Reason 3: Not Fitting In

Here’s the third post in the series of unknown length and duration, around reasons why I started publishing.

I’m not sure where to start this, so I’m going to write and see how it goes. Here are some terms, or genres I’m involved in/with. Each very different. Each a different crowd, generally. A different market, in a business sense. A different process in terms of making, and certainly different reasoning. Often, a different outlet or final place for the work to ‘be’:

Genres — Artist’s Book / Zine / Photobook

Sections — History / Culture / Photography / Gift

Reasons — Nostalgia / Collection / Archive / History / Dissemination /Presentation

Fitting in. I’ve never been a conformist. I’m not sure why. I don’t think it’s rebellion, although at times possibly it is. I think it’s more that I like to question things as they are. I’m never comfortable accepting that ideas as they are, are the best way. For example, procedure, hierarchy, method, answer…I never like to take a set of rules and agree, ‘that’s how it’s done.’ I’d rather find my way of getting it done. I don’t like the term, ‘creative’, when applied to a person, but I think artists, designers, photographers, ‘creatives’ generally, question rules. Often get accused of disobeying, quite negatively. Questioning, I think, is better.

When I’m not in the office/studio, editing, sourcing, replying to emails, packing post etc, I’m at book fairs, talking about the books and selling the books. Artist’s Book and zine fairs are the ones I started taking part in, 13 years ago. The first was Manchester Zine Fair, at what was then Urbis. Leeds, BABE in Bristol, Small Publishers, London Zine Symposium…Fairs in Lithuania, China, Korea, Japan, Australia…When I can’t go, I send a box of books. See previous post about ease of transporting.

More recently (past seven years), I’ve taken part in photobook fairs. Bristol, London, Glasgow, Paris, Rome, New York…The mindset is different. Not better or worse. Perhaps more focussed, because the subject is tighter. Photography includes photography. Photo books include photographs. ‘Artist’s books’ is perhaps a vaguer term, which is useful. Artists work in a multitude of ways so I think the term artist’s book refers more to the book as a container, the function and form of the book, as well (or can be) as the content. Photobooks can be more fetishised, more ‘collected’, more valuable and in some ways seen as more ‘prestigious’. A word I don’t like much. There are cross overs though, Ed Ruscha’s photographic books, for example. Artist’s will discuss them as artist’s books. Photographers as photobooks. There is, of course, a problem with categorising anything, but things do get categorised so I’ll go with it.

The bookshops that sell Café Royal Books vary in terms of the shelf on which the put the books. Photography is an obvious and appropriate one. History, Culture, Gift, are others — all just as appropriate. They have been exhibited, cited and discussed as examples of artist’s book, photobook, archiving, re/presenting work, zines, collections, cultural/social history…

Each term, in every case, has its own audience. The more terms one crosses, the wider the potential audience, and in this case, the more eyes that can see the images I publish. So that’s good. More people who perhaps didn’t know the photographers or their work, or a particular series of work, now do.

The main thing with all of this, is that the books (if that’s what they are…) don’t fit in. They float around a bit. Today, I have sent books to a gallery in New York. A library in San Diego. Someone in the UK, along with a note to say ‘Happy Birthday’ from the person who bought it. A biker on the Isle of Man, a playwright in London and a lawyer in the USA. The years I spent painting and exhibiting in a fairly formal way, I think has put me off sticking to one thing or place. So Café Royal Books helped me to make one thing, but be a part of several ‘networks’ (another word I don’t like.) I’m easily bored, and although ultimately I do just make one type of thing, it’s useful to be able to discuss it as several things, depending on where the books are, or where I am.

Image: One of the last paintings I made, 2005.

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.