Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Series of Disappointments by Stephen Gill

In July of 1955 Walker Evans published an article in Fortune magazine called the Beauties of the Common Tool. As an introduction he wrote, ‘Among low-priced, factory-produced goods, none is so appealing to the senses as the ordinary hand tool. Hence, a hardware store is a kind of off-beat museum show for the man who responds to good, clear “undersigned” forms…Aside from their functions -- each of these tools lures the eye to follow its curves and angles, and invites the hand to test its balance…In fact, almost all the basic small tools stand, aesthetically speaking, for elegance, candor and purity.’

For this series he photographed in black and white and with his 8X10 camera pictures so reductive that his strategy was to have the viewer notice -- as if for the first time -- the beauty of form that can be experienced in everyday items found at a local hardware store..

Art photography today also has turned the corner where the individuality of the “photographer” is not witnessed through their prowess in picture-making but simply through their wit and imagination in drawing your attention to particular objects that they describe in similar plain-stated ways. For Evans it was the common tool. For Stephen Gill, one of England’s more popular young artists, it is collecting and presenting several crumpled and discarded betting slips from horse racing tracks in his book A Series of Disappointments. But before I get to this let me explain the other series of disappointments.

For me Stephen Gill’s books have mostly amounted to illustrating well thought out and somewhat entertaining gimmicks that suit the idea of a book whether it is buying a cheap camera at a flea market and using it to photograph the flea market and surroundings (Hackney Wick) -- burying photographs of Hackney Wick in Hackney Wick and then burying the books too (Buried) -- photographing street workers wearing yellow safety jackets (Invisible) -- or photographing folded toilet paper (Anonymous Origami).

Christoph Schaden called Gill’s strategy ‘form follows technique follows topic.’ For me this naturally leads into the dangerous territory of gimmickry. To pile a lot of backstory about a camera bought for 50p from a man selling items out of his car boot in Hackney and then using that camera to photograph the place somehow makes these images more interesting? As much as Hackney Wick was touted as “one of the most important photo books,” do the owners of that book pull it frequently from their shelves for the actual pictures made with that 50p camera? I don’t know the answer obviously but I suspect that most of the copies need a good dusting.

If there is one aspect to most of his books that cannot be upstaged even by the attention arresting gimmickry is a sense of true affection for this East London area. This is a place that will be cleared to make way for the 2012 Olympic Games and possibly no better objects will recall what was previously there than Gill’s books. I just wish he used his proven talents as a photographer (see A Book of Field Studies) rather than getting bogged down in cleverness and a plastic lens camera. I am not sure what it is adding besides a specific “look” that in the end is entirely superficial.

Hackney Flowers was the first book of Gill’s that I was actually compelled to get and I have enjoyed it over the course of many viewings. This was the project in which Gill laid flowers, plants, seeds and other material from Hackney over his photographs as well as over “found” photos and re-photographed the results. What we get are exquisite combinations of color and form that confuse distinction of scale and depth but most importantly, they are the first images from Gill that have an extended life beyond the conceptual gimmick. ‘Form follows technique follows topic’ that works for me. The affection felt in this body of work amounts to no less than a beautifully constructed love letter.

Gill’s latest book A Series of Disappointments is, as I mentioned before, a collection of folded and discarded betting slips that Gill gathered and photographed against a plain grey background. The title of each photo is of the betting details that are often found after performing unfolding “autopsies” after the photography had been completed.

This book has an appeal of “readymade” art just waiting to be discovered by a witty and imaginative artist but within each twist and turn, fold and tear of the slips, are the emotions contained in the hands that shaped them. One is shredded while another is twisted into a straw. One looks worn due to sweaty palms while another is formed into a curly-cue. Gill draws our attention to these plain-stated objects that sit as fictional guides to the original owners personalities at the moment of loss.

I like this book but after holding it to the same critical standard of some of the others I wonder if it will continue to spur thought. In time I may find my hands twisting the pages with the same frustration of one of the betting slip owners frustrated after losing $75.00 USD.

All of Stephen Gill’s books are wonderfully designed and made and A Series of Disappointments is no exception. This time Gill employs an accordion fold which allows all 36 plates to be displayed at once. The cover (with three different designs and colors) can be removed from the book block and holes at the top of the pages allows for hanging (clever, clever).

A Series of Disappointments was co-published in 3000 copies by Gill’s Nobody press and the Archive of Modern Conflict and judging from the retail price and past success of Gill’s books - once again the house is sure to win.

Buy online at Nobody

Book Available Here (Hackney Flowers)


Anonymous said...

Gill's books often look intelligent - more intelligent than their subject. And that's my problem with them.
The more I see those too smart books, the more I like "primitive" photography again.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insightful post on Gill's work. I'm a huge fan of his. His total engagement with place, AND his photographic practice, as quirky as it may be, has almost created a new genre--conceptual documentary, if you will. It's playful, low-tech, and intimate. A refreshing change of pace from the large format/view camera work we see so much of nowadays.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the, as always, thought provoking post.

