Musings on: the allure of photographic monographs
I received Bruce Percy’s second monograph book today: ‘Iceland: A Journal of Nocturnes’.
At first I thought I’d write a review of it and to some extent this is a review, though it’s a rather short one, intermingled with the main topic of the musing which is photography books as a medium: it’s a medium that I like.
I should start off by declaring an interest:
I was involved in the production of ‘A Journal of Nocturnes’ to the extent of reviewing the text and making some suggestions on flow, language and sequencing of images; Bruce even used some of those suggestions. Additionally, when I saw a near-final proof of the book, I wrote Bruce a letter describing how I saw it as a piece of art in its own right, something greater than the sum of its parts, rather than as ‘merely’ a collection of photographs and short, poetic essays; Bruce was kind enough to include the letter as a form of epilogue to the book.
So, I am clearly somewhat biased in the context of a review! I’ve also said before that I’m very keen on Bruce’s images and these of Iceland, in particular those made on the coast, are my favourite from his portfolio to date (though I think his Bolivia images vie with them for coherence as a place-based portfolio).
That last point, coherence, is important and I’ll come back to it as I think it’s a major benefit of photographic art books: it’s what, for me, gives them their allure – at least in part.
What of this, specific book then?
It’s an object of beauty! That’s not something I say at all lightly, I can assure you. The finished product is superbly printed on excellent paper and each of the embossed cover, the paper cover and the slip-case are themselves very fine indeed. Plus, the fonts used are gorgeous. I’m a fan of fonts and those in ‘Nocturnes’ are just right for the subject matter.
As to contents: clearly, I like Bruce’s images very much and this collection has a strong theme which give the book a good structure; I also enjoy the short essays which relate to the making of those images. Often, monographs are simply collections of images. That’s an elegant approach, but in this case Bruce has also interspersed the photographs with a few essays stimulated by, or pertinent to the creation of, the images in the book. This, for me, makes it even more interesting and attractive as an artefact. ‘Nocturnes’ does not rely solely on images to communicate, it also gives some insight into the creative process and, more widely, into Bruce’s development over his several visits to Iceland. This seems to me to be a great addition to – again – the book as a piece of art in itself which extends it beyond simply ‘a collection of excellent photographs’ and makes it something richer and deeper.
Photographic art books more generally
So yes, I can enthusiastically recommend ‘Nocturnes’; but what of the more general point about the allure of books of images?
I very much enjoy looking at images on a screen. Like many photographers, I’m fortunate in having large, high resolution monitors and photographs look excellent on them. It’s not the same as holding a book though. It’s not even close.
Holding a book, turning the pages, feeling the texture of the surface and perhaps the weight of it, even taking it down from a shelf and removing the slip-case, smelling the distinctive, subtle aroma of high quality print and paper even before you start to visually examine it and hear the pages turning; they’re all sensual involvement with the work which leaves simply seeing an image on a screen as a somewhat sensory-deprived shade of ‘the book experience’.
Beyond that, taking the nearest parallel as viewing and reading a pdf version on a large screen, the obvious, increased, almost intrinsic coherence of a self-contained object, the book itself, encapsulating all that the artist intended it to contain and no more, is also alluring. Yes, a pdf on a screen may have the same content, but unless you’re unnaturally talented at checking the file size and predicting the contents, or unless you study the table of contents carefully to start with, it can be somewhat ill-defined until you reach the end.
With a book, the wealth of sensory inputs to the experience of reading it means that you build up a feel for how much it contains, of what nature, and where you are within it as you read further; it’s an holistic, multi-sensory experience, not a slightly sterile one where the reading device is at best transparent to the process and at worst an intrusion.
With a book, you’re connected via multiple senses as you examine it.
And what about prints?
Prints are great. In terms of pure presentation, a well-mounted / framed print at the right size for the subject, hung in a suitable environment, is a marvellous thing, and perhaps an exhibition of coherent work rivals a quality book for overall experience; certainly it does so in terms of sheer visual impact. It’s a one-off or occasional experience though: with a book, the experience can be repeated and is more ‘intimate’; arguably more involving.
I should make it clear here that I’m not suggesting that books are ‘the only way’. I enjoy photographic exhibitions; I have a Kindle on which I read text; I use a tablet, laptops and a static computer; I even view things on a TV monitor once in a while – all those devices have their place, and if the only thing I had to view a set of photographs on was the tablet, I’d use it (I’d draw the line above using a ‘phone though!). Given the choice, however, I’d choose a finely printed book over any of those things as the best way of enjoying photographs and as the highest level of artefact which can be created from the starting point of a set of images.
I started off attempting to be analytical here but have largely failed as I’ve found myself so enthused by this type of book. No matter! ‘Iceland: A Journal of Nocturnes’ is a really lovely art object and exemplifies the somewhat lyrical comments above. I’m grateful to Bruce for having brought me to recognise the beauty that can be found in this type of photographic monograph.
A review, of sorts
Finally, since the above is not strictly a review, I’ll quote my letter from the book below. In it I tried to encapsulate what, at least as I experienced it, the book is about.
“Your journey from image inception to this book’s production parallels your artistic journey: your subconscious visualisations of the landscape have grown to encapsulate both the story of your visits to Iceland and the water-cycle of the island.
The book can be seen as describing a photographic day.
It dawns, calm and muted, on the black beaches with their isolated, glacial debris. It progresses along the coast to the sea-stacks, and thence inland to the vibrant drama of the cascades. It touches on the inland glaciers that are the source of the translucent ice-jewels, and on the rock over which they flow. And then it returns to the dark sand, this time with richer, optimistic blues as the ice reaches the coast and slowly melds with the ocean, ready to return to the glaciers.
