A SERIES OF PROMPTS // Matt Johnston

15 Sep 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

In 2021 I authored Photobooks &: a critical companion to the contemporary medium (Onomatopee). It is a publication that set out to connect the newly consecrated photobook to contemporary cultural situations, historical photographic relationships with the page, and the logistics of making public. Ultimately the book asked whether celebration of the photobook and its production were solidifying its status as an art object or creating an insular environment of little relevance for audiences to which both the book and photography have much to contribute.

This tension is likely familiar for readers of the Book Art Theory Blog. The photobook has gone through a similar turn of legitimisation as the artist book, now recognised by individuals and institutions as a medium of considerable import rather than an adjunct or curiosity. Such acceptance brings notable benefits in the form of institutional support, scholarly activity, and market prices but with it the possibility for a clouding of specific publishing purposes. In excitement over the rich variety of publications emerging today and the communities that bring them to life, we should be mindful that photobooks are not only representations of the medium but are texts in the world. The vitality of the photobook should not be confused with, or transferred to, the vitality of an individual work. 

   What does this *book seek to do in the world?

   Who would enjoy seeing this *book?

   Who needs to see this *book? 

   (excerpts from A series of prompts)

If we wish to position the medium as one that can ‘catalyse real change’ [1] and make our world ‘visible, understandable and alterable’ [2], a focus must now be brought to the making public of publishing. This most essential component of book-based practices is frequently overlooked in favour of the apparently more exciting creative aspects of concept, design, and production. It is an occurrence exacerbated when we see that contemporary photobook makers primarily produce works for other photographers and book makers. As photographer Laia Abril concisely puts it: 'the public is us' [3]. In this environment, collective values in production and shared reference points as well as common spaces of photographic encounter construct a safe harbour. 

   How does the *book fit into a larger plan of publishing?

   Does the *book act as a beginning, way-marker or end-point?

   What knowledge does the *book rely on?

   (excerpts from A series of prompts)

Engaging with readers beyond an established and expectant audience for whom the book is a reference point – rather than an object of challenge or change – is not easy. It involves a rethinking not only of production choices but also the language we use in books, their price, distribution requirements, non-purchase accessibility, and republishing possibilities. To complicate matters, strategies must be custom-fit in recognition that just as each book 'has a specific flavour', so too that flavour should be 'accompanied by different ways of helping it to be out in the world' [4]. It is work not yet rewarded by peers or institutional accolades, but it is work I have sought to encourage in a series of questions to makers, readers, and all those involved in the ecology of the photobook that I posed in Photobooks &

In an effort to nudge discourse towards situations of reading over production I used these questions at a number of workshops and lectures in the UK, but still their reach was limited. And so, A series of prompts is an attempt to amplify and activate anew. Its form is easy to distribute by pixels or post and its simplicity more inviting than the weight and formality of Photobooks & to many. Returning to an idea not fully realised has also provided an opportunity to energise content with other audiences in mind than those I considered two years prior. I have adopted ‘*book’ in place of ‘photobook’ in response to conversations with readers and the progress of my thinking that has led me to consider the need for more reader- and audience-centred approaches in fields other than the photobook alone. For while there are more examples of works and discussions that overtly include the reader under the broader terms of poetry, art publishing, and the artist book, tensions between the author(s) vision and audience are constant and universal.

A series of prompts is available in its second riso print run for free by contacting the author and is also able to be downloaded as a DIY layered pdf for riso printing via the link here

The front and back of A series of prompts.

[1] Cataldo, Antonio. ‘Foreword’. In Photography Bound: Reimagining Photobooks and Self-Publishing, ed. Antonio Cataldo and Adrià Julià, 6–12. (Milan: Silvana editoriale, 2023), 10.  

[2] Gilberger, Ruth. ‘Together We Are More’. In The Photobook in Art and Society: Participative Potentials of a Medium, 27–30. (Berlin: Jovis and The PhotoBook Museum, 2020), 32.

[3] Abril, L., Ramon Pez, and G Golpe. ‘Let’s Kill the Ego’. In The Book: On Endless Possibilities: Independent Publishing Fair, Barcelona 2015, ed. Natasha Christia, 24–31. (Barcelona: The Folio Club, 2015), 28.

[4] Reader, Manuel. ‘On Distribution’. In Books Is Books: A Statement of Intent from Minimum Efficiency Press, ed. Andrew John Beltran and Margherita Huntley. Minimum Efficiency Press, 2023.

Matt Johnston is a visual practitioner, educator and researcher at Coventry University, where he is Assistant Professor in photography. For the last decade, his research and visual practice have been concerned with the post-millennium situation of the contemporary photobook and how it may become better equipped to engage new readerships.

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