NicK Walton-Healey attended the Photobook Makers event at CCP as our correspondent. What follows is his commentary on the discussion by the makers and their experience in photobook publishing and also some images of the event.
As a photographer aspiring to turn an already-developed project into a photobook, I found myself interested in a recent event. Although the prospect of perusing a second-hand photobook market was itself enticing, it was the cojoining panel discussion that led me to the Centre for Contemporary Photography on the Saturday afternoon of December 10. Facilitated by director Daniel Boetker-Smith, this hour-long conversation presented an opportunity to hear several Australian photobook authors speak about their experiences with local (Melbourne-based), and international, publishers. Through the contributions of Morganna Magee, Matt Dunne, Matthew Sleeth, Meredith Turnbull and Wendy Catling, I gleaned several insights relevant to my endeavour.
The audience was slightly larger than anticipated, and a sense of attentiveness pervaded the room. I scribbled-down a series of notes, most relating to the notion of ‘collaboration.’ I also inscribed a ‘1’ next to the words ‘strength of conviction,’ which I’d written while panellists responded to a question regarding project scope: How do we, as photographers, know when a project is actually complete?
In reference The Killing Sink (Void, 2022), Dunne stated that ‘completion’ was apprehended through the inability to produce additional photographs furthering the already-established concept or narrative. Turnbull spoke about chronological sequence, explaining how the photographs in Objects (M.33, 2022) correspond with the production of artworks over a designated (10-year) period. Sleeth emphasised intuition, pointing out that a project reaches ‘completion’ when the photographer finds themselves more excited about something else. This insight felt particularly incisive, as Sleath is himself the author of more than half-a-dozen photobooks, the most recent being News and Weather (Third Floor Press, 2022).
Endpoints of projects are ultimately, of course, determined arbitrarily. But what struck me, from the responses of these diverse artist-photographers, was their invariable willingness to assume and assert responsibility for the parameters of their work. This was conceptualised as a necessary and inevitable part of moving-on; beginning what in each case proved to be a highly idiosyncratic journey.
For Turnbull and Catling, this began with exhibition. But Melbourne, with its’ restrictions, lockdowns and subsequent reduction and availability of gallery space, has obviously not been an easy place for photographers to exhibit their projects of late. In this context, Magee devised a sustained and considered approach to Instagram use, and through these means, enticed Dunne to initiate the dialogue eventuating in Extraordinary Experiences (Tall Poppy Press, 2022).
The journey to Dunne’s own publication required a different strategy. And research – the process of identifying and assessing the suitability of a given publisher for a particular project – was established as a critical aspect of any possible, prospective partnership. The word ‘trust’ was uttered several times – especially in relation to book design, which was one of several aspects from this point discussed. In addition to paper stock, binding, book size, print-run size, type of printing (offset or digital), and the very geographical location of the printers themselves, this myriad of considerations was itself explained by Boetker-Smith as being mediated by the pragmatics and necessities of financial constraint – what many of the panellists referred to as ‘budget.’
My head was spinning. But I tried to stay with the discussion, captivated as I was with the palpable sense of pride and satisfaction beaming from each of the panellists’ faces. Glancing back at my notes, I replaced ‘conviction’ with ‘vision,’ understanding – from the panellists’ anecdotes – that this foresight distinguished them from other enthusiastic and dedicated photographers.
Perhaps the recurrent reference to ‘collaboration’ inadvertently implied a potential irreconcilability between artistic ‘vision’ and a willingness to relinquish creative control. I could only pause momentarily to imagine the difficulty that confronts the photographer – who goes out into the world, locates, develops and nurtures a project, only to then hand it over to someone else. Trust: the foundation of the photographer-publisher partnership.
Yet what became especially clear from this conversation, was that each of the panellists found this – the dialogue they had with their publishers – the most rewarding part of the journey. Magee recounted the early conversations with Dunne, openly acknowledging the perceived need for someone to help her realise and order her ideas, but at the same time wanting to be included in the design process. The outcome was something unforeseeable, but also immediately recognisable. And I found Catling’s Nightshade (M.33, 2022) particularly exemplarily of ‘the magic’ many of the panellists referred to, for the central concept or theme explored and addressed through the work in this book achieves heightened expression through design. The fragility of the publication, apparent particularly through the book’s exposed spine, and the space allotted within it, register as appropriate and considered, given the topic of domestic violence.
Giddy from the energy surging through the room, I followed the tracks of conversation relating to budget. Finance. Money. The overriding logistical consideration. Photobooks obviously aren’t the cheapest type of book to produce, and while everyone loves art, not everybody is able, or willing, to pay for it.
In truth, the conversation actually abstained from this point. The difficulties of financing were certainly emphasised, but the panellists offered multiple strategies. Turnbull and Catling spoke openly and eloquently about the virtues and pitfalls of various grants, crowd-sourcing and fund-raising opportunities. Clarity of motivation emerged as an important key; the artist-photographer’s ability to communicate their intentions and expectations was crucial, especially during the formative stage of the partnership.
Photobooks certainly are an enormous investment. Of money, yes, but also of time, both of which are required in abundance simply in order to make the work. And the discussion did indeed establish that there are many more steps in-need of undertaking from this point. But it also provided living proof that this is possible, at least so long as the photographer is willing to partake in the dialogue necessary to form and maintain a partnership with a publisher. Most significantly, the panel demonstrated that the outcomes of this partnership can be everything – and possibly more – than the artist-photographer had themselves envisioned.
PHOTO: Ian McBryde
Nicholas Walton-Healey is an Australian writer and photographer celebrating defiant expressions of freedom. He arrived at photography through a sustained engagement with the literary arts, as is detailed in his book Land Before Lines (Hunter Publishers, 2014), which presents 68 portraits of Victorian poets, and a suite of poems; one written by each poet in response to their image. From this point, Nicholas has divided his time between Melbourne and The Northern Territory, working with two Indigenous communities in Darwin – Milgarri and 15 Mile – and the Portaminni family on Bathurst Island. His work can be viewed at nwhphoto.com or through his Instagram handle @nicholaswaltonhealey
WE THANK NicK for his commentary AND also to THE CCP DIRECTOR Daniel Boetker-Smith for hosting the event
Text and images of the event ©Nicholas Walton-Healey
Book images supplied or from publisher’s website