This Week In Photography Books: Jeanine Michna-Bales

by Jonathan Blaustein

Let’s face it: most photobooks are for photo geeks.

Publication runs for most photobook publishers are very small: 500, 1000, maybe 3000 on the high side. As we’ve discussed through the years, in multiple interviews with artists and publishers, photobooks rarely make money, or even make their money back, and are often seen as glorified business cards.

That’s hard truth, but I’ve heard first-hand of an artist who had to rent storage for his/her remaindered books. This after paying out of pocket/crowdfunding tens of thousands of $$$$$ to make the production in the first place.

There are exceptions, of course.

Major artists with a solid history of book-sale-success will get the costs fronted. (Martin Parr being an example we discussed in our interview with Dewi Lewis.) And I’ve heard that one or two publishers still take care of productions costs.

The obvious benefit of the tight-knit-market is that by focusing on quality, and charging enough to provide it, photobooks are art objects themselves. Many sport spiffy cover textures, oversized paper, innovative construction, and crisp, snappy print quality.

They’re collected for a reason: because they’re (relatively) rare and beautiful.

On the flip side, there are projects that crack over into the mass market: photobooks that aim for coffee tables. They’re able to speak to larger audiences, as perhaps they document or explore issues, beyond the photo community, that have wide resonance in popular or mainstream culture.

They feature subjects like religion, sports, nature, and history.

Books like this can sell 100,000 copies, even in an era devoid of Barnes and Noble. These books often use less expensive materials, allowing for a lower price point that enables the larger audience.

It’s a trade-off, and one I suspect most artists would be willing to make, especially those whose work is message-driven.
Because the ability to speak to a large group of people is a huge motivator for artists with something important say.

Especially those with a taste for the extreme.

In this case, I’m thinking of Jeanine Michna-Bales, a Dallas-based photographer whose work I’ve featured in this column before. I first met her at Review Santa Fe, and saw her inspirational project, in which she reconstructed and photographed the Underground Railroad at night.

I loved her portfolio-sized, meticulously printed fine art work, as the inky blacks were darker than Steve Bannon’s soul. The pictures are so dark, literally, and they represent a shameful time in our nation’s history.

I’m thinking of Jeanine’s photographs right now, as I’ve just put down her new book “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad,” which was just published by Princeton Architectural Press.

We showed a chunk of the project here in 2014, during my usual festival roundup, and the photographs also look great on screen. The projected light allows for a luminous take on deep bayous and forgotten forests, late into the wee hours.

Amazing stuff.

And it was no easy project to execute, either, as Ms. Michna-Bales begged help from family, and hired off duty police officers to protect her, as she photographed each link in a painstakingly researched chain.

I requested this book as soon as it was available, and am predisposed to like it. There’s a cool intro by Civil Rights Leader Andrew Young, in which he segues from Curtis Mayfield to Bob Marley to Kendrick Lamar in one fell swoop of message-driven art.

The book is surprisingly small, with a horizontal orientation, and I wondered if it was enough space for these mysterious landscapes. The designer went a step further and put a dark, charcoal gray border around many of the photographs, shrinking them further, but also making their murky depths harder to separate. (I would have gone with white.)

That dark gray is ever-present, including on image-less pages, and it makes for difficult viewing, with all the dark photographs.

The images don’t have a lot of three dimensionality, unfortunately, as I think they might have pushed the limitations of the printers they were using. There’s a flatness to the darkness here that suggests hyperreality, a visual styling I don’t remember seeing in her gorgeous, fine art prints.

I know it sounds like I’m being critical, so please allow me to reframe. This project, as a result of its awesomeness, has had a lot of success. A traveling exhibition of prints is going on a multi-city exhibition tour through Texas, the South and Midwest, through 2020.

She’s won prizes, and been supported by excellent organizations like Photo NOLA and the Open Society Institute.

I think the dark design, and repeating motif of historical quotes opposite photographs, are meant to suggest a somber and serious mood. While I admit it’s not exactly to my taste, I think I see where this is going.

Princeton Architectural Press belongs to Chronicle Books, the masters of the mass-market photobook. Given that it’s the only photobook offered in the “new releases” section of the PAP website, which also features several different types of notecards, I think this book is poised to speak to a larger audience.

Unlike me, most mainstream book buyers won’t be holding the color separations up against my memory of her original fine art prints. They’ll see these quiet, creepy places, and their imaginations will activate.

They’ll see themselves there, crawling through the mud, scared shitless, worried if the hounds are on your scent. They’ll appreciate the pictures, but more than that, they’ll be reminded that our country was built upon a heinous system of injustice, and that combatting racism, especially in the Age of You-Know-Who, is a worthy goal for any photobook to inspire in its viewers.

Bottom Line: Dark, somber photographs of the Underground Railroad, reconstructed

To Purchase “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad” Go Here: http://www.papress.com/html/product.details.dna?isbn=9781616895655

If you would like to submit a book to be considered for review, please contact jonathanblaustein@gmail.com.

Jonathan Blaustein

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