The 48 entries that make up this year’s International Photobook Dummy Award from Fotobook Festival Kassel are as varied in size and subject as ever. It’s a great resource for those interested in photobooks as well as those thinking about producing their own at some point, not only for the valuable lessons in design but also in construction and approach to realising a photographic project as a book – as opposed to a digital screen or exhibition presentation.
This year there seemed to be a lot more big books than usual. We won’t ask why this is, but for some reason photographers seem compelled to produce great big chunks of things lately. Richard Ansett’s Fat is appropriately unwieldy, while Mann Mit Tiger by Bernhard Mooshauer borders on the absurd for the sheer quantity of pages (one actually feels overwhelmed by the repetitive nature of the images and volume combined).
There are some intriguing approaches to the form of the book too, with the casing box being popular this year. Cathleen Falckenhayn’s 3ZKB, Jana Romanova’s Shvilishvili, Alberto Sinigaglia’s Big Sky Hunting and Ole A H Truderung’s Distance, Safety and Fiction successfully incorporated a hard shell for their respective publications for very sensible design and practical reasons.
Another positive approach is the use of alternative materials for the book cover, with The Cool Couple’s Approximation To The West using an attractive crumpled brown paper that has a personality of its own; No Man’s Land Collective use a very coarse sack cloth, while Joseph Gallix’s use of a thick black rubber for Le Combat Continu is a real delight. The rubber not only corresponds to the actual work inside, but it gives the reader the smell and feel of the product at the heart of the book’s story; one is forced to contemplate the story in a much more relational way.
For now though, and in no particular order, the following photobook dummies are my five personal favourites that stand out for clarity of design and originality of content:
Everything Will Be OK by Alberto Lizaralde is a simple but effective book that uses truly beautiful imagery of a poetic and in many cases heart-wrenching nature to tell a personal story. It is very difficult to communicate stories of tragedy without falling into the trap of over-sentimentality or worse still, emotionally manipulating the reader. But Lizaralde’s pictures are honest and his edit is so tightly considered that it succeeds in both narrative and aesthetic. There are some sublime moments that can haunt, and some of this is down to the simplicity of the book design itself.
Maidan – Under Construction by Kirill Golovchenko is another unassuming book that resonates. The clear approach to the subject may come across a little simplistic to some, but from an artistic point of view it says what it needs to say quite well. The accidental sculpture created by those protestors occupying the square in Kiev, Ukraine during 2014, are isolated by the artist and considered brief politically charged physical interventions. The barricade sculptures seem to encapsulate the moment yet transcend it as temporary artworks giving way to arguments surrounding artistic intention and aesthetic understanding.
Kenwood Avenue by Adam J Long is a neat little square publication in tones of grey that suggests modern Film Noir. The broken domestic objects in gardens, the slightly disheveled houses and the banal yards all suggest something is amiss yet Long never reveals what exactly. His portraits of timid children with their parents, and those adults themselves, all allude to an unknown happening but again we aren’t given more. That old movie line “It’s quiet – a bit too quiet” encapsulates the mood throughout. Anyone who has grown up in suburbia will identify with this well thought out book.
Iran Ein Kinderbuch by Oliver Hartung uses the traditional 1970/80’s children’s book design and layout as a somewhat perverse way to present the equally perverse public art from Iran. Pictures of wall murals and sculptures fill the pages of this hardback book, throwing page after page of colour and pattern at the reader. Hartung uses humour to subvert the seriousness of the subject, which is after all about coercion and mind control of Iran’s citizens via violent and ideological imagery. The insanity of a giant grenade, the martyr’s portraits and the painted AK47’s are not a laughing matter but Hartung is no stranger to these lands and understands how to satirize them perfectly.
国庆节 Nationalfeiertag by Katja Stuke is another one of those big books mentioned above. However, using a corrugated cardboard cover and Japanese style folded pages there is a lightness to the form. The images incorporate silk-screen style design with halftone for the found imagery and a more serious use of insert pages for text only. The book’s concept is quite complex, with its 12 chapters based around 100 portraits taken on Tianamen Square and other public plazas during National Day of the People’s Republic of China and Golden Week 2011. In Stuke’s trademark style, the portraits appear as though taken from monitor screen as she uses the act of surveillance to become part of the aesthetic and underlying concept. With short pieces of text dealing with China’s sociological, political and historical developments over the last century or so, Stuke also brings in fashion and art (Andy Warhol’s Mao prints get their own attention). In many ways this book sounds like it shouldn’t work yet one finds oneself leafing through the pages equally fascinated by the “portraits” and engaged in the text. It is a serious book that manages to critique the photobook and our present day image culture by using a subject as large and intimidating as Chinese power.
There were a lot of politically charged books in the shortlist this year, which may be a sign of the times or indeed the selection process, but it is worth remembering that a photobook with potential can just as easily be about the smallest subject as the biggest. It is a credit to the Dummy Award, and a gift to us all, that they consistently prove this each year.