THE JOURNEY SO FAR – Siganto Foundation Artists’ Book Research Fellow Doug Spowart provides an interim report.
Anne Thurmann-Jajes, in the catalogue essay for the exhibition ars photographica, states that: ‘In very general terms, it is possible to say that half of all artists’ books produced to date have been based on photographs’ (Thurmann-Jajes and Hellmold 2002:19) . In many ways this statement and its implications has inspired my investigation of the Australian Library of Art’s Artists’ Books collection over the last two months. In this project I am researching and building a resource that reflects the presence of the photograph in the significant collection of artists’ books held by the State Library of Queensland. As I view each of the 1408 books and record my findings, interesting data is emerging that is both a confirmation of, and engendering new directions in my inquiry. This research is also revealing new insights into the collecting trends of artists’ books past and present. It may even inform future directions for purchasing strategies that will keep the collection growing and relevant to academics, the self-publishing artists’ book and photobook communities and the general public.
My aim in this research is to create an approach to the development of a flexible and dynamic nomenclature or terminology for the photo and the book. This preliminary strategy will provide a way in which books from a variety of makers, media, structures and motivations can be compared. In this I am mindful of the constant, and somewhat hackneyed issues that continue to persist in the artists’ book discipline by those seeking to define and categorise the artists’ book. For example, ‘what is – and what isn’t’ an artists’ book. In my research I am informed by recent commentary on the topic as proposed by artists’ book commentator, curator and collector Clive Phillpott, who states emphatically that an artist book is a: ‘Book of which an artist is the author’ (Phillpott 2013:3-4) . So for artists, Phillpott’s definition of an artists’ book is easy to apply.
However can this definition be applied when the book is made or based on photographs taken by a photographer? Usually many who make photographs particularly for publication see themselves as photographers and not as artists. The term ‘artists’ book’ may not fit, or be seen to relate to these photographic bookmakers. An emergent term for books made by photographers has become popular over the last ten years. It follows a similar etymology as Phillpott’s one for artists’ books and is called the ‘photobook’. Over many years the discipline of the artists’ book and the newly termed photobook have occupied parallel territories. Occasional linkages and bridges have occurred and met with sympathetic acceptance, and some cross-fertilization in the discourse surrounding each discipline.
Also informing the research is the omnipresence of photography in contemporary society. Anyone and everyone takes photographs, and digital technology has simplified the process to such an extent that exceptional quality images can be easily made and instantly repurposed for any number of outcomes – both virtual and physical. Not only can everyone make photographs, but also every kind of communication form embeds the photographic image as the principal carrier of the message. Whether the photographic image is a highway poster being driven past at 100kph or the ‘click bait’ image on a Facebook feed. Life without photographs would be a most weird sci-fi place – the world of books without photographs at all would be inconceivable.
In my research thus far, I have found books bereft of words where only photographs carry a narrative; I have encountered the marriage of photographs and text expressing the power of their symbiotic relationship. I have turned a page of a thick book of printed words to find a reference to photography or even, just the word ‘photography’. Even in some books created from printmaking processes or drawings, the artist has included the figure of a photographer taking photos, or just a camera. I have found some truly remarkable books – each with their unique narrative. As I open each carefully wrapped or boxed package I am filled with wonder and anticipation for the unfolding visual and tactile reading of these works of art.
So my task of looking for the photo in the book is encountering some interesting observations and early results that will inform the development of my research proposition. It will also serve to emphasise the impact of issues such as these on future discussion around the position of the photograph within these two disciplines – particularly as the overlapping nature and their influences continues to advance both arts, the photograph and its place in the book.
At present 65% of books viewed contain some reference to the photograph, or photography. My research will conclude with a report being presented during the 2015 Siganto Foundation Artists’ Book event in June at the State Library of Queensland.
Dr Doug Spowart
Phillpott, C. (2013) "Viewpoint: Fully booked (anniversaries)." Art Libraries Journal 38, 3-4.
Thurmann-Jajes, A. and M. Hellmold, Eds. (2002). ars photographica: Fotografie und Künstlerbücher. Weserburg, Bremen, Neues Museum.