Dayanita Singh

Artist and winner of The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobook of the Year Award 2017

New Delhi

Our Interviews series continues with Duncan Wooldridge in conversation with Dayanita Singh, hot off the heels of winning Photobook of the Year with Museum Bhavan at Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards 2017. Published by Steidl, it was described by jury member Mitch Epstein as ‘a book of books, each one exploring an Indian motif, from printing presses to the administrative archive. Her work is a sophisticated merger of East and West sensibilities, and celebrates the democratic possibilities of the offset multiple’. Here, Wooldridge and Singh discuss exploring new forms and discourses around the space between publishing and the museum, photography as a way of cataloguing the world or even collecting experiences, the artist’s ongoing collaboration with the legendary Gerhard Steidl as well as their shared concerns of paper, correspondence and memory.

Duncan Wooldridge: In 2008 you made the book Sent A Letter, and in 2012 you exhibited your File Room. Around that time, your books became objects and your exhibition works became small museums. Both seem concerned with paper, correspondence and memory. Did something lead you towards making objects and collections?

Dayanita Singh: Well, photography is a way of cataloguing the world around us so making collections is what photographers do. I sometimes even call myself a collector. Having said that, I always knew the book was at the heart of my work. The book came first and then the exhibition – the exhibition was a catalogue of the images in the book. I used to wonder if there might be a form that allowed me to present the book as the exhibition and that started to happen with Sent A Letter. These miniature exhibitions were in fact letters I had made by cutting my medium format contact sheets, and pasting them in accordion fold books – like thank you letters after a journey with a friend.

In 2011 an old friend was visiting and asked to see my work. I wanted to show him something I had not shown to anyone else. I realised that paper was somehow a large part of my archive, libraries, archives, paper factories. He sifted through the 200 prints, put 24 aside and said File Room and right there the project was born, which will follow me till I die. But then I wanted the book to be an object as well. To find a form where it could be displayed on the wall along side photo prints and paintings. I made such a structure for File Room and then Museum of Chance had the same structure but I also found a way to make a book with 88 different covers! So now the book could be hung on the wall, and with 88 different covers, it also became an exhibition on the wall, breaking the very sequence of the book. With Museum Bhavan I found a way to make each box unique, so 3000 unique boxes were shipped from Delhi to Göttingen, Germany, and now you can choose which cover you acquire and in the box get 9 exhibitions of my Museums and a book of conversations. The cycle that started with Sent A Letter is now complete.

DW: Museum Bhavan collects multiple bodies of work into a kind of museum of museums, made of 9 book museums and conversation chamber, but it has a personal touch, in both the covers and the sense of scale and detail of each book. The idea that your books become like letters to a friend seems to capture something of the care and diligence that is often within your pictures. I’m especially interested in how this shows up in both File Room, and in parts of Museum Bhavan like Godrej Museum, where the first impression is one of awe at the amount of documentary material and the bureaucracy, but this gives way to a deep sense of appreciation of materiality, the sense of ‘matter’ in front of you, that can be touched, smelt, absorbed. Where did your interest in this come from?

DS: It’s difficult to say where ones interests come from, and I prefer not to probe too much (why question the muse?) but paper has always been a fascination. As a child I would gift wrap my mother’s shoe boxes because I loved the sound and feel of folding/creasing paper. I grew up with files, and once my father died we were inundated with litigation and even more files. I am very at home with files. It’s even my comfort zone you could say. That smell and sound of paper!

DW: Does this comfort zone extend to collecting, do you think? You’ve described your work as an act of collecting – each museum emerging from what you find recurring in your images. I wondered if your ideas of collecting were integral to your conception of photography as something that an artist uses? Your interest has moved beyond making singular pictures, even singular books.

DS: Gerhard (Steidl) was so happy when we made Sent A Letter, precisely because it could be acquired for the same amount of money as a book, but then it could transform into 7 exhibitions at the drop of a hat. And now with Museum Bhavan, you effectively are the curator of 16 exhibitions of mine (if you already have Sent A Letter). I sometime call myself an ‘offset’ artist, sometimes an ‘image collector’. Photography is a way of collecting experiences, no? Is that not the privilege of photography? Maybe we all are collectors of experiences. And then like a writer, one has to see what form one gives to those experiences. That part perhaps comes more easily when one is an artist. This idea of finding the right form for each work, like say Geoff Dyer does for each piece of his writing; as Calvino did too.

