On the importance of photo books: Tim J Veling shares his thoughts

With the inaugural Photobook New Zealand festival fast approaching (being held on March 11–13 in Wellington), we took the time to catch up with a few of the speakers who will be presenting at the event. Tim J Veling shared his thoughts on the importance of the photo-book medium with us and what he'll be discussing during the festival.

D-Photo: What is it about the medium of photo books that you like, and why do you think they're a good way for photographers to showcase their work?

Tim J Veling: During the heyday of one-hour film processing I worked in a photographic lab as a printer. Each day I watched hundreds of rolls worth of prints depicting birthday parties, births, deaths, sexual encounters, police crime scene photographs, you name it, roll off a conveyor belt. Part of my job was to check each print for defects and paint out the dust spots. I got to see everything, whether I wanted to or not. I was in the middle of completing an MFA, but in more ways than one this was just as much of an education.

I saw some absolutely amazing individual photographs during this time. The images that really captured my imagination all seemed to be taken almost by accident, appeared as isolated gems in the middle of a roll, and more often than not were the types of images that would never end up in the family album. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I had my William Eggleston kind of moment; I realized that photography is a very democratic medium, although photographs can be very complex and hard to understand as art.

With modern technology, literally anyone can now pick up a phone, let alone a camera, and take technically competent, visually stunning images. My time working in the lab taught me that technical proficiency and being in the right place at the right time would only get me so far as an artist working with photography. I came to think that what would set me apart from the millions of photographers in the world would be dedicating myself to exploring and communicating ideas and experiences through extended bodies of work; to photograph with purpose then edit my images with intention to draw links between individual images in order to extend their meanings. The photo book is the perfect form for presenting this kind of work because it gives opportunity for an intimate, tactile, and easily distributable artefact. Good photo books are works of art in their own right and the life of a book is almost always far greater than that of an exhibition.

How exciting is it to see an event like Photobook New Zealand come about? What do you expect people who attend the event to take away from it?

The Photobook New Zealand festival has come at a pivotal time in New Zealand, where arts institutions are only now starting to take notice of photography as a fine-art medium the equal of painting and sculpture. Having said this, I’m excited to be part of the festival because there is a huge interest, both in New Zealand and internationally, in the photo-book form, and how artists are using it to effectively sidestep traditional exhibition and publishing networks, where cold, hard pragmatic considerations often get in the way of the best ideas. The Photobook New Zealand festival will provide an opportunity for people to see some truly stunning works of art, some very limited-edition books and some printed in large, commercial runs. I expect the festival to prompt people to think about and appreciate the book form in ways they perhaps otherwise haven’t, especially with regards to a publication having the potential to be considered a work of art in its own right.

You’ll be speaking at the event. Can you give us a bit of an insight on what topics you’ll be covering and what messages you hope to leave the audience with?

My talk will highlight elements of my practice that underpin everything I have made to date, namely aspects of autobiography and an unpicking of concepts of home and belonging. I will talk mostly about my bodies of work Pre-marital Bliss and D, P, O. (Dad, Pete, Opa), and discuss them in context with other work made in pre- and post-quake Christchurch. With my talk I want to emphasise my belief in trying to project an authentic and honest voice through a series of pictures. I believe strongly in the power of photography — especially when presented in series — and in presenting my work in a way that lets the photographs speak for themselves, without relying on design gimmicks or elaborate production methods to get my ideas across. I hope my talk helps inspire people to pick up a camera and try to articulate something about the world as they see and experience it.

What has been your personal favourite photo book purchase that you have made?

That’s a tricky question because there are so many books that have influenced me in the way I think about art and photography. Some are pretty straightforward monographs and others are more intricately constructed, one-off artist books. For the share power of the photography, presented as a body of work that reads as a series of haunting, vignetted mini stories, Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects simply blows my mind. As an experience to hold and read, I love Daidō Moriyama’s Farewell Photography for its apocalyptic vision of post-war life in Japan. Both books speak of a world gone mad, but in completely different visual languages!

Can you please tell us about the variety of photo books you have produced? When did you publish your very first one and why?

The first book I published was Red Bus Diary, the content of which I amassed during my postgraduate studies at the Ilam School of Fine Arts. The publishing deal came about as part of the University of Canterbury, Platform Arts Festival, and I jumped at the opportunity to get my work ‘out there’.  I always conceived of this work to be presented in book form and it is as much a book of writing as it is photographs. It needs that intimate space for the content to function properly.

