Coffee table books. Somehow, the phrase suggests decadence, frivolity, perhaps self-indulgence. There's by now a long tradition, over the last century, of books designed to exist as a kind of furniture, as appurtenances of upper-middle-class ostentation, created to be seen or experienced as tasteful extravagances on living-room tables. Early in the 20th Century, photography joined art, travel and architecture as one of the proper subjects for such containers. As the technology of printing progressed, it has become more and more possible to produce printed photo-books that could rival original photographic prints from which they were derived; and with the arrival of the digital revolution, it has finally become possible to make printed images which are just about equal in quality to originals.
When I first took up large formate photography seriously in the mid-1980's, it was in large measure in response to the imagery I had seen in books. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Caponigro, William Clift, Imogene Cunningham. Though my original impulse had been documentary--to create color images of Japan, where we were living in 1985--I quickly realized that the real challenge, the true seduction (if you will) was in making carefully controlled and produced black and white compositions that left nothing to chance. Mastering the technique of making large negatives and transferring them to fully realized prints would require some materials, and some trial and error, but with devotion, and a little luck, I soon became capable of doing so.
I'm not sure today, over thirty years later, what my initial expectations were, but clearly I wasn't expecting to enter the competitive world of galleries and workshops and fine monographs. Then what was I thinking? I suppose, given that I've always been a "book person," I was unconsciously imagining that my work would one day find its way into a book. Producing prints for gallery walls is a daunting proposition. Typically, when I worked on a print, I would stop when I'd made a single print that I found satisfying. The idea of replicating that target print with a run, say, of 20 or 50 or a hundred copies, seemed absurd, since I had no audience, and no gallery owner to market them for me. I've never enjoyed the schmoozing and self-promotion that most "serious" photographers have to engage in, either as the subject of my own campaign, or as a "camp follower." I suppose this is partly an ego thing: I don't want to pretend that I think my work is better than it is on the one hand, and I don't like genuflecting to someone who is presumably higher than I am on the pyramid. I don't like vying inside the aesthetic class system--it's a distraction and a bore.
Nevertheless, the idea of having a book of my images was always there in the back of my mind, and by the end of the first decade of the new century, I was finally able to consider underwriting such a publication all by myself. I'm not bothered by the vanity charge; indeed, anyone who has had to submit to the machine of publication by a typical publisher, understands the compromises that go along with it. Except for a handful of household names, hardly anyone can claim to have marketable photographic material in any medium whatsoever. In order for any art to exist on its own terms, without relying on the organs of culture, it must either be entirely free of obligation, or be so carefully husbanded that it's untouchable. Without having gone to the trouble of promoting my work through galleries and workshops, I could hardly expect any "reputable" publisher to consider doing a book of my work. Art book publishing is risky enough, even with established artists and photographers.
With the advent of increasingly precise digital printing, it finally became possible in the last decade or so, to transfer large flat-print images into digital files that could be fed into digital laser-printing machines, which in turn could be made into astonishingly impressive physical pages, even as the organic chemical processes of the old technology were rapidly being supplanted by digital projection media. At some point, I realized that producing a collection of my images in a book was really the ultimate fulfillment of my interest. A book allows you to choose and sequence your images, and to control the parameters of the presentation, in a way you really can't in a gallery. Though a book is certainly a commercial object, in the sense that it may be sold on the open market, it's much less dependent upon sales, than the way a gallery depends upon the purchases of prints. Some galleries use exhibition monographs to promote sales, as if books were just selling tools. But for me, the book is an end in itself, what I'd always imagined as the sublimation of the process, from pre-visioning to darkroom printing to collection.
This year, I finally decided that the time had come to explore making a book from the prints I had stored in my darkroom. Did I have enough good work to fill a book? Was I certain enough of my accomplishment to risk making a fool out of myself?
If you haunt the bookstalls of new or used book dealers, you know that every year there are thousands of poorly conceived photo-books. Many of them are in color, and most of them are artistically drab and careless. Though available digital technology would allow finer productions, few publishers seem willing to spend more on quality, and even fewer seem capable of conceiving tasteful presentations. Many follow ephemeral trends, trying to cash in on temporary aesthetic fads. Every year, there seems to be another "exploitation" book on Ansel Adams, with blurry reproductions, intended to capitalize on his reputation.
And of course, much of the work that finds its way into books doesn't rise to a level of quality that really deserves wide dissemination. So the question remains: Is the work good enough to justify spending the resources to summarize it in the synthesis of a material text? Each artist must answer that question for him/herself. I've always believed that I was my own best critic, that I was really the only one qualified to answer that question, at least with respect to my own work. In a sense, I don't care what other people think. If people dislike your work, you can't control that. There are artists who try to placate their audience, who depend upon others to define their sense of themselves and their work. Ultimately, that kind of obsequiousness doesn't interest me. I'm not looking to "please" people, particularly when it comes to confirming my own worth or vision. If people like your work, great. But if they don't, you can't rely on that as the measure of your own commitment.
Most art books exist within the confluence of art and the market. But art isn't just a marketplace. And there's the simple pleasure of presenting something you've made, with effort and pride, to the world at large. For me, there are few things in life as exciting as making an object--a poem, a drawing, a photograph, a landscape design--out of your own inspiration, bringing it into being. "Did I really do that?" Wow. And your confidence in doing so will be reflected in the quality of your product, not in the sense of a marketable product, but as a child of your creativity. You wouldn't put your own child up for sale or auction; so why would you think your art could be treated like any kind of commodity?
I know of few things that are as gratifying as launching an artifact into the world, so that it acquires an independent existence, with its own integrity. In a sense, artistic vanity and ambition fall away from a valid object, in such a way as to honor the act, and not the individual person. My ambiguity with respect to the artifact may seem unusual, but in the end we're all just custodians--not just of the things we produce or own during our lives, but of the insights and records and residue we leave behind. Posterity will decide what to do with our efforts. That part is out of our hands.
In the next part of this blog, I'll address some of the contextual and critical implications of my work. The art book as material object. The meaning and scope of the images (content).
End Part I