DW: In relation to collecting, but also the idea of finding the right forms, one of the most enigmatic, but also telling books of Museum Bhavan is the Ongoing Museum. Here it seems that you are playing with what it means to collect, assemble, remember and construct. Images of events, models, hands setting out displays, plaques, and movie scenes all seem to suggest that things both are, and are not what they seem. More importantly, it seems to suggest that they can be what you want them to be. Is your inclusion of the ‘ongoing’ a way of re-wiring those things which appear to be static, fixed down?

DS: Some of the books have two titles, to differentiate them from an earlier published version: eg File Room morphs into Godrej Museum and Museum of Chance into Ongoing Museum. But some like Little Ladies Museum and Museum of Photography have two titles anyway. It’s a little play on how one’s reading changes with the title.

DW: You’ve worked with Gerhard Steidl for a long time, rather than switching between different publishers. Can you describe your working relationship? It seems integral to the books now.

DS: None of this could have happened without the support of Gerhard Steidl, he is my co-conspirator. I think he enjoys the challenge each book brings. At first he says ‘no’, and then the next day he agrees to each crazy idea of mine. I doubt he makes any money with my books, but he likes how we push the envelope each time, though the 88 different covers did drive the bindery crazy. I then made a suitcase for the sets (of Museum Bhavan), and now have a suitcase museum since I was the only one who has the full sets. It was also a way to make people go to a bookshop or an event, to choose your own cover, because online you would not be able to choose.

DW: In your discussion with Steidl in the Conversation Chambers part of the Museum Bhavan (a small stapled book, with interviews between Dayanita Singh and Gerhard Steidl, and with Aveek Sen), it seems like you come together over an interest in paper? Is that a place where you share a passion?

DS: Yes Gerhard and I share a great love for paper. He even made a perfume called Paper Passion. The interview in the pocket museum was pre Museum Bhavan but ends with my asking him if he would consider such an object. He said ‘yes’.

DW: Behind your shared interests in the materials of bookmaking, your work also has a concern with the work going out into the world, it reaching different homes and being available over being exclusive. Is distributing a book an act that has particular social and political messages for you?

DS: The magic of photography is not just in the image but also in the dissemination it allows. After all, a photograph can exist in many different ways. The art world limits this scope of photography and the book is where photography is at its democratic best, and when one can make a book that is on par with one’s exhibition, or is indeed the exhibition, then could one say that it takes photography beyond even the art world. I always think that there needs to be a place between the publishing house and the gallery that has the dissemination of publishing and the ‘uniqueness’ of the art gallery. Can a book be both? Steidl and I both believe it can and I think we present this very contradiction with Museum Bhavan.

DW: As I understand it, your critique is of the exhibition, and the way that it perpetuates a standard or homogeneous audience. The opportunity of the book is the way it is open to the sites and layers of discovery – in the bookshop, on a friend’s bookshelves, in a library, or even at a flea market. It could be seen by almost anyone. It reinstates Malraux’s idea that art (art history) comes to you. You seem to be wanting to change what the museum is, and who it is for…

DS: Yes, it is a critique of how we exhibit photography, especially since photography has so many forms embedded in it – and its dissemination is part of the medium. Ongoing Museum is to suggest just that – a museum needs to be ongoing, ever changing, waxing and waning.

Image courtesy of Dayanita Singh. © Ulrike Sommer

Top 10

Photobooks of 2016

Selected by Tim Clark

An annual tribute to the most exceptional photobook releases from the year that was – selected by our Editor in Chief.

1. Gregory Halpern: ZZYZX

Once the hype subsides, and you let Gregory Halpern’s images bathe you in glorious California sunlight, it’s clear to see why ZZYZX was named Photobook of the Year at The Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards. MACK’s production is sumptuous and as far as photography goes Halpern’s is of the highest order.

The book takes us on a journey, starting at the desert east of Los Angeles, across the city and up to the Pacific Ocean but seen through the filter of Halpern’s ineffable vision, it is in fact more akin to somnambulation. Images depict odd characters and quiet moments – things observed, rendered through description and suggestion – which on accumulation build up a picture of a sort of Babylon on the brink of collapse. With an untold narrative, contained but concealed, we slowly feel the burning desire for a place; a dreamed-of place since, as Italo Calvino one wrote, “desires are already memories”.

