It’s a difficult task to try and summarise the 55 shortlisted books for the 6th International Fotobook Festival’s Dummy Award. The collection of photobooks was recently displayed at PhotoIreland Festival, in Dublin city, the first year they had done so and just one stop as the collection travels across Europe. Having briefly looked at the books during the festival, a closer inspection was necessary and this is where PhotoIreland’s Library Project was of great help. Sitting down with the entire collection over two days, more time was afforded each shortlisted book, which is important to gauge what is happening in the unpublished world of the photobook.
The range of books is always impressive when viewing the Dummy Award shortlist, and one thing that is certain is that there is no shortage of inventive ideas when it comes to the artists’ book. The resurgence of the self-published photobook in particular has been well documented, and accepted universally as a powerful and important development in photography and how photographers disseminate their work. Mythologies and tales already surround the niche practice, with photographers gaining success, and careers being thrust into the spotlight. For the most part those that have had success with their books did so off the back of a long and often times quite expensive endeavor; five years to develop a project and produce a book, or pulling together a decade of experience to take a chance on a new direction. Equally important is the understanding that not all interesting or ‘good’ photobooks have to be like a previously successful example; what makes the photobook so popular is the inherent ability for the thing to be unique, to be as unique as the images contained inside.
Having said that, there are trends that follow. For instance, there seems to be a great many books containing inserts and pull-outs of either background documents or physical mementos. We have seen this idea of an inserted document or photograph being accepted into the general fabric of photobook production today. Books often come with a one-off photograph, especially the kind of book that deals with another contemporary preoccupation, the archive.
Two of the highlights of this particular shortlist was Lasst uns Blühen, an interpretation of the private 1950’s photo collection of Jens Kamke and Sara-Lena Maierhofer’s Dear Clark. Kamke’s straightforward approach to his book proved sensible as the images appeared to be details from appropriated photographs, but cropped into a uniform square and sequenced so each played off the next. The sequencing was obviously of importance to the work, which made it’s transition to book seem so effortless. Maierhofer’s approach utilized a number of contemporary methods in dealing with both found imagery and new photographs, cut-outs and fold-outs and Photoshopping included but working in a clever fresh way. Of course appropriation has it’s benefits and drawbacks (see SMBHmag ISSUE 13), but these books avoided most of the traps and successfully presented a kind of archive as a mysterious, poetic body of work in a professional and concise way. Hidden meanings and subtle suggestions resulted in a need for returning visits.
There were a few examples which didn’t seem to match the intention with execution so well. One book had so many flaps to see what lay beneath, it felt more like a child’s play book rather than a sophisticated body of work presented in an innovative way. On other occasions instructions of how to actually assemble and look at the book were needed. Louie Palu’s Mira Mexico, printed on newsprint and with raw street photography had a genuine appeal, but the confusing and erratic nature of the layouts and binding genuinely resisted a comfortable experience. This was shared with Frank Alexander Rümmele, whose book had so many handmade drawings and gestures, splashes and textures surrounding the photos on each page there was nowhere to focus. Jonathan Saunder’s Tracy/Share was so confusing, it wasn’t clear either what the title was, which project was being shown or where this pseudo-scientific diary was heading. While it is great to see the handmade gesture, and for artists to think about new approaches, there must be some degree of practicality and nuance for the book to work.
Lorenzo Vitturi’s submission was as colourful and chaotic as one would expect from his photography. Have A Look/A Dalston Anatomy/Yam Yam was three projects in one, a book serving as both portfolio and maybe something like a development of an idea – a visual trajectory of the artist defining his style and technique. A physically substantial book, it explodes with colour and intent once opened, the photography transcending overt fashion/advertising resemblances to suggest something more – an affirmation of place through its depictions of the busy urban life that cohabits there.
The glossy magazine aesthetic worked well with Vitturi’s submission, and continued to do so with Georg Parthen’s Studio Work. At first appearing to be a catalogue for a design studio, however on unfolding of pages there was the realisation that this was the photographer photographing his studio and it’s objects as though he were making a portrait of the space itself. The seductive imagery is still life, perfectly lit and and paying attention all the time to tactile surface, which subliminally draws attention to the book itself.
Another book that played it cool in the design stakes was June by Jana Nowack. This Shore inspired travelogue was simple and honest, showing that a clear edit and decent presentation can still impress. As mentioned, a coherent understanding of the subject matter and how that fits within the book format are very important points for anyone attempting to make a photobook. If there is a narrative already contained within the work, it makes sense to produce a book that brings the narrative to the fore. Books with subject matter that is of a more traditional, documentary approach benefits most from this style, and there were examples of it working quite well such as Gegen Ende by Denis Sennefelder, Konversion by Isabel Kiesewetter, Requiem by Mamuk Ismuntoro and Sugar by Rony Zakaria.
So, while there is plenty to digest in terms of imagery and book production within the Dummy Award shortlist one can only feel inspired. Of course, one book will have to win the prize, and this is centered on the feasibility of the dummy itself (first prize is the opportunity to realize his or her dummy as a ‘real’ book with the German printers and publishers Seltmann + Söhne). Anyone who is thinking of submitting a dummy next year, or of producing a photobook themselves, then it is highly recommended they pay a visit to the shortlist and take some invaluable notes.
To view the full shortlist, including PDF versions, go here