Fotobookfestival Kassel report

John Volynchook, the final winner of one of Redeye's Festival Travel Bursaries, reports on his bicycle trip to Fotobookfestival Kassel, the most important annual forum on the world of photography books.

The photograph was once famously described by Lewis Baltz as occupying ‘…a narrow but deep area lying between the cinema and the novel’; as such they lend themselves ideally to being sequenced in book form to create a narrative. The recent boom in self-published photobooks, online independent bookstores and photobook festivals are indicative of the popularity of the medium. The rise and rise of the photobook has been well documented in the excellent series The Photobook: A History Volumes I, II and III written by photography critic Gerry Badger and the photographer Martin Parr. 

Some years ago, whilst cycling along the Rhone Valley, my journey coincided with the opening week of Les Rencontres de la Photographie at Arles. Listening to Martin Parr speak so passionately at one of the workshops inspired me to further my own practice, eventually leading the completion of an MFA in Photography. It was of great interest therefore to discover the 2015 Kassel Fotobook Festival in Germany was not only dedicated to the work of Martin but also had a great line-up of guest speakers including John Gossage and Christian Patterson. A successful application for a Redeye Festival Bursary enabled me to make the 900km round trip to Kassel at the end of May. Perhaps coincidental the camera and the bicycle were invented around the same time but I can imagine no better combination of technology; with a trusted bicycle laden with camping equipment plus a portfolio of work, the ferry to Holland left me with six days to arrive at my destination. 

The journey took me along the Rhine, Ruhr and Diemal river valleys to reach Kassel in the cultural region of Hesse with a whole day spare to explore the city before the Festival commenced. The city is steeped in art and culture, from the Brothers Grimm to Documenta, the world’s most important contemporary art fair. I spent much of the day at The Fredicianium, one of the first ever purpose built public museums where the thought-provoking exhibition Inhuman offered constructs that define our humanity as socially trained yet irrepressibly resistant beings.

The Fotobook Festival, now in it seventh year, is held in the Documenta Halle, a purpose built exhibition hall. The first day comprised portfolio reviews and it was with some trepidation I began the process of explaining myself, and a set of recent photographs. With a couple of cancellations, I was fortunate to be allocated an extra three slots, making six in total. Although not my first portfolio review, it was the first opportunity to gain the views and comments of international critics including Harvey Benge, Alison Nordstrom, Gerry Badger and Veronica Fieiras. Attendance at recent Redeye professional development days helped me prepare for the sessions: twenty well printed and well presented images, a 30 second elevator pitch, pencil and notebook together with a willingness to listen and engage in dialogue all helped to make the day productive and enjoyable. If you haven’t already had the experience of portfolio reviews, I would highly recommend it as a means not only to refine and redefine artistic objectives but also as an opportunity to introducing yourself and your work to experienced professionals within the photographic world. 

International booksellers and publishers were showing their most recent offerings throughout the 4-day Festival. The book market was a great place to network and to gain an overview of current publishing trends as well as to route around for those hard to find and classic books at bargain prices. Concerns of gathering excess weight for my return cycle journey were dispelled following a cursory check of the excellent Deutsche Post parcel rates. My favorite book from the market was a Dienacht publication entitled Inner Mongolia by Ekaterina Anokhina.  The A4 sized book of only sixteen pages, now on its second edition of just 100 copies, comprises a series of black and white landscape images, quite roughly printed on a buff coloured sugar paper; the tactile nature of the work resulting in decidedly hand made feel with contributing to a sense of place.

The main hall provided the venue for the comprehensive program of talks and discussions. The presentations on the first day related to the developments of photobooks from Spain and Portugal. In addition to greatly increasing my knowledge of Iberian photobooks, Gerry Badger’s André Principe’s discussion of the book Lisbon: Happy and Sad City was particularly outstanding. This 1959 book by the architects Victor Palla and Costa Martins, depicts a critical view of life during the dictatorship of Salazar through the medium of photography. The layout of the book was influenced by the Italian neo-realist cinema of the time and also contains the work of Lisbon poets. Only 2000 books were printed and although not very popular at the time, one copy was sold for £9,000 at auction in 2007. There are now plans to republish the book in its original format. Later that day Carlos Spottorno gave a great presentation of his latest creation, Wealth Management: WTF Bank a parody about the banking practice of helping rich people to become more wealthy whist avoiding paying taxes. This overtly political photobook was made using templates from existing promotional material and advertising videos acquired from banks and the wider asset management business. Both hilarious and serious, the book, published by Phree, is very reasonably priced at €20.

The highlight of the second day was the talk given by Christian Patterson, author of the acclaimed 2011 Redheaded Peckerwood, based on the tragic story of a killing spree by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. Walking the line between fact and fiction; using found images, maps, newspaper cuttings and objects; this book offered a fresh perspective on the potential of the photograph to create and deconstruct narrative. Christian’s latest book Bottom of the Lake represents a facsimile of the telephone book from his hometown of Fon du Lac. The book combines a factual document with the artist’s subjective interpretation of memory, imagination and re-imagination of the place of his childhood through a combination of intentional and conceptual doodles, sketches and photographs. The descriptive way in which the making of the work developed over time, with the various strands of influence interweaving to create the final work was most inspiring.

