The Photography of Nature
Mapp Editions (2013)
AS IT IS AGAIN
iPad application; free
The Interaction of Color
Yale University Press (2013)
iPad application; $9.99
Reviewed by Stephanie L. Rogers
The art I appreciate most tends to be disseminated far beyond the whitewashed walls of galleries and museums. The softest spot in my art-appreciating little heart is currently reserved for artists’ newspapers, the ephemeral platform that perfectly marries high art with low materials. I was, therefore, intrigued by the notion of artists’ books for iPads.
One of the sexiest things about artists’ books—and here I paraphrase artist Ruben Nusz, who did not use the word “sexiest” when we talked about the idea—is that they are not a reproduction of a work of art, like a catalog is; the artist’s book is the work itself.
iPads are not, in my estimation, all that sexy. Being from Apple, they are, of course, well designed; but their built-in obsolescence and high price point put them out of reach to many people (myself included). Writing this review provided me occasion to borrow an iPad and downloaded three well-received artists’ books to see what I think of the iPad as a platform for art.
The Photography of Nature,by Joan Fontcuberta, is the only book reviewed here that is an iBook, not an app in itself. This format makes it easy to skip from chapter to chapter and enlarge photos, but the interactivity pretty much ends there, leaving one with a digitally converted hardcopy.
The book is organized around projects from throughout Fontcuberta’s career, with a chapter and distinct design style dedicated to each body of work. Readers are introduced to “Fauna,”from 1987, which presents the lost findings, field notes, and photographs of Dr. Ameisenhaufen, including beautiful but unlikely silver prints of a snake with twelve legs. Fontcuberta’s interest is in the relationship between science and photography, rather than in a particular style. For example, the design of the chapter “Sputnik”gives a nod to Soviet graphic design, while telling the bizarre history of Russian astronaut Ivan Istochinikov and cosmodog Kloka, who mysteriously disappeared during a space mission. It quickly becomes obvious that the scientific evidence documented in the projects is made up. The point of this work is just how convincing it is even when obviously false.
Book form, iPad or not, makes perfect sense. Fontcuberta’s photography is only part of the fiction; the graphic design adds at least as much to the sense of an authoritative source. The form is compelling, never more so than in “Sirens,”the chapter documenting Fontcuberta’s assignment from National Geologic to photograph the unearthing of mermaid skeletons.
Even though I knew I was experiencing the work of a trickster, the sleight of hand is so effective that as my eyes skimmed National Geologic my brain filled in National Geographic. The style of the photos, the layout of the text, even the font so closely mimic the look of the real magazine that I realized my mistake only upon seeing the cover image at the end of the chapter, with the title text writ large.
Fontcuberta’s work is well executed and earned him the Hasselblad Award, which the Hasselblad Foundation asserts is “the most important prize in photography in the world today.” I assert that Fontcuberta’s work, while capable and witty, is notthe most important photography in the world today. This format, which places photographs in the familiar contexts of magazines, books, and natural history museum displays, is perfectly suited to our day and age, but the idea that photographs lie is as old as photography itself.
Two photo critics, Geoffrey Batchen and Jorge Wagenberg, write accompanying essays in the section of the book called “The Nature of Photography.”I Googled them to make sure that their explications of Fontcuberta’s greatness were not just another sleight of hand by the photographer, who touts his prowess in the text he did write himself. They are, in fact, real scholars. Yet even in praising the work, Batchen reminds readers of the myriad others who have walked this same road: “[Early photography pioneer William Henry Fox] Talbot recognizes from the outset what Fontcuberta has spent a lifetime exploiting: that while photography always provides an indexical truth-to-presence, it doesn’t necessarily offer a truth-to-appearance.” Batchen later credits Edward Steichen with making a similar argument in the first issue of Camera Work in 1903.
It has been trendy for a while now to point out the deception of photographs, but this breaks no ground that wasn’t broken in the earliest days of photographic mediums. Fontcuberta does this work expertly but manages to merely remind viewers of something they already knew.
AS IT IS AGAIN—released (published?) in 2011—is one of the earliest examples of an artist-designed, iPad-specific work. As Verburg told interviewer Paul Schmelzer, “as far as we know, this is the first fine art photography book made specifically to be experienced on an iPad.”
The only text in the app is the title at the beginning and the credits at the end, putting full emphasis and attention on Verburg’s photographs, all taken in the hills next to a Roman aqueduct outside of Spoleto, Italy. The images were made with a 5x7 view camera, which features a lens that moves independently of the film plane—the technical capability that creates the titled focal planes in many of Verburg’s images. For the lay reader, this is what makes possible the washes of out-of-focus colors that connect the sharp forms of both twigs in the foreground and the ancient aqueduct spanning the background.
As the title suggests, the images are a meditation on the cyclical nature of shifting seasons contrasted against the timelessness of Roman-era infrastructure. And I do mean meditation. Soft colors and those dreamy out-of-focus spaces create a quiet feeling of place rather than a faithful representation.
My previous experiences with Verburg’s photography were in museums, with the full-scale experience of her larger-than-life prints. I found myself holding the iPad close to my nose, the better to examine each twig in the photo, before pulling the image back to appreciate the composition as a whole.