2. Edmund Clark and Crofton Black: Negative Publicity
Aperture/Magnum Foundation

Part research document, part exhibition catalogue and part dossier, Negative Publicity presents a complex and multi-layered reflection on the CIA’s programme of ‘extraordinary rendition’. Clark has turned his camera to spaces and surfaces that contain a hidden, violent tension, those which stand in for the countless people who have disappeared into a mysterious prison network – the vanishing point for the law. Yet no drama is pictured here, just the drama of a picture. Collaborating with counter-terrorism expert Crofton Black, he has paired images and redacted documents to interrogate the nature of contemporary warfare and invisible mechanisms of state control. A book that really matters.

3. Sara-Lena Maierhofer: Dear Clark; Portrait of a Con Man
Drittel Books

Sara-Lena Maierhofer has made it her business to tell the tale of a real-life imposter who went by the name of Clark Rockefeller, among other personas, having passed himself off as a scion of the wealthy family. Dear Clark pieces together remnants of his life, through material such as birth certificates, brain scans and family photographs alongside images that speak to key themes of multiplicity and transformation. The book’s material qualities are almost akin to installation with design touches like tipped-in images that perfectly heighten the searching quality of the project. Reality and fantasy, fact and fiction are masterfully at play here as Maierhofer makes tremendous art out of deception and the corrosive effects of lies.

4. Michael Hoppen Gallery: Evidence Case File
Guiding Light

This richly illustrated, cleverly designed book offers a small but brilliant insight into the collection of reknown photography dealer Michael Hoppen. In parallel to The Image as Question: An Exhibition of Evidential Photography, recently on display at the eponymous London gallery, it sets out to disturb the big claims of photography as ‘record’ or ‘proof’. A judicious selection of works harks back to the medium’s 19th century origins and also includes images from 20th century stalwarts as well as contemporary artists. The book empties images of their original evidential function and reconceptualises them in a new context and in a new time. Questioning what a ‘fact’ is a well-trodden area of investigation yet the presentation, editing, sequence and paper choices are very well-measured and all equally important to the publication as various parts separately. Rewards the curious.

5. Laia Abril: Lobismuller
Editorial RM/Images Vevey

Laia Abril is continually on the up and the photobook has always been an essential part of her output. Just recently-released, Lobismuller sees the Catalan artist produce a meditation in photography and text upon Spain’s first documented serial killer. The Werewolf of Allariz, known as Manuel Blanco Romasanta was originally named Manuela since it was initially believed he was a woman. This central figure was also dubbed the ‘Soapmaker’, owing to his habit of using the fat of victims to produce high-quality soap. Gender issues, psychology, landscape, mythology and folklore… the mesmerising story is wrapped upon layer of exquisite literary narrative. Between each image and each piece of text, a creepy affinity can be established, demonstrating Abril’s fluidity between medium and genre, which has come to characterise her practice.

6. Todd Hido: Intimate Distance

This is a lavish monograph befitting one of the most influential US photographers. Todd Hido’s unique brand of cinematic spectatorship is surveyed en masse in Intimate Distance, bringing together twenty-five years of photographs full of substance and thickness of atmosphere. The book tracks the development of a career via Hido’s overlapping motifs and preoccupations: disarming nudes, smudged landscapes and interiors or housing lit up as if glowing chambers, inviting us to consider his world-as-image and rethink his oeuvre from a fresh perspective. The need to know oneself and the fear of self-knowing find their beautiful expression here. His is an art of longing.

7. Francesca Catastini: The Modern Spirit is Vivisective

“Knowledge is not made for understanding, it is made for cutting,” reads the Michel Foucault quote that appears in the postscript to Francesca Catastini’s The Modern Spirit is Vivisective. It serves as a useful coda for considering the work. True to its title, this handsome book is an investigation into the process of studying human anatomy, combining the artist’s own photographs with vernacular images of old anatomy lessons, illustrations from Renaissance manuals, complemented with scientific, literary, and philosophical texts. Using chapters as its organising system – On Looking, On Canon Lust, On Touching, On Cutting, On Discovering – the book reveals a great capacity for sequencing images, and the possibility to conceive of them as a form of literature.

