The Art of Publishing: An Exhibition of MACK Books. Review by Kate Warren
The Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne, Australia, has recently mounted a number of exhibitions that engage critically with pressing questions around the nature of curating photography, and the contemporary status of the “image”. Their 2017 show An unorthodox flow of images was a purposeful challenge to established norms of exhibiting photography, presenting an intriguing and meandering “thread” of connected images and photographic objects. In 2016 they hosted David Campany’s exhibition Walker Evans: The Magazine Work, which explored the boundaries between fine art, documentary and commercial photography. With this in mind, I had high hopes for their recent exhibition The Art of Publishing: An Exhibition of MACK Books. Anyone with a passing knowledge of contemporary photography will know of the surge of interest in photobook publishing, with London-based publisher MACK being at the forefront. With the exhibition’s promise of “more than 200 books, editions and related objects” – including many rare and out of print editions – I had envisioned CCP’s galleries being transformed into a library-style space of contemplation and engagement. I came away feeling somewhat disappointed. The exhibition proved to be a rich and comprehensive overview of MACK’s output, covering their profound influence and ongoing relationships with significant artists. Yet overall it felt like a missed opportunity to explore the phenomenon of photobook and art-book publishing more broadly.
It goes without saying that any gallery-based exhibition of books is inherently challenging. The materiality of books clashes with traditional museological standards of display, which presume a “no touching” approach. When books are exhibited in cases or vitrines, only the briefest snippet of their content is visible. Digital technologies have provided expanded opportunities to reproduce and exhibit books in their entirety, through touch-screens and interactive devices. However these remove the physicality of the books as objects. The fact that paper book sales continue to increase compared with ebooks attests to the value that people still ascribe to the physical experience of reading. In today’s world of digital photography and networked photosharing platforms, the relationship between the photograph as physical object and the photograph as image is a nexus of much debate. Photobooks occupy a unique position in this contemporary dialectic as their status as valuable objects of fine art increases.
The material quality of photobooks as objects was the clear focus of The Art of Publishing. The exhibition was curated by MACK founder Michael Mack and Melbourne-based publisher Dan Rule, Director of Perimeter Books. The show’s key point of difference from other similar exhibitions was having the publications readily available to be held and touched. Books were displayed on the walls of CCP’s galleries on discrete shelves, ready to be taken down and read. Different books by the same photographer were displayed on the same shelf to convey either the aesthetic consistency or diversity of their visual designs. Other groupings combined related materials, such as photographic editions and visual mock-ups, including one impressive example from Adam Broomberg + Oliver Chanarin’s Holy Bible (2013).
A number of write-ups of The Art of Publishing emphasised this unique opportunity to experience the tactile nature of these publications, “giving prominence to the book as an artwork in itself”. In a related interview Michael Mack also made this point, stating that the “fundamental thing about [the exhibition] is that it includes some now very expensive objects that people can go and touch”. However touching and handling a book is only one element of the equation. What is most interesting about photobooks is not simply their physicality and their design processes, but rather the relationship between that physicality and their visual and/or textual content. The exhibition at CCP privileged the former, while neglected to fully accommodate the latter for visitors.
While I had imagined a library construct, The Art of Publishing adopted a bookshop mode of presentation (and indeed all books on display were available for purchase through Perimeter Books). With only two standard gallery-style benches in the exhibition, sitting down to spend extended time with the books proved challenging. This largely forced visitors to flick through the books while standing up, or to uncomfortably balance large books on their knees. Some of the books on display benefitted from this fleeting and flicking approach, such as Paul Graham’s 12-book series a shimmer of possibility (2007). With each book presenting short, interspersed photographic sequences of everyday life, the small differences between images subtly recalled the tradition of “flip-books”, precursors to moving images and filmic narration. Understated differences in visual composition also characterised Mark Ruwedel’s absorbing book Message from the Exterior (2016), which documents abandoned houses in Californian desert regions. On a very different level, Alec Soth’s Gathered Leaves (2015) was also a highlight. Social documentary and portraiture are popular themes for photobook creators, however Soth’s special edition thoughtfully used his books’ physicality to capture something extra about this genre. Reproducing mini facsimile versions of some of Soth’s books, including the influential Sleeping by the Mississippi, these small handheld editions poetically recalled family photo albums, giving an intimate viewing experience.
These highlights notwithstanding, The Art of Publishing would have benefitted from more thorough curatorial and exhibition design strategies to engage with the specifics of a gallery space. In this way it could have responded to the depth of its objects more individually. Space is always at a premium in galleries, but the exhibition cried out for a more imaginative use of seating and visitor engagement – perhaps a dedicated reading spot, some armchairs, desks or tables on which to sit for longer periods, and perhaps compare different books. As a reviewer, I am wary of focusing on quibbles of presentation and display; it can be a shortcut to avoid engaging with the deeper conceptual underpinnings of an exhibition. But questions of access are important, and certainly anyone with mobility impairment would have struggled to reach many of the books on higher shelves. Moreover, the exhibition’s presentational choices cut deeper than physical access – they went to the heart of the show’s conceptualisation of its content.
Many of the books on display were not well served by the curatorial design and lay-out. Tacita Dean’s Buon Fresco (2016) featured generous reproductions of Giotto’s thirteenth-century fresco cycle in the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, filmed up-close with a macro-lens. The large special edition, printed on photorag paper, felt awkward and cumbersome to flick through while standing up. Taking in the depth and detail of Mark Dion’s Oceanomania (2011) was difficult, a rich a publication developed from the artist’s research in the collections of the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco and the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, through which he created the largest ever curiosity cabinet of the sea. As beautifully presented as Joan Fontcuberta’s The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography (2013) and Pandora’s Camera (2014) were, reading the numerous essays in the collections felt out of the question.
Thus one of the consequences of over-emphasising the books’ design and materiality was that The Art of Publishing neglected to fully present or underline the individual books’ content and contexts. It is part of a trend that photography theorist Melissa Miles recognised some years ago, as scholarly and curatorial responses to photobooks often “tend to focus on the books’ formal characteristics […] rather than their particular epistemological or ontological implications”. Formalism and minimalism characterised the exhibition’s display. With a few exceptions, all the books were displayed uniformly – on the same types of shelves, at slightly varying heights. Ironically, this uniformity of display actually negated the physicality of some of its key examples. Thomas Demand’s publication The Dailies was the most obvious example. Having visited Demand’s project in Sydney in 2012, I understood that the impressive publication was designed in tandem with the site-specific nature of the project. The book’s concertina design mimicked the circular architecture of the Commercial Travellers’ Association building, around which the original exhibition was conceived. This crucial aspect was all but obscured in the exhibition, reducing this publication to an almost purely decorative object.
Held for a short period of time during the usually quiet summer month of January, The Art of Publishing was an experiment in developing audiences and partnerships. In this sense it was clearly a success, and its public program series included a packed lecture by Michael Mack, reinforcing the dedicated audience for MACK books and photobooks in general. Therefore, the abiding impression that I came away with was the potential and scope for a truly experimental exhibition on this topic. CCP is an organisation that punches above its weight; it is clearly invested in the critical understanding and interrogation of the nature and consumption of photography and images, from emerging to established practitioners and scholars. Indeed some of the most compelling examples in the exhibition were the collection of titles from the First Book Award. Sofia Borges’ The Swamp (2016) was especially imaginative in its connections between image and text. I would love to see CCP mount an exhibition that investigates the phenomenon of the photobook more holistically; it could be an opportunity to thoroughly unpack and explore the complex contemporary relations between photography, text, materiality, and images.