Conversation: Filling in the Gaps - Photography, Writing and Context
The following is an excerpt from the first Perimeter Talks of the year, Filling in the Gaps: Photography, Writing and Context. The talk, presented by a panel of Melbourne-based writers and curators including Pippa Milne, Daniel Palmer and Dan Rule, explored photography's deficiencies in forming context outside of the frame, and the role of writing – and specifically photographic publishing – in addressing that. Each writer delivered a reading of text they have had published on photography, before opening to the room for discussion.
Daniel Palmer: This piece was written for an exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP, Melbourne) by Symrin Gill. Gill works with photography quite a lot but also other art mediums, and often with books. It was one of the last exhibitions that I worked on at the CCP in 2006 before I moved to Monash University. What she did, which I explain in the catalogue essay, was she started with found books that she then erased the text from, so that they became blank other than the photographs.
In terms of what I was trying to achieve, like most catalogue essays I was trying to provide a context for people to enrich their understanding of the exhibition. I was writing it without having seen the work. This is the funny thing about writing catalogue essays, as anyone who has written a catalogue essay will know — you’re asked to do something but the work isn’t finished, so you’re imagining it. It can be quite a surprise when you see the finished exhibition. In this case I had a lot of chats with Symrin, who is the most considered artist you’ll ever meet — she is so very thoughtful — so there was a lot to go on. I was trying to add something to the experience of the work for people.
“32 Volumes resembles a rare book section of a library, with its table, stools and white gloves. However, the books’ hard covers are smooth, blank white surfaces. Opening up these featureless slabs we find an array of photographic images that we can identify as having been taken in the mid-to-late twentieth century. They show a diverse range of landscapes and life in the faded black and white colour tones of a seemingly more innocent era. The books contain no text at all, not one word that might identify the pictures. But because we are familiar with the notion of a coffee table travel book, we suspect that each of these books ‘covers’ or somehow represents a part of the world.
Indeed, these books are modifications of the Life World Library, a series produced in huge number in the mid-1960s, circulated around the world and now gathering dust in secondhand bookshops. A portfolio celebrating human civilisation, its thirty-two volumes aim to represent the world in its entirety. There are volumes on Mexico, China, France and Ireland. Australia and New Zealand are collected together. So are South East Asia, Central America and ‘The Low Countries’. Israel has its own volume, while ‘The Arab Lands’ are collected together as one. There are vague tones of optimistic post-war, post-colonial international harmony, but the whole system reflects the ideology of the Cold War and the US view of the world; thus Russia, rather than the Soviet Union. Africa is divided into ‘Tropical’ and ‘South’, along old colonial demarcations.
Gill’s act is far from destructive. Like other erasure projects in the history of art, it invites an ambiguous and shifting reading of the original text. In this case, once colourful covers — featuring stereotypical visions such as Australian sheep, US skyscrapers and German citizenry — have been coated with white gesso. Inside, with the aid of Gill’s four assistants, every word of text has been systematically erased by hand using stone sandpaper. Where the original text spoke in loaded terms of “Islam’s hold on millions” or “brooding huts” created by “untutored architects”, the images now float free on the page. Liberated from captions proclaiming the merits of the ‘free world’, their politics become ambiguous. Released from these overt proclamations, the photographs now fail to illustrate anything except their own status as (often beautiful) representations. After World War II, photo journalists fought to have their images properly captioned. The Magnum photography agency was at the front line of a desire by photographers to control the way their images were used, with each photograph sent out with a stamp on the back explicitly stating “This photograph can be reproduced only with the accompanying caption or with text...in the spirit of this caption”. Photographs are polysemic, and captions help to anchor or constrain their meaning. But as Roland Barthes argued, the principle function of such anchorage is ideological, to direct our reading of images in specific ways. Captions make up for photography’s mute status, typically presenting themselves as neutral labels for what self-evidently exists in the depicted world, while actually serving to define their terms of reference.
