back to your text « Photobook, What’s in a name? », 3 points were really important on my research. We already talked about the recent apparition of the term, the second element you pointed is that digital technologies (like Ebay, the social networks, the blogs) helped to define and give sense to an analog medium, referring to Marshall MacLuhan.

« New media don’t replace old ones but they do redefine them »

You then wrote that « photographic book making was so rich and varied precisely because it was not conceptualized as a practice with a unified name »

Could you develop this point?


DC_

I think the arrival of the term Photobook is for an audience that already has been constituted. And this is the problem that publishers are now having, once you get past those 2000-3000 "Photobook lovers" you're in a realm where photographic books came from.

Like I mentioned Sander's book from the twenties, you don't know who and how people respond to these new books, and that's when it gets interesting. There's no point in having criteria for judgment around the Photobook.

I remember when I was recording a long conversation with Stephen Shore and he was due to come to my house for lunch. I had on my table a copy of « Uncommon places » and my wife's partner who used to be a mechanic, was looking at the book for twenty minutes very seriously, and afterwards he said : « Hum, do you think that in the seventies in America, there where lots of MGB sports cars? or do you think that Stephen Shore just liked them? » And I said, « he's coming for lunch, you can just ask him ». And after lunch he said, « Stephen I've been looking at your book, and would like to know : there are a lot of MGB cars. was it because there was a lot of theses cards in the seventies did you just like photography them ?… And Stephen's eyes lit up and he said : « no photo person or Photobook person would ever ask me that, that is a very good question. I did like them, my wife Ginger had two different models in the seventies, and they do recur in my work, I as attractive to them ». That is a perfectly legimate way to rad those pictures, that's a way a mechanic would read them for example. Nothing to do with Stephen Shore being a photographer with a capital P, or that Photobook being important.

And that is the precisely that open experience of how you might respond to photographs. What gets lost when the Photobook becomes almost a genre, with a set of criteria and a defined audience. When this happens something has died at that point, it's already over.


OC_

A definition makes often lose a kind of liberty


DC_

It’s true. People are finding now that branching out and finding an audience which is not a « Photobook audience » is helpful.




……



D That sort of relates to Ed Ruscha saying I'm not really interested in an art audience, I'm interested in an audience that is interested in gas stations.


D I remember having a sort of argument with Jeff Wall about this, I said look, if any photograph survives, decades, it doesn't survive on it's artistic merits, it survives because it's a document, and he wanted to disagree, he couldn't bring himself to say that it's true. Walker Evans was once asked, how do you take a good photograph, and he answered, take any photograph, and wait thirty years.

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