I'm particularly taken with the comparison to 'Beauties of the Common Tool.' While the visual similarities are obvious, I don't think that Gill's 'Series of Disappointments' will hold up as well. Where Evans captured a classic modernist theme -- the connection between form and function -- the fascination with Gill's images comes from the emotions they embody. Perhaps this is just me, but the power of these images is in the 'aha' moment of initial viewing. I'm glad I've seen them, but once I've had the experience the emotional punch doesn't return in the same way on repeated viewings. That isn't the same reaction I have to Evans' tools -- which I can view over and over without a sense of diminished returns.

Anonymous said...

Robert Frank was the assistant for Walker's Common Tools. He has said that Walker spent a lot of time searching for the right tool to shoot. As always Walker's photos get better the more you look at them.

Anonymous said...

For historic precedent there is Brassai's 'Involuntary Sculptures' series that he did in collaboration with Salvador Dali in 1932.

Rémy Hildebrand said...

Why be against "cleverness", "smartness", "intelligence"? Because too many photographers combine these faculties? Too many anonymous voices in blogs are intelligent? Or rather because we feel we are not intelligent enough? And Stephen Gill is too "smart"? Crap! I don´t recognize your scales, your criterions. Stephen Gill produces a lot more than your average photographer and his success is well-earned. He trusts his own intelligence as well as trusting ours. In "Hackney Wick" he explores the documentary terrain by working with a camera that just turns out to be adequat to do it´s job. Like Stephen Shore´s "micky mouse camera" pics. I´m totally unhappy when someone calls that "gimmicky", as if some photographers were just school kids.

Sebastian said...

Chronique rousseauiste du CEJJR:

this last post is by Sebastian -

Anonymous said...

The problem I have with the current crop of "conceptual" photography books, and I think that Jeff is getting at this too, is that for what they are, they're too expensive.

I love Ruscha, Lewitt, etc's conceptual photobooks. The difference--price-wise--is that at the time, they sold for $1 to $5. Adjusting for inflation, a book that cost $1 in 1965, would cost $6.82 now. Even at $5, it would be, just over $34.

Gill's books would be fantastically cool "small-idea" books (in the way that the above mentioned or Baldessari's books are simple ideas, quickly executed and tossed on the world stage) at $20. At $75, I feel like I'm getting ripped off.

And don't bring up the secondary prices for Gill's books, that's called a "speculative bubble."

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the comments. I am not against intelligence by any stretch and I'm not sure how you divined that from my post. What bothered me about Gill's other books is surely partly a matter of taste and partly what I see is tacking on a technique or process to sure up mediocrity. I just find the work boring. Period. No need to over think it. And I am not drawn in to liking it just because of some clever technique or practice if I find the results simply boring.

The Hackney Flowers speak to me because I understand the necessity for the technique and the results resonate. With the Hackney Wick (book) photos I just don't understand the necessity to use that camera. It seems like a forced gimmick.

It is the same with the WassinkLundgren book. People were sending me personal emails labeling me a Humanist or an Anti-conceptualist or saying that I praise photojournalism (?) etc. etc. They thought I was offended by some questionable ethics by the photographers and I really couldn't give a squirt about that. I find the photos bore me. Someone else may be fascinated by those Empty Bottles pictures or Stephen's Hackney Wick but I am not.

The other thing that was thrown my way was people saying things like; "You like Paul Graham so how could you not like WassinkLundgren?" as if they were of the same ilk. I find that incredible that people lump them into the same category and then act as if they were inseparable. How are they anything alike? Did I miss that discussion?

I admit I can be very uneven while writing about books and I am sure I contradict myself constantly but in the end it comes down to each book on its own and how it speaks to me. And it continues to speak to me. I don't like understanding things right off the bat. I need reasons to return to open it up for another look.

Anonymous said...

I also wanted to add Sebastian that I know Stephen Gill works hard and is very smart and gifted and I believe as well that his success is well earned - I would never say otherwise. That was not a part of my discussion and anything I said shouldn't be misinterpreted as such.

Anonymous said...

I think the fact that the books cost a bit more is down to the fact that Stephen is publishing these books himself.
I am not sure if he is distributing them himself as well but doing all this stuff of ones own back will be expensive.
It will cost far more for him to do than it would the big publishers who have systems and resources in place.
The other thing is they are all quite small print runs and they are beautifully produced. I am more than happy to pay a premium that goes directly to the artist than paying slightly less money into the pockets of someone like Schlagman.

Anonymous said...

Who is Schlagman?

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Jeff.
To Chronique rousseauiste du cejjr (un pseudo pareil, il faut aller le chercher) : I used the word "intelligence" as it was used in "The Man Without Qualities" - sorry if I sound pedantic.
Of course intelligence isn't a flaw, but an artist who is (or worse : looks) more intelligent than his work is like a performing animal.
Attractive, maybe, but definitely not interesting.

Anonymous said...

Schlagman runs Phaidon

Anonymous said...

Really starting to like your blog Jeff. You even have a Robert Musil fan. When I think of Stephen Gill I immediately think of Michael Kenna. Prolific, saleable and alas just plain terrible. No sympathy for either one and both should be confined to Carmel by the sea.