In 32 Volumes, the Life images become — interpretively speaking — utopian. Like a personal photo album, the books resonate with The Family of Man (1955) the most popular photographic exhibition and book in history, which toured to nineteen countries including Australia. Edward Steichen’s exhibition The Family of Man was conceived as “a mirror of the universal elements and emotions in the everydayness of life — as a mirror of essential oneness of mankind throughout the world”. Through division into such categories as ‘work’ and ‘birth’, and the insertion of quotes from the Old Testament and ancient proverbs, it simulated a community of world harmony while ignoring the determining weight of historical injustice underlying the generalised ‘human’ condition on show. If Gill’s books come to resemble The Family of Man, this is in part because several of the photographers in the Life World Library series were shown in that exhibition. Some of the best photojournalism by the most talented photographers in the post-war period were included in those books. But in 32 Volumes, the names of the contributing photographers (normally listed in the back of the books) have been erased, and thus the images are floating free of linguistic or authorial support. They become fragile traces (literally, in some cases, as some of the images are beginning to come physically unstuck). We come to realise their melancholy beauty — not simply as a process of redeeming vernacular images, but as a time-disjointed interrogation of the Western imaginary. Today, the humanism of the Life World Library seems like one more ruin of colonialism, seeking vainly to naturalise an already jaded Eurocentric ideology.
The Life World Library series represents an extension of the ambitions of Life magazine which began publication in 1936 with the recognition of the rhetorical possibilities of photography in print. Its founding publisher, Henry Robertson Luce, wanted to “edit pictures into a coherent story — to make an effective mosaic out of the fragmentary documents”. He recognised the significance of the camera to the success of his magazine in Life's original prospectus, which included the idea of “to see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed; thus to see and be shown is now the will and expectancy of half mankind”. Towards these tellingly inflated image-world ambitions, photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa and Lee Miller were dispatched to every corner of the globe and the success of Life was of course unprecedented. It is arguably the most important magazine ever published in the US, on a scale difficult to appreciate in the context of today’s fragmented magazine market and in the age of 24/7 TV and the internet. Positioning itself as America’s family photo album — however white and middle class — it offered essayistic photographs printed on high quality, glossy paper stock. Life is credited for establishing a new visual code in the US, its pictorial style playing a key role in shaping American national identity from the Great Depression through to the Vietnam War.
Although photography literally deals with the surface of the world, Gill finds a way to penetrate beneath the pictorial layer. 32 Volumes opens up the Western view to multiple readings, opening to doubt its power to confer authenticity. John Berger once suggested that “when we find a photograph meaningful, we’re lending it a past and a future”. Such narrative projection is invited here – viewing these images is a work of empathy and imagination. Gill’s modified books are a reminder that nations, like identities, are a product of history — an agglomeration of clichés that we invest in to varying degree, imposed on us by geography, politics and history. Like the family set of secondhand brown and cream covered World Book encyclopedias that I relied on as a child for all my school assignments, its Nixon-era ideology as dated as the gold spine lettering, the magical abundance of knowledge in Life turns out to have been fatally flawed. 32 Volumes is neither nostalgic for simpler times nor looking back with snide superiority, but a reminder of how photographs satisfy our need for familiarity in an uncertain world. Gill’s installation offers a timely space for contemplation, to reflect on how photographs shape our sense of what is worth our gaze and what we have arrived to look at.”
Pippa Milne: My text strikes a slightly different tone from Daniel’s, which is so fulsome and considered, and accompanies an exhibition. I’ve decided to read a piece of text that I wrote for the New Zealand auction house Bowerbank Ninow to accompany a photograph by Yvonne Todd. This was the first time that I had written for them. Writing for an auction house is a funny commission for a curator and for a writer, because your purpose is slightly different from what it might be if your piece were accompanying an exhibition that you are curating or where you’re writing directly in consultation with the artist themselves. The people I was dealing with gave me really open guidelines, and I decided to take it as an opportunity to do a close reading of this photograph. Yvonne Todd is a very well known New Zealand photographer. She won The Walters Prize in New Zealand at a very young age, at 28, and she’s now a household name there. This meant there was very little need to give a huge background to her life or to her practice, so I was able to just go in. It’s not your everyday Yvonne Todd work and I touch on that in this piece of text, which is titled Homage to Dr Spackman.
