MFA Books & Interview Music

Blake Andrews’ interview with Bruce Haley has a tangent about jazz, and being in the surprisingly large Venn overlap of jazz and photography fans, it caught my attention:

“I have a half-hearted appreciation for jazz. I can’t say I hate it but a lot of it leaves me cold. But that’s because I think a lot of it is musicians speaking to other musicians. It only makes sense if you can recognize the keys and shifts and references, most of which I can’t.

The reason I’m going off on this is I think photography can sometimes be the same way. A lot of it is made for other photographers, or is best understood by other photographers. Which is fine. But I think many photographers work under the illusion that their work will have mass appeal, when really the potential audience is about the same as for a modern jazz record. Small. And don’t get me started on photobooks. The target audience for them seems to be consciously shrinking. It’s basically MFAs talking to other MFAs. It’s like scientists communicating through papers in journals.”

Jazz musicians have succinctly described this issue:

“Along the same lines, there’s a thing we used to call interview music. You know what interview music is? That’s the music that sounds better when motherfuckers are talking about it than when they’re playing it.”
Terence Blanchard

I’ve never done an MFA program, but I do enjoy some MFA books. I also listen to Interview Music, which causes my significant other some displeasure. Sure, let’s acknowledge how these things can be ridiculous, but I want a world that includes normcore photography.

As with photobooks, there are many lists of the best jazz albums every year (see here for a start). Two years ago, perhaps because it’s not possible with photobooks, I compiled a playlist of the jazz lists on the streaming service I use. And for the first few months of the new year, I listened to all those best albums. And only those albums. On headphones. 608 songs, 66 hours long.

Yes, you may be able to see many of the photobooks everyone has listed at a handful of places, such as Dashwood Books in New York, Le Bal or Jeu de Paume in Paris, Fly Books in Tokyo. But the physical, clumsy, expensive nature of the book is the thing that makes it both slightly scarce and wonderful. Every year a few books are already sold out by the time they make the lists. As others have pointed out, the lists sometimes feel like what certain individuals saw and decided to buy, versus a full survey. They often feel like a middle age haul video. I appreciate the lists. As much as I pay attention to photoland, I often discover books for the first time on the lists.

Even before streaming music made possible listening to dozens of recent jazz releases, there were many small and large record stores, even some which specialized in jazz. You could sample music in these places, you could talk to people that actually had listened to it all. While money was a factor, you could see most of what would be on the best of lists and acquire the handful you could afford. Even today, in a great city for photography like San Francisco, you can’t go and flip through even a fraction of the lists.

Photography exists in an absurd space where it has become the default communication medium for the younger generation, and the photo book, an essential expression of the art form is experiencing a renaissance, yet it’s still surprisingly difficult to browse significant titles in the flesh. The photobook doesn’t use text to explain itself and this is one of the great things about its design: you can page through one in a few minutes and have a pretty good idea of whether it’s for you or not. Online slideshows and videos do a good job, but only holding it answers the question of whether or not you want to live with the thing.

Marc by Marc Jacobs is on my photography in San Francisco map, because they regularly have Henry Wessel books for sale in the window. Here is a photo of William Eggleston’s “2 ¼,” used as a flat surface to display shoes at the J.Crew store in the Westfield mall:

The shoes seem to be Alfred Sargent for J.Crew American brogues ($535). It’s not difficult to imagine a young Eggleston wearing them. Like jazz, photobooks are commonly experienced as props for sophistication in retail environments. Besides a J.Crew store, how many places in a typical American city can you pick up a William Eggleston book?

If the photobook audience’s experience is similar to a rare stamp collector, the absurdity for active photographers is how influential some books are, despite very few people actually owning them. They seem to be out of sight, but firmly in mind. In jazz, think of Miles Davis “Kind of Blue.” Everyone has heard this album because that’s how popular and influential it is. Imagine if only people that bought this album in 1959 or 1960 could own it. If besides hearing “So What” on the radio, living with it was only possible if you could spend $1,000 for a rare copy.

But that is what photography is still like, the upcoming re-issue of Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment is the best example. This book has a place in photography that is something like “Kind of Blue,” yet I’m not sure if any photographer I know under 50 owns a copy.

Sometimes difficult to acquire books by our favorite artists are better left on a wishlist. Ahead of the retrospective and catalog, I wrote about the rumor of Garry Winogrand books. Sean O’Hagan has an early review of “Decisive Moment” that suggests one of the most famous books in photography history has a case of Interview Music. Perhaps photography benefits from this situation; lacking physical monuments we could never own, it’s easier to dismantle our stale heroes.

Google, Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, Nekoma, North Dakota, October, 2012

This is what the missile site of the previous post looks like from the road. From the blueprints, the pyramid structure is about 75 feet / 23 meters tall (the structure continues below the berm). Cold War Tourist.com offers some photos of what the complex looks like inside recently. The very bottom of the page indicates the missile site was up for sale and, remarkably, was purchased by the Spring Creek Hutterite Colony (a group with some similarities to the Mennonites), for a sum of $530,000 USD. The government was generous enough to offer to pay for the extensive environmental cleanup. Click through the source to experience the drive-by, it’s a beautiful location, with the exhaust towers contrasting with the delicate windmills.