Sunday, 19 April 2015

In Conversation (transcript) | Heidi Romano & Kristian Häggblom

The following is an edited version of the ‘in conversation’ that took place at Mildura Arts Centre between Heidi Romano and Kristian Häggblom as part of Photobook Melbourne – Mildura on March 14. Thanks to Wallflowerian Laura Freitag for transcribing this conversation and the support of Mildura Arts Centre. 

Distributed amongst this conversation are images from artists that WPG will be showing in association with Photobook Melbourne: Sarah Pannell, Yaakov Israel, Jordan Madge and Katrin Koenning.

KH: Photobook Melbourne – this was a discussion between you and Dan Boetker-Smith I imagine? Is that how it came about?

HR: We had a few discussions, but I guess it was always just a dream to do a festival. Photobook Melbourne came about after I went to Paris Photo and I saw all of these books and I thought to myself “how can we bring this experience to Australia?” Because photobooks have exploded massively on the world stage, while in Australia there are only a handful of artists who take up the challenge.

I was truly inspired by Paris Photo and when I came back to Australia I wanted to share the books I had seen there. With a bit of luck we found our first sponsor - Momento Pro, and from then onwards it was go go go. This process was very exciting and I thought to myself, “okay, if we can get one sponsor to believe in this festival, surely we can get more.
While I was looking for sponsors, I was also starting conversations with artists whose work I wanted to exhibit, and artists we thought would be great to have in Melbourne during the festival. I also talked to the lovely people behind Aperture, who agreed to loan us their great collection of books. I went to Unseen in Amsterdam and did further research on photobooks and that was very inspiring.

KH: And that was huge, wasn’t it?

HR: I am not sure, but sometimes I believe so many doors have opened because I published Unless You Will. Which in itself is amazing, and I’m delighted that through having an online presence you get to meet so many people!

The photo world has become such a small world, and when you go to festivals you get to meet some of the people that you previously have only known from the online world, and it’s exciting. Some people you “know” through facebook, or have been in email contact, but it is still amazing meeting people face to face. Sharing a drink or dinner and getting to know them a little better.

    Jordan Madge Backwoods

KH: I talk to my students about the need to be on all fronts at all times. You are a practising artist yourself, you make work, you’re a designer, there’s Unless You Will and now there’s Photobook Melbourne – all of these things that have connected you internationally. So, there’s something about this kind of “cultural entrepreneurship” that I think is really important.

HR: I believe it helps to be passionate. If you have a drive and put in endless hours of hard work - you can achieve pretty much anything. The world is pretty much at your fingertips these days and through social media it also can be very immediate.

KH: And we’ve done at Wallflower too! It’s amazing to consider some of the shows that we have managed to pull together thanks to email and Skype. Nathaniel Turner for example, trusted me to print his work using samples that he sent us. It’s kind of all there, isn’t it? Options are open if you want to take them?

HR: It’s really exciting that we can access this online world – which I often think of as an online archive – to choose an artists’ work or talk to foundations about their book collections. We get to explore so much in a digital format, but that one-on-one contact, or seeing the work in a gallery, or looking through the actual book is still very important. It makes it real. The same goes for flying artists over to learn more about their work through an artist talk, or workshop… Priceless!

KH: That probably leads well into discussing bringing American photographer Ron Jude to Photobook Melbourne, how did that happen?

HR: I showed his work Lip Creek Line maybe three to four years ago in Unless You Will. And have been following his work since then.

KH: One of my favourites, of course.

HR: Yes, same! I have just always admired his work. I had two weeks to dream up this festival, I asked myself “what do I want to do?” It was so arbitrary, like a dream. I decided we invite some of our favourite artists and exhibit a few amazing book collections. Ron Jude was on my list, so I sent out an invitation. I remember when I got his confirmation – I was sitting at my desk thinking, “OH My God, Ron Jude just said he’s coming!” It was very exciting.

               Sarah Pannell East of the Euphrates

KH: Back to the books. Obviously the photobook is something you can take away as a punter. To buy a print of Ron Jude is probably three to five thousand Australian dollars – I’m just guessing.

HR: I am not sure how expensive Ron’s work is, but I imagine maybe even more. Photobooks are very immediate and affordable. I can walk into an exhibition and I won’t be able to afford a print. Where as I can take the book home and view it again and again.

KH: I’m interested in the idea of the book as a project, and that’s what Ron was talking about in the workshop. He was talking about how he largely shoots for books now, as in sequencing and publication.

HR: It’s funny, I’m obviously no Ron Jude and I don’t have his experience, but to me all of these things make complete sense. I guess artists used to shoot let’s say ‘pretty images’ and now everything has changed about how we view photography. Everything needs to have a story and narrative and a surprise and an ohh & ahh moment. If you shoot a project for a book you will shoot the project most likely differently then if you imagine it for an exhibition.

KH: Victor Burgin calls it the ‘Cinematic Heterotopia’ – let’s not get too theoretical – but he talks about the film being experienced through what the poster is, plus the trailer, who the actors are and the roles they play. I’m interested in this kind of [imaginary] triangle that includes the book, the exhibition plus the online presence. It’s an interesting kind of relationship, and you have to do them all!

HR: Well, you don’t necessarily, but of course it helps. I believe the website, exhibition and book can be treated differently. You might release a few images of the book and other ones for your exhibition as teasers – same as with movies. With an exhibition – you invite your audience to walk through your narrative. You provide the script and they can explore your work through the sequencing, the hanging and framing of the work. You provide the pathway. Whereas, the book needs to make sense on so many different levels. How often do we look through a book back to front? While they tell the same story, the way we experience and explore them is vastly different.