“A shrine to a diet-doctor: seven black memento mori candles, their wax partially melted then congealed. Stretched into strange, disfigured elegance by their reflections, they sit on an infinite, impossible mirror. One perfect, untaken pill — a diet pill. An elixir. A release.
There are only a handful of still life photos in Todd’s oeuvre. She is, of course, known for her portraits. But in some sense, each and every work she makes is a still life.
Todd always works with props, whether they are candles, asthma inhalers, Victorian dressing gowns, or young, motionless and inexperienced models. With her medium-format camera equipment, Todd captures slow, composed scenes in what seems like the claustrophobic air of an advertising studio, arranging her props into still lifes, which in turn become portraits, biographies and personalities. As such, Homage to Dr Spackman is perhaps as much a portrait as any of her works; the only prop it lacks is a living model.
Todd’s capacity to photograph objects in this way — deadpan, staid, immaculate and carefully imbalanced — is thanks to her commercial training during the ‘90s. She studied at Unitec in Auckland before taking her BFA at Elam School of Fine Arts, and has retained elements of this initial discipline while pushing resolutely through the banality of advertising into something far more unsettling. There is always something in her works that is not quite right.
It is not overt, never an orgy of wrongness nor a horror show of certain shock. Todd’s capacity to harness the crucial punctum of a photograph is manifested in the slight slippage of some aspect of an otherwise perfect veneer. It might be the teeth, false and unwieldy in a pleasantly smooth young mouth, an ill-fitting wig, or a pallor or expression that doesn’t sit right. Afflicted with delicate disorders, Todd’s subjects seem to cradle their malaise quietly, under the glossy surfaces of meticulous C-type prints.
In this instance, the pill is this disturbing pin-prick. The candles are wickedly beautiful, with their dark rivulets and bulbous shapes. But the pill sits, like the point in a question mark, demanding: what good can come from this? What darkness might be around the corner?
Dr Spackman, towards whom this homage appears to be directed, was a medical practitioner and theologian in Auckland with a weight loss clinic in Hillsborough. He serves as a conduit, of sorts, between the medical and beauty industries. He is clinical, precise, wearing the same lab coats that the chemist’s beauty counter ladies also wear to dispense their blush and mascara. Such women feature in Todd’s 2002 series Bellevue, where they wear blazers with makeup-brand badges and present themselves with an air of unsettling dissonance from the cheery beauty that their brand purports to provide.
This homage is a shrine: a shadowy gothic arch of candles—reminders of the inevitable fleetingness of life’s flame. It sits within a surfaceless void, without the stability of an anchor, and any beauty or consolation in this perplexing unreality is, at best, a synthesised, pill-induced salvation.”
Dan Rule: The reading I am going to give is from Family Photos, which is a book by Eliza Hutchison that we published via Perimeter Editions last year. One of the many things I wanted to achieve with this text was to somehow broach the malleable nature of Eliza’s practice – it’s almost impossible to pin down. And the book, like her work, became this process of unraveling her work further; the design process and the editing process went to fragment her images further than they already are. The fragmented nature and the sculpted nature of Eliza’s photographs are very much what define them. The precedent for that approach is this idea of memory. Eliza is very interested in photography’s failure to deal with the nature of memory — the idea that the frame and the static photograph only starts to approach memory, and it can’t in any way describe or represent its fluidity; the idea that memory changes with our lives and also changes depending on who we talk to. We construct our own narratives around memory.
I had the challenging task of attempting to write an essay about a body of work that was incredibly dynamic and ever-shifting. I thought I should attempt to somehow speak to the formal aspects of Eliza’s work; the idea that you can bounce between incredibly different vantages — some extremely personal, others very analytical, and others relating to a wider cultural and pop cultural history. There are page breaks that delineate three different narratives. The title of the essay is Throes of recall, depths of love.
“I recognise the couple. They are young and they grin willingly. They wear winter clothes – coats and gloves in dark colours – and they stand in a busy street, the sun blaring crisply. The man is a foot taller than the woman. They have an arm around each other. The photograph is taken in Japan – probably Tokyo – if the buildings and the signage suggest anything. She has a black bowl-cut and she is smiling so hard that her eyes turn down at the edges. They are blue.
