The Vertigo of Best Photobooks Lists – Federica Chiocchetti
The Photobook

The Vertigo of Best Photobooks Lists – Federica Chiocchetti

Umberto Eco, in his The Infinity of Lists explores the Western mind’s encyclopaedic obsession with list-making and accumulation: from plants to saints, literature to art, he defines this obsession a ‘giddiness of lists’ and elaborates how, if in the ‘right hands’, it can become a ‘poetics of catalogues.’ Is photobook list-making an excitable frivolity or does it actually reflect the photographic spirit of our times? Posterity will judge. Meanwhile, for the curious, a vibrant and at times heated discussion about photobooks, the utility of these ‘best of’ lists and beyond, is happening on Facebook, within groups such as Flak Photo Books, PhotoBooks, all about PhotoBooks, Dusseldorf Photobook Salon and The best PhotoBook 2013.

When it comes to identifying ‘the right hands’ to compile these lists, the situation becomes intricate. Perhaps we should focus more on how to establish whether a photobook should be included in a best of list? While we could discuss and agree a list (yes, another one) of criteria – and I look forward to seeing the rating system up and running, suggested by Conscientious founder and editor, Jörg M. Colberg – I strongly believe in the subjectivity of every list, since after all it reflects its compiler’s vision and taste. I also believe in some unavoidable preliminary ‘off-list’ rambling, given the difficult if not impossible task of choosing only 5 books among the plethora of ‘terribly awesome’ publications that inundated the market in 2013.

The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Eco, Rizzoli, USA

The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Eco, Rizzoli, USA

Needless to say I was absolutely riveted by the urban-folk extravaganza of Lorenzo Vitturi’s Dalston Anatomy, published by SPBH Editions and JibiJana, and the vernacular salvage of Thomas Sauvin’s Beijing Silvermine albums, from the stables of Archive of Modern Conflict Books, which re-opens the debate on photography in China initiated by Sontag in the 1970s. They both deserved the Paris Photo Aperture First Photobook of the Year. Sauvin has recently published another brilliant title, issue 8 of the Amc2 journal, which reveals how Chinese photographic studios between the 1930s and 1980s, to save money, would print portraits in a uniquely vertical silver print of around 7 by 2.5 cm. Another one worth looking at originally published in 2010, and off-the-list as technically it’s a second edition, is LDN by Antony Cairns, a nocturnal journey into the subtly uncanny architectures of an obscure, almost impenetrable London.

On the practice of appropriation, more in vogue than ever, not anymore a challenge to authorship, but rather an unremarkable fact of twenty-first century life, as suggested by MoMA curator Eva Respini, I was particularly intrigued by the obsessively meticulous sculptural approach of Daniel Gordon’s Still Lifes, Portraits and Parts, published by Mörel Books. Likewise, The Looking Game by MFG Paltrinieri & Mirko Smerdel, co-published by Akina Books and Discipula Editions, is an intriguing and divisive intellectual exercise of words and images that pierces the very notion of ethics in appropriation. Photographs of presumably potential victims, taken by serial killer and amateur photographer Rodney Alcala, are paired with texts by John Berger, the alias Alcala used while on the run from the police.

Brian Griffin and Barney Bubbles, Copyright 1978

Brian Griffin and Barney Bubbles, Copyright 1978

In terms of rare editions launched or re-launched this year, for those lucky enough to be able to afford them, I highly recommend having a look at two books, both available through Oliver Woods. The first is Brian Griffin and Barney Bubbles’ elegantly self-published Copyright 1978, a sublime combination of theatrical imagery of businessmen and minimalist graphic design. The second is Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin’s The Story of My Death, a cover intervention on Italian Lauro de Bosis’ 1933 antifascist manifesto that he dropped upon Rome from an aircraft, in the form of leaflets, before disappearing for good.

Finally, the super limited edition (9 copies) of Elisabeth Tonnard’s artist book and installation One Swimming Pool, inspired by Ed Ruscha’s Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, which literally becomes a portable adhesive pool, at the price of destroying the book, also deserves attention.

The 5 photobooks that I have decided to include in my list contain exceptional photographs, tell stories that are unique, and in some cases are marvellous artistic objects when it comes to design, editing, sequencing and paper. The list is not ranked in order of preference.

