Monday, 21 May 2012

My Relationship with the Monograph

Montparnasse (photograph & book in origional box), 1995 © Andreas Gursky

For the short length of my career, I would classify myself as an artist that makes images intended to hang on a wall. I make large pieces (currently 42" x 75" tableaus) that are filled with detail. The viewer is supposed to stand in front of the piece and experience it. When I make a piece, I make it in one size and one size only because I feel it is important that it is viewed at that size.

While I love the novelty of seeing my images in print, there is always something that is disappointing to me. The size of the image has been reduced so drastically that all of the detail (much of that detail being important to the image) is lost. I have found very few print venues where I have been happy with the reproduction of my work.Which brings me to an ongoing debate I have been having recently regarding photo books. Specifically, what type of work is suitable to be published in book form? And more specifically, what type of work should be published as a monograph.

What happens far too often when artists have monographs published is that consideration is not given to what will happen when the work moves from a gallery/museum space to a book space, and more importantly if it even should migrate from one space to the other. Too often images are simply placed on pages with the hope that sequencing alone will be enough to carry the work and justify the migration. That type of thinking just doesn't do it for me. Great examples of this include books like Thomas Struth's Museum Photographs, and pretty much any book by Gursky, although this list could go on for pages. Drastically reducing the size of those images and placing them on pages erases the experience that those pieces were intended to have. And worst of all, it gives the viewer no new experience, no greater understanding of the work. I find this to be the great bulk of photo books that are published and probably explains why my book collection is so small.

I use Gursky as an example because of the detail and monumentalness of his images. While I love Gursky's work, seeing his images at 8x10" or 11x14" is a disappointment, however, he did have one shining example of what a book could do for his images. Gursky's book Montparnasse, titled and focusing solely on the print of the same name, does something that no other Gursky book does. The "book" comes in a box and includes an 11x19" print of Montparnasse in a folder with the names of all the residents that lived in the building at the time the image was made, a small book titled "Images" which includes small details of individual windows, and a small book titled "Texte" which included interviews with residents, the architect, and a curatorial essay. All of these elements give the reader an entirely new and active experience of the work, even though it only focuses on a single print. This is a fantastic example of a successful migration of work created to be hung on a wall to the pages of a book.

The other type of book I absolutely love is the retrospective catalog. I like exhibition catalogs as well, but the retrospective catalog is the ultimate for me. What makes it so great is the recontextualization of the work. Not only can I see an artist's entire career of work, but I also get interviews with the artist, essays about the work, and a variety of details about both the artist and the images that add to what I already know. In this sense, the book adds to my understanding of the work and furthers the artist's intentions. My most recent purchase is the catalog for Rineke Dijkstra's retrospective show currently at SF MoMA. I love the fact that the first 60 pages are essays and interviews. I find the interview about her process of creation to be particularly fascinating and educational. I only wish there had been more text included with each body of work. There is a small statement about each body, but I would have loved to hear more about the "making of" and less about the finished pieces.
In the end it is all about what I can learn from the book. If I just want to see images these days I can find most of them in the vastness of the Internet; and if an artist really cares about people seeing their work, they will have a website where I can look through all of the work. But with a book I don't just want to look, I want to look inside. I want to learn something more about the work than I can get from just seeing images. I want that book to further my understanding of the work so that the next time I see it on the wall my experience with it will change. I want to be taught. After all, isn't that what books are for?

Evan Baden (Foam Magazine #22/Peeping)


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