Later that day, Valentina Abenavoli of Akina Books gave a presentation on the future of the photobook market. Durning her brief talk, she expressed her desire to broaden the appeal of photobooks to a wider audience outside of the relatively small global market of approximately 15,000. With such a small market, the photobook world could almost be seen as a large family or club of artist/photographers who make work to sell to each other. Even very successful photographers might only sell a couple of thousand copies if they are very lucky. The power of photographs to create compelling narratives is not in doubt, so it's reasonable to question the relatively limited market size.

After the talk, I took the opportunity to discuss the issue of production and retail costs with Valentina. One of the principles of Akina Books is the direct control of the entire production of the photobook: design, editing, sequencing, printing, binding and finishing. The resultant books are works of art in themselves and as with other well-made artist books, come with a price tag to match. My personal view is that whatever the sentiments of the artist or publisher to increase sales, a high retail price renders the product exclusive to those who have the money to spare in the first place; a £50 price tag is unlikely to entice a newcomer to the market to part with a week’s food money. This at least may explain the appeal of the many cheaply produced often print-on-demand and self-published photobooks and even the free photo-newspapers that are now widely available. For example, Café Royal and Antler Books offer photobook essays for £5 and are available online and on prominent display in Foyles. 

The final day of the Festival included presentations by Thomas Weski, Martin Parr and John Gossage. Thomas Weski, professor of Curatorial Cultures, described his own criteria for collecting photobooks, being mainly that the images in the book required frequent viewing and that they create a lasting experience; this point made with reference to the books of Martin Parr. Having produced over 80 photobooks and edited many more, Martin has become a phenomenon within the world of photography. His satirical works document the social classes of England and the affluence of the Western World. Martin described his aim as subversive and regards the contradictions and ambiguities he aims to portray as being the lifeblood of photography. In addition to producing a number of books about himself, his latest promotional tool is a range of clothing by House of Holland called Martin Fucking Parr (no kidding) with a selection of designs featuring his now iconic images of sausages and chips, eggs, or a cup of tea.

Many photobook aficionados would consider The Pond by John Gossage, published in 1985, as a classic; its groundbreaking narrative portrays the history and culture embedded within a landscape surrounding an unkempt pond located somewhere close to the edge of a city.  John Gossage’s entertaining presentation at Kassel consisted of a preview of his soon to be published book Looking up Ben James. Inspired partly by Robert Frank’s visit to Wales, it is effectively a document of a road trip made with Martin Parr around the coast of Wales and the Northwest of England in 2008. The somewhat dark and slightly moody black and white pictures shown during the presentation were of beautifully composed street scenes and unseen back gardens. 

An integral component of the festival is the Kassel Dummy Book Award with the shortlisted unpublished mock-up books available to browse throughout the festival. Together with a cash prize, the winner of the prize has the opportunity to make a full publication of their book. The award this year went to Jan McCullough from Belfast for her book Home Instruction Manual. Jan scoured the Internet for decorating and design tips on how to make the perfect home. After collecting the recommendations, she rented an ordinary suburban house and followed the instructions to create a new identity of an ideal home and a forced personality for herself. Her photobook documents the two months she lived in this perfect home. The collection of 50 shortlisted books for Kassel Fotofestival are now on tour and are can be seen at PhotoIreland in Dublin for the rest of July.

An unexpected bonus to the trip occurred during a half-day visit to Berlin, hurriedly arranged in order to discuss a forthcoming group exhibition next spring. One of the curators happened to have a set of keys to Loock Galerie, where the European premier of Alec Soth Songbook photographs were being shown. A quick call to the owner and a private view was arranged. Regarded as his most significant work since Sleeping by the Mississippi, the huge black and white photographs are truly amazing. A selection of Alec Soth’s work will be on show in a major retrospective at the Science Museum’s Media Space this October and will be a ‘must see’. 

The Festival Bursary enabled me to immerse myself in the very friendly world of photobooks in the beautiful city of Kassel, promote the work of Redeye Photography Network and make some lasting friendships. The creative inspiration gained from the festival experience was invaluable. Following a cursory view of contact sheets of photos made along the journey, I’m now looking forward to editing and sequencing to make a photobook. A handful of images, a basic knowledge of Adobe InDesign and with the work reproduced on a library photocopier and hand stitched, the cost could be less than 50 pence each; check out YouTube for simple book-making techniques and have a go. There are also excellent reference books available, such as Publish Your Photography Book by Darius Himes and Mary Swanson and How to Make Books by Esther Smith. With the current prevalence of festivals and artist book fairs, it’s a great way to get your work noticed. 

John Volynchook is a fine art photographer with an interest in landscape, identity and narrative

John is the final bursary winner in Redeye's festival bursary programme. Read previous bursary winner's reports on Photomonth London, Paris Photo and Oxford Photography Festival


Image at the top © Rozovsky, Island on my mind

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