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Miki Johnson: Tell me a little about how you first found out about the beauty pageants of Colombia.
Carl Bower: I saw a small article in the New York Times that said there was a pageant there for practically anything imaginable — Miss Sun, Miss Sea, Miss Purity, Miss Pretty Legs, Miss Honey — the list went on. I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of these contests with everything else I had been reading about Colombia: the cartels, the guerrillas, the bombings and kidnappings. I thought of how such parallel realities could coexist and the extent to which our popular conception of the country had been a caricature formed by stories of the drug trade.
At the time I came across the article, I was supporting a close friend in her battle with breast cancer. She had been a national champion ballroom dancer and a competitive bodybuilder. Her appearance was something that she took pride in and took pains to maintain even as she lost one breast, then another, and suffered the effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Throughout her ordeal, I noticed how her sexuality seemed undiminished, if not stronger. I started to wonder, if a beautiful person gradually loses elements deemed to be part of that beauty, where is the tipping point at which they are no longer beautiful? Is there one?
In my anger and frustration with the cancer and growing obsession with the commoditization of beauty, the story of the pageants struck a nerve. Here was an environment where all the issues I was grappling with were stripped bare and distilled to the point that it might be possible to convey some of them on film.
At first I tried finding the pageants through government records, but most of the information was unreliable or outdated. Through a friend, I met a fashion designer commissioned to create the dresses for a candidate to the national pageant. I photographed her preparation and coaching, learned of regional pageants, and met with judges, organizers, parents of contestants. I visited modeling agencies and schools where girls were being trained to compete in the pageants from the age of four.
When I learned of festivals occurring throughout the country, I went to various towns and introduced myself in their mayors’ offices. I went everywhere: to the national pageants, with their weeks-long round-the-clock media blitz, to high school pageants, to pageants with just three candidates.
I began to see how the pageants were one of the few unifying threads in a country compartmentalized by geography, politics, and social stratification. It seemed that everyone, regardless of social standing, had an opinion about them: not on whether they were good or bad, or whether they should exist, but on who should win. When I returned to the United States, I found that some of the complexity I experienced was missing from the photos, so I went back. I kept finding new layers of meaning, so I ended up going back again and again.
MJ: You said that as you’ve gotten deeper into the story it has gotten more complicated and you feel more ambivalent about the role of these pageants in the culture (something visible in the images). What were some of the contradictions you discovered?
CB: When I began photographing, I felt that the pageants were essentially meat markets. It wasn’t just that thousands of people were scrutinizing the contestants’ bodies; what struck me was the categorical, exhaustive, and unforgiving nature of it. Are her ankles thick? Who has breast implants? Who doesn’t but should? Whose ass is too small, too large, or shaped like melons when it should be like oranges? After the current Miss Colombia was crowned last November, there were months of public demands that she have her nose fixed to better compete in Miss World. More »
Miki Johnson: What compelled you to start your blog? Did your goals for it change over time?
Shane Lavalette: I began blogging when I was in high school, at that time using my blog as a place to publish my own photographs as I was first learning the technical aspects of the medium. When I moved to Boston to study photography more closely as an undergraduate, I felt a need to be more private/considered with my own images and decided to use the blog as a space to archive the work of others — highlighting artists, photographic books, exhibitions, and conducting interviews with other photographers. So, I suppose that some of my goals with it have changed over time but ultimately it has served the same purpose, functioning as a platform for learning.
MJ: Were you surprised by how popular the blog became? What do you think are a few reasons your blog has been successful?
SL: Somewhere along the way the readership grew, which was a nice surprise. In writing my blog, my tone has always been very personal — I write about what I’m looking at or spending time with, not what I imagine others will want to see. I never set out with the intention of making a site that was flashy or felt like an online magazine. This might be some of the appeal for readers, that it’s simple and approachable. I’m not sure. But it’s really fantastic that it has grown to be a resource for others and that it continues to promote dialogue.
