I’m pretty sure that my definition of (contemporary) photography as art (the serious expression of intelligence) is a bit (a lot) more stringent (limited) that most people’s.
For the longest time I had trouble explaining my complaint. Mostly I fell back on the idea that many of the photographs being put on the art pedestal these days look, to me, more like illustration. You know . . . executing a plan to arrive at a foregone conclusion. Sure, some of them are swell to look at, there might even be some concept and/or happenstance behind them, but not much has really been discovered or disclosed, little risk is involved, nothing seems to be at stake.
Then I ran across an interview with Chris Boot, the executive director of Aperture. While I didn’t agree with everything he said, there was one thing which stood out for me. Let me paraphrase . . .
He said that the common language of photography used to be one of detachment. While the resulting photographs may have had some kind of personal reverberations for the photographer and certain viewers, the photographers’ position was on the outside, looking. (It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway . . . there are exceptions to this.)
He goes on to say that Nan Goldin changed all that. (I’m pretty sure that nothing is ever the result of just one other thing.) Anyway, he says that she combined the personal and the political and the observational, that she made herself, and the medium itself, her subject, and that that pointed to a more modern way of using a camera.
This is not to say that one must only photograph their own circle of friends and acquaintances to be an artist. That’s too literal a reading of what he’s getting at. He’s talking about what you have invested in your work, beyond the time and the money, some looking, a bit of craft and the quest for acceptance/popularity/sales. In business parlance, do you have skin in the game? (When you do really have skin in the game it ceases to be a game.)
I bring all this up because it’s something I think about. But also because I just received All Quiet on the Home Front, by Colin Pantall, a classic example of the potential of contemporary photography . . .
All Quiet on the Home Front is a book about a father and a daughter growing up, it’s about love and landscape, about wonder and wondering and wandering, about the passage of time. It’s tender but not maudlin; measured but emotional; honest and, you can just feel it, true; it’s simple and complex at the same time.
We see Isabel, Colin’s daughter, grow up, we see their house and the land Colin and Isabel walk to and through. We see what she does on that journey, almost always lost in herself. We catch glimpses of Colin’s wife, Katherine. We don’t see Colin, but his presence is felt in every frame. And we can read this thoughts.
The images are not sequenced chronologically. Here time, like memory, jumps back and forth. It’s a long arc, but throughout there are wonderful page spreads that show us moments of time barely separated.
All Quiet on the Home Front touches on something timeless: family, father, daughter, time, the land. It’s quiet but contains layers of resonance where the personal, the political and the observational combine. Colin has made himself and the medium his subject.
As usual, I had written three items for this week’s drool. You know, trying to keep the blog magazine-y. Problem was it all got kind of long and involved.
So in the spirit of adapting to circumstances, and being fluid and giving certain posts the space they need, the following episode of drool. contains exactly one item (plus a bunch of links).
What follows is a conversation with Colin Pantall, in which he talks about blogging, photobook making and Kickstarter. He’s measured, mostly sane, curious, smart. Read on . . .
Colin is a writer, photographer, curator and lecturer based in Bath, England. I’ve never met Colin but our paths have crossed many a time. One time, back in 2010, we were both included in a thing WIRED did on their favorite photobloggers. But like so much public social media intercourse that didn’t mean very much.
What really meant something was, when I was in the depths of USER, Colin and I had some truck in, I think, the comment section of his blog. There was a certain amount of back-and-forth and I recognized his smarts right away and figured I could use them (his smarts).
Over the years, from time to time, when I have needed help and a sympathetic brain to lean on, he’s been one of the people I go to. His input is always well-considered and his effect on more than one of my projects has been subtle yet profound.
One of those weird social media anomalies . . . a stranger who is actually a friend.
TF/ First thing I want to ask you, Colin (because I’m still wondering why I resurrected my blog) is, in this day and age, why do you blog?
CP/ I still blog because I can use the blog for whatever I like and the blog can evolve into whatever I want it to be, most times by accident.
Sometimes it’s hard work when it gets bogged down in something. That’s why I’ve relented on the book reviews. I simply had too big a pile of them and it got to be a labour rather than something enjoyable.
It’s fun when you start writing and you get into a flow. It doesn’t happen often but it happens and that’s what really keeps me going. That’s when the writing has an energy that people respond to.
I’m promoting a book at the moment so it’s useful for that. I talked about All Quiet on the Home Front for the first time at the weekend – on quite a simplistic level. I think that’s necessary at times, but it’s frustrating because there are complexities in All Quiet that I’d like to go into; about the history of landscape, dress, body, the history of family. The blog gives me a chance to go into that and explore my ideas in this weird semi-formal way that doesn’t have to make too much sense.
I like that it doesn’t have to make too much sense. You can be emotional or abusive or contradictory on a blog. You can have a personality. And maybe that’s why I like having a blog, because in places at least it does have a personality and an opinion, and personality and opinion are good things to have as you know from drool., Tony.
TF/ Seems to me you use your blog like some people use photography . . . as a way to work things out, to discover what they might be thinking, to address complexities.
You mention your book, All Quiet on the Home Front. I want to know how (or if) your title relates to the war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque (though most people would probably be more familiar with the movie based upon the book).
