Photo Books

By Bob Nickas

From the Printed Matter 1986/87 Catalog

Artists in the mid-to-late 1960s presented their work in the form of books with increasing frequency, either to document an event or an ephemeral work, or to make their art inexpensively available to a wider audience than it otherwise might find in a gallery. In both cases, much of this work was photographic, although the artists were not strictly photographers. Artists associated with the Conceptual movement, such as John Baldessari, Douglas Hueber, Sol LeWitt and Richard Long, all published books both as documentation of projects in other media and, more importantly, as independent works in themselves. They all continue to do so today.

An early and important document of Conceptual work — Huebler’s November 1968 — can be found in this catalog alongside his recent Crocodile Tears (1985). One of Baldesseri’s bookworks, Throwing a Ball Once to Get Three Melodies and Fifteen Chords (1973), is available here with his latest book, Close-Cropped Tales (1981), a humorous collection of eccentrically cropped film stills and photos from old magazines. These books stand in contrast to the traditional album, in which a photographer presents his or her work in a book format. Early books by these artists pioneered the idea that a photobook could be more than a collection of autonomous photographs, and subsequently this notion has influenced books by photographers as well.

In his book Teenage Lust (1983), Larry Clark combines family snapshots, newspaper clippings, handwritten captions, a court paper charging him with assault and battery , and an autobiographical text, to locate his photographs in the rocky course of his life. In Michael Wilson’s Heads Bowed Eyes Closed (1984), text interspersed throughout the work imbues the quietly simple black and white photos with something that approaches monumental loneliness. James Casebere’s In the Second Half of the Twentieth Century… (1982) put his constructed landscapes and the objects he builds for them at the service of anti-militaristic, anti-explosive sentiment. He even encourages the purchaser of the book to cut out two quotes from Thomas Paine and paste them in a public place.

In recent years, artists such as Sarah Charlesworth, Silvia Kolbowski, Laurie Simmons, and James Welling, all of whom produce work informed by the practices of Conceptual art and its publications, have presented photographic work in the form of books and pamphlets. These books function not as traditional photo albums or monographs, but as vehicles which enable an intimate encounter between the “reader” and the work.

Kolbowski’s “Monumental Prop/portions” (1983) has the familiar look of the photo-text pieces that she exhibits in galleries. The shift from the wall to the page — from an object that can be seen at once in its entirety to a work that is revealed as one turns each page — shifts the viewer/reader’s role from a passive to an active one. The same can be said of Charlesworth’s A Lovers Tale (1983), even though there is no written text. Film stills from movies as diverse as Dracula and Flash Gordon tell a story of love, lust, seduction, cruelty, and domination – or at least Hollywood’’s version of it all.

While Simmons’ In and Around the House (1983; 2003 reprint) is a fairly straightforward presentation of the artist’’s well-known photos of dolls in dollhouses, James Welling’s Gelatin Photographs 1-12 (1984) transcends even the most liberal notion of an artist’’s photobook. If one dispenses with the title sheet (which is not bound in the book and thus easily removed), one is left with a strange though ultimately satisfying object indeed. These photographs by Welling, then, are documented even though the publication denies its status as merely documentary. This is equally true for certain books which are meant to serve as a record of an event or an activity by the aforementioned Conceptual artists.

Richard Long, the English artist known for his walks in exotic and remote parts of the world, has supplemented gallery and museum exhibitions with publications since the late sixties. more than records of his walks – the photos and maps he exhibits serve this purpose –- his books take on an independent life of their own. Mexico (1982) documents two walks in Mexico 1979, combining exquisite color and black and white photographs with brief, poetic notes.

Sol LeWitt’s Autobiography (1980) every object in the artist’’s New York home and studio in grids of black and white photographs, nine to a page. Everything from the ceiling to the floorboards (including the drain of the kitchen sink) and bookworks by other artists are pictured. The presentation of all this “evidence” undercuts the thoroughness of the documentation because the ordering of the grid creates an overall abstract pattern, particularly when the subjects are books on shelves or quilts on beds, and even when the objects, as in the grid of clocks, each have an individual presence of their own

The system of grids in Gretchen Garner’s An Art History of Ephemera (1982) similarly avoids the purely documentary terrain. The book, which opens with a line from a Chuck Berry song — “Anything you want we got it right here in the USA” — wildly careens past smashed up cars (Autoclysms), perversely sculpted bushes (Topiary), and blank billboards in the middle of nowhere (Signs) with a sense of humor that’’s reminiscent of the classic bookworks of Ed Ruscha.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Power of Theatrical Madness (1986) is a record of the performance of the same name by Jan Fabre. The photographs, however, are identifiably Mapplethorpe’s. The composition of Fabre’s tableaux and use of naked performers are so suited to the photographer’s signature style that the book is not simply a documentary of a performance but a vehicle for Mapplethorpe to elaborate one of his central subjects – the nude.

These are just a few books which evidence not only a general rise in photographic artists’ books since the mid-to-late sixties, but their influence on the changing notion of the traditional photobook as well. All of the following selections suggest that the strength of photographic activity today will guarantee the continued development of this form of presentation and distribution.

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Image from In and Around the House : Photographs 1976 - 1978 by Laurie Simmons
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Spread from Monumental Prop/portions by Silvia Kolbowski