8. David Fahti: Wolfgang

Gathered on the pages of David Fahti’s Wolfgang are black and white photographs sprinkled with quotations from Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics also held responsible for a large number of unexplainable failures of equipment at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. Countless accidents, surprises and flashes of unlikely beauty and absurd humour work to conjure up Pauli’s omnipresence despite his absence in the images. Skinnerboox enlisted celebrated book designer Ramon Pez to step in and around the project and the production is all the better for it. A sum of its wonders; art, design, photography, science and history collide and fuse together to powerful effect.

9. Tito Mouraz: The House of The Seven Women
Dewi Lewis Publishing

Misty forests, bemused animals, brooding portraits and delipidated out-houses are just some of the gothic-infused imagery on display in Tito Mouraz’s The House of The Seven Women. They are visual elements invoked to give material form to a myth of the Beira-Alta region of Portugal, where the photographer was born and raised – that of a house believed to be haunted by the ghosts of seven sisters, including one witch. Strange happenings were said to occur on the occasion of a full moon, namely the women would fly from their balcony to a tree opposite and seduce passers by. An eerie and enigmatic mood piece, the work translates brilliantly to book form, classical and full of craft.

10. Adam Golfer: A House Without a Roof
Booklyn Press

The complicated histories of founding the state of Israel and the subsequent violence and displacement of Palestinians as a result of military occupation serve as the subject for this debut book from photographer Adam Golfer. A House Without a Roof draws on his own personal past and familial connections to the place to form an interesting, first person perspective while foregoing any conclusion about its troubled present. This is not easily reducible or categorisable work and Golfer deftly blends Internet-sourced imagery, archival material and extensive use of text with his photographs of the ongoing conflict, as seen at ground level. At least, it transmits the disorienting sense of an outsider locating oneself within a historic ‘home’, constructed through both real and imagined narratives. 

Tim Clark is a curator, writer and editor. Since 2008 he has been Editor in Chief and Director at 1000 Words Photography Magazine. Previously Associate Curator at Media Space, The Science Museum in London, exhibitions he worked on included Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy (2015) and Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth (2015-2018), a major, mid-career touring retrospective. He has also organised many exhibitions independently, most recently Peter Watkins: The Unforgetting at Webber Gallery (2017) and Rebecoming: The Other European Travellers at Flowers Gallery (2014), featuring works he commissioned by Tereza Zelenkova, Virgilio Ferreira, Lucy Levene and Henrik Malmstrom. Together with Greg Hobson he has curated Photo Oxford 2017, which featured numerous solo presentations by artists such as Edgar Martins, Mariken Wessels, Martin Parr and Sergei Vasiliev and Arkady Bronnikov from The Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive among others. His writing has appeared in FOAMTIME LightboxThe TelegraphThe Sunday TimesPhotoworks and The British Journal of Photography, as well as in exhibition catalogues and photobooks. He is also a visiting lecturer on the MA in Photography at NABA Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti Milano.

Lesley A. Martin

Publisher at Aperture Foundation

New York

In the latest instalment of our Interviews series, Jeffrey Ladd speaks with the publisher of Aperture Foundation’s book programme, Lesley A. Martin. Their conversation reflects on the current state of photobook publishing, the idea of misperceiving books as the most viable vehicles to launch careers, as well as her thoughts on the seldom-discussed phenomenon of publishers taking on projects by photographers who pay a premium of the entire book production.

Jeffrey Ladd: How long have you personally been interested in photography and photobooks?

Lesley A. Martin: My interest in photography is probably fairly typical – an early introduction to the magic of the darkroom by a family member, hanging out with photo geeks in high school. I knew I was interested in it enough to pick it up as a minor in college. But the realisation that photographs had power and could become vital to a public conversation comes from having lived an hour away from Cincinnati, Ohio at the time of the Robert Mapplethorpe Perfect Moment exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center, and realizing that the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s were perfectly and terribly crystallised in this battle over which images would be considered true, beautiful, and permissible.

