Reason 2: Function

Here’s part two of my series of posts explaining reasons around why I started publishing. I’m sure I’ll miss things, and these posts are here to get my thoughts in order as much as for the interest of the internet.

‘The gallery’, I wanted to avoid. I wanted something quick to make and to ‘exhibit’. Affordable, to make and to buy. Easy to transport. Something that could exist in multiple, and so be in more than one place at a time. Something that is an edition, not necessarily to limit the edition but so there is no ‘original’, and all copies have the same intrinsic value.

Prints would have done, to an extent, but within the context of my work at the time, they would have been single images on single sheets, and prints and printing are expensive. Photocopy prints aren’t expensive though, and they prevented me becoming precious as I had with the paintings that took nearly two years to make.

My influences are pretty wide and include ideas around Minimalism and Conceptualism — many of those discussed in Lucy Lippard’s Six Years, Don Celender, In Numbers exhibition, Felix Gonzales Torres, some street art, American underground/free press, Hand made signs, Modernism, 1970s teaching packs, National Trust info pamphlets, bookies’ cards from horse races, ephemera and collectibles…

The idea of photocopied prints was kind-of the antidote to the problems that painting and galleries were causing (me), and they fitted with the aesthetic, DIY-ness and spontaneity of my influences. But, they were single sheets and one image, and felt a bit light. Literally speaking, copied onto heavier stock felt like I was trying to convince people they were something they weren’t. Light in a content sense too though, just a bit of paper and a picture — a copied one.

So, I photocopied a sketchbook and stapled it together, to make a rough copy of the original. Sketchbooks are very personal things, no one ever really sees them, and certainly I’d never sell one. If you price things on time alone, then a sketchbook would run into 1000s, and even then I’d regret selling them. To me they were the place all else came from. By copying it, and making another 25 or so, I was breaking down the ‘original’ and the personal. Now I could send it to or swap with anyone, and if they didn’t want it, they could give it away. It was open. These copies spidered their way around the world very quickly. My work, overnight almost, was in 24 more countries than it have ever been.

The book (I wasn’t calling them books, still don’t really. I was calling them copies), I thought, was a useful multi-purpose container. A container to house things, a collection of drawings or photographs for example. A container to transport things, or a container to be used as an archive, to present ‘data’ of some kind. It’s an immediately functional and purposeful thing — I’ve never really been sure of the function of painting. The type of book I was / am interested in, was no bigger than the sum of its parts. IE, no grander, no more valuable, not decorative, not manufactured in a way that gives the impression it’s better than it is. Part of me ‘doesn’t see the point’ of decoration or embellishments. If something is made of the most appropriate materials and is shaped to provide its best function, I’ll take it, over the version of the same thing with a pattern, or with ears, or with a badge, or with gloss, embossing and tail bands. Plain, straightforward, simple things. Extra is unnecessary, and extra gets in the way. I see a lot of art in this way, including a lot of the paintings I used to make. If a subject or work is about ‘kitsch’, for example, then a function of that might be to demonstrate kitsch, so the form would follow, decoratively, and the decoration would be purposeful. That would be ok!

The book: It’s personal, shareable, can be read anywhere. It can be posted worldwide in a day or two, inexpensively. It can be sent direct to someone, on their terms, rather than them coming to see it, on the maker’s terms. It can still be shown in a gallery, collected by a museum, held in a library. If it’s a picture book, it’s universal. It can be a starting point — a window into a subject or thing. The content can be curated, submitted, or selected.

The way I’d usually hung things in a gallery was quite linear. The viewer would generally travel from left to right, reading the labels and sometimes looking at the work. Now I had the advantage of facing pages, turning pages, repeated images, flipped images, gatefolds, French folds, covers…All the tools I wanted and could use to lead people, create a story or narrative. The book pauses people. At least, a flick through, usually stopping as something catches their eye. There’s a physical action necessary to ‘use’ a book which I don’t think is there in a gallery. You can walk through a gallery and not see anything. The pause, on the reader’s terms, encourages seeing.

