Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Puff Puff Puff

It's that time of year again. Christmas lights are out. A chill is in the air. And the annual photobook list parade has begun. Time Lightbox kicked things off last week with their Best Photobooks of 2015. Others have since joined the fray. As with last year's lists, Photolia is Tumblring a running compilation. I suggest bookmarking and a general gnashing of teeth.

The contents of the lists are generally entertaining, but not as interesting to me as the lists themselves. One noteworthy trend is that they begin a bit earlier with each iteration. Lightbox's first ever year-end list —way back in 2011— was released near, well, the end of the year: December 29th. In 2012 the date crept up slightly to December 24th, leapfrogging Christmas. By 2014, it had jumped all the way to Thanksgiving weekend, November 28th. This year the list came out before the turkey: November 25th.

Photo-Eye's timing follows suit. Their year-end lists have traditionally been released at the end of December. For example, 2013's list was published December 30th. But the shift is on. Last year the lists came out December 11th. I expect this year's to be released on or before that date. That's one small reason I won't be contributing to the Photo-Eye lists this year. That, and of course the accident at the plant.

At this rate the lists will soon compete with Halloween. It's a race up the calender, book lists vs. Christmas lights. Which will come earlier? Of course, as Joachim Schmid points out, choosing the year's best books with several weeks remaining in the year is problematic. "The year is not yet over," he writes, "and I very much hope more wonderful books may come out in the upcoming weeks. I may be wrong of course but I simply cannot compile a best-of list before the end of the year." I'm with him. My list will be coming out on December 31st. Which gives me another month to speculate about all these other lists. Who are they for? What do they accomplish? 

One possible motive for early lists is the commercial tie in. Early lists give folks a chance to plan Holiday purchases. Simple enough. 

Another possible cause is an imbalance in the calendar limits. While book lists must come out before January 1st, on the front end there is no such boundary. So any pressure to expand will push the dates forward. It's like the U.S. Presidential Primary schedule. With election day fixed, the only possible movement is forward, up the calendar. South Carolina leapfrogs Super Tuesday. Nevada leapfrogs South Carolina. And so on. Why would a state want to move their election earlier? For the same reason a booklist might come out earlier. To exert more influence and power. Those of us who vote in Oregon primaries and publish lists on December 31st have no power at all. But that's ok. Because we have the nation's best beer and pot. 

Decembers go down easy here. So do elections.

The trouble comes when the timing of the lists influence their contents. It's the tail wagging the dog. Anyone following Presidential primaries knows this phenomenon. The race isn't necessarily about which candidate is most suitable in a general election. It's about which candidate can win the GOP nod in Iowa and New Hampshire. Most would agree that to remain Republican in either state at this point means you're fucking Whacko. Whacko wags the dog. 

I'm not equating the photobook world to that lunacy. But I think to a certain extent the tail does wag the dog. The lists aren't so much about the books as the books are about the lists. To appear on the right set of year-end lists can make or break a book. It can be the difference between sold-out and remaindered. So you get publishers back-loading their publication schedules to get books in front of critics in November. You get Paris Photo timed to spark the flood of discussion. You get the flood of year-end booklists coming out shortly afterward. I can't really blame any of the actors involved. If you publish a book, you should do it when people are making lists. Same reason you release your Academy Award vehicle just before Oscar season. Duh. But there's a certain theatricality to it all which feels less about actual photobooks than it does about their impact. 

Let's go back a moment to the power impulse. One noticeable trend in these lists year after year is their increasing diversity. There was a point not long ago when I recognized a sizable handful of the listed books. But that era is fading. More and more it's a sea of obscure small-press offerings I've never heard of. And the next list has 10 obscure offerings of its own, with none in common, as does the next one. And so on. 

That's partly due to the explosion in photobooks over the past decade. There are more titles than ever to choose from. But I think what's also at work is the staking out of territory. Not only is it important to publish your list early, but if you can identify a great book before anyone else, you claim bragging rights. You get to be the cool kid who discovered Destroy All Monsters or Legendary Stardust Cowboy before anyone else. If those acts catch on (and they likely won't), your name is attached. On the contrary, there's little reward for identifying the same books which are already on other lists. That's not how you distinguish yourself as a critic. So the overall effect is toward fracturing, not consensus. It's the tail wagging the dog again, as the act of list creation influences its contents.

I may be wrong about all of this. I know I'm risking that possibility by publishing these thoughts in early December, before much of the photobook listmaking has had a chance to shake out. But I fear if I wait much longer someone else might beat me to the analysis. If it seems early, fractured, or whacko, you'll understand.


amitsood said...

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Don Hudson said...

Ha! Love the Destroy All Monsters reference

Blake Andrews said...

That was a special plug for Michigan readers. Just like the bumper sticker.