At that time I wasn’t so sure-footed in my abilities as a photographer, and the written element came from a desire to try [to] go beyond the surface detail presented in my images and describe the experience of living and travelling in a city in a more broad and detailed sense. In that way, the text is essentially a series of vignetted moments that recount elements of my day-to-day life and the interactions I had with people while trying to assume the role of a tourist in my home town of Christchurch. It’s an autobiographical account of place and time; a recognition that an individual’s perspective of place tends to be shaped by their personal circumstance and routine. It was a very ernest endeavour and I learnt a hell of a lot in the process of completing the work, but by the time it was published I felt like I’d reached a dead end in my practice. I realized that the mode I was working in didn’t quite fit me, in that it was very derivative of my heroes and mentors. In the end the book was produced as a pulp-like paperback and it is what it is (I find it hard to read now, having done a lot of growing up in the years that have since past). From then on though, I’ve strived to try and communicate more open-ended and simple stories, usually with photographic images alone.

I’ve made too many books to recount here, but two bodies of work that I’m very proud of and that relate in subject matter and narrative are Pre-Marital Bliss and D, P, O. Both of these bodies of work function best as a book, but have alternative outputs as exhibitions. I think it’s still important to think of images existing in their own right, outside of the context of the book, and I feel the images that constitute both of these series can function that way successfully.

Tim J Veling; Pre-Marital Bliss

Pre-Marital Bliss is a record of a time in my life when my now wife and I first got together. Quite early on in our relationship we decided to rent a crappy little flat in the centre of Christchurch in order to throw the relationship in the deep end, so to speak. It was a two-room ramshackle apartment, and neither of us had any money to rub together to buy anything of worth. My wife would go to the Salvation Army shop and buy mismatched dinnerware, furniture, etc., for 50-cents a pop, and we were both working multiple jobs and only just making ends meet. Anyway, the final body of work is an account of that relatively universal time in ones life when you’re trying to forge your way ahead; you’re living away from home but aren’t quite financially or emotionally independent from your parents; you’re committing to a relationship but still unsure of the concept of ‘till death do us part’. I edited the body of work with my wife and she designed the book, which is the best distillation of the experience represented we could come up with. The book itself is small and relies heavily on the interplay between images; images of two sides of a spread resonating off each other, and the way the overall sequence of images reads and leads you through the ups and downs of life before true adulthood starts. That concrete sequence of photographs between the two covers is integral to its reading and the design and production elements serve to let that speak loudly for itself.

Tim J Veling; D, P, O.

D, P, O., (shorthand for Dad, Pete, Opa,) presents an account of the last four months of my father's life against the backdrop of ‘marital bliss’; my newly born daughter growing up and speeding up as my father gets increasingly frail and slowing down. Again, the way the images are placed on the pages of the book and the way the reader is forced to contemplate their meaning by interacting with them, very simply, by turning the pages of the book the reader will notice very small details change in almost identical photographs, and these small details begin to speak volumes. This kind of interaction is integral to the work. My father was a very keen woodworker and the last thing he made before he died was some mahogany bedside cabinets for my wife's birthday. He sourced the wood that they were made from from old bedheads found at the Eco-Store dump shop. He called mahogany the ‘king of woods’, so I’ve used thin sheets of mahogany veneer for the covers of the book. I think he’d be more than happy with this design decision.

How do photo books help in the professional/commercial realm? Are they helpful to show potential clients to give them an indication of the quality of work you are producing?

I think there’s a space for everything, but the most important thing to think about — whether the aim is to generate paid work or to undertake a more artistic endeavour — is to convey a personal and authentic voice and style with your work. You have to ask yourself “Why does this material need to be a book? What does the book form lend itself to?” In that sense, I guess it comes down to knowing your audience and clients and putting your best foot forward. So many images pop up on the computer screen these days, I imagine quite a few clients would feel being sent a book a breath of fresh air.

If you could give one piece of advice to a photographer who is considering publishing a photo book of their work for the first time, what would you suggest?

Have confidence in your voice and believe in the strength of communicating your own, individual perspective on, and feelings about, the world that surrounds you. I never wanted to be a photographer — I wanted to be an animator and create imaginary worlds, not partake in the realm of the real — but I was hooked as soon as I started laying out photographs on a table and moving them around to create little sequences of images. I did this to try and make sense of the things I'd seen each week. It made me feel incredibly connected, and I think that is one of the most important things for a photographer to be.