Australian artist Eliza Hutchison hasn’t seen her family photo albums in years. They were lost during a relocation. The precise details are unimportant, but the photographs were. She describes the images of her parents, younger then, living a glamorous lifestyle as executives for a major US film distribution company in South Africa. She recalls the photographs of the film premieres and parties; her mother’s dazzling evening gowns and father’s tuxedos; the images of Cary Grant and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Hutchison would spend her early years poring over those albums.
Photography has long been uncomfortable with its very nature as a recording device. The same tangible connection to the subject that affords the photographic medium and process its singular charge – its requisite proximity and contact with its referent, and the direct inscription of light on celluloid or sensor – also presents its great anxiety.
The choices, decisions and subjectivities of the frame are interpreted as both photography’s art and its fallibility as an index or evidentiary document. Through the lens, our experience of people, places and objects in time is underwritten by an active and ever-present acknowledgement of the storytelling devices at play. So acutely aware are we of the form that any attempt to represent or invoke the real is given a wide-ranging exit clause – the challenge too great. We make images after all; we don’t simply take them. We piece together traces of the real in order to fill in the evocative, disembodied chapters of a story of our own making.
Aside from the smiling faces, the photograph doesn’t reveal that the couple were married that day. The embrace – the muted elation – offers something of a hint, but the other cues are absent. There is no spectacular dress, no suit, no friends or family. It is just them, on a street in Tokyo. The simple clarity of the image speaks only to a moment. It falls short of necessary contextual clues or narrative armatures. I stare at it for a moment, only to close my eyes. It is only then that recollections begin to flood.
It is telling that Hutchison – who, in her early years, studied psychology and sculpture before turning to photography – has described her photographic practice in terms of “reconstructed memory”. In a sense, her work might be framed as an attempt to re-visualise the images, sensations and memories lost with her family albums. But these are not photographs as we know them. Instilled with the pliability, instability, non-linearity of the psychological, Hutchison’s images lurk illusively amidst fragments of poignant recollections, abstractions, in-camera effect and sculptural affect.
The great difficulty in ascribing photography the role of memorial device is that our memories are fluid and unfixed. Personal recall is only made solid by a conglomeration of support structures and materials. Family albums, shared stories and established narratives all work to formalise and afford memories an acceptable semblance. They allow something that is inherently slippery to become stable and dogmatic. They are an artifice.
Concurrently to documentary photography’s crisis of identity, the ocean of digital and semi-automated images that have come to define the present setting (courtesy of the iPhone, CCTV, dash cam, Google Street View and Google Earth) have permeated our lives in ways barely imagined. With multiplicity and semiconsciousness has come a different, fragmented manner of indexical legitimacy – one we seem more willing to accept than the consciously photographic. We assume veracity amid ever-billowing clouds of images.
But there is a clear conceit to both these positions. In each, we tend to deny our own subjectivities, cognitive tics, associations and psychological patterns to instead reach a kind of narrative consensus. The plasticity of visual language is reduced to the building blocks of storyline or evidence.
There is snow falling. It is wet and it tumbles down in unruly flurries. We are in Hokkaido, a seaside town, I don’t remember exactly where. It is three weeks after the photograph was taken.
We are lost, but we are laughing. Our arms grip each other as we wander through industrial back blocks. From behind a chain-link fence, we can see the ocean and the snow piling on a ragged beach.
You have a scarf pulled high over your face and we walk and walk and walk. At one point in the afternoon, we shelter in a 200-yen store. I also remember a Ferris wheel, a strange anomaly in the frozen landscape. It is blue and we stare up at it through the falling ice. It is static – shut down for winter – but I imagine it spinning.
On its own, the photograph describes nothing of this.