CP/ The title is a flip. The wider edit of All Quiet on the Home Front was a vision of domesticity in the UK and Canada in particular – my wife is Canadian so we visit a lot. Not a lot happens in this domesticity on the surface but actually quite a lot happens.
I had all these fantastic images and a title but it didn’t fit. Then while I was going through the images, Katherine said, “can’t you see. This is the story of how you developed your relationship with Isabel through the landscape.” And it was. And the landscapes would change as Isabel grew up and she could see how much I identified with those landscapes. Brown’s Folly was my favourite and I felt a certain pain and loss when we stopped going there. So the idea of the landscapes being me came about because I did have that identification with the landscape in a very strong way. And there was a loss as Isabel grew up, a loss that is typical of the changes in relationship that happen as a child grows up and beyond their parents. And then she began identifying with the landscapes herself. That was quite beautiful, a sign that she had become herself.
It’s these small dramas that make up domestic life. Hence All Quiet on the Home Front – not a lot happens on the surface, but just beneath the surface there’s a lot going on. There’s a latent energy there all the time, just as there was on the Western Front.
TF/ When did you know this work would be a book? Was it planned all along, or did you one day wake up and think, “this is a book”?
It wasn’t planned all along but I always have books in the back of mind. As part of my MA in Documentary Photography I made the Sofa Portraits which showed Isabel watching TV. They are a thing in themselves, the prints are amazing.
I carried on photographing in and around our home in Bath, and at some point as she got older, I photographed more of the surrounding family. I have this really rich body of work showing Isabel, family, friends, our allotment. It’s very local and pitted with multiple meanings.
But it never quite crystallized as a book until I saw what Alejandro Acin of ICVL did with Amak Mahmoodian‘s book, Shenasnameh. I have worked with Alex on other ICVL events and we co-curated the last Photobook Bristol so I know him well. But Shenasnameh was really special. I worked on the text of the book and saw it evolve from a powerful but simple set of images into something that went above and beyond the page.
The process of making the book was also beautiful and really collaborative. Alex and Amak are wonderful people and the way they worked together towards this common end was a delight, a true collaborative experience. So I suggested making a book and Alex said I thought you were doing that with so-and-so and I said no why don’t you do it and we started working on it about a year ago.
And it has been a truly collaborative experience which is a joy to behold. And now it’s nearing the end and I’m a train-wreck of nervous energy.
TF/ I know that feeling. The thing about doing a book is that it brings everything into sharper focus, forces you to make very difficult decisions vis-a-vis your commitment to whatever it is you want to say. And it’s permanent. These are all things that are in short supply in the social media world.
You didn’t do crowdfunding for your book, you just did it and made it available for pre-sale and, in November, for actual sale. Tell me a little about your thinking on that.
CP/ Why not Kickstarter? I don’t know. Making a book is nerve-racking enough, but doing a Kickstarter even more so. It becomes too much of a race and even more of a promotional nightmare because you have to sell, sell, sell.
I’m selling enough as it is with pre-orders and it’s going well enough, but if it was a 30 day Kickstarter with 20 days to go I’d be absolutely wetting my pants. I look with some envy at people who fund their Kickstarters within a few days (yes I mean you! And you! And you!).
Sometimes it’s because they have a brilliant book. Their popularity and well-connectedness kicks in as well. And of course if you’re good at selling, that really helps. But the worst thing is sometimes it’s simply because they are extremely wealthy and have enough extremely wealthy friends to fund it. This makes me angry because I’m wondering why they don’t just use their trust funds to fund it themselves.
Then you get people who should get funded, who do everything fantastically and get promotion, but somehow it doesn’t just happen and they’re stuck without the extra cash to pay for the book. They’re not rich and they don’t have the wealthy friends. And it’s so sad and dispiriting, because ultimately people are mistaking wealth for talent. It fucks me off big time.
I’m also not that confident I’d hit my target. I’m well-connected, and I’ve used that in various ways with people who I know like the work, but I’m not good at selling. I don’t like selling even though every blog, instagram and facebook post at the moment is about All Quiet now. And Alex is not good at selling. We’re better at selling than Amak Mahmoodian who made Shenasnameh. She ended up giving away half the books to people because they were “so lovely” – that’s how I got my copy. I think in the end Alex had to put a sign round her neck saying ‘Don’t take any books from this woman, they’re not hers to give away’ so he could claw back some of the huge amounts of money they’d spent on printing the book.
I do have confidence the book will sell though, because it touches on so many aspects of people’s lives. People respond to it and they personalise what they see and talk about it all the time, but it’s odd because they talk about it outside the context of the photobook. That is both a curse and a blessing. It’s really fascinating how the photobook world works in that sense, in particular the more esoteric corner of the photobook world I’m perched in.
So we need £4,500 to get the books to the printer, which will be fine. And then we need another £4,500 to get it back from the printers. I’m just finishing Magnum China and they should pay me in time to cover that if we don’t have enough. Fuck, I wish I was rich! Then I could just get my rich buddies to pay for it on Kickstarter and wouldn’t have to even think about it!
TF/ Thank you very much Colin. Why don’t I post some images from All Quiet on the Home Front . . .