At the time, I didn’t know of any social media. MySpace had just begun. Flickr too. No Facebook, instagram, only just Gmail, so the everyday mass communication we’re now used to, wasn’t really there. Artists, illustrators, photographers were online, just about. Basic, static websites to act as a portfolio. I was starting to build myself a website, searching for how-to code HTML guides, then CSS later. Metadata come up and I realised that at that time, if you used enough keywords and meta data / website info, then those keywords would affect search results, and so expand my audience to people not necessarily looking for the thing I had to show. So the first book, of the copied sketchbook, I called, ‘Happy Birthday’. Keywords and titles included the words Happy and Birthday. At one point, quite briefly, when searching online for Happy Birthday, my site came third in the list. This was just playing, but I enjoyed the idea of subverting the internet. I also enjoyed the idea that by adding nothing new, only using what already existed, I could ‘do something’.

Reason 1: Non-reliance on ‘the gallery’

I’m going to make a series of unreferenced fairly train-of-thought posts outlining why I began Café Royal Books, my thinking, and the ways in which I source and consider material for publication. I get asked questions around these subjects a lot — twice weekly I guess. There are a lot of Q&A I’ve done, published online, where I try to answer them, and some old YouTube films about drawing, publishing and process. Ask me the same question each day for a week and you’ll get seven different answers, so I’ll take my time with these posts and hopefully they’ll come close-ish to something mildly resembling something almost interesting, or useful.

2005. I wanted a way to exhibit the drawings I had been making, without relying on ‘the gallery’. I was drawing because I’d quit painting. I’d quit painting because despite fair ‘success’, I found it self-restricting. I didn’t want to continue spending 18 months making a body of work. Each piece was large, heavy, expensive, difficult to transport and impossible to transport further than the UK. I get bored easily and never liked to exhibit work more than two or three times. However, because the work took so long to make, I felt obliged to store it, adding to the confusion. I loved paint and painting, still do — I just don’t do it any more, it’s a luxury. Drawing felt a more useful and more purposeful use of time, and less like adding stuff to a world that doesn’t need more stuff. My awareness of ‘stuff’ is greater since having kids, and the thought that one day they’ll have to deal with this ‘stuff’ I’ve made.

Making work that didn’t rely on ‘the gallery’, was something I considered for several reasons. I’ve always enjoyed the space in galleries, sometimes the architecture, the views, the book shops, the coffee, but not often the experience of going to these buildings to look at art or photographs. Hifalutin statements have always irritated me. The assumption that because work is in a gallery, people will come to see it also irritates me. The most irritating thing, I think, is the idea that work placed in a gallery is somehow better than work that isn’t. And that work placed in X gallery is better, because it’s in X gallery, not Y gallery. There can be a general elitism and pretence in galleries, or perhaps in some of those who discuss their own importance because they were in Z show at X gallery. Chin stroking. The galleries you have to climb steps to, just to reinforce their importance, prior to chin stroking — also irritating. Once in, you’re in the hands and at the mercy of a curator with an agenda. Labels everywhere, telling you how to look at the thing you’ve not yet looked at. And it’s hung next to the next thing, so they must be related in some way…Or not, but the label says so. You paid £30 for a timed entry, to look at the backs of the other £30 ticket holders’ heads.

It’s culture.

Is a gallery the best place to show art? More-so, photography, unless it’s a Gursky. What about a William Klein show in a hospital, for example, would that be any different? There’s the architecture to contend with in either case. In the gallery, the people who see the pictures are gallery goers. In the hospital it’s potentially anyone, so arguably the hospital is a better place for a Klein show. If only the hospitals had the money and staffing the major art institutions do.

I should add, I like to moan… and there are many great, amazingly supportive, genuine galleries and curators, whose agenda is to show the work in the context that it was made, not an imagined one.

Doers / Talkers / Text

In almost all interviews with — texts about —books by — and my own conversations with David Hurn, he’s mentioned doers and talkers.  I’ll paraphrase: Doers are those who do it… Talkers are those who talk about it, mostly without doing it. Or talk so much before doing it that any room for mistake, tangent or creativity is removed. He’s talking within the context of photography, but you can apply the idea to most things. There’s the Francis Hodgson idea of ‘matter’, estate agent photos, crime scene photos , traffic wardens’ photos etc — I’m not talking about that, nor have I thought about how Hurn’s idea fits, or doesn’t fit with Hodgson’s. I don’t imagine it does.

