Photobooks as a Means of Consolidation

Murat Germen
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There may be an extraordinary sense of showcase when one looks at our geography from abroad, from the outside; a climate in which three seasons can be experienced at once from time to time, a marvelous nature, being surrounded by three seas, having some of the most important places where civilization was founded, countless ethnicities, languages, cultures... So, is this accumulation which is immemorial serve us any purpose or is it true that the grass is always greener on the other side? I guess, not always... Here, everything is so deep-rooted and multifaceted, the rooted ways of life involve the dust of the past, the withered, rigidity, fragility caused by the rigidity.

As you know, Renaissance literally means "rebirth," it is as if nothing is reborn here. Just like Benjamin Button, things are aging backwards at best, in fact they go in some loop to age forwards and backwards again... The culture is deep-seated, sometimes you just get lost... One can't find any "tabula rasa" in other words a "blank slate," every slate at hand are already full, written on, marked, scraped in a way that cannot be erased... Even if you erase the previous one and write on it, it is impossible to delete the archaic substance permanently, it is as if the slate leads the newly written in a magical or instinctual way. Not much new technology is developed here as well, let's just push a new surface of slate which one can write new stuff to the progressive minority...

This essay is about the issue of photobook which has come to the fore recently, so after this overture, I have to change the subject. Let me begin by telling you about a feeling: Sometimes I just want to say "Like we have consummated photography and book entirely and now we have this photobook to crown it all!" As a culture which hasn't contemplate enough on the communicative power of the image, perception, manipulation and representation, it is impossible to argue that we made a significant or influential contribution to the global development of photography. Even if we have some photographers known "worldwide" they don't usually go beyond being the performers of some universally accepted tendencies. We don't determine the global tendencies, we just import them from the ones who do, and clad them in domestic ornaments and just pretend as if we are doing something really important and unique. Pretending "as if" is an intuitive national skill we maintain indispensably, so much so that what we accomplish here seems to prevent us from questioning what we are actually doing.

So, have we figured out the issue of books? I don't think so. The foundation of printing press in this geography lagged hundreds of years. So, we didn't find the opportunity to think about the notions of reproduction, simulation, authenticity, types, printing methods, color types, effects of colors on perception, ideal paper sizes, the mechanism and design of a printing machine, binding techniques etc. These were all imported as an already made set along with their terminology and discourse. It is like raising a child on the basis of the oppressive rules of the society: The rules are already made, the criteria of "success" is predefined, the reactions are definitive, so the character to be formed is more or less predictable...It is not easy to raise children who can change the way of things in this manner! That being the case, what if you (make them) read books; many people don't need a book, they are already informed by the state and society as to what they have to do. That is the reason why original books which tell about or propose or circulate marginal approaches were/are not published apart from school books that transmit information imposed by the system on a mass scale and best selling popular books. In short, we are not pioneers when it comes to books; the state structure hasn't really apprehend how crucial books are for the formation and sustainability of culture, equality and pluralism.

Whereas we are not developed in these matters, the motives for the popularization of photobooks recently, resembles partially the motives for wearing brands, assuming politically correct attitudes to gain a seat within society, the ways in which current success formulas are applied. Like the establishment of a foundation in a field where state hasn't laid its hand on, people are expected to dedicate themselves to a specific cause, but at the end, these foundations usually turn into places of power (and sources of income) where people who has nothing to do settle down; I mean a situation like this. Photobooks and related events shouldn't be a field of activity and power belonging to a few. Actually, photobook is an expression platform which has the potential to convey works different from photography itself and from photography as presented in galleries and museums in different dimensions; where you can blend the image with the text in a completely distinctive way. Interpreting a medium which has to belong to everyone in an exclusivist way to form some group, doesn't seem to do any good in terms of development on a social scale.

I think we should use photobooks as a personal tool for questioning, and establish an environment in which we can have truthful and sincere discussions, conversations, confessions and revelations. As discussion platforms should be open to anyone; production of photobooks should also be accessible to students, photographers, universities, designers, institutions and events in Turkey much more that it is now. But it seems that a relatively closed system is at work in our geography; just like a few offer and determine the ways in which contemporary art is defined, what kind of works artists should produce, how to pay homage to who. Monopolism has always done harm to us, it always suited the stockers' books. And stockpiling is not restricted to keep basic consumption goods in a way to prevent people to reach them to sell those goods later on at fancy prices. Excluding arrogantly people to reduce diversity, highlighting a specific way of practicing photography, praising the value (artist / work of art) at hand and "consolidating" them through elitist maneuvers are also stockpiling. This reinforcing attitude we confront frequently in our country led me to give the above title to this essay.

It might be helpful to scrutinize the photobook as an "object." When we consider on a personal scale, a book can subsist or be consumed as a fetish you take in and sit on your shelf among other books or on your coffee table. However, on a social scale, a book shouldn't be produced for the sake of some current trend; for in this way, it carries the risk of losing its educative feature and become a work of legitimization. On the other hand, the term "photobook" carries with it a restricting but also praising objectivation, just like in the term "photography artist." Personally, I abstain from being called as a photography artist; if it's really necessary I prefer to be called as a photographer / artist, because I see the two as different platforms of activity. Following this way of thinking, I guess it is required to consider the alternatives for "photobook" classification. For instance, if we say "I have a book published recently" instead of "I have a photobook published recently," maybe by being inclusivist rather than exclusivist, we might broaden the field and abstain from indexing it in small niche.

Considering the no better than "pit of hell" situation the country is in, I think I have to finish this essay in a positive, constructive and optimistic way. Publishing photobooks has some vital advantages for the photographer which shouldn't be omitted. It is a teamwork; apart from the photographer, the graphic designer and editor / curator have a hand in the process. These other individuals in the team may make suggestions which the photographer's work can be comprehended in a different way and enabling the photographer to come out of his/her shell. The decisions by the designer and editor both on design, and sequencing of the content / photographs, can help the photographer and the way the photographs are apprehended, may channel them to an unexpected path. We are living in an era in which collaboration is needed the most and for a photographer to circulate what s/he produces on a domestic and global scale, to get at a more extensive sense of what s/he intends, to make his/her presence felt within art-and-culture environment which s/he cannot otherwise, s/he should collaborate with creative people from other fields. And making photobooks renders a really adequate opportunity and environment for this; as long as it is open and accessible to everyone.

Lastly, I have to touch upon the difference between the notions of photobook and artist's book. If it is the model of the book as the prototype of a project, it will be used to apply to some reward or a publishing house, if one can receive an acceptance then it will be published; so, its existence, value and sustainability is different from an "artist's book." And if the model of a photobook turns into a product of artisanship which is relatively economical, published in small numbers via a printer rather than a in printing press, and if these moderate prints are hand sewn or stapled, the outcome is completely different. Moreover, if this handmade book is produced in editions, specific numbers as agreed upon demand, the books are sealed with a numerator and signed, and then sold to the viewer or the collectioner, then it will be more appropriate to define it as an artist's book instead of a photobook.

The image above: Ekin Kanoğlu.  (Doing a page design critique in the lecture VA 329 instructed by Murat Germen, Eren sulamacı and Melis Bağatır in Sabancı University.)