by Jonathan Blaustein

By now, you know me pretty well. I’ve discussed just about every personal quirk and lifestyle detail possible. You name it, I’ve been willing to put it out there every Friday, for nearly 3 years.

All in the name of what, exactly? I write about photo books, so that you can look at the pictures.

I try to pick interesting, smart, challenging, or beautiful offerings every time. But occasionally, the stack runs short, and I have to pretend to be more excited than I really am. Those weeks, I might amp up the absurdity a hair. Turn the Blaustein-dial on the speakers up to 11. (Even if it’s meant to top out at 10.)

But rarely do we take a moment to ask why there are so many damn photo books to be begin with. It’s been accepted wisdom, these last 5 years, that every photographer wants a book. Today, I thought it might be worthwhile to stop and ask why.

I began thinking about it earlier this summer, when a colleague admitted to considering expansion into the publishing business. This, from the same person who swore to never go that route, as there is an occasional whiff of exploitation about the process. Seems the ridiculous dollars people are willing to spend were too alluring to ignore.

The industry seems to have moved over to a pay-to-play model to a shocking degree. That’s why we see another Kickstarter entreaty every day now. Artists, not the wealthiest of types, are seeking to raise anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 to have someone design and arrange for the printing of a paper-based-object. (Printed by a 3rd party, in most cases.)

I can’t help but wonder if that’s the most effective use of people’s time and money. Is this not a vanity business, for the most part? How many books do we need?

Every photographer is clearly entitled to spend his, her or (other peoples’) money however they like. It’s still a free country. But what is the end game?

Is it that a permanent object will outlive them? That it shall adorn countless shelves, when their bodies are decomposing in the ground? Or perhaps it is still a marketing object, as I was told by many in 2011-2? A marker of career success that makes people take you more seriously?

The problem with that line of reasoning is that when everyone has a book, having a book is no longer an exclusive proposition. And if everyone can and does have one, then having one does not make you automatically more successful than the hordes. Right?

Couldn’t 25G buy you a new car? Or pay off your student loans? Or cover year of graduate school? Or a trip around the world?

Might not a trip around the world add more than a bound-sheaf-of paper to a photographer’s burgeoning gravitas?

How many artists actually view making a book as an opportunity for communication? How many consider a book an expression of dialogue between themselves and an anonymous collection of strangers?

I ask you, having recently leafed through “Notting Hill Sound Systems,” for the third or fourth time. It was recently sent my way by English photographer Brian David Stevens, having been published by Café Royal Books. The artist and I have traded witticisms on Twitter occasionally, so he sent the book to see what I thought.

Book might not be the right word here. It’s more of a catalogue, or you might even call it a leaflet. It’s on decent-quality paper, and stapled in the middle. No separate cover at all.
So it couldn’t possibly have cost that much to make.

The entire book is filled with images of stacks of speakers sitting on the streets of London. Or so we assume. As there is no supporting text in this publication at all. No hints. No screeds. No explanation of what is going on.

Is it the documentation of an art school project? Are they readymades? Were they put there to be photographed, or were they a part of an existing system? There is almost no way to tell.

I wrote Brian to see what the deal was, and he provided me a link to some backstory. Apparently, right around now, there’s a big Reggae festival in the streets of Notting Hill, a posh West London neighborhood. The whole place becomes an epicenter of reefer madness for a day, and then it all goes back to normal.

He crept around the streets, early in the morning, well before the festivities, just to get this set of photographs. (In all their trippy ambiguity.)

Sitting here in Taos, there was no way for me to possibly know that. But the artist didn’t care. He wanted the viewer to see these things for what they were. Beautiful objects? Fascinating combinations of metal, wood and screen? Quiet totems that represent insanely loud bits of fun? (A nod to John Cage’s silent music?)

Again, we don’t know. After he told me what was up, I perused more carefully, and noticed that several images had “parking suspended” signs embedded within. The kind of things that municipal workers post right before a festival, or a film crew comes to shoot for the day.

So that’s at least a clue. But no more than that. To Londoners, this book will have a completely different meaning than to the rest of us. He’s communicating with them in code.

We get another read entirely. One that absolutely arouses curiosity. What is going on here, and why?

It makes me think the artist has given this whole publishing endeavor a lot of thought. He worked with a publisher, rather than self-publishing, but obviously found someone who understood his vision. And given that CRB is based in England, they were clearly down with the double meaning of the pictures.

They didn’t spend a Range Rover’s worth of cash to get the thing printed. (Or half a Bentley?) And then the first edition sold out quickly, so they got a second edition humming right away. (Which would have kept the costs down further, until a clear market was established.)

Yes, I’m rambling longer then normal today, which is odd, as I normally like to coast in the Dog Days of August. But I’ve been out of the classroom since mid-May, so you’ll have to allow me a teachable moment.

Please, don’t make a book unless you really know why you’re doing it. And if someone tells you to give them $40,000 so you can have your dreams met, just think carefully before writing the big fat check. Or maybe start summoning cheaper dreams.

Bottom Line: Cool catalogue to disseminate cool photos, not a paperweight

Go Here To Purchase “Notting Hill Sound Systems”













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  1. Gotta admit, I really do like these. They present a strange and formidable, outta place presence, together with their their snap shot, anti-aesthetic aesthetic- they make for a whole much stronger than the sum of its parts…

  2. Very interesting, the soft cover and stapling, together with 1 image printed on 2 pages, makes the sound boxes look quite 3-dimensional, as if they were moving while your are leafing through the pages. Especially the photographs where the boxes are exactly at the center, look very balanced. Interesting way to escape the 2-D flatness of printed images. Very nice post processing too.

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