MJ: It sounds like your blog helped you connect with a lot of other artists. Was that beneficial for you as a student and now as a working artist?
SL: Most definitely. In the last six or seven years, blogs have become so common that most of the people I know have one, but at the time I created mine, there really weren’t very many that focused on contemporary fine art photography.
Since the photo world is relatively small, a few of these blogs began to support an online community. And through this community, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many wonderful artists, writers, curators, gallerists, collectors, etc. These connections have been helpful in terms of my career (as I transitioned from being a student to, as you call it, a “working artist”) and also have grown to be meaningful relationships in general.
I’ve always been really interested in print publishing and a little over a year ago I began Lay Flat, a limited-edition publication of contemporary photography. As a specific example of how the blog has helped me, for both the first issue, Lay Flat 01: Remain in Light, and the recently released Lay Flat 02: Meta there are a number of contributors that I was originally acquainted with through either my own blog or the online community connected to it. As a result, collaborating with these artists and writers felt like a natural transition.
MJ: You’ve said that Lay Flat allowed you to continue and expand your collaboration with other photographers. But it’s a lot of work, as well. Do you feel like what you’ve gotten back from this project has outweighed the effort?
SL: Lay Flat has certainly involved a lot of hard work but very aspect of the project has been rewarding for me. Growing up in small town Vermont, my interest in photography was initially sparked by looking at photographs in books (as you might imagine, there is a lack of art galleries and museums there), so in a lot of ways it makes sense that I eventually gravitated towards publishing.
It’s interesting to play the roles of a “photographer” as well as “publisher/editor,” but so far my experience is that these roles actually co-exist quite well. I don’t feel like one pulls me away from the other, though I’ll probably always identify more with the former. It is a big time commitment to begin a side project like this, but what you love doing doesn’t really feel like work.
MJ: Continuing on the topic of collaboration, you’re working with a different guest editor for each issue of Lay Flat. Why did that appeal to you?
SL: This was an idea that came up early on, while working on Lay Flat 01. I felt like it would be interesting for both myself as well as the life of the publication to work with a new guest editor for every issue, helping to push each one in a direction that I may not have taken it alone. This has been a valuable process so far and has made working on the publication even more meaningful to me.
With the new issue, I never would have arrived at the final result without the ideas and insight that came from guest editor Michael Bühler-Rose. Sometimes collaboration requires making sacrifices or compromises, but I think I’ve primarily seen how it enriches a project like this.
There’s a lot that I’m excited about with photography and a lot that hasn’t been explored in terms of publishing, so I’m looking forward to experimenting, working with some great artists, and hopefully making some beautiful and innovative things in the process.
Photo District News has announced its 30 new and emerging photographers to watch for 2010. Check out their gallery for a images and interviews with a wide range of photographers, including a few names you’ve probably heard and several that are brand new — at least to us.
We found out from Andrew Hetherington this week that legendary photographer Larry Fink has started his own blog. It includes rarely seen images from his archives along with meditations from the man himself (although it’s run by his studio manager). New York-based photographer Robert Caplin also launched a new blog this week, The Photo Brigade. It showcases the work of talented freelance photographers and is sure to be a top destination for editors very soon.
Since completing the Future of Photobooks project in January, Andy Adams from FlakPhoto and I have received many positive responses and even opportunities to speak publicly on the topic. We’re very happy that the project struck such a chord with so many people, and want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who participated, either by writing a blog post, adding their comments, hosting a discussion, or helping to promote the project. We quite literally couldn’t have done it without you.
As a way of signing off and wrapping things up, I want to share a presentation I created for my APA talk on our Future of Photobooks project. My goal was not to tell people where photobook publishing is or is not going. As many of our contributing bloggers pointed out, that’s an impossible and somewhat unhelpful prediction to try to make.
Like the project itself, the main goal of my talk was instead to expand people’s ideas of what a photobook COULD BE in the future, by showing them some of the more fascinating concepts that were unearthed during our month-long cross-blog discussion.