Hutchison’s work is a means by which to visualise the fleeting nature of the memories in photographic form – and to acknowledge memories as active, interpretive and ever-changing. In a career stretching back to the 1990s, Hutchison has worked to slice, shred, fold, mirror and sculpt photographic images, materials and surfaces to both activate and complicate the photograph’s chain of command. She reroutes the various relationships and intersections between photographer, subject, object and psychological nub in order to tackle the specificities of personal, cultural and familial consciousness.
Her aesthetic and methodological habits may read as idiosyncratic, but her work’s relationship to the idea of the recording device is unquestionable. While her images – destabilised, sculpted, refracted and offset – seem expressive and nonrepresentational at a glance, they are anything but. Rather, they form a litany of attempts to capture the transitory flashes of recollection that shuttle past the mind’s eye. She actively applies photography’s indexical potential to the most ephemeral and malleable of moments, making visible the turbulence of the psychological and the uncertainty and fallibility of memory.
They confront photography’s shortcomings with scattergun actions. It is representation on the run.
The images that echo throughout this book of Family Photos – many of which came out of a residency at the Cité des Arts in Paris – both embrace and shatter their collective title. Prised from the swamp of Hutchison and her family’s wider history, present and semiconscious, they ricochet between intense intimacy and collective significance. Images bleeding over from her ever-expanding, ever-changing Hair in the Gate, a biograph (2013) series – which sculpt and recast harrowing signposts from our wider cultural and celebrity history (Sharon Tate’s brutal murder and Princess Grace Kelly’s funeral among them) – bounce off moments of personal specificity and the intensity of family life.
Like memories, the images fragment and repeat. The birth of her first daughter is juxtaposed against the fiery death of Brazilian Formula One champion Ayrton Senna; a photograph of a bloodstain left by her pet cat Horace, soon before he died from feline AIDS, is rephotographed and abstracted to take the form of pixelated tartan-like pattern. A lopsided view from her Cité Internationale des Arts studio reads as a bid to escape a cooped-up, restless family; it sits opposite an empty beach in one instance, a crystal ball in another. An abstract, textural, blue field is in fact detail from a blue, winner’s rosette. It mirrors an image of her daughter Strobe – a competitive equestrienne – forlorn and displaced on raining Paris street, her will to succeed dampened by her mother’s art-making endeavour.
The series comes to form conversations, digressions and double takes. Moments of representation illuminate apparent abstractions. Repetitions offer fresh, often troubling perspectives. It is as brutally honest as it is strangely nostalgic.
At dawn, the sound of crows cuts through the urban din; the soft, damp pungency of tatami. Supermarket; raw horsemeat with tamari. I am drunk; I smash my camera charger on the hotel room floor. Letter of no impediment; the Australian Embassy is quiet; a limp flag. Fuji with no clouds. We pat stray cats in Okayama. Falling asleep facing you; 11 years, then. I study your shoulder in half-light; I love you.
It would be easy to overly intellectualise Hutchison’s photographic ventures, such are their layered and interlocked qualities. But with time, Hutchison’s various transgressions and challenges tend to reveal something approaching their true selves.
Ahead of anything else, her Family Photos speak of an intense aching and an indescribable love; of a want to grasp and hold and understand those closest to us.
They invoke the force of connection, rupture and yearning – they drag the idea of representation through the mire of perception and the mind, then back again. It is only through pain that we can truly understand the depths of love.”
DR: For the text, I used the device of a photograph of Justine and I just after we got married. It was the idea of the photograph and what that represented to me and how that triggered my memories — using that to elucidate how Eliza’s conceptual approach to her practice works and how her photographs could be read. The piece was also in itself about writing. It was about myself — coming from a background of being a writer — how I always try to deal with the image. The photograph is particularly complex because of its relationship with the real. The text is me trying to approach, from all these different vantages and angles, just how the hell I deal with images and how the hell I deal with Eliza’s images, and how the hell she deals with them as well. I’m not sure it succeeded but it hurt a lot and it felt good.
PM: I think that the breaks — that rupture between talking about something intensely personal, such as “I love you” followed with “The inherent…” — there was something very playful about the way that you dealt with that.
DP: Or schizophrenic.