Using photography as the example, doers, then, get dressed, get their camera, go out and take pictures, having planned perhaps where they’ll be going. Hurn famously says the most important thing for a photographer is their shoes, followed by where they stand and when they press the button.

Talkers, probably get dressed too, then chin-strokingly, discuss the work of others, in ways that the artist or photographer has probably never considered, nor wanted their work to be discussed. Or talk about and make work that is so intellectually removed from normal society, that the only people who will ever understand it are the maker and their colleague.

I’m making a crude argument with a scattering of flaws, I’m sure someone could talk about it for a long time. I agree with Hurn and his ideas. Mostly. This being the Café Royal Books blog, I will try to twist my thoughts neatly back to the context of Café Royal Books.

I rarely put text in the books I publish. The books, if they are books, are 36pp at most. Full of pictures. I like picture books and I like the pictures to be the things people read / look at. If I do include text, beyond a very descriptive title, its captions. Very occasionally, and usually at the photographer’s request, I publish a page of text, which explains the photographs reason for being, but never a description of their content.

My education is standard Fine Art, where ‘the gallery’ is almost always the place one aims to show their work — this has many of its own problems, but that’s for another time. More often than not in ‘the gallery’, the work is labelled. The viewer visits the gallery, reads the exhibition text, which clearly defines the show, its meaning and reasoning. They move on to the first label, describing the first piece of work in detail, and its meaning and reason for being, then the second, the third… Avoiding the work in-between the labels and stumbling around any ‘floor based’ work en-route to the next wall. The same is true for photographs. A written description allows little to ‘read’ in the image. Everything is told. So why when there is a written description of the image, include the image at all? At best, the photograph becomes an illustration of the text, retrospectively fitted, and the text takes the lead. To my mind text is only necessary if the work is so far removed from reality or normality that it is un-gettable. And if it is un-gettable, what is its purpose? Abstract is different, especially Greenbergian abstract, for example. Conceptual and minimal art needs a text, quite often, and the best texts are written like Lucy Lippard’s, Six Years, which is fun, down to earth, plain English.

I work in eduction. From 2000–2008 I taught in Further Education. The once exciting, year between A Level and Degree — Art Foundation. That year is now an over-annotated black hole, prescribed by robots. Full of tick boxes and carpeted floors in multi-purpose rooms, which don’t allow for paint to be spilled. This is no fault of the teaching staff. Since 2008 I’ve taught on degree courses, one permanent 0.8fte post for the duration, alongside some visiting lecturer roles, across Fine Art, Illustration, Photography and Post Graduate courses. Paper work, audit trails and tick boxes are certainly present, but nothing like in FE. And no carpet tiles yet, although we’re braced for the change.

In HE, there are two paths you might take — teaching, or research. Unless you are top of the game at either (and sometimes even if you are), the paths are overgrown, unclear and somewhat muddled, meaning you’ll be assumed to do both. As a criteria of promotion, I have this year, been made to apply for Fellowship of the Higher Education Authority. This is essentially a teaching qualification and a 4000 word heavily referenced essay to justify the ways in which I teach, not what I teach. Strategies, methodologies…Talking…And its not really to justify the teaching, its to justify the learning. “Teaching and Learning’. Except, ‘we should say Learning and Teaching, because the learners (clients / customers) always come first’, as it said in one of the books I had the pleasure of reading. I did it and I wait for the results. Not the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had.

For the ‘creative practitioner’, their practice can be their research. Over the past 15 years, my practice has shifted from painting to drawing, to photography to mainly publishing (some call it curating, but curating seems to be reserved for coffee shops and book shelves). I still take pictures and I still draw, but collecting, sequencing, editing and publishing photographs, mainly taken by other people, is what I do most.

Within the four walls of academia, this will be called my ‘research’.

My primary aim for making the books has never been, research. At least, the word research has never entered my mind. Moreover, I tend not to use the words, strategy, methodology, pedagogy, or hypotheses very often. To some, this might sound odd, or a dumbing down, or an unintellectual stance, but it isn’t. I like pictures and I like books. The pictures I like most happen to be documentary, from a period of time that pre-dates me a bit. The books I like most probably aren’t books. They’re zines, counter culture, fringe publications and the type of info pamphlet you might pick up at a National Trust property. Quick, cheap, bites of information, easy to grasp, points for further investigation.