Most of those concepts live online, and include embedded videos, clickable comics, microsites, and eBooks. For that reason I chose to present the information not in a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation, but directly on the Web, using a Tumblr blog. You can see the full Future of Photobooks presentation here — I’ve also added my notes from the evening to help explain the significance of each example.
Although Andy and I are turning our attention to other projects, we are still dedicated to advances in photobook publishing and hope the dialogue we have fostered here will continue around the Web and the world. Please share your questions and thoughts on the FoPB Tumblr, in comments on the RESOLVE posts, or with us directly.
Bryan was a natural choice to moderate the discussion on photobook funding, since his post, The Netflix of Photobooks, includes a forward-thinking collaborative funding option with real potential:
“I wonder if some type of joint venture could be organized amongst bloggers and photography organizations to share photography books? I’m not talking about Steidl books here, more like the the Photography.Book.Now winners and other on-demand books. I would love to look at all these books, but there’s no way I can buy each of them. But there maybe a few that I would buy if I could see them first.“
His comment alludes to several larger questions: It’s easier than ever to create and print an entire book yourself, but will those books ever sell enough copies to be a financial boon to the photographer? To do that, there needs to be a much more efficient and wide reaching way to connect interested buyers with individually produced books.
Jörg Colberg (Conscientious) and Hester Keijser (Mrs. Deane) have taken a fundamental first step toward helping bring buyers together with at least one kind of photobook — independently produced ones that can’t be bought through online chain stores. Just yesterday they launched The Independent Photo Book, a blog where photographers can send their books and zines, along with information on how to purchase them, creating a simple online clearinghouse.
One remaining question for the endeavor, and one I’m sure Jörg and Hester will address as the project continues, is how do you draw people from outside the small photography and blogging world into the site?
Bryan’s comment also highlights a deeper problem with selling a physical book in the online world. I agree that I’d be more likely to buy a book if I could hold it in my hands first. I’ve settled before for being able to see a digital version of every page (instead of the one or two you can see on Amazon, etc.), but the ideal is to look through the physical book. As David Bram points out on the Fraction blog, “The print quality of the book is as important as the content of the book itself. If the photographs are not well printed in physical book form, the potential buyer needs to know this.”
What would be a good way to get books into potential buyers’ hands? What about a traveling pop-up shop that brings independently produced books to towns around the world? Are there photobook festivals that are affordable and approachable for industry non-insiders where you can see a large number of books in a short period of time?
Assuming that photobooks continue to be financial viable for larger publishers, though, most will likely continue to be bought online through major bookstores like Amazon. Todd Walker (the mediator of our CONSUMPTION discussion) suggested an interesting dilemma that stems from this process. Since books purchased online are often reduced to a “thumbnail” image, is this a system that disadvantages complex images, favoring simple, graphic ones that read well at smaller size?
The increasing ease with which photographers can create their own books also helps them take the step up to these larger publishers and markets — so the self-published book might not turn a profit, but it can help procure a larger run that might. Nathalie Belayche gave an example of this model in her post on Food For Your Eyes:
“Robin Maddock couldn’t wait to find a publisher for his book Our Kids Are Going To Hell and so he did a Blurb book, as a dummy and to make a test. A few months later the book was redesigned and came out with the help of a brick-and-mortar publisher.”
Jonathan Worth, whose blog explores alternate funding models for photographers, weighs in with this:
“The generation currently breaking into the industry have inherited a fond nostalgia for analogue processes (think Holga, Lomography or witness the dramatic rescue of Polaroid ). Developing and exploiting this demand is one of the areas that photographer’s business practices can and should focus looking forward. The book is just one element of this.” Are there photographers who are working this angle right now?
All of these models rely on the same assumption — that a photographer has the money to print a book in the first place. What about funding the initial investment needed for printing, especially not print-on-demand?
Bryan suggests the microfunding model could be a powerful tool. One encouraging example is the 13th issue of Hamburger Eyes (a San Francisco-based street photography magazine), which was funded through Kickstarter last summer. The magazine met it’s goal in only three days and even took in an extra $1,000, allowing them to print a larger magazine than ever before.
