Book Discussion Group Recap: John Gossage

© John Gossage, untitled, from the series "The Pond" 1985

I am joining Flak Photo and creator Andy Adams to host an online community conversation on the Flak Photo Books Facebook page focused on essays from Gerry Badger’s recently published book of essays, "The Pleasures of Good Photographs."

This public discussion provides a structured setting for expanding our understanding of the essays by reading collectively. All are welcome to join in! The conversation will continue the week of June 4th with the essay "Without Author or Art: The 'Quiet' Photograph." (page 210) A full reading schedule can be found here.

I am following up on these community conversations with posts here on fototazo that will recap a selection of the ideas we discuss.  These follow-up posts will necessarily be an abbreviated selection given the length and quality of the conversation in the community discussion threads. In many cases, what arose from the conversation were questions and ideas to continue to explore, and not necessarily conclusions or consensus. My goal with these follow-up posts is to pull out threads from the weekly discussion that can be applied beyond the individual essays to inform our general understanding of the medium itself.

We began with the essay, "Literate, Authoritative, Transcendent: Walker Evans's American Photographs" and the follow-up post can be found here. We followed with the essay "A Certain Sensibility: John Gossage, the Photographer as Auteur," the subject of today's post.


The deepest conversation of the week focused around the leading topic of the essay: style, sensibility, and consistency. In his essay, Bager talks about the idea of working in “the style for the job” instead of working on photographic problems in a preordained stylistic manner. By doing so, he questions a requirement for stylistic consistency in an artist’s body of work. He chooses to use the word and explore the idea of “sensibility,” suggesting that an artist’s sensibility can link bodies of work and photographic responses that do not display the same style.

Photographer and educator Dawn Roe responded by writing, “I’m in agreement with Badger in that I do like thinking about stylistic tendencies as the result of a ‘response to a problem.’” She moved on to mention other elements relevant in the construction of style beyond sensibility: “Badger’s fixation on the particular sensibility seems to me to be the key element here in terms of influencing any sort of style that may be evidenced in certain images. More important still, I think, are the particular sets of circumstances surrounding the creation of each image (and subsequent editing / printing, etc.) – here, we’re talking about time / experience / memory / perception / disposition – all that good stuff.”

She questioned Badger’s suggestion that stylistic consistency necessarily means a conscious decision to gain notice as well as to brand and market oneself: “When an artist is fully committed to a particular way of seeing / thinking about the world through their overall artistic project, indeed it might be that stylistic consistency may emerge. I think especially when there is a poetic / philosophical backbone to the work – this almost insists upon a more subtle and refined approach that may appear to be and / or frankly NEED to be reductive [in their stylistic choices].”

London-based photographer Pete Massingham – like Dawn above - noted that style is defined by many other contexts than sensibility: “Stylistic appearance is affected by an array of conditions and circumstances including the artists personality, cultural background, dominant trends in art, market forces, the subject being observed - in fact just about anything you choose to think of. I do not like the word style. Style is a slippery term that tells us little beyond indicating there is a consistency of vision - whether it be strong or weak.”

He also rasied questions about Badger’s critique of the motives behind a photographer’s stylistic consistency: “As we get older and become more informed as to what form of visual vocabulary works for us, we tend to filter out those areas of earlier experimentation that do not appear useful to our individual take on the world. In the same way, we filter out the subject-matter that is no longer important to us, ‘..to progressively distill one's vision, reducing the range of subject matter and its treatment...’ as Badger states. Our engagement becomes less a concern for fragmentation, and more a concern for the whole. Whether or not these parameters are self-imposed or just the consequence of an unconscious (and perhaps inevitable) set of characteristics formed by personal histories and events, is open to debate.”

Photobooks became the second major conversational topic of the week.

In the introduction to “The Pleasures of Good Photographs,” Badger writes, “It is in the photobook, in my opinion, where photography sings its loudest, most complex, and satisfying song” and in doing so suggests that distinctive sensibility of an individual photographer finds its fullest expression in photobooks.” (page 8) Massingham wrote that part of their strength is that they give a more “tactile” relationship with photography. His whole passage is worth quoting:

     It is the apparent perception available through touch that is important. The computer or digital
     screen is unable to fulfill this need in terms of viewing work, reducing images to a sterile albeit
     accurate facsimile. While both the analogue and digital print are able to express a rich sense of
     individual style and technical excellence, it is the photographic book that still seems to hold an
     almost fetishistic ambience that is difficult to surpass. It can embody qualities of editorial
     authorship, craft, intimacy, fact, and fiction, and seems a profoundly cogent means for reproducing  
     photographic works. It is I believe, the most convincing format for expressing the depth or
     gravitas of the photographer's passion for the medium and subject, aside from the original works.
     Within this format, there exists an unfolding, an exquisite revealment of the photographers intent
     which does not communicate on a screen. It is important to recognise the value, the richness of
     being able to turn a page and to be complicit in the flow of the work. The book makes you an
     active participant in a way that the screen cannot and should not attempt to emulate.

