“For artists who do stage their work and find it in situ, the photographic sketchbook is virtually unnecessary as a pre-game facilitator. I would suggest though, that the photographic notebook is an indispensable tool after cheap prints have been made available”
One technical tool that photographers often deprive themselves of thinking through is the photographic notebook. Depending on what type of photography interests you, your sketchbook will almost always be dependent on other means at your artistic disposal to carry forward the pre-envisioning of your work. I am suggesting that if you are an artist that stages or creates images, sketching the layout of a tableaux before committing to shooting it seems natural enough, but the sketch itself will likely not rely on photographic images that you facilitated ahead of deployment. Instead, you may contrive pencil and pen sketches if you are able or perhaps you will create mood boards that give an idea of what you wish to accomplish ahead of time, working out the “math” of the image in this manner so as to not spend copious time in situ working out the arrangement of model, subject etc. For artists who do not stage their work and find it in situ, the photographic sketchbook is virtually unnecessary as a pre-game facilitator. I would suggest though, that the photographic notebook is an indispensable tool after cheap prints have been made available that can help us think through our efforts and progress.
If you are not an artist whose work is pre-fabricated in the studio or who does not dwell on pre-envisioning what they want to accomplish, the photographic sketchbook becomes something closer to a diary or a notebook in which to place your images post-production. This is a highly effective means of storing your images, looking backwards at process and in many cases, it makes for a great way in which to think through the sequencing and editing of images for a book. Rarely do we see this sketchbook considered the final means of our intents and aims. They are important for our legacy, but rarely do they see the light of day outside of exhibitions at a much later date. This is a shame as it is a pursuit that enables new ways in which to think about process which were perhaps sequestered away previously. When a notebook is filled, often it goes onto a special shelf waiting to be picked up as time allows us to consider a moment in the track record of our history. It is like the examination of geological strata of our careers. The small and imprecise notes, collections of odd nearly two-dimensional objects, stapes, glue marks and tapes, a slight record of our progress. In many sense, it is a footnote to our process.
In writing this, I would like to argue against the ephemeral means of our production as simple pieces of the larger puzzle and would like to discuss through three examples the importance from which we can think of the “notes”, “fragments”, and “workbooks” as being evident as an important and finished project. I would like to encourage that we consider the notebook as something more official. I understand that in the context of exhibitions that notebooks, sketchbooks, and other bound objects are not entirely easy to view, but I believe that in examining this form along with contact sheets, test strips and various ephemeral debris, that we might find something more honest, interesting and of help to our fellow artists by examining the loose methods of production that are we employ to achieve the aims of filling albums, books etc. with our thoughts.
Where would be if we did not consider Turner or Victor Hugo’s watercolor sketchbooks as valid? Would we dismiss Anselm Kiefer for his focus on the book object as something that should remain as relegated to the shelf? Would we have Peter Beard or Dan Eldon’s work and the correlation between performing writing on the image in the work of Shirin Neshat without thinking between the journal and the image? Finally, what of Henry Darger and the limitless amounts of artists notebooks that line the boxes found in attics and basements waiting to be discovered that could change the very perception we have of how art is produced?
The first example of an important photographic sketchbook of sorts that I want to consider is Dafna Talmor’s recently published Constructed Landscapes (FW Books, 2020). Talmor’s book is the artist’s vision of her work in publication with all notations of process considered. Noted for large beautiful abstract images of severed landscapes and dislocated vistas, Talmor produces photographic prints assembled from purposefully destroyed color negatives. These images reflect ecological and social concerns that Talmor presciently examines in her work. The photographs she produces are generally large format and the minute traces of cutting and disruptions to the flow of analogue photographic color can be noted along the edges of her serrated negatives which distend, distort and dictate a psychological function born from her creative destruction that reminds the viewer of their physicality and material limitations. There is also an emphasis on ecology that resonates with her subject matter.