DR: Once you try to inject a different voice or various lines of approach, a normal essay structure makes no sense. I really need to credit Lisa Radford for what I’m about to say, who’s a local artist and incredible writer. It was when we were doing a Next Wave festival program — a writing program years ago — and Lisa was one of the mentors. She spoke about writing with art, or writing with artists and it was such a fantastic turn of phrase. I thought, “That’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole life”. Obviously in a critical capacity it’s a very different thing, but in making a book with an artist it’s about writing with the artist and not necessarily about the art.
Pippa, with your piece – and I think it’s interesting that you both read commissioned pieces from different kinds of institutions, obviously you’re very different writers from different backgrounds — but the essay for the commercial gallery or auction house can often take a different form in that you’re trying to sell. You know that that’s part of your job, that you are making things seductive.
DP: But also the fact that it’s starting from a singular image — there’s a real difference. That’s obviously a different way of thinking about writing. Sometimes it’s about specific images, and say in my case it was much more about photography in general, and yours did a bit of both. I feel most comfortable — because I’m an academic — when I talk about photography in general. But that’s a danger. I can write about specific images, but I often leap towards wanting to say something about photography in general, which of course is a generalisation and can become very banal. I always think it’s great if you can be specific.
PM: I was going to say the opposite. I think it’s really important that we retain that capacity to talk about the general, to talk about the context within which these images sit. It’s all very well and it’s such a pleasure to read an image closely like that one by Yvonne Todd and to write about it. It’s maybe a little bit like anyone can go to a psychoanalyst and interesting things will come up in conversation if you dig deeply — not all images have that much to dig, but if you dig deeply and write generously around a lot of images you can find interesting things to say. But putting them into the context of photography as a subject, as a material that we all encounter, is a really difficult task and one that you did with such beautiful dexterity in the text for Gill’s exhibition where we were able to understand why these images are important, not just to one person but to society.
DP: Thank you. When I was thinking about what I wanted to read today, I was thinking about reading something on Patrick Pound’s work. It was interesting that those were found photographs too, and I thought there is a curious pattern here. I think for me, maybe I find it harder to write about artists’ or photographers’ intentions, or maybe I’m less interested in that and more interested in the image and its status as a public document.
DR: I think that’s a really important idea as well, is that so many writers make the mistake of writing with the task of somehow cracking the code for everyone, that the meaning is inherent within the work somehow — the artist inserts the meaning and then its up to us to be smart enough to extract that meaning. That’s not at all how images work or how art works or how writing should work; that meaning is at the point of transmission between the image and spectator. This idea that the artist creates a context and a series of possibilities and quite often…
DP: If I can interrupt – because then that raises the question of what we were discussing with what is the role of writing, to open up different possible readings.
DR: It was funny, in a former role writing short reviews for The Age newspaper — writing four to five reviews every week for eight years, it was a mountain of work — it was an unusual process. It’s the idea of working out what your role is as a writer in this position, and for me writing for a mass audience was something I was very interested in. It wasn’t about unlocking a code so much as offering my particular perspective, and writing something that was readable and interesting and generous – not always generous but for the most part – offering a series of potential reads. There’s an onus for us to be creative and generous as viewers as much as there’s onus for us to be critical. The idea that you can cut down anything really quickly if you wanted to and if you don’t think creatively or you don’t engage your faculties…
PM: Maybe less an onus and just the possibility for people to. If you want to read generously you can also do so, it’s not all up to the artist.
Daniel, when you were writing about photography, in terms of structure, did you naturally go into an academic way of analysing and going through or have you written more naturally and more personally?
DP: Yes, I have written more personally. It’s not my natural mode but absolutely. I’d like to think that every time I try to write something it’s responding to the work and not always just trying to explain or theorise it in an academic way. When I was younger I used to try more experimental ways of writing — maybe writing with the art a bit more — whereas now I take a more historical approach.
The elephant in the room maybe is that writing with art — being subjective — can lead to self indulgence. It has to be quite good to interest me as a reader. I’m also conscious as a writer that there are a lot of writers and very few readers; there are a lot of publications and not enough time to read them all. The things that I most like reading do give me something new — a new way of thinking, ideally — and it’s even better if it’s a new way of thinking about photography in general. If its too much about – no matter how good the writing is – if it’s a very subjective response to the work, if it’s a poetic response that can be really pleasurable but if it doesn’t give me something intellectual…that’s my intellectual bias.
