Presenting the Photobook

by Caroline Docwra

This past March, artists, curators, and writers travelled to Houston to immerse themselves in photography for FotoFest’s biennial. I reviewed the work of hundreds of artists from all over the world in the month-long portfolio review sessions. During these meetings, several things stayed with me, one being the prominence of the photobook. Books were presented not only as supplements to prints but in some cases as the final vision of the artist’s work.

Thomas Holton’s series The Lams of Ludlow Street, was presented as prints with an accompanying book. In an attempt to reconnect to his own Chinese heritage, Holton closely follows the life of a Chinese-American family, subsequently becoming so engrained in their everyday life; he becomes a part of their family. Holton writes, “My need to see the Lams regularly moved beyond the desire to make new photographs and became akin to visiting family members that I cherish. I return out of love and the knowledge that time is fleeting. I just happen to always bring a camera.” The book, published by Kehrer Verlag, allows the viewer to peek into this American family’s everyday life and experience the ups and downs of their relationships to each other and to Holton. Over the past decade, the closer the family grew to Holton, the more they revealed, yet the older the children became, the more their distance from the camera grew. The book condenses time and this comprehensive story into a powerful visual narrative.

Jessa Fairbrother’s Conversations With My Mother explores maternal relationships—her relationship with her mother as she was dying of cancer and her own inability to become a mother herself naturally. The physicality of the book is an emotional response to the artist’s new situation. An exploration of her reversed role as the care-giver—she explores her struggles with relocating and dealing with these new emotions. Before this news, Fairbrother and her mother worked together, passing back-and-forth a disposable camera to document their everyday lives. “I tried to make sense of things that had no sense except sadness…I burned, buried and embellished photographs of us. I performed my grief and began to stitch.” Each page of the self-made book is carefully assembled, every image pin-pricked, stitched, or collaged, featuring images of herself, her mother, and her surroundings. As the viewer runs their finger along the pages they realize each mark allows the artist—and the viewer—catharsis.

Rosemarie Zens is an artist whose work seems to live happily in the pages of books. I was presented with three beautifully crafted books, each with a different feel but still following Zens’ delicate eye for storytelling through imagery. As the Eye Wanders, was particularly effective and was presented accordion style.
“To present the sequences in a series as an art object, almost like a sculpture or in a concertina-style book—having the images stand or line up—the flat two-dimensional photographs are augmented to three or more dimensions. Not only is the interplay between content and form of significance, but also between various kinds of presentation.”

With this presentation method, she allows the viewer to consider these five paired images and how they speak to each other. The meaning wanders along the horizontal plane, challenging the viewer as they take in each image and consider their contribution to the story. Zens shows how sequence, presentation, and dimension play an important role in the viewer’s experience and final comprehension of the artist’s story.

Kate Jordahl was one of the last artists who I spoke with. She brought a stack of books published by her own press True North Editions. Her small, One Poem Books are created in small editions and each feature her photographs taken in response to a single poem. Though they are small, they are not delicate, hefty with detail and meaning in each image. Each edition is different and focuses on a different poet. Wild Geese, the fourth edition in this series, is based upon the poetry of Wendell Berry. As you flip past the poem the words “What we need is here” resonate in your mind as you focus on the relationship of his poetry to her black and white landscapes. Kate writes, “What we need is here—in the world, in our hearts, at the turn of a page. What we need is there—out west, over the next hill, back home.” Berry’s words cast a more somber tone to her photographs, that nostalgia for a place unknown.

Additionally, Jordahl and I spent time talking about how curatorially to include books in the gallery setting apart from simply setting them on a bookshelf. Whether self-published or not, I think this is an interesting discussion for artists and curators to have as the book form is just as final as a print on the wall. For me, these four artists highlight the importance of the art of the photobook as a window into the artist’s intentions. With the photobook, viewers have the opportunity to hold, flip, and feel the intentions of the artists. This ability to increase the viewer’s physical interaction allows the viewer a chance to become a part of the artists’ story.

Caroline Docwra is the co-editor of spot and the Director of Exhibitions and Programs at HCP. She recently curated the exhibitions, Travelogues, with Nathan Hoang, Sara Macel, and Natalie Slater and co-curated In the Wake, Somewhere in the Balance, and Teresa Munisteri’s Strangers to Darkness. Docwra holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology with a minor in Art History and is currently pursuing a Masters in Arts Leadership from the University of Houston.

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