In her book published this year, Talmor’s beautiful large single images are placed in the first half of the book giving the viewer and those who have see her work in person a wider understanding of what her single finished images look like in book form. This part of the book is also graced with an amount of writing, particularly of note is the text by Shoair Mavlian. In the middle passage comes more emphasis on Dafna’s photographic objects before the book turns towards process. In the second half of the book, we find Talmor’s notes on her work which exemplify the process of analogue printing and the considerations for color gradation. Notations are made about particular negatives, how they function and what technical specifications are necessary to achieve her final image. This patchwork of grids of her negatives is complex and though reduced in terms of text, you can see Talmor’s written calculations in pencil about how best to achieve her results. It is open, honest and it gives important insight about how the work is produced. This is not a common factor in the production of art within the photographic medium. Many notes of this caliber are reduced and hidden from public sight.
“This is not a common factor in the production of art within the photographic medium. Many notes of this caliber are reduced and hidden from public sight”
I would stake the claim that the reason this occurs is due to the imagined antiseptic production of art and the qualifying reassurances that producing notes obliviates when exhibited. Buyers, gallerists and the market seem to prefer that contemporary art remain a clean, discreet and proactive assertion of production. It must remain a mystifying effect that note-making challenges. What are notes if not uncertainty? Seeing an artist’s notes is somewhat akin to looking into their socks and underwear drawer. It is somehow overly personal and it poses a challenge to the potential of seeing something undesirable or too intimate. It is for these very reasons that I would champion Talmor’s notes in her book. They are comparatively clean and discreet, but do offer this extra information which acts as a code to other practitioners who can read it and far from being the unnecessary baggage that accompanies her work, these grids of photographic process offer communication, guidance and an honesty that excuses her from the elitism of “genius” produced in a vacuum that the market in particular favors when trying to explain the work to a potential buyer. The importance therein lies in this honesty and it subverts the whimsical house of cards that the art market builds by often placing emphasis on the mythical artist over that of their working methodology.
The second book that I wish to examine in László Moholy-Nagy’s posthumous book published by Steidl in 2019, simply entitled Moholy Album. The book is a direct result of the estate of Moholy-Nagy opening their archives up to historians and publishers to examine the legacy of one of modernism’s most important voices. Anyone with a passing interest of the art produced in the first half of the Twentieth Century will no doubt be aware of Moholy-Nagy and his role in Germany’s Bauhaus movement and his later years as a teacher in America. He is one of the most important voices in modernist practice lending a specific gift to the photographic medium through his constructions and his use of the photograms that he produces without negatives. Seeing his album and his notations, the yellowing pages of the pages sheds light into the master’s thinking.
It is conversely true that with Moholy Album, we are given a photographic workbook that may never had the intention to be published. It is an interior glimpse into Moholy-Nagy’s working album-another bygone process driven by material images and their need to be ordered in favor of its contemporary digital counterpart, the folder and less than attractive shelf-wear, the hard drive. What makes Moholy Album important to the canon of photography is two-fold. Firstly, the book examines the working method of a true pioneer through a simple selection of his images arranged in a particular grid-like fashion throughout with a emphasis on small diminutive works that are on par with his greatest photographs. You see the range of Moholy-Nagy’s roaming eye and how he organized these small masterful snapshots into the album that would look fairly non-descript for the times were it not for the dexterity of the images and their arrangements. Further consideration suggests that the emphasis on the importance of photographic albums is only now surfacing as an arena of true scholarship.
Second to this, the process of Moholy-Nagy’s development can be seen within. You begin to see his progress both in terms of what he decides to put in the album and how he co-ordinates each image next to one another exacting a free license, while also emphasizing his understanding of sequence, rhythm and totality as an object to be looked at later on and considered for its working value. It is an exercise with an emphasis that declares in its usage that there was purpose when selecting and assembling the images together. This lost art of using images as a workbook is a sad development with the de-materiaization of physical images. It absolves the photographer of sharing and taking care to arrange images and places a commitment less to the ephemeral process of a career than it does to the restless quest for perfection and reduction of assemblage form.
