They weigh more than a Chihuahua and feel as unwieldy, but hardback photography books demand to be petted. With sumptuous images printed on heavyweight stock—the paper version of 1,000-thread count cotton sheets—the pages seem to drip with tonal ranges.
Yet these anchors of the coffee table are expensive—not just to buy, but also to produce. Proofing, printing and publishing can run upward of $20,000, an economic barrier to all but the most famous photographers. The high financial hurdles hurt not just the artists, but also the viewers. We miss out on photographers whose way of seeing can inspire or puzzle us, and may challenge and deepen our understanding of the world.
PICTURE BOOKS, an extensive dual exhibit at the Power Plant Gallery in Durham, surmounts those obstacles, reframing how we define and interpret photographs and their presentation. We are privy to artists' visions that could have otherwise been overlooked.
Picture Books features works curated by Power Plant, culled from a call for submissions, as well as “A Survey of Documentary Styles in Early 21st Century Photobooks,” where selections from the Indie Photobook Library were co-curated by Larissa Leclair and Darius Himes. The exhibit is well considered, exploring a stylistic range: portraiture, street photography, impressionism and experimental.
One of the most bewitching books in the exhibit is Bounty by Lydia Moyer. She scanned the Internet for images of hunters and their fresh kills. Then she appropriated the photos and removed the hunters, but left a blur of their being. What remains is the prey—bears, mountain lions, deer—depicted in an otherworldly state. Sometimes the smudge of the hunter makes it look like a soul is leaving the animal's body. In other instances, the animal seems to be in an awkward position, as when tossed over the shoulder of an erased hunter.
The book raises questions about the legal boundaries of copyright, the definition of a photograph and the ethics of manipulation and derivative work. Even though I should have bristled at this book—over copyright concerns, mostly—I did not. The work is as honest as photography can be, considering that an entire truth cannot be contained within a frame. And the alterations are so obvious that we cannot mistake the pictures for untouched documentary. I wondered, though, if my distaste for hunting colored my tolerance for the ethical ambiguities.
Three books in particular are as notable for what they don't do as for the artistry they achieve: Southern Route, a visual travelogue of the Deep South by Tamara Reynolds; Testify, an exploration of West Virginia coal country by Roger May; and Post Script, an account of small-town post offices and the communities they serve by Rachel Boillot, avoid stereotypes of rural America. The portraits are direct and empathetic but do not reduce their subjects to caricatures or exotic animals. The landscapes, while uncompromising—there's no sugarcoating that coal mining destroys mountains—don't stoop to squalor porn.
Rural Life, however, succumbs to those shortcomings. Frames of ticky-tacky houses by various photographers smack of voyeurism; the portraits gaze at the people of flyover country as if they were exotic sugar gliders.
Voyeurism, though, is part of a photographer's work, and understanding the line between curiosity and exploitation separates the amateurs from the professionals. Emily Volles' Windows features photos taken from outside cars, peering through the glass. People spend so much time in their cars that the front seats, in some cases, are cluttered with the same detritus—food, drink cups, electronics, mobile phones, strewn papers—as a family living room. (Other front seats are spartan, and I imagine the homes of these drivers to be equally immaculate.) It is not judgment, but observation.
In 27 Goodbyes, Deanna Dikeman is inside the car, looking out. Over several years, she photographed her parents waving goodbye as she pulled away from their home. At times, their faces are buoyant, as if they were overjoyed to have seen her; in other instances, they seem burdened and melancholy, as if they had to share bad news during her visit.
The strength of this exhibit is that while the photographs tell very subjective stories, they have an openness that allows us to bring our own experiences to the work. May the Road Rise to Meet You by Sara Macel explores the world of traveling salespeople as they shuttle from airports to train stations to diners, dashing notes on hotel stationery. I found myself creating short stories about the salespeople and their interior worlds: Some were married. Some were worried about making their sales quotas. All of them drank too much.
In some cases, the form is as important as the content: Mississippi is crafted from wood cut in the shape of the state. Several books are printed on handmade paper, or even more simply, construction paper. Others are built in cubes or unfold like accordions.
In The Ground, Tate Shaw collaborated with the Earth—literally. He began the project by burying a blank book on white paper in a Pennsylvania forest. Whenever he returned to the site, he turned the page, reinterred the book and let the dirt, water and bugs tell their stories. This allowed Shaw, as he says in the book, "to create without making a decision." Later, he joined those images with photo collages to tell a visual story of fracking, mining and local geology.
In The A Train, each frame was shot as the New York subway doors closed. The book, which opens like an accordion and includes a card that indicates the subway stop, compares the demographics of the train car as it traversed the length of Manhattan: "The changes above ground are reflected by people riding below."
The show also includes an interactive exhibit called The Collier Classification System for Very Small Objects. We are encouraged to bring tiny objects—no larger than 25mm by 8mm (about 1 inch by 1/3-inch)—and then use tweezers to deposit them in tiny test tubes. Using a guide, we can classify and name the objects based on point of origin, function, color, whether it was living or never lived, shape, texture and visual comparison. That is how you come up with an object known as a "heliport table kno biggerlik."
There is a fear that the democratization of photography endangers or dilutes the art form. To be sure, there are plenty of bad photographs out there. But as Picture Books demonstrates, the presentation is less important than a photographer's way of viewing the world. If the image is compelling, pictures on construction paper also demand to be petted.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Picture pages."Correction: Only one part of the Picture Books exhibit was co-curated by Larissa Leclair and Darius Himes. The rest was curated by Power Plant Gallery.