A01 [COD.] — A27 [S | COD.23] by Rosângela Rennó

The well-deserved winner of both Arles and the Paris Photo/Aperture Foundation Book of the Year, this is the second artist book as part of a trilogy documenting significant thefts in Brazilian photographic archives. Twenty-seven boxes with important photographic material, stored in the General Archive of the City of Rio de Janeiro, were gradually and systematically plundered. In particular, someone stole the photo albums of Augusto Malta (1864 – 1957), whose market value has recently increased. Rennó’s book is a melancholic elegy for the loss of visual culture and history. Derelict album covers mingle with faded relics of photographs, screws from the archival boxes and sometimes the void itself. The volume is self-published in a limited edition of 500 copies. Initially they were only available in public libraries and art institutions, presumably to emphasise the importance of such organisations in preserving cultural heritage, and to stress the sad significance of the theft. However, to my surprise, I heard that a few copies are on sale for a very expensive price online.

TV Casualty by Brad Feuerhelm (AmcBooks) 

Impeccably timely given the 50th anniversary of president John F Kennedy assassination, and strictly speaking not a canonical photobook, but rather an alternative graphic investigation of the proliferated layers (or skins, as Feuerhelm calls them) of spectatorship of “ The Headshot Heard Around the World” and the questions left unanswered by this epochal attack on the American Dream. In effect there exists five degrees of separation between us and the assassination, one per decade over the fifty years: the book, the Polaroids of T.V. screens to ‘immortalise’ the event (at a time when video tape recorders were only available in the professional market), the actual TV screens that people were looking at when the news was broadcasted in 1963, the cameraman who was filming the event live on that day from Dallas, and finally the assassination itself. TV Casualty is also the title of a 1978 song by The Misfits, the American ‘horror punk’ band that promoted underclass DIY creativity and gothic aesthetics. The book, which combines extremely poignant excerpts of the lyrics and texts with TV screen snapshots of President Kennedy’s funeral and press images, filtered through a loose aesthetic, is an intrepid condemning of the dangerous obliviousness of memory.

Political Chaos by Paul Kookier (Études Books)

The overwhelming beauty of the sea, the extreme colours and the voyeuristic circular black frames, suggesting, among other things, the end of a film, are all elements that remind me of the idea of pleasure. The pleasure of looking at the sea, of bathing in the sea, the pleasure of gazing and spying, of the repetition of visual patterns, the pleasure of the end, and the somewhat revolutionary pleasure contained in the title, which is clearly in contrast with the imagery. Political Chaos is a sensual visual experience, one could easily get addicted and find it difficult to stop leafing through it. To top it off, Erik Viskil’s text that accompanies the book, with its ‘Calvinian-esque’ style (If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller), is wittily and directly addressed to the viewer to speculate on his encounter with the book. Viskil reveals all sorts of anecdotes that accentuate my sense of seduction. We learn that these apparently timeless and placeless photographs have a specific geographical, historical and political connotation, that I invite you to discover yourself as I don’t want to spoil it for you.

The Disappeared  by Veronica Fieiras

Around 30,000 people disappeared during the military dictatorship in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. Born in the same year of the military coup, Argentinian but Madrid-based photo-artist Veronica Fieiras recently self-published a book that has all the characteristics to become a classic of the Latin American holocaust. Surfing the web she was completely overwhelmed by the plethora of databases with names and portraits of those who had ‘mysteriously’ disappeared. Haunted by the faces, she almost entered a ‘state of trance’ that was only partially alleviated by the production of a book that physically incorporates all her frustrations with the abominable abuse of power and violence of those years. Fieiras combines dictionary definitions of universal, supposedly resolved, antithetical concepts like identity and disappearance, human being and dictator, with faces that become less visible leafing through the book, and names found in a database paradoxically indexed by aliases. The rhythm of the book lies in the tension between the desire to condemn and show the dissolution of memory, as well as the attempt to produce an antidote for oblivion, as the contrast between the resistant handmade Japanese paper and the vulnerability of the tracing paper describes.