From the beginning of albumen printing, particularly the carte de visite photograph, studios such as London’s Camille Silvy would keep day books/albums of their work. This would allow for people to see the artists work and also when possible to purchase images from the working ledger of produced images often of famous people or family members who had visited the same studio, sat in the same chair, etc. This very method of commercial ingenuity would also hold the photographer accountable and these very books now line the shelves in the National Gallery in London where scholars today emphasize a research into this very process of photographer development. Amateur collectors also use the daybooks as ways to identify personalities they hold in their collections, many of which the institutions do not have in their holdings in singular form.
Though this purpose would be unlikely of Moholy-Nagy’s interests to a degree, what Moholy Album offers is the potential to study images within that may have been printed larger and may still be circulating. It shows masterful variation and gives even greater pause for re-considering Moholy-Nagy’s influence and ability through the process of album/notebook assembly. I should mention here that it is my feelings that Moholy Album is one of the most important books published on Moholy-Nagy in recent years and it is my hopes that this lead-by-example opens future publications and scholarship within the medium of the photographic album where the link to the photobook remains an understudied pursuit. Moholy Album is a masterwork in and of itself, posthumous or not.
The final book that I want to mention when looking at the intersection of the notebook, journal or sketchbook is the recent set of two books by Josh Kern published by Eigensinn. I am speaking about his book Love Me, which seems to be the follow up to his first effort perhaps unsurprisingly entitled Fuck Me, a previously, but similarly ordained photobook in which the author has published his journals that are gloriously covered in writings, ink washes, and thoughts with photographs running throughout in various manner. The book in Kern’s case becomes the intended artwork and you can see this in how Kern paces the images and his writings. It is clear that though these are journals, that he was aware during their execution of their importance as a work of art in itself. In essence, Kern reveres the photographic sketchbook as the final work.
The images reflect the young artist’s life with friends and lover’s set against a urban German landscape. The images are candid and speak to the obsessive and personal daily nature of completing pages in a journal, which is the more important action of such an endeavor in 2020. With a journal and when writing, there is a stream of consciousness that is very important for developing ones thoughts as it allows the maker to re-investigate the thoughts at a later time, to think back through and wade into the torrent of thought that rarely occurs on a facebook page or digital diary for example. Here, in the midst of a journal, there is no delete button, less self-censorship and somehow less atavistic acrimony intended towards others in posting something primarily public. The world of the journal exists mostly as a space of mediation of thought and it is for this reason that as in the photographic album, the arrangement of its implements are taken seriously by its author. Kern’s project is not the first, nor will it be the last of its kind, but it is a reminder that we can exist and produce material without the technological interface demanding our attention. It reminds us that there is value in our interior life and that in harvesting those spoils, we can commit our art to page without the superfluous needs of the market or the minimal white cube to exemplify our thoughts best. Kern’s Love Me is a testament to the value of physical and material production.
In summary, it is duly important that we recognize the right to process-driven work and that we commend its ability to act with resonance, intelligence and historical importance. The honesty of such pursuits when examined publicly as is the case with all three books offers a personal glance at the world, its art and the procedures necessary to facilitate their production. Making work like this is about taking chances and being steadfast, unreserved and secure in one’s own personal thought process. Like writing, these efforts map the artist’s inner state for the world to see in a convincing manner and demystify the role of the “genius” in the production of art thus limiting its production from being read as special or elitist. That does not suggest that these efforts are without brilliance.
All three examples that I have investigated are just that and they are encouraging in their earnest value enough to champion others to consider the wider pursuit of the notebook as a prime means of efficient dissemination of artistic thought and value. They often remain in the sphere between end result the working practice that motivates progress and forward thinking. They also act as totems to the future in which the haze of history and artistic personality are to be recognized in a wider range of possibility as they act as documents reflecting the artists intent and the time in which they live. For these reasons, I find the notebook or journal as incredibly important.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images © Dafna Talmor)
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images © Estate László Moholy-Nagy)
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images © Josh Kern)