The Midwest represents the bellwether states. Its influence on the US politics, visual culture and literature is profound. By proxy, it influences the English-speaking world. Andy Adams, a Wisconsin native, talks about the photography movement in the region, where FlakPhoto plays a pivotal role. He observes that digital media now complements print, but DIY efforts such as handmade books also drive the photobook community.
We’ve been following FlakPhoto for several years now. You’ve reviewed a lot of photobooks. What are the themes that keep cropping up in the past couple of years?
I suppose I’m biased, so the books that catch my eye are going to be the ones that rhyme with my personal preferences. But I do find that many photographers are making books that tell personal stories – about the places where they live, about the relationships they share with others, or their connection to a particular community. For a long time, I think that photography operated as a tool for documenting things that happened in the world and we long ago abandoned the idea that a photographer was an unbiased spectator. So those attitudes probably inform the books that get made today. In the art photography circles where I hang out people are using their cameras and publications to talk about their own experience and observations. Maybe that’s the result of social media’s having shifted so much image-making into a first-person point of view? Or maybe it’s something else. But so many of the photography books that come across my desk are a kind of memoir and that seems like a trend.
Since 2005, there have been numerous self-publishing platforms for photographers. They help artists publish their own works in a cost-effective manner. Of course, there were teething issues. For example, the quality of editing wasn’t necessarily at par with the standard of a big publishing house. Today, more than a decade later, do you see maturity and improvement in the quality of self-published photobooks? Are there recent trends in self-publishing?
Absolutely. My biggest complaint about the early print-on-demand books was the quality of the printing not the work on the pages. It’s funny because there was a lot of hysteria a decade ago about how the internet was going to end the printed photography experience. But really, the exact opposite has happened and we’ve seen an explosion in the photobook scene and in other parts of the creative community. (For more on this, read David Sax’s excellent book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.) Handmade photography is alive and well and there’s a robust scene of digital publishers, indie presses, and zine makers out there doing all kinds of cool things. That DIY ethos seriously drives the photobook community.
📚 Can't tell – Is this heaven or hell? pic.twitter.com/V0DozU4wyl
— Andy Adams (@FlakPhoto) February 25, 2019
Is there still a need for a professional photo editor?
Some folks like to say that photographers are horrible editors. I don’t think that’s the case but I do think it really helps to get an outside perspective on your images, sequencing, and layout. You know how it goes: When you spend all of your time with a project your point of view can get clouded so bringing in a fresh set of eyes seems like a really smart strategy for making sure that your reader is going to understand the story you’re trying to tell. And if you like an editor’s tastes you’ll trust their recommendations which is key.
How do you find enjoying photographs on Instagram and as books?
The Digital v. Print debate is pointless and always was: the two forms complement and support each other, as they should. Not surprisingly, the photography community has moved en masse to Instagram – for better or for worse. I’m conflicted but, in the end, I still love Instagram. I mean, it’s photography 24/7! And it’s a direct line into the global photography hive mind which is really unprecedented and amazing. I follow lots of indie publishers and bookmakers there – Fall Line Press, TBW Books, MACK, Radius Books, Nathan Pearce, and TIS Books are some of my favourites.
“The Digital v. Print debate is pointless and always was: the two forms complement and support each other, as they should.”
I recommend books on Twitter and Instagram all the time and do my part to get the indie stuff seen whenever I can (you can follow hashtag #flakphotobooks to keep up with what I’m reading). I’m about to drop my 2019 Booklist which will include a bunch of photography books that caught my eye over the past year and that I hope folks will check out.
You’re from the Midwest, United States of America. You have a privileged point of view. You get to watch the maddening crowd of global politics from a quiet distance. And yet, amidst that pastoral serenity, the Midwest wields considerable influence on US politics, visual culture, and literature. By proxy, it influences the English-speaking world. As a gatekeeper of visual culture, how do you deal with that level of responsibility?
I’m not sure that my point of view is any more privileged than anyone else’s in the Western world: I’m just another person connected to the internet, keeping up with the news and yes, being driven mad by the state of things in America. And things haven’t actually been that quiet here at home. We finally elected a Democratic governor where I live in Wisconsin after many years of controversial rule by a Republican administration (Dan Kauffman’s The Fall of Wisconsin is still on my to-read list).
“I’ve never thought of myself as a gatekeeper of visual culture but I do my part to broadcast the images and ideas that I think are important.”
I’ve never thought of myself as a gatekeeper of visual culture but I do my part to broadcast the images and ideas that I think are important and I’m not alone in that regard. The FlakPhoto project has definitely gotten more politicised as my own views have since the 2016 US Election. I’d like to do a photography project focused on climate change at some point. That topic – along with many social justice issues – keeps me up at night.
What was the last book you read?
I just wrapped Zen on the Trail: Hiking as Pilgrimage by Christopher Ives which I thought was terrific. I have a reputation for being this always-on digital guy but I’m actually really into logging off and getting out into nature and I love to take long walks. This has been one of the more brutal winters in recent memory and I’ve been starved for some hiking. Ives’ book was a wonderful meditation on the relationship between backpacking, mindfulness, and the outdoors.
Print, PDF or e-book?
Ha! It depends. I never like PDF but will read it if it’s my only option and many photographers send me book dummies on PDF so I do spend a lot of time with that format but it’s this hybrid thing that’s usually meant for the printed page and so seldom works on the screen. I have started reading e-books on the Kindle app. I’m years behind everybody else on that but certain texts don’t merit my picking up a physical book and I like reading on an illuminated screen in the dark before bed.
My favorite way to read a book is still that old-fashioned printed copy. I like the tactility of the object and always say that the handfeel can make or break a book – I nearly always wait for new releases in paperback since they’re easier to hold. Plus, I like to make notes when I’m reading. And this may sound odd but the best part about a traditional book is that it doesn’t buzz with notifications! Seriously, these days I leave my phone in the other room and find that physical book reading is one of the best ways to consciously disconnect from social media and the internet. Nothing better than hot coffee and a book in the morning.
“The best part about a traditional book is that it doesn’t buzz with notifications!”
About Andy Adams