KH: Yes, that’s what interests me about Christian Patterson, because he does that in a very compelling way. There’s the book, the exhibition with the photographs, and then there’s the objects. The way that he installs each element is very interesting. For example, one will walk into the show and it’s the cover of the book (which is quite large) and then you’ve got the photographs, the objects, and the book itself – all there. It’s pushing photography to another level, I think. Whereas another project Hidden Islam by Nicoló Degiorgis was made into a great book. Basically, it’s pictures of the outsides of buildings in black and white, but then the pages fold out – gate fold style into colour images of people praying inside of these buildings…

HR: A simple project made much more enriching just by opening the inside pages, it was very cleverly thought out and the way it was designed helps to portray that story so well.

KH: Agreed, but for me, I can’t see that as an exhibition. Although I of course like the book.

HR: I believe most books can work as an exhibition, absolutely, I have no doubt. Maybe you could have two rooms? Or maybe you have one set of images on one side and another set on the other side of the room…. And this is where it becomes interesting. Yes, there are always challenges, but I think there’s a solution to every problem.

KH: It’s interesting how these people we’ve talked about today are showing work in many different ways and the publications are something like a guide to the work.

HR: What I find interesting is that the people involved in making the books are often forgotten. Not only is there a photographer, but there is also a designer and printer involved. It’s the different collaborations that are coming together to make a great book. Often when we see the book, those collaborations are forgotten, and we only remember the photographer.

There is nothing wrong with doing it all yourself, but from doing it yourself to working with someone who has an understanding of things like typography, page sizes, dimensions or just pure graphic design knowledge makes a difference. When a book is designed well, it is all the little things we don’t notice that make a book amazing.

KH: I think where things are really interesting now is the experimentation with those boundaries. Just about all the books here at Mildura Arts Centre are experimental in nature, pushing the boundaries of what a book could be. It’s a depository for experimental work, really. Anyone can make a book, let’s say five or so copies, and send them to places like the Asia Pacific Photobook Archive and suddenly your work is out there and ready for people to see.  This is what’s great about the format – a guess we could say its part of the democratisation of photography?

Audience question: “Why have books become so special again?”

   Yaakov Israel The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey

KH: Lots of people say, such as Martin Parr and Gerry Badger for example, that it’s a reaction to the digital world and people want physicality. One of the reasons for establishing Wallflower Photomedia Gallery is to actually look at prints, which I think is extremely important, rather than just seeing them online. But I think there’s something else to be asked and questioned, like why is visual culture becoming more popular or more respected?

HR: This trend has been around for a few years now, but this market started with the self-publishing industry. The self-publishing world allows for a certain kind of freedom. You can do what you want and you don’t need to wait until a publisher picks you up…. Bruno Ceschel from Self Publish Be Happy for instance, was interested to create a platform to help photographers share and connect their work with a bigger market. He created various events and from there it just mushroomed and suddenly a lot of artists realised they could make their own books and that they could actually be part of this movement – be part of this conversation.

KH: Martin Parr argues that the photograph was made to be seen in book form.

HR: I don’t think he’s the only one. Basically in the sixties up until probably the nineties if you had a publisher and a book you were the top-notch photographer. Whereas these days it’s more like: “I have a project, and I can get it printed”. It has changed and it’s just as exciting as it is scary, because with so many books and photos out there, you first have to waft through a lot of boring books and projects to get to the good ones.

KH: I think there are synergies with the archive as well, because it has become so ‘trendy’? But it has been used in very interesting ways, AdamBroomberg & Oliver Chanarin’s Holy Bible is the obvious one. Maybe working with the archive is kind of involved in this whole movement, in the sense of going back to getting off-line and finding physicality.

There’s are many interesting projects, for example the Japanese project in response to 3.11 Lost and Found, which we showed at Wallflower, and others such as Laia Abril’s The Epilogue that pays homage to a girl who passed away from an eating disorder. There seems to be this delving back into other peoples’ photographs, reconceptualising them and then re-presenting them. Like the book, it gives as the opportunity to interact and re-interact.  

So, what happens next? Where do we go from here? Of course the photobook is not going to die or become boring. I feel there’s going to be this continued interest in the photobook.

HRi: I think quality will always stand out. I feel like we’ve gone through all of the ‘trends’ –  from fancy cutting and french folds, but I don’t think I will ever get tired of a beautifully designed and printed book. It’s funny, even in book design, there are always trends… there’s one designer who tries out an idea that works really well for one project, and suddenly you see a lot of the same idea coming out in different books… One shouldn’t just use someone else’s idea because that book was successful and sold. Each project should be treated differently – they need to stand out for what they have to say instead of just copying a trend.

   Katrin Koenning Indefinitely 

KH: In saying so, I think we should mention a book we’re really interested in.

Heidi: Everyone has a favourite book and I guess the favourite book probably changes every year because different things inspire us at different times. It doesn’t need to be the newest book, it may be a book you saw five years ago that still resonates with you.

Kristian: Well… drop one!

HR: Drop one? Hmm. The artists name is Sara Skurgan Teigen and the book is ‘Fractal State of Being’. It was a book I saw at Unseen Festival. I didn’t have the money at the time and of course the book sold out very quickly. But some time later my partner found this particular book and suddenly it was in my hands! It was the perfect birthday gift.

It is a large moleskine-like book with an elastic band with wonderfully creamy paper, plus a bookmark. The images are varnished and it really feels like you are holding someone’s personal sketchbook/diary in your hands. There are many great drawings that interact with the images which look taped onto the page – it is wonderful combination and it is all these little details within this book that made me fall in love with it.

But I often and happily fall in love with books.

Thanks for sharing ideas on photobooks with us and coming up to Mildura.

Audience breaks out in rapturous applause…