The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography by Joan Fontcuberta (MACK)

Challenging the traditional notion of the photobook and retrospective catalogue, the legendary Joan Fontcuberta, a pioneer among pioneers, never ceases to surprise us. This time he has treated us with a very peculiar object, The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography, to accompany his retrospective as part of the 2013 Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography. Constantly and coherently ‘trafficking’ truths and fictions in photography since the 1980s, in his many guises as artist, curator and theorist, he taught us what Batchen describes as the ‘indispensible sense of humour’, the ‘mental hygiene’ usually championed in science. The book starts with his masterpieces from the past, such as ‘Fauna’ and ‘Herbarium’ and includes also more recent projects like ‘Sirens’ and ‘Orogenesis’, blurring the boundaries between a scientific, superbly illustrated encyclopaedia and a sort of mainstream National Geographic magazine. Borges is to literature as Fontcuberta is to photography. So much so that it’s time to introduce the adjective ‘fontcubertian’.

I wish I could promise you that this will be the last ‘best of’ list of 2013 photobooks that you read, but I am afraid you’ll have to be patient until December 31st. All the lists published so far are available on the blog phot(o)lia. The highly-obsessed can celebrate New Year’s Eve reading the two über-meta-list compiled by QT Luong and photo-eye. Irish photographer and editor of the blog Digital Faun, Alex Sinclair, with his hilarious ‘A look ahead to the best photobooks of 2015’, mocks this end of the year lists mania, and healthily reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Federica Chiocchetti / Candida Desideri is a researcher in photography and literature at the University of Westminster in London, a curator and a writer. She is currently curating an exhibition around the theme of ‘WW1 & the archive’ for the Hungarian Photomonth in Budapest (November 2014). She is also working on the Photocaptionist, a photo-literary online platform, which will launch in the near future.

Question and AnswerThe Photobook

At home on the page: Aron Mörel on his approach to publishing photo books

This interview continues a series of Q&As that focus on the contemporary photo book. To put this in context, today is world photo book day, which marks 170 years since the first photo book was published, purportedly in 1843, by Anna Atkins. We have certainly come a long way since Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. To celebrate this event we have asked Aron Mörel of Mörel books to respond to a few questions on the contemporary photo book, as he sees it.

1. What, in your view, do photo books contribute to the culture of photography?

To me photography feels most at home on the page – be it an album, magazine or book. These are mediums that leave the photograph at its most tangible and intelligible – at times in ergonomic perfection – allowing the viewer to read images at any pace or in any sequence. The book also gives photography to the masses. I love prints and viewing images in galleries, but they’re out or reach of my finger tips and finances, and they feel somehow elevated on a gallery wall. I like to think photography wants to be mass reproduced – the book just packages this between two covers and gets it out. Its the same revolutionary concept as taking the word from the podium and putting it via the printing press into the hands of the multitudes. The book at its best and most successful is an object of dissemination – that can change everything!

2. How do you define your role within the growing and changing field of photo book publishing? What are you trying to achieve?

I’m not sure what my role is, it changes from book to book. I do not represent any specific genre and I’m happy to work with the likes of Thomas Ruff and Terry Richardson. I also look at all the work democratically – it doesn’t matter if its Boris Mikhailov or a student, I’m just interested in the work. The greatest achievement is to put out a book which brings a body of work to light.

3. Do you publish online books and what might the future hold for this method of digitally distributing books?

So far I haven’t published any digital books. I’m happy to make PDF’s of our books available when they’re out of print, but feel this is a cheap short cut to e-publishing. Photography has no problem seeping into the digital world, not only through cameras, but through other technologies such as instagram or even moving gifs. I’d prefer to work with something more in tune with this digital aspect of the medium, than just flattening an already published book into an ebook…

4. Which book do you feel most precisely demonstrates what your publishing company is about?

Every book I’ve published is exactly what we are about. My interest is always evolving, so I’m sure in the future I will publish something I would not consider publishing today. There are also previous books which I feel were of their time, but am still very proud of today.

5. What kind of a relationship do you strike up with the artists whose work you publish?

Mörel is small and we keep things intimate with the artists as well as with our retailers – we’re sort of a pivot between the two worlds which I feel is an important part of publishing. I wouldn’t work with someone if I felt we weren’t both in for the same reasons and enjoying ourselves in the process – life’s too short for that – and there are far to many other projects to pursue!