Most of the images are vertical and fit neatly into the 4:3 ratio of the full-sized iPad (this app doesn’t adjust for horizontal orientation). But partway through, horizontal images are introduced. They are larger and don’t fit on the screen, and are presented across several “pages.” The unique quality of the iPad is that, even though these images are split among several frames, the frames are continuous. By keeping a finger on the screen to prevent it from snapping to the predetermined frames, the spaces between frames are viewable, letting readers examine every blossom on the almond trees in the foreground—even the ones on the edge of the “pages.” This capability is a seemingly minor thing that would never be possible in a print book. It’s as if Verburg knew that I had been bringing the iPad in for the close-up detail view, and gave me the best solution possible in this format.
Presented as pixels on a backlit screen, Verburg’s images are, quite literally, luminous. Given the usually large scale of Verburg’s prints, I’m surprised at how well the images work on the iPad, but work they do. Interaction with the images consists of swiping forward or back to transition to the next frame. It’s simple but feels seductive. iPad apps are ideal for people who always wanted to touch the art. I have little critique about the clean way in which this one is set up. Verburg has set the standard by which newer iPad-specific artist’s books will be judged—and I have no doubt that there will be more of them.
The app for Josef Albers’s The Interaction of Color is a re-visioning of a fifty-year-old tome of the same name that (as a paperback) has been continuously in print since 1971. You know Albers for his square silkscreens with subtly shifting shades of ochre, red, and dozens of other hues. What you might not know is that if you’ve taken a color theory class in the last three decades, it was built on the ideas, exercises, and structure of this book. Yale University Press, the original publisher, has now interpreted Albers’s ideas and brought The Interaction of Color to the iPad.
The app has two parts. First, the original text now helpfully includes linked definitions of key words. Second, the exercises Albers designed to be done with colored paper are recreated as interactive studies featuring both Albers’s examples and a white screen of blank shapes ready to be filled with selections from a well-designed color wheel. The interface is intuitive enough for a small child, but the infinite solutions to the exercises will engage even the most experienced designer. It’s easy to jump back and forth between the textual description of color phenomena and related visual examples in the exercises.
Playing with the color wheel (and it does feel like playing) brings me back to the color design class I took my freshman year of college. The basic building blocks of art and design are all expertly and engagingly presented: color selection, the illusion of space, atmosphere as suggested by hue and tone … I could go on.
I get the impression that Albers used colored paper in his own classes only because the iPad wasn’t available yet. He writes, “Precision and clean execution are required for all finished studies.” The X-acto™ knives and rubber cement I wielded for my own color design credit pale in comparison to the exactness possible when the colors magically conform to precise predetermined shapes. No one’s learning fine motor skills or composition here, but it’s a pretty slick way to learn color. Rather than just a more portable version of the original text, the iPad app comes off as an improvement.
There is a free version of the app that is so limited as to be almost pointless, except as a marketing strategy. However, the easiest way to get the full version is to download the free version first. Once it’s loaded, the full version is easily purchased via handy links within in the free version. The full version is a masterful recreation of a canonical work in art education, and well worth the download.
In 2010, Slate published an article by Jim Lewis that was subtitled “Why art books won’t become e-books any time soon.” The claim shows either a lack of imagination or a very narrow definition of art. New media is decades old, and new media artists’ books aren’t much of a stretch. Lewis’s main argument hinges on resolution; the article pits high-quality printing (600 dpi) against the iPad’s screen (then 132 ppi, now 264 ppi). Lewis is missing the point. E-books are not inherently better or worse than their paper counterparts, but artist intent has a lot to do with user experience.
The apps for AS IT IS AGAIN and The Interaction of Color work well because they were designed for the format. Obviously, viewing Verburg’s images on an iPad is a very different experience from viewing her five-foot prints made from 5x7 negatives. The prints’ resolution is clearly superior. The iPad has other strengths: the glowing screen, the interactivity, and a multitude of carefully sequenced images whose resolution is sufficient. Like any good artist’s book, the sum of the whole is greater than its individual images.
I was pleasantly surprised to find many of the qualities that endear artists’ newspapers to me (portability, accessibility, and even low cost) are present in the iPad. While tablet computers remain an unreachable luxury for many Americans, for the voracious reader of artists’ books, the upfront cost could be recouped quickly. The Photography of Nature iBook is a third the cost of the hard copy; AS IT IS AGAIN is unbeatably free. Only The Interaction of Color breaks the template, with a paperback version costing only $6 more than the iPad app. To be fair, Yale University Press has made a profit on the hardcopy many times over, but shelled out for high-end designers to create the app. The quality of the design shows. The bottom line: iPads are expensive, but so are most artists’ books.
Where the iPad format really shines is in interaction. It’s a different experience to be touching the screen and having the work respond. The tactility of the page has been replaced by light, color, and motion, which completely sucked me in, even if two more hours of a backlit screen left my eyes a bit strained.
Scott Nedrelow, publisher of Location Books, cited the low overhead cost of producing iPad books as part of the appeal from a publishing viewpoint. This is pretty appealing from an artist’s viewpoint, too. The iPad offers low upfront costs, zero storage issues, and the potential of getting your work in front of people with disposable income. Please excuse me while I go download Book Creator for iPad.
Stephanie L. Rogers is an artist who lives and works in Minneapolis. You can see her work at www.stephanielrogers.com