I don’t have a story about a particular book that changed my life as my interest in photobooks came somewhat obliquely – yes, I was always the kid with glasses that “loved books”. Yes, I worked my way through college at the Art and Architecture library and decorated my dorm walls with jackets of books that had been discarded before they were allowed to be shelved. And yes, I lived in Japan and spent a lot of time looking – sadly, not buying – books by and about Japanese photographers, but it wasn’t until I did an internship at Aperture that it dawned on me that there were people behind the making of those books… and that this was something that I could do, too.

JL: How long have you been at Aperture?

LAM: The best way to put it is that I’ve been at Aperture for roughly sixteen of the last twenty-one years, but not continuously. It’s a little scary to think about.

JL: How have your thoughts on photobooks changed over the course of your involvement with Aperture?

LAM: The ecosystem as a whole has changed pretty radically over the last twenty years. There were a particular set of formulas that Michael Hoffman, longtime publisher and director of Aperture, believed in. I’m really not sure what he would have made of the photobook world now. I left Aperture for a few years in 2000 when we began to disagree over the type of books that could – and should – be published. I sometimes use Eikoh Hosoe’s Kamaitachi as an example of just how much things have changed. Michael loved the 1971 edition of the book with its baroque use of gatefolds and wanted very much to find a means of reissuing it as a facsimile. The costs were daunting, and in 1997, when we first started discussing it, the idea of printing the book in a very small number and charging a higher price was not part of the Aperture model – he felt there wasn’t enough of a collector’s market to make that work. Now, of course, that’s a model most publishers incorporate into their arsenal of publishing strategies. When I returned to work at Aperture in late 2003, one of the first things I did was to put in motion a facsimile of the book. We commissioned a new slipcase by Tadanori Yokoo, and released it in an edition of 500 English-language copies and, working together with a Japanese publisher, 500 Japanese-language copies. The book sold out almost immediately. It had become evident by then that not only was there an audience but that this audience of collectors and dealers were building a new body of scholarship and connoisseurship of the photobook. This knowledge base, coupled with the shift in how accessible printing technologies have become and how much creativity is coming out of the self-published and independently published worlds, have increased the interest and appreciation of the book form. The idea of strict, old school publishing formulas of any kind, has been turned on its head, which is good for everyone.

JL: How do you think your direction as editor has been different from others? (past Aperture editors? Or other publishers?)

LAM: As a not-for-profit organisation, Aperture needs to be willing and able to explore a fairly broad interpretation of photography – but of course, it’s also an amalgam of individual tastes and interests. Over the course of almost sixty-five years, there have been so many book editors, each of whom left one imprint or another – from Nancy Newhall, one of the founders, onward. (Keeping in mind, too, that the book editors and the magazine editors used to be one and the same – now the book and magazine programs operate synergistically but autonomously). There are lots of odd little pockets in the Aperture backlist –Newhall worked closely with Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. She was focused on the interchange of text and images and on the struggle for the recognition of photography as a ‘fine art’. Mark Holborn introduced Japanese photographers like Eikoh Hosoe and Shomei Tomatsu to Aperture, alongside British photographers like Bill Brandt. Carole Kismaric made a critical contribution, bringing in Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, John Gossage, and moved Aperture’s book program away from a certain beaten path – more ‘windows’ than ‘mirrors’. Michael Hoffman’s obsession with India can be read in vein of books by Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh, Mitch Epstein’s first book: In Pursuit of India, while also championing the publication of the Arbus monograph.

Current senior editor, Denise Wolf, has introduced a line of books about photography for children. Aside from my interest in Japanese and Dutch photography, which happen to be great photobook making cultures, I feel that my task over the past decade has been to ensure that the book programme felt relevant overall. I didn’t want Aperture to just do one kind of book, but to be able to publish across a range of types of book – to be more varied, flexible, and contemporary in our book making. I also made it a goal to engage with and help support the growing conversation about the photobook.

JL: Can you point out four or five books that have become your favourites of the last year?

LAM: I’m still looking back on the prior year’s books and won’t get to properly digest this year’s harvest fully until the end of the summer and The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Prize. Every Autumn I’m inundated by the 1,000+ titles that get submitted. I see A LOT. But there are inevitably, a few that stand out, or that I return to repeatedly over time.