In this situation a magazine has an advantage over a book since it has serial issues that have gained them a loyal following. How can photographers build the same kind of audience for a single book (that is likely to include just their own work, not lots of potential funders’, like Hamburger Eyes)?
I would look at something like the We English blog that Simon Roberts created in the year running up to the publication of his book by the same name. Although he worked with publisher Chris Boot, he built a loyal audience by asking for ideas on how to photograph “Englishness,” offering a print to the first 150 people who sent him ideas.
Todd Walker is a photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His “Gallery Hopper” blog has been featured in Forbes, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The San Francisco Examiner. Currently he writes at ocularoctopus.com.
Some of the most interesting suggestions from contributing Future of Photobooks bloggers addressed changes in the way photobooks are “consumed” (the best word we could find to encompass “read,” “viewed,” and “watched”).
Here are a few of their predictions for what it might be like to look through a photobook in ten years:
Images accompanied by audio of the photographer describing the work, their personal vision, and the way the images were made. “It will be like a museum tour where you have your own personal guide,” explains Tomas Ovalle at The PhotoOracle.
Jin Zhu at Shooting Wide Open wishes that photobooks could be more like McSweeney’s publications, arriving with physical goodies like pullout posters, photo postcards, and maps, as well as digital goodies like audio interviews with the subject or “making of” videos on an accompanying DVD or USB.
Shane Godfrey and Nick Turpin both suggested a symbiosis between digital, physical, and downloadable versions of a book. From Nick’s post on sevensevennine: “I can see the printed and digital elements of PUBLICATION complimenting each other in this way as we go forward, the printed magazine on sale for six months whilst the essays from previous editions are archived and made available online.”
We can only hope that these models and more will be explored — again, as creative decisions made by artists about how best to convey their work. Todd brought up another question that relates instead to the “consumer” or audience.
As Radius Books co-founder Darius Himes pointed out in his post, the average photobook only has an audience of around 3,000. Can that audience be expanded by expanding the definitions and expectations of a photobook? And what new requirements will photographers need to consider if their audience is a much wider one including a much lower percentage of “photo people.”
One positive change that might be spurred by a larger, more diverse audience for photobooks is that they be treated with more respect by the cultural gatekeepers. As Alec Soth points out, they at least deserve the same kind of attention the New York Times recently bestowed on graphic books. Or, as Larissa Leclair suggests, maybe it will help us to recognize books as an artform in and of themselves, perhaps even prompting “photobook museums.”
In all our excitement over the idea of a “multimedia photobook” (I hope I’m not the only one who’s excited), we shouldn’t lose site of the possible downsides of this reading experience. As advertising consultant Alan Wolk reprimands at The Toad Stool, “reading” (and I would include still images in that) is an entirely different experience from “watching” something, also highlighted by this brilliant video from the Lens Culture blog forecasting what a digital magazine of the future might look like.
And finally, I don’t think we would call this brilliant multimedia slideshow from Alec Soth a book, but a book was its impetus and a book (and sculpture) are its outcome. What it definitely is, is an enjoyable place to start to stretch our brains about what a photobook could be.
Eyecurious founder Marc Feustel (on the left) is a Paris-based independent curator and writer with a background in Japanese photography. You can find out more about some of his projects here, follow him on Twitter here, and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In light of the many ways our concept of the photobook is changing — to include digital texts, print-on-demand, self-publishing, and online distribution — our first question needs to start at the very beginning: How do we now want to define what a photobook is? Radius Books co-founder Darius Himes asked us to step back to this foundational question in his contributor post, and we recommend it as a great starting point for this discussion.
In Darius’s opinion: “A pdf or a website or an ‘ebook’ are not books in the same way that a stone tablet or a scroll or a sheet of papyrus are also not examples of books. They are vehicles of recorded human language, true. But a pdf is a pdf. A website is a website. A stone tablet is a stone tablet. A set of pages with either written language or images on them (reproduced in any manner of methods), gathered and bound together in some fashion = a book.”