So I mixed the two together — the photos and the publication.

It happens that this area of photography has been neglected by institutions, galleries and museums globally, but more so in the UK. There has not been a large exhibition of ‘British Documentary photography 1960–2000’, for example. Nor do any major galleries have a comprehensive collection of the same. Side Gallery, James Hyman, the former Library of Birmingham (thanks to Pete James) each do have excellent collections of the work, and the newly opened Martin Parr Foundation is also doing a lot, but these are small places, mostly struggling with funding and space and probably understaffed and doing it out of an absolute passion for the subject. And the LoB collection is mothballed following a series of funding cuts.

So, by publishing this work, I have gathered otherwise neglected work, most of which is unseen or unpublished. So far 300 ‘books’ on the subject. The gathering has become an ongoing task but the collection is perhaps the most comprehensive of its type. Ironically, galleries, museums and institutions collect these books, and so are at last, kind of filling the gaps that should never have existed, and so these counter-culture-type-photocopied-pamphlet-books, are edging their way in, adding to photographic history, and making publicly accessible, the work within them.

All of this was accidental, spontaneous, intuitive, naively done, and with little knowledge of the work or of publishing. Of course, as time passes, and I make more books and see more photographs, and realise the extent of the collection of work I’m dealing with, and begin to understand photography itself, I can’t help but consider it as I work.

So maybe it is research, but not as the system would suggest. Maybe the system is misleading. The system suggests that a research ‘question’ should lead, along with a hypotheses, followed by a methodology. That one should strive for publication in only the most esteemed journals, and make work that has the furthest ‘reach’, greatest ‘impact’ and most ‘significance’…

As was mentioned in a radio interview with a leading and very down to earth scientist recently, ‘groundbreaking’ is often used to describe ‘important’ research. But, if everything important  is groundbreaking, we’ll just end up with lots of holes. Certainly worth a listen. And, do read this.

The Scottish Post Office 1985 — David Williams

This selection of images is from the body of work commissioned by the Scottish Post Office in 1985 to celebrate the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the GPO. I adopted a humanistic approach to the project, seeking to portray the dedication of a range of the organisation’s employees as well as highlighting the importance of the Post Office to both urban and rural communities in Scotland. I had always been a great admirer of John Grierson’s film Night Mail (1936) and was proud to be commissioned in a similar manner to produce a piece of work based on the activities of the Post Office. 

The images were made mainly in Edinburgh and various locations in the West of Scotland. Throughout my travels, I encountered extraordinary kindness on the part of the employees and have very fond memories of the time I spent with them. I was deeply impressed by their commitment to their work and how such commitment contributed to the wellbeing of the wider community. No matter how remote the location, or inhospitable the weather conditions, one always had the sense that ‘the mail would get through’.

The project was never disseminated as planned and indeed never fully completed. The Scottish Post Office view was that the images were too ‘down-market’ for public consumption given the host of political pressures (related to possible privatisation) it was under at the time. My feeling was that as a commissioned artist as opposed to a commercial practitioner, I reserved the right to produce work which functioned outwith the immediate promotional concerns of the organisation. We agreed to differ and parted company just as I was about to embark on making portraits of employees in more managerial roles. Nevertheless, hopefully I still managed to produce an engaging body of work, supportive of what was a deeply impressive national institution. 

David Williams is Reader of Photography at Edinburgh College of Art.

All images and text © David Williams.

Talking Picture no. 39: Florence Alma Snoad by Daniel Meadows

Talking Picture no. 39: Florence Alma Snoad by Daniel Meadows 

This week’s movie from Daniel Meadows is the 39th of 40. That means next week is the last…Then I suggest a day watching the lot and a trip to the Library of Birmingham to see the work it relates to, and all that surrounds it.

As Daniel posted on Facebook, “If there is one person’s story that sums up the meaning of my bus adventure, this is it. Florence Alma Snoad is number 39 of the 40 movies I made to celebrate the acquisition of my archive by the Library of Birmingham. We are nearing the end.”