In the past year, those include Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor by Mariken Wessels, which is a very strange set of images collected by Wessels of one man’s obsessive photographing of his wife. Dana Lixenberg’s Imperial Courts, a document of one Los Angeles-neighbourhood over the course of twenty years also just gets better with repeat viewing. Both of these books – each very different in subject and approach but similarly predicated on a photographer’s long-term engagement with their subject – take pains to also be really remarkable physical objects, with particular care to with the printing, design, and structure of the material. Out of Order: Bad Display by Penelope Umbrico, is one of the artist’s iterative projects that returns to a prior book she created with RVB Books in 2014. Umbrico has become a really thoughtful about her books, folding the process of making them into her larger practice of making work, the unusual forms they take and the methods of their making are always directly tied-into the concepts within.

I also can’t help but be stupefied by the gorgeously printed re-issue and expansion (or, explosion) of William Eggleston’s Democratic Forest. As with the rest of Steidl’s insatiable drive to gobble up and put forth the archives of photographers living and dead, I’m a little ambivalent about whether or not to best categorise these as books or as furniture – it certainly is an excellent example of the collector-supported publication model. It’s quite an investment, at $600 per set. So while this skews the concept of a democratic anything, in terms of a flattening out the hierarchy of image-making, this material, of any, is best suited to the multi-volume, anti-edit approach. (I have to also confess that I may, in part, be conflating my appreciation for this book with my appreciation and enjoyment Prudence Ffeifer’s excellent review of the book in the May issue of Bookforum – the power of a great book review!)

JL: How much of the current state of photobook publishing do you perceive as artists believing books are the most viable vehicles to launch careers?

LAM: I often I see books made by artists that feel way too transparent in this regard – it’s as if every decision made in constructing the book was weighed against some external checklist of what’s worked for other people, rather than what’s right for the material itself. The use of different types of paper: check. Tipped-in facsimiles of vernacular material: check. Centred, sans-serif type that is underscored instead of italicised: check. There are certain design and format tics that seem to be contagious from year to year. Increasingly, people get hung up on creating over-the-top, bleeding edge design packages when something simple or pared down would be equally if not more suitable and successful. That said, there is so much room now for different ways of putting a body of work onto the printed page, it has led to some really stand-out books – both wildly innovative and more traditional books that have been able to launch careers or solidify reputations.

We’re seeing a dramatic shift in the gallery world, in which the smaller galleries are having a hard time of it – there is less space for showing and selling work, certainly less space for really being able to present an entire body of work, properly contextualised, which is what a book can do so well, and of course, a book can end up in anyone’s hands. A book of interesting work that has been done thoughtfully can certainly bring an artist to another level of attention. There are also a lot more books that I have a hard time wrapping my head around in terms of WHY. Why does this body of work exist in this form and what was the photographer or publishing thinking when they made those decisions? I’m all for borrowing, and great ideas often beget other good ideas, but not if they’re simply adapted without cause and clear intention. Really – more people asking WHY – why am I making this book? Does it need to be a book? And then figuring out the best way to take that forward would be really helpful. If you just want to make a book because it’s expected of you and you think it will help your career, you haven’t thought about it hard enough.

JL: Do you believe that even though there are more books published each year, the amount that are really noteworthy has remained perhaps the same as twenty to thirty years ago?

LAM: It’s tempting to think along these lines, and I’ve heard that line before. But when you think about it, the categories and types of books have opened up and changed so dramatically that surely that’s not the case. I mean, how do you evaluate a really great self-published item printed on newsprint against something like the aforementioned Democratic Forest. There are so many more points across a much wider map, there has to be both more and better, don’t you think? They won’t all operate the same way in terms of pushing an artist or a set of ideas forward, and lots will get missed. But I’d like to think optimistically and to believe that there are more, better publications being made across a wider range of possibilities. Of course, there are going to be equivalent larger numbers of worse books getting made as well – and that can be depressing and a little brain-numbing. This is why I’m all for a network of signposts that can help navigate the overload of books – blog posts on sites like,, the fantastic vimeo feed from, Instagram feeds like @10 x10; and tags like #photobookjousting – that’s just a few.

JL: What appeals to you as an editor, when an artist approaches with a ‘finished’ dummy or would you prefer to see the raw material? I am assuming you are open to both ways. Can you estimate a percentage of each?

