MY BOOK SUCKS!
(And it’s better than yours)
I’m sharing two books here. Both books, one just published in March 2021, the other published nine years earlier in 2013, are exactly the same book. I’m sharing these and making this comparison to prove a point. The point I’m illustrating with these two books is:
The clichéd banality of ‘fine-art’ photography.
In a field called ‘fine-art’ you might assume that you’d find ‘art’ that is new, creative, innovative, original and challenging. And in most cases you’d be wrong. What’s promoted as ‘fine-art photography’ today is rife with risk-adverse ‘fine-art clichés’ and imagery that is art-world pre-approved. You’re not going to find true innovation. The sad fact is if an artist works hard and really tries to be creative, original and push the boundaries of acceptability they will not find acceptance or success. The art-world is diverse-adverse. They thrive on sameness but label it ‘new’ to trick the viewer into believing that the gallerists and museum curators are somehow of superior intelligence to you. Salvador Dali knew better when he said (in 1939!), “The public is infinitely superior to the rubbish that is fed to it daily. This misunderstanding has come about entirely through those middle men of culture who, with their lofty airs and superior quacking, come between the creator and the public.”
To sum up Dali more succinctly: Trust your eye, not that guy (gallerist, curator, editor, ‘expert,’ etc.).
Now we have a new book: Backroads Buildings in search of the Vernacular. (Even the big word ‘vernacular’ is misused to inflate the pseudo-importance of the photos.) The marketing hype promoting the book uses words and phrases like: haunting, grab your heart, love, precision, strength, humble beauty, mesmerizing, and creative imagination.
The pictures in the book are none of these things. They’re the mindless-easy shots of subject-matter that is ‘safe’ because darn near everyone has a passing interest in old buildings. The imagery is commonplace, uncreative, unchallenging, demands nothing from the viewer and gives back nothing that’s not expected. These are the precise qualities that make the pictures perfect for a ‘fine-art’ style presentation in a book. The galleries, museums, publishers and academics have pre-qualified these pictures and the photographers tread no new ground whatsoever producing them. No risks were taken while creating these images. The publisher took no risk either as this subject is well-known, accepted, and there’s an audience of at least break-even size ready to purchase a book of already-familiar imagery.
The only accomplishment here is that the photographers actually got a publisher to print and distribute the book. Congratulations for that! Although I was a decade ahead of you two, I had to self-publish (although, admittedly, I didn’t seek a publisher because I knew the pictures are stupid!).
While I commend the photographers for finding a publisher who would print and promote this dreck I must condemn them for actually believing they’re making Great Art because they most certainly are not. They are faithfully following fashion. They’ve chosen an old, familiar, hackneyed and safe subject and wrapped it up in ‘fine-art’ livery. That’s all there is to it. There’s nothing deep or profound here. Here we go again with another ‘art’ book full of fine-art clichés and unoriginal photographs presented as Great Art. Old Dilapidated Buildings – Big Fucking Deal.
I credit my own ability to dispassionately observe, think clearly and critically for figuring this out over a decade ago. I published Tales of Loneliness and Abandonment specifically to make a book that would be ‘acceptable’ to the fine-art gatekeepers while privately knowing my book would be no more than fine-art-acceptable shit that looks just like every other fine-art photographers’ acceptable shit.
So I decided to create a documentary project of my own which would generate the ‘acceptable’ imagery I needed to positively influence the gatekeepers of ‘photography fine-art.’ Anyone can do this, it’s really not difficult. I’d noticed during my years of traveling the United States that pretty much no matter where you go, you can find abandoned buildings so I chose that as my subject. I could also write something that sounded ‘important’ and ‘profound’ about derelict architecture.
Now, with my amazing (and acceptably dull) documentary project in mind, while I was ‘on the road’ when I saw abandoned buildings instead of driving on, I stopped and made photographs. Because I was attempting to appeal to those who select some of the most boring imagery I’ve ever seen, I needed to make boring pictures. It took great effort to subjugate my creative instincts to make the images’ unique, original and better but I eventually managed. First, forgot everything I know and care about regarding lighting. I didn’t worry about light conditions or returning to the subject at another time for best light. I simply photographed the building when I found it whether that be sunset or midday and I rarely spent more than a few minutes on the photo. I never actively ‘looked’ for my subjects and I never ‘worked’ the project. I just photographed empty buildings while I was on my way someplace to make more interesting photos. Not caring much and not ‘working the scene’ was the best way to make photographs that conformed to the dull and prosaic standards the ‘experts’ deemed acceptable. I also tried hard to use the most boring, unimaginative, pedestrian composition possible. All the photos were shot from eye-level, with a focal length close to ‘normal’ (50mm lens on 35mm film). All photos were shot straight-on showing a little of the surrounding environment. Really boring composition. Post-processing was kept to an absolute minimum.
I published the book in 2013 and it begins with a one and a half-page introductory essay. I held back and didn’t resort to the use of overt artspeak and the essay is actually fairly poetic and important-sounding. I managed to do what most art-writers do routinely –use big words while really saying nothing at all! The book concludes with a one-paragraph essay about the ‘straight’ and ‘honest’ nature of the images.
Ironically, in 2016, images from the book were published as legitimate documentary photography along with my opening essay. It seems the Editors missed my point entirely. Of course I didn’t tell them and, as expected, the editors didn’t look ‘outside the box’ and never suspected they’d been punked!
To conclude, I have copied the cover of Abandoned Buildings: In search of the vernacular and four photos from the book from the Amazon.com website. (I presume this falls under the ‘fair use’ clause of the copyright law as, in this instance, I’m presenting a Critical Review of the book.)
I have also copied the cover of my book, Tales of Loneliness and Abandonment: Documentary photographs of broken dreams, lost hope & desolation also from the Amazon.com website. Four photos from my book are also copied for comparison.
And please do compare the photography from both books. If you do you’ll see they’re remarkably similar (as in really boring). There really is no major difference between their photography and mine except for one important thing that doesn’t show in the pictures: I knew I was producing Crap; they thought they were producing Art.
Both books suck, but mine is better because I knew what I was doing.
Observe now, The Formula…
Backroads Buildings: In Search of the Vernacular Hardcover – March 28, 2021
by Steve Gross (Author), Susan Daley (Author)