PHOTOBOOKS AND INTERACTIVITY // Matt Johnston

15 May 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

“There is an inherent pleasure in making. We might call this joie de faire… to indicate that there is something important, even urgent, to be said about the sheer enjoyment of making something exist that didn’t exist before, or using one’s on agency, dexterity, feelings and judgment to mold, form, touch, hold and craft physical materials….” (Dissanayake, 1995)

All photobooks require an active reader who is to make, break, and remake connections between images, text, design, and knowledge. What I am interested in here is how this is exaggerated and extended in a particular style of photobook that has become increasingly popular since the turn of the century. These books and their popularity as well as critical reception are able to tell us something about the broader popularity of photobooks in the post-digital. They demonstrate what we might call a “reader as maker” approach to photobooks.

While there are a great many books that fall into this category, we will look at two high profile publications that each, in their own way, employ the reader-as-maker: Anouk Kruithof’s A Head with Wings and Christina de Middel’s Afronauts. They offer useful examples for their embodiment of key characteristics of the reader-as-maker and for their critical acclaim and public reception—these are not isolated and unpopular works.

Kruithof’s A Head with Wings emphasizes the mechanical nature of reader-as-maker. Pages are filled with folded images and pieces of text to corporeally handle, open, outstretch, and refold. In this process the reader is connected not only to the conceptual production of the book but also its relationship to craft and physical production. We might say this is a mere expansion on the everyday act of turning the page but the folding and unfolding presented here is non-linear, sporadic, and revelatory in ways that the regular relationship between verso and recto cannot replicate. In speaking about a previous installation, Kruithof describes her approach as “analogue interactivity” (Moakley and Kruithof, 2012) alluding to the active participation of the viewer with the artwork. This term could well be similarly applied to A Head With Wings; it requires an active and analogue participation of those who engage with it.

The Afronauts could act as a mascot or exemplar of the photobook in the period of my research (2000-15) due not only to the physicality of the object but also its position as figurehead of “independent” or self-publishing. The Afronauts embraces a craft aesthetic from its exterior beginnings—printing on recycled card stock and featuring a large rubber band to keep the book closed. It taps into the warmth of material spoken of by Jean Baudrillard (2005, 38) and the “honesty” articulated by Richard Sennett (2009, 136-7). It embraces its low-fi credentials. When we enter into the book we are presented with a process and production oriented perspective. The page is ever changing from a rustic paper stock to a lighter variety with slight sheen to translucent sheets of graph paper, typewriter stock, and newspaper cuttings. Even the binding presents itself to the reader and brings to the fore the act of production.

These books satisfy one of our post-digital desires: to make and to connect with the physicality of creation. This might be received through the purchase of objects that bear their manufacturing provenance on their sleeve or it might be in allowing us to “make” a book. It might seem a stretch to speak so much of the handling of the book-as-object but it is only an extension to the mental amalgamation of images, spaces, and texts to create narratives and experiences. Both a tactic of engagement and a symptom of the post-digital context in which the photobook resides, it is as if the analogue interactivity of the photobook is seeking to justify the medium’s physical existence in the face of the utilitarianism, ubiquity, and convenience of digital (a sentiment echoed in the review of A Head With Wings in which it is noted that the book is “a great example of what electronic photobooks could never hope to achieve” (Colberg, 2011)).

Strangely, aside from a reactive approach to post-digitality that some of these works exhibit, they also prosper amidst digital networks of makers and readers and furthermore are constructed in such a way that they share a number of similarities with the web. To elaborate: books like those seen above (Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood is another example) offer a cognitive experience closer to that of navigating web pages and their content than the linearity and formal structure of a photobook which “progresses” in the manner of a novel. Redheaded Peckerwood demands of the reader-as-maker a navigation across mediums (photography, text, object-photographs) which are brought together in the space of the photobook in the same manner as a web page is merely the space in which different elements (text, images, video, etc.) are similarly presented to us. It is the job of the reader to investigate (literally so in this example) and contextualize information in hyper textual fashion.

Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. Radical Thinkers 3. London ; New York: Verso, 2005.

“Conscientious | Review: A Head With Wings by Anouk Kruithof.” Accessed April 16, 2018. http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2011/10/review_a_head_with_wings_by_anouk_kruithof/.

Dissanayake, Ellen. “THE PLEASURE AND MEANING OF MAKING.” American Craft 55(2): 40-45. Accessed April 16, 2018. https://www.academia.edu/8051818/THE_PLEASURE_AND_MEANING_OF_MAKING.

Moakley, Paul, and Anouk Kruithof. “Analog Interactivity and the Photography of Anouk Kruithof.” Time, 2012. http://time.com/3788799/anouk-kruithof/.

Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books, 2009.

Matt Johnston is based in the UK where he leads the Photography BA programme at Coventry University. He is the co-founder and editor of The Photobook Club, a global community of photobook readers and is a PhD student at UCA Farnham where he is part of bookRoom research cluster.


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