A fair point, but if it were that simple we’d have nothing to discuss ;) Marc points out several interesting examples that ask us to re-examine what a photobook is:
“What about something like Frederic Lezmi’s 11m long leporello From Vienna to Beirut? Or, going even further, the works produced by Toluca Editions. They are limited edition prints, not bound but mounted, and created through a collaboration between photographer, writer, and designer. I think fewer people would accept that this is a book, but in some ways, in terms of the way it is made, I think this is closer to what we traditionally think of as a book than some print-on-demand examples.”
Another way to define a photobook, and one that several contributing bloggers mentioned, is by its role in a photographer’s career or the photo industry in general. As Mike Johnston point out at The Online Photographer:
“Photo books [in the past] weren’t just a reflection of the culture of photographers…they were the culture. They were how you kept track, how you saw work, how you learned who was doing what, how you “saw” shows you missed. That’s all changed.
The internet is a junk heap. It’s every frame that comes back from the drugstore. It’s the contact sheet, the raw material, the unsorted mass. The first draft. In that context, what will rise in importance will be the opportunities and the occasions we have for selecting only the best of the best, for making extended visual arguments, for the creativity and inventiveness inherent in limits, for the formalized set of photographs that puts a photographer’s best foot forward, no fluff, no excuses. That’s the future of the photo book, in my opinion.”
Alan Rapp also touches on this in his post at Critical Terrain: “How will the author/photographer find projects worth publishing, balancing the effort it takes to make a good book under any model vs. the number of consumers ready for it on the other end?”
The definition of a photobook suggested by this question may seem circular — a photobook is a collection of images a photographer values enough to put the effort into publishing — but it highlights an important point in this discussion. No definition is “right” or “wrong,” but the decision to make a “book” instead of some other artform should be a conscious creative one. If you’ve published a book before, in any format, under any definition, how did you decide that that work should be a book specifically?
Another important choice that artists making books now have to consider is, “Will this be a collaboration or not?” While photobooks were once necessarily the product of many hands — artist, designer, printer, publisher — a photographer can now make every image, lay out the book pages on a computer, print the book with a service like Blurb, then sell the book through the Blurb Bookstore or market and distribute it themselves online.
In contrast to this option (or perhaps as a backlash against it), many Future of Photobooks bloggers mentioned growing opportunities and interest in collaborative photobook projects. You can see several examples under “Collaboration and Crowd-sourcing” in our earlier post; more general collaborative projects include FlakPhoto, Bryan Formhals’ La Pura Vida Gallery, the rotating gallery on Too Much Chocolate, collectives like Luceo and MJR, and distribution networks like the Artists’ Books Cooperative. How can artists make an informed decision about which steps to do on their own and how or with whom to collaborate on the rest?
A few weeks ago, RESOLVE and Flak Photo launched the Future of Photobooks project, a collaborative, cross-blog brainstorm session asking what photobooks and publishing in general might look like in 10 years. The response was more than we could have hoped for — to date, 47 bloggers have responded with posts on their own blogs. Please check out the full list of collaborating blogs, plus the posts below, which were drawn from some of the most interesting shared links.
Now it’s time to open up this topic to more targeted discussion — and we want you all to be part of it. Most collaborating bloggers understandably shied away from the idea of “predicting” the future of photobooks. Allow us to rephrase this inquiry into something more active and, we hope, productive: What SHOULD photobooks look like in 10 years?
The fact is, we are the ones who will decide. Blog-savvy leaders from small publishing houses, like Darius Himes of Radius and Lesley Martin of Aperture. Ambitious photographers who have taken publishing into their own hands. And you and me and anyone else out there who might be inspired by the ideas expressed here and start the next big thing that revolutionizes the photobook industry. (Larissa Leclair even called out our collective power in her post on the Future of Photobooks.)
