One of the first weirdnesses I noticed after I was hired as a magazine editor is that certain very talented photographers "hide their light under a bushel"—that is, they stay private and reticent—and others push relentlessly and aggressively to publicize themselves. It creates an unnatural imbalance. I figured early on that if a photographer had the means to hire a PR firm to help market their work, they didn't need my help.
Another weirdness is that the culture tends to pay attention to people who have already gotten lots of attention, and persistently continues to ignore people who have already long been ignored. That seems counterintuitive to me. Seems much more logical that you'd say "enough, already" to the people who've already been showered with recognition, and seek out people who've unfairly been overlooked.
Take At Zenith. It's a reprint of a 1979 book that featured 15 pictures by William Eggleston of...well, clouds. White clouds on blue skies. It was originally issued in an edition of 20, a number which was probably just right for the market.
Now, don't get me wrong. I like Eggleston. I know a lot about his art-historical importance, I "get" his way of seeing, and I both appreciate and enjoy his work. I have two books of his work (both still in print—William Eggleston's Guide which is a must-have for any decent photobook library, even for people who don't like the photographer; and For Now, which is a stellar example of photobookmaking through and through). I love both and prize both and revisit both regularly. I've owned two or three other books of his that I've gotten rid of (I regularly cull my collection, de-accessioning things that don't hold up for me). I greatly enjoyed seeing the show of Eggleston's work at the AIC in the company of the affable and erudite Ken Tanaka. And, finally, I do think it's really great that some photographers are so exhaustively illuminated that we can really get to know them. They sort of stand in for all the others we don't get to know so well.
So it's not that I'm anti-Eggleston. I just think...well, do we really need a $55 reprint of a book of 15 color snapshots of clouds? If we just take it as a reprint, there are a hundred photobooks that need reprinting far more. If not a thousand. And if we consider photography as a living culture, surely there are a hundred photographers (if not a thousand) that are ten times more deserving of a $55 book.
I'm not criticizing any particular player here. It's possible you could read this as a criticism of Steidl's publishing program, and it's not my place to criticize my betters, as it would be toweringly churlish to complain about a publisher that has given us so many riches.
It's just that I'd prefer to see one book of an unknown photographer's first-rate work rather than the umpteenth book by a well-known "star" featuring third-rate work.
Steidl's impulse seems to be comprehensiveness—he wants to see, and show us, everything. I guess I just have a different impulse is all. I like to see only the best. I like selections. Edited sets. Curated shows. And in fact, peering too closely into any artist's junk drawer (we all have large agglomerations of "second best" and "not good enough" stuff lying around or reposing on old hard drives) actually dilutes the artist in my mind. It's not only that I like to see someone's best work, it's that I'd prefer to see only the best. And then move on.
YMMV. At any rate, I'm perfectly happy with a sampling of Eggleston's best. I don't need to see fifteen throwaway pictures of clouds, never mind pay $55 for the privilege. Enough is enough; let's relax our focus, and let a few more people into the club.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Kenneth Tanaka: "I saw this on Steidl's list of upcoming books some time ago and also scratched my head. I admit that I was already skeptical when bought the 3-volume Chromes set early this year, although it turned out to be a wonderful, lush set of 'new' works. (It was also a good investment, as it's now only available from secondary sources at 100%+ appreciation.) Nevertheless, the guy has definitely had more than his 15 minutes.
"I would speculate that Eggleston continues to be so popular to publishers like Steidl because he sells out reliably and quickly. Buoyed by the major retrospective show you mentioned, and by many other shows and news exposures, William Eggleston is money in the bank. Underexposed and/or under-appreciated photographers are all risk. I suspect Mike will have a greater appreciation for that in the coming year. ;-)"
[Ed. Note: Ken had second thoughts about this comment, and posted an emendation in the Comments Section. An excerpt of that further comment follows.]
"...Gerhard Steidl is one of the few publisher-printers willing and able to follow an artist to the very end even when the late-career tailings may seem trivial at the time. Thank goodness for such a devoted publisher! I am occasionally asked to research photographers for exhibition, a task that often begins on the Internet but ultimately takes me deep into the library. I can tell you that the number of photographers who have had good career-long publication coverage beyond exhibition catalogs is relatively small. [...] I did not want to seem petty and critical of Steidl's publishing of this small Eggleston book. I actually loudly applaud his commitment, usually with my hands slapping my wallet, to certain artists, particularly living artists."
Bill Pierce: "'It's just that I'd prefer to see one book of an unknown photographer's first-rate work rather than the umpteenth book by a well-known "star" featuring third-rate work.' Same problem with museum shows. Everybody seems to be playing it safe."
Florian Freimoser: "I think there are many different things involved here. It is most certainly the case that a publisher will sell many more copies of a bad book by a famous photographer than of an excellent book by an unknown photographer. This also means, that more people rather buy a mediocre book by a famous person than a good book by an unknown person. I would assume that people often do not want to decide themselves what to consider good and therefore rely on criteria such as fame and success."