Emma Phillips: What I found interesting about the three different readings is that in each case they enriched the work a lot, and they in some way mirrored it as well. I was wondering how writing can change the form of a book? Because a lot of books that come out now don’t have any writing.
PM: I’m open to being swayed on this but I really feel strongly about text going with images a lot of the time, because I like to have the option to know more. Photobooks — or books with only art or only images in them — exist as an object and have things to offer, but I often find that I want to know more. I teach a course about writing for photographers but it’s a very different prospect because it’s teaching young photographers who are at art school about writing artists’ statements and about writing applications, and its very practical writing. It’s not always fun for them but I try to always make them understand that words aren’t the enemy of books and photographs.
DR: That’s interesting. In many ways I agree with that but at the same time I do feel like with the digital setting — the internet — with all these different ways of gathering information, that has really allowed the book to loosen itself from the tyranny of words. It has allowed books to be whatever works they need to be, and often that context and background information can be found via other sources. They might quite deliberately list a website that will go straight to a description and a dissection of the book, so that the book can just be a photographic work more like in a gallery.
PM: But that’s still connecting words back to the work.
DR: Of course.
PM: That’s a nice separation.
EP: There are so many different examples, like from Rosalind Fox Solomon’s work Got to Go (MACK) — she has text throughout, and often it’s in direct dialogue with the photograph. It’s absurd and abstract but somehow enriches the work. What I wanted to bring up was how there are so many different forms of writing that can be in dialogue with photography. Also, outside of that context completely – Morgan Ashcom’s new book, What the Living Carry (MACK) where you have to go to a website.
DR: Definitely. It is really tricky because traditionally — in book form anyway — either a text or series of poems or something else might accompany a series of photographs, or a series of photographs might illustrate a series of poems. That’s a completely different thing and very hard to pull off, as opposed to works that interweave text and photography as part of one language.
DP: There was a trend in the ‘90s where there were just images in books and I remember at the time finding that a bit strange, but it also is the case that it can be very boring to just have your standard introduction to a book. I do like it when the artist writes something. Not necessarily a long essay, but even a short piece. Louis Porter has done that. Often artists have the most interesting things to say. A lot of the writing that people do is not that interesting – it’s sort of just going through the motions. I’d have to say that about quite a bit of stuff I’ve done. You do your best, but quite often you feel like it’s just a commissioned piece that’s doing a job.
DR: It’s interesting, a lot of my favourite writers – (New Yorker critic) Peter Schjeldahl being one of them – I think I relate to them because I come from a similar position. Coming from a background of witting, you learn about art and art history by writing about it. I ended up writing about art and learning about it through practice and through talking to artists, interviewing artists, and writing over 17 plus years. I’ve really given myself my own strange education. It’s often interesting that we forget sometimes, especially in the sense of books and writing and audiences and potential audiences – that good writing is tantamount. Something has to be written well to reach a wider audience and be good writing on its own.
1. Symrin Gill, 32 Volumes. Image via Centre for Contemporary Art (Melbourne).
2. Yvonne Todd, Homage to Dr Spackman, 2004. Image via Bowerbank Ninow.
3. Eliza Hutchison, Family Photos. Image via Perimeter Editions.
4. Rosalind Fox Solomon, Got to Go. Image via MACK.
5. Morgan Ashcom, What the Living Carry. Image via MACK.
Perimeter x Heavy is an editorial collaboration exploring contemporary photography, art, design and their various relationships to the published form. Produced in-house by the team at Melbourne-based bookstore, publisher and distribution house Perimeter and Sydney-based photography magazine and online platform The Heavy Collective, Perimeter x Heavy comprises book reviews, interviews, studio visits and features. While further expounding the published output of artists who feature across both Perimeter and Heavy's inventories, the platform aims to provide thoughtful insights into the wider here and now of contemporary publishing practice.