LAM: It’s so case-by-case and changes season by season. In an upcoming season of six monographs for Spring 2017, none of them came as already formulated dummies. The Autumn 2016 season, three of five books came as dummies. I think it’s helpful for an artist to wrestle with the problem of how to make something into a book, but not helpful for them to get hung up on wanting to control every detail, but to allow room for collaboration and input.

JL: Do you have opinions about publishers who are essentially shifting their role to becoming mainly distributors – taking on projects by photographers who pay a premium of the entire book production and beyond to publish their book.

LAM: There are several sides to this – first, I have to state Aperture’s position on the matter. We do not ask artists to write cheques to fund their books. However, we do have to raise the money for each and every title that we don’t see succeeding exclusively on sales in the mainstream book trade. That usually means a there is a collaborative effort that goes into figuring this out – whether it’s jointly mounting a Kickstarter campaign, to applying for grants, appealing to collectors and our patrons, or selling prints. And it is often a combination of the above.

But I also want to point out that this trend has to be seen, in part, in relation to how the roles have been redistributed across the board. Photographers are increasingly casting themselves as designers and editors so books are coming to a publisher already digested and the decisions that a publisher would usually help guide – what the book looks like and how it needs to be printed and bound, and thereby, what the budget and corresponding price point can or should be, are increasingly claimed by photographers. Along with those decisions come risks and repercussions. Essentially, photographers are becoming co-publishers as much as the simply authors. I’m not saying this makes it all come out fine in the wash, but I don’t think you can ignore that all of these roles function in relation to one another. You push one piece of the puzzle and something else gives way. It’s a reminder that very few of the traditional roles or rules about how publishing worked remain hard and fast anymore and we have to keep moving and evolving.

JL: Have you felt any photobook oversaturation or ‘burn-out’ in these last years either with publishing or photobook festivals?

LAM: I am very aware that the photobook community can easily find itself in conversations that are too much of a closed system, that are less about the work and the world and more about the book (and often arcane details of a particular book) as one tool for exploring and experiencing photography. It can be a little limiting and insular, absolutely. But I also love the obsessiveness and attention to detail and craft that the book community currently hosts, and I believe that a language and body of knowledge around the photobook is in the process of being built – one that has become an important, accepted part of the larger dialogue of photography. The idea that the circulation of an image or a body of work – and in particular it’s circulation on the printed page – is an important part of its history and our understanding of it. And this seems solidly established for the time being. But we have to keep looking forward and as photography continues to change, we know that forms of storytelling and experiencing images – habits of literacy of all kinds – are in the process of changing as well. So, I don’t feel that the level of activity we’re currently at will be sustainable if photobook making and photobook festivals do not continue to evolve. For now, though, this network of fairs is an important means of exchange and commerce – how long it can last is certainly a question I ask myself all the time.

And as for me, I personally reach a certain point of hyper saturation in late November, once the New York Art Book Fair is over, once The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Prize has been awarded, Paris Photo and Offprint are over and all the “Best of” blogs have been read – when I don’t think that I could possibly look at one more book. But somehow, by January, I find myself picking books up again, drawn by a particular cover or wanting to see what a certain binding material feels like, wondering what’s inside, and what else is out there. Hopefully those impulses – in myself and in others – will continue to be refreshed and rewarded by new, exciting creations and developments in this still-evolving field.

Image courtesy of Lesley A. Martin © Carlo Van de Roer

Rosângela Rennó


Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

The Photographers’ Gallery, London
22.01.16 — 03.04.16

As the philosopher Vilém Flusser is keen to remind us, we are often complacent about our images. “They have grown familiar to us,” he wrote. “We no longer take notice of most photographs, concealed as they are by habit: in the same way, we ignore everything familiar in our environment and only notice what has changed.” In a world where the throwaway image is ever more dominant – and the capacities of storage are always increasing – it is rare that we have to make choices about what we might preserve.

Rosângela Rennó’s installation Rio-Montevideo, currently on display at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, presents images from the photographic archive of El Popular, a Uruguayan daily newspaper active from 1957 until 1973. In July 1973, deep within the structure of the newspaper’s office building, staff photographer Aurelio González concealed a total of 48,626 negatives. Seeking to save a record of the nation that would soon be under threat from an impending military coup, he single-handedly set about to preserve the newspaper’s account of post-war Uruguayan identity. But while González rescued the entire archive, retrieving it in 2006, we will never see it as the totality it seems to be. How does one go about representing its contents, which are so vast and multiplicitous? And how can the singularity of any one person’s encounter with it be represented? Acknowledging our always subjective and tangential relationships to cultural memory, Rennó was invited to respond to the collection, and made a selection of images – 32 in all. By choosing sparingly, she has charged these images with a sense of purpose, one that many do not have.