Another contributor added to this, “The photobook or essay are another way for a photographer to explore his subject from multiple viewpoints and over an extended period. They allow themes to be developed and explored and the fact of producing the book, with all the design and other choices that involves, extends the photographer's control over their output...And the great additional benefit is that they are relatively so accessible.”

We also started to take a look at the reasons behind the current Golden Era of photobooks: Is this to do with the book’s inherent qualities and because it allows photography to sing its “loudest, most complex, and satisfying song”? Or is it market conditions? The connection between the explosion in the number of photographers and the hunt for economical distribution methods of their work?

San Francisco-based photographer Stefan Jora responded by writing, “I think it is a combination of advances in economy (the increasingly affordable cost of producing photobooks) and society (the fact that we're becoming a more visually literate society).”

This is a subject I hope we’ll explore more when we discuss Badger’s chapter on photobooks.

Leeds, UK-based photographer and educator Philip Welding asked an interesting question in regards to style and the photobook: “Gossage's voice or style isn't just to be looked for in his photographs, concepts etc. but is surely visible in his books? Perhaps the design of a photo book is easier to pin down than the more elusive photographic voice? Or the combination of the two?”

Is a photographer’s style, voice, or “sensibility” something more equally or more apparent in the photobook than in a photographer’s images? An interesting question...

Gossage, writes Badger, sees photography in terms of the collective statement contained in the photobook, and not as individual statements contained by the picture frame.

Massingham responded to this by confirming, “Gossage chooses to experience and involve himself in the complete process and production of his photography - a function which is not readily available to all photographers or artists.” Dawn Roe followed by writing that Pete’s point, for her, is key and that: “We must often give up some or all control in terms of how our work is exhibited, seen on-line or even in book form depending on the context and whether it is an artist’s book, or exhibition catalog/monograph, etc. And so I’d agree that the photobook is (one area) where ‘the photograph is at its most complex’ – and so, yes, in many cases the ‘collective statement’ is more successful than the single image.”

Texas-based photographer Pugilist Press added, “I am a big believer in the collective statement...it just opens up the possibilities for the phenomenological photographer without having to go into Painter territory... A book has certain implications but it is first and foremost a container, a world unto itself, and as such it is a space where an auteur can create context through selection, sequencing, scale, and materiality.”

Badger writes in his essay that, “ Style equals branding, and branding means sales, so we get the fairy common phenomenon of the photographer who hits upon one extraordinary image and then repeats it, with minor variations, for the rest of his or her career.” (page 89)

I wrote that I believe that the museum-gallery world does like to package and brand artists and that either directly or implicitly pushes artists towards less experimentation and more repetition of their ideas, I don't think by any means that all artist's who investigate a narrow range of ideas over a career and stay within a specific formal (or stylistic) range are the lesser for it and necessarily doing so to appease the market and museums. This is further explained in MULTIPLICATION AND DIVISION below.

Contributor Pedro Safadi adds, “Of course some artists rely on style to individualize their work, to stand out from the crowd and to be eventually identified with that style. Is it for the purpose of branding only? I think for some it goes beyond that. I think it might serve a different need, something psychological perhaps. But style might also be an organic ‘thing’ that mutates in the artist's hands into an ever clearer means of communicating his / her artistic sensibility. When the artist finally achieves the style that he has been nurturing along perhaps he decides that he has arrived at the place he wanted to be and needs to go no further.”

Form was briefly raised within the conversation this week. Pugilist Press wrote, “Without form there is no pleasure and in most cases no access” and made perhaps the most quotable statement of the week: “We don't disagree that content is what keeps the people at the party but without form there's no music to dance to. Lack of formal interest means that the doors to content are closed.”

Massingham raised an interesting point during the week, writing: “I believe the real debate lies in the question of who are the arbiters of taste? It is these people who determine the perceived parameters of style and subject matter.” George McClintock asked a similar question at a different point in the conversation: “Would Gossage's photography have significance without the elaborate textual support erected by Badger and others?” He later reinforced Massingham’s point, wrapping in to an assessment of Gossage and his work: “Without all the academic reinforcement of its metaphorical significance, 'The Pond' would have precious little to offer.”

Unfortunately I am also a realist (cynic?) about the fact that connections (and the implied textual support and access to collections and exhibitions) define who is in the photography canon almost as much as the quality of work does, and the number of gatekeepers has always been very few. John Szarkowski made kings and queens for 30 years - and I believe that model of kingmakers is largely still in effect.

I mentioned in the conversation an idea that offers perhaps an alternative way of looking at artists who make photographs that work within a narrow range in terms of subject matter and formal stylistics over an extended period of time. (Unfortunately I do not remember the source of the conversation or reading of this idea, but it is not originally mine.)

When we are young most are interested in a multiplicity of experiences – we date different people, travel many places, move around, and hold different jobs; likewise in art, when we are just getting going we explore different themes, formal ideas, try on different hats, jump between ways of working.

When we get older, most of us become interested in the division of a single experience rather than to continue with multiplication, that is to say we choose to experience one thing deeply, rather than many things more superficially. We tend to find a home, a long-term partner and settle into a career. The same would hold true for how we make artwork – we divide a more limited subject matter, exploring it thoroughly, instead of taking major jumps between each project.