Sebastian said...

thanks for the reply. Pity I´m not in NY, it feels like discussing with you would be very interesting. So in the meanwhile I´ll "undust" hackney wick and think about it some more. Same goes for mann ohne eigenschaften. With all the anomymous posts around I sometimes imagine it to be one single person who writes all of the anonymous stuff on the net, just not to go mad over the content. (Kenna = Gill ?)

Anonymous said...

Yeah... "Gill=Kenna" sounds weird but... Not so silly though...
5But Kenna is so much worse. Deserves to be hung by the thumbs).

Stan B. said...

Blasphemy... I mean, Bravo!

Anonymous said...

Can't help thinking how much ' A series of disappointments' is a perfect description for everyone of stephen gill's books....
I'm amazed that he and Martin Parr can continue to churn out mediocre photography books year after year....and everybody falls for it...

Anonymous said...

Everyone seems to speak about his own frustration, and absolutely not about a photobook.
By the way, what is the purpose of that blog ?

Unknown said...

While I can understand your sentiment that sometimes Gill's attention to concept can run a fine line between gimmickry I think Gill definitely comes out on the rights side.

And while this book may not appeal to all I think you're dead wrong about Hackney Wick, that book and the photographs found inside are one of the most refreshing things to hit my bookshelf in the past several years. It's definitely among my top 5 books and often looked through.

Anonymous said...

Let's just cut through the bull and say it. "Hackney Wick" sucked and the only reason why the book sold more than 100 copies is because his fellow blow hard put it in his "Book of British, Phaidon, Magnum and Cronies Book" From there he was able to sell more lacluster books until we get to his latest book "A Series of Dissapointments". That sort of says it all does it not?

Anonymous said...

No Anonymous 5638,

It doesn't say it all at all.

You've said what most un-educated amateur photographers say.

"Martin Parr sucks, Stephen Gill sucks".

How can you say that when they have such varied bodies of work?
I defy anyone not to like some of Parr's work.

Maybe it is the early black & white work, maybe it is the New Brighton work, maybe it is the Common Sense pictures, or the Parking Spaces (heaven forbid)

Writing off a master like Parr is foolish.

Gill as well has now tackled numerous projects in an interesting way.

How much of his work do you know? Did you see his series of people who were smiling to themselves in the street?
Probably not.

Great work in my opinion.

So don't just write off these innovative artists because you have seen a couple of books you don't like.

I love your blog Jeff, but it doesn't half attract a bunch of bitter and cowardly anonymous's.

Anonymous said...

Me China ain't no hater.

At least I found a way of getting comments...

Anonymous said...

Well China Plate I am glad to hear that Parr and Gill are so well respected within your circle of professionals. Please do include your email address in your next post so that I can offer you some more of their books. I am sure you must have bought some from me in the past but I currently have SIGNED copies available of Hackney Wick, Parrjective and Saddam Hussein Watches. I sell their books to intellectuals like yourself so that I can buy other books that you would have no interest in.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous 8956,

I am looking for a copy of a Fair Day, and a first edition of Last Resort.

I have Hackney Wick.

The other books you mention I am not interested in.

I get 1000 emails from people I don't know every day, why would I want anymore?

Anonymous posters may as well be marked as junk mail.

Good luck with your anonymous book shop and your anonymous life.

Unknown said...

"says it all..."

What an obnoxious self obsessed blow hard do you have to be to post your own pathetic opinions as divine prophecy. Of course you're right anonymous, and I guess you're just biding your time until the rest of the world 'comes to their senses' and comes around to your opinion that Hackney Wick, and Martin Parr quote 'suck.' How smart and insightful...


Anonymous said...

As far as "Hackney Wick" goes, I don't find the camera to be a gimmick whatsoever, and am surprised by peoples contention that the book is somehow a concept work ? Is this simply because the images are not of the formal quality one expects from photography ? Surely that is irrelevant if the work succeeds in its right - which I believe it certainly does. One can appreciate painting without requiring that it adhere to a set of stylistic guidelines, and the exciting thing about photography right now is that we are finally moving away from an ingrained propensity toward images that somehow present an illusion 'beautiful objective truth' to much more interesting work that speaks less literally about the world we live in. Less literal does not necessarily mean snooty, conceptual nor overly clever.

The 'quality' of the image the camera produces I believe forces a set of limitations on the process that draw out an absolutely wonderful set of portraits of place, time and person very successfully. At the same time, I can absolutely view the images without needing to be aware of the 50p camera, or being overly concerned with how smart it is that I know it is a 50p camera, and how smart Gill was to use a 50p camera. The camera forces a certain formal format for the pictures, but that is just the starting off point in the image creation process and the results, as images and as a collated experience, are very impressive and reward repeated viewing. I could understand ugly or unappealing for folks who are critical, but boring seems a little unusual.

I have more of a problem with the Anonymous Origami as the visual hook is very very slight for me and yes, I think perhaps in that case it is bordering too closely on the high concept for my liking. A Series of Disappointments as a study I find oddly compelling - in one sense it is not so dissimilar from AO in that a simple object is photographed very plainly. On the other hand the variety and cumulative effect of viewing all the works in context and curated book format is strangely pleasurable.