Rio-Montevideo seeks not the defining image nor the metonymic symbols of Uruguay itself, but instead what appears to be three themes, moving from the universal to the particular. Most immediately, Rennó represents daily life: images of furniture removal and several family portraits assert a humanist language that draws quickly upon shared experience, rendering Uruguay as familiar. Secondly, she represents the political fight for equality, including the 1968 student protests against fascism. The murders of Susana Pintos and Hugo de los Santos are seen here – the image of a dead de los Santos echoes Jacques-Louis David’s revolutionary Marat Assassinated. The political protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s resonate globally, of course, but are especially acute in South America, where they are charged with the many subsequent dictatorships of the military right. Lastly, Rennó draws a little upon herself: as a Brazilian citizen, she draws interconnections between Brazil and Uruguay. And by moving from the shared to the personal, Rennó temporarily displaces the archive, drawing upon it a single continental axis, from Montevideo to her hometown of Rio de Janeiro. Her selection of subjects demonstrates her succinct critical and art historical way of seeing, and by building upon the two countries’ similar cultural histories, global struggles, and universal experiences, Rennó manages to weave a small selection of images into a complex web that mixes the specific and the general, prompting each viewer to see if they can establish a specific association with the archive as she has presented it.

Our typical experience of an image is rooted in its almost immediate redundancy: usually, photographs appear to us in quick succession, one after another. Flusser, who lived in Rio between 1950 and 1972 – when many of the images were taken – continuously urged his readers to slow their looking, and see images in their wider complexities. It is this that, in part, draws us to the otherwise unexamined acts of a photograph’s making, and its consequences as a quotidian or vernacular object. What is the significance of this image? What is its consequence? Who and what makes it? And at the end, what sustains our use of it? Such an expanded conception of the photograph provokes the realisation that no image is ever purely the result of an unmediated indexical effect, as a narrow view of photography is prone to claim. It is the product, as Flusser would go on to assert, of operators, apparatuses, and cultural conditions.

It could be argued that Rio-Montevideo takes viewing as its subject, attempting to slow it down. Its select images are presented as singular slides displayed on their own projectors. Not only do visitors see only one image at a time, they must switch the projector on by a button themselves, as if bringing each image to light. It is difficult to be passive in the face of images that are brought into being by our actions; in all but the busiest of moments, we must make the image visible. And we must also, vitally, come to terms with the root consequences of inaction: a quickly disappearing display threatens to vanish without our intervention, leaving a blank room behind.

Rennó came to international attention for her celebrated books on the archive and loss, but the familiar territory of the archival repository is not the limit of her concerns by any means, and indeed the projectors of Rio-Montevideo are significant. Her celebrated AO1[COD.] – A27 [S|COD.23], which received the Paris Photo – Aperture Foundation Photobook Award in 2013, does not simply present an archive, but rather it calls attention to the movement of images, and the human actors who illicitly withdraw pictures from circulation and shared cultural memory, and that images are themselves agents of memory. Each projector in her installation carries a specific register and a sense of time: some are domestic, others industrial. Throughout, each image appears through a projector that is contemporary with what it displays.

Rennó’s concerns frequently lay with objects she calls – echoing Flusser – part of the universe of photography: cameras, photographic albums, and miscellaneous photographic paraphernalia. In Private Eye (1995) Rennó cut away the space inside of two adjacent hardback books, leaving a carefully moulded cavity so that a camera could be hidden away on a shelf. Such potential concealment reveals the usual conditions of photography as something oscillating between the visible and the invisible, echoed in the on/off condition of the projected image.

Projection is both a technical function, and an act of association. The projected image invites us to project ourselves onto the images we witness, as voyeurs, witnesses or as potential actors. What is displayed in Rio-Montevideo calls on us to participate, as active guardians of cultural memory. As such, we find ourselves written into the image, responsible for its passage through culture.

All images courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery. © Aurelio González and Centro de Fotografía

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also course director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.