It’s a wonderful, elliptical path through the iconic features of this harsh land and shows how an artist’s growth can mimic the cycle of nature. In this case, water and ice: same materials, different facets.
Journeys entwined with journeys; fascinating to observe and unequivocally inspirational.”
Now to make some more shelf space: paper may trump screens, but electronic media really do have the advantage when it comes to storing things!
Since I published this, Bruce has published a very interesting and revealing article on his blog describing the overall process of creating the book. It considers the organic development which leads to a finished artefact. Very much worth reading, especially if you’re considering producing a book yourself!
7 Responses to “Musings on: the allure of photographic monographs”
My copy of Bruce’s book arrived today. I was delighted to see your letter in final pages. The insightful comments were as well written as always. Bruce certainly is lucky to have you as a proof reader. You are probably aware that Bruce gave a talk at the book launch in Edinburgh last week and I was lucky enough to be able to attend. I’m pretty sure he quoted the “ice-jewels” reference at one point. The images are very rooted in their geography but also strangely intriguing and almost ambiguous in their abstraction. The Bolivian images have the same feel as you say. Bruce and I have an invite to Cappadocia in Turkey in January. Sadly it looks like I probably will not be able to go but I look forward to seeing how he interprets that. So it is certainly nice to read your review and I whole-heartedly agree that this is a wonderful object to handle and to enjoy. Prints astonish me and remind me how crude out 72dpi monitors are.
All the best, Omer.
Thanks very much for that and I’m glad you thought the letter appropriate, having seen the rest of the book. I feel honoured that Bruce included it as I wrote it simply as a comment on how the book made me feel. I was hoping to get to the launch myself but unfortunately wasn’t able to due to work. I gather it was a very good evening, which is great :-)
Mike, I’ve finally got something to say on this – though perhaps less cerebral than I hoped.
I completely agree with what you’re saying. How’s that? :)
With my relatively recent introduction to photography my normal engagement with it is purely digital. It is relatively rare that I spend time with prints or books of images. But you are right that this is a pale shadow of the experience. As we spend more of our time looking at glowing rectangles it feels that the content we consume is merely consumed rather than understood and reflected on. Like when you sit on the sofa and idly eat a family pack of crisps while watching telly. Ye you ate them but what was the point, you can barely recall the experience. Our image viewing is too often consumerist and throwaway. This societal change is, I fear, one of the biggest threats to our art and indeed our way of life.
And so hard, physical objects like books and prints give us cause to pause, slow down, ponder and absorb rather than consume. As you say, they play to all of our senses. I sometimes wonder if our sixth sense is a ‘reality/virtuality’ sense, switching our level of involvement and interest based on the medium as much as the content.
I would agree that a book represents the pinnacle of the experience. Seeing a body of work laid out as the artist intends, feeling and turning the pages in the comfort of your own environment is a more personal engaging experience. By contrast, for most of us prints are either individual items we buy from an artist or we’re viewing them in an ‘alien’ environment such as gallery. This places barriers between us and the work I think.
The only thing I really don’t like about books is that they feel like they have finite uses. The nice tight binding quickly loosens, the pristine pages marked or bent (ok depends on how careless you are!). Every viewing seems to do damage, and it feels like a sin to do so. It’s like drinking from a magic potion that yo know will run out one day and you can’t replace. And so often my (small) collection normally sits on the shelf for a ‘special occassion’. I know that is sad!
I think my ideal would be a book of prints with a non-degrading binding, perhaps allowing pages to become detached so you’re not fighting against the spine. Almost to the point of being able to have the gallery in your own home.
I say I have a ‘small’ collection as I think these books are, rightly, expensive and I can’t afford (or rare perhaps I’m not willing, and so something I should address) to buy such books regularly. If the artists whose books I do own we’re to know how selective my collection is I would hope they would see it as a great compliment! I do intend to buy more going forward however.
An interesting post Mike. Ultimately I agree that the physicality of images is something to relish and cherish, the experience is vastly deeper and engaging (the same image on screen and in a book also looks vastly different, feeling aside). I do sense we all have a growing realisation that we’ve accumulated so many images on our hard drives and now feel the need to bring them forth into the world as physical objects. Certainly I would like to spend more time with books and prints than glowing rectangles.
Disclaimer: written on my iPad so apologies for the plethora of typos! :)
That’s a great many thoughts, Duncan; thanks. I think I’m going to take the same line as your Twitter comment and have a think about it before responding!
I concur on your thoughts regarding – to summarise drastically – the multi-input, superficial nature of a lot of ‘media consumption’ at the moment. I came close to including something about that in the original post, but decided not to in the interests of keeping it short enough for people to read … ;-) As you say, physical objects such as books almost compel us to focus on one thing at once, in an absorbing manner, rather than pretend that we can multi-task and ‘consume’ multiple inputs simultaneously without loss of quality of experience.
Interesting point, too, about the way that ‘the book’ is an object capable of being damaged and degraded. I do exactly the same: I don’t casually look at books of this nature for fear of using up their cycles. That’s a bad thing, but it has the upside that when we do look at them, it’s a special experience; it’s not casual.
And with respect to your point about images languishing on disk storage, or whatever, never to be seen – and this somewhat contradicts the non-casual nature of viewing this type of book! – it’s possible to wander up to a shelf, take a book down and start looking at it, whether you’re the person who put it there or a friend/guest of theirs; that is simply not the case with digital media. My friends don’t (can’t!) wander up to one of my computers and start flicking through the image content, even if they were inclined to. In contrast, they very much can and do look at books without being prompted to. Another benefit then :-)
Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
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