Starting tomorrow through Thursday we’ll be publishing one post a day asking specific questions relating to three main topics we identified after reading hundreds of your posts and comments.
Tues., Jan. 5 – How should photobook CREATION evolve in next decade?
Moderated by Marc Feustel, creator of eyecurious
Wed., Jan. 6 – How should photobook CONSUMPTION evolve in next decade?
Moderated by Todd Walker, creator of Gallery Hopper and Ocular Octopus
Thur., Jan. 7 – How should photobook FUNDING evolve in next decade?
Moderated by Bryan Formhals, creator of La Pura Vida Gallery and blog
In keeping with the collaborative nature of this project, we’ve enlisted three bloggers to oversee these discussions. They’ll lend their insights and help keep everyone on track, up to date, and working toward positive action.
We hope you’ll check back in tomorrow and throughout the week. We’re looking forward to hearing from you.
As part of the ongoing discussion examining the Future of Photobooks we’re hosting on RESOLVE in collaboration with FlakPhoto, we’re sharing some of our favorite publications mentioned by the 45+ bloggers who have weighed in so far. These represent the seeds of publishing advances we expect and/or hope to see in the future. Check out our earlier posts as well, on small printers for self-publishing photobooks and game-changing people and ideas from the photobook world.
Since FlakPhoto’s Andy Adams and I put out our call for posts on the Future of Photobooks a few weeks ago, more than 40 bloggers have shared their insights. You can find them all, plus lots of additional comments and two new posts, about DIY book printers and the Future of Photobooks Twitter chat, on our resource page.
Having received such a positive response, Andy and I are developing a more organized and collaborative discussion style for the next stage of this project (look for details just after the holidays). Plus, we want to give everyone extra time to check out the great stuff our collaborating bloggers have shared. So for the next two weeks, we’ll be sharing our favorite links from all the Future of Photobooks posts.
Not surprisingly, we’ve collected long lists of interesting small publishers and publications. But we thought we’d start with some innovative ideas that didn’t fit easily into categories. Check below for interesting projects, publishing revolutionaries, and books that are way outside the box.
1. This is a physical book that you read by taking a photo of it with your cameraphone, which converts an abstract digital image into words, which update automatically every week from a keyword search on Twitter. Get it? Just watch the video. We promise, it’s cool. (via Jonathan Worth)
2. A country road. A tree. Evening is a “film in progress” art project installed on a digital tablet and sold through a gallery. Is it a book? Is it art? Is it even physical or digital? We love anything without easy answers to those kinds of questions. (via Harlan Erskine)
3. J Sandifer pointed to Rick Smolan’s Obama Timecapsule as an interesting trend: “So a pro will publish a book with their works and allow the consumer to add their take on the subject and print the book with the combined photos included.”
4. Check out this great video of Kathleen Walkup, head of the book art program at Mills College, showing revolutionary designs from famous bookmaking artists.
5. One of the books Kathleen shares was made by Claire Van Vliet, a fine artist, illustrator, and typographer who founded Janus Press, which produces original, handmade book artworks.
6. She also highlights Julie Chen, who established Flying Fish Press, which creates books that “combine the quality and craftsmanship of traditional letterpress printing with the innovation and visual excitement of contemporary non-traditional book structures.” (all three via Amy Stein)
7. Japan’s influence on photography and photo books is undeniable, and to understand it you have to know Shōji Yamagishi, the editor of the influential Japanese photography magazine Camera Mainichi from 1963 until 1978. (via Marc Feustel)
11. The International Foto Book Festival, taking place in Kassel in May 2010 for the third year, and PhotoBook Days 2010 in Hamburg, which will open in June 2010 for the first time. (via Nathalie Belayche)
12. And finally, a link post within a link post? We know…how meta. But coming from Alec Soth and detailing book sellers, publishers, and great DIY books, we just couldn’t help it.
Please add your thoughts and cool links in the comments. And check back soon for more Future of Photobooks posts!