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“Judging a book by its cover, its content, its design, its craft, its sophistication, its necessity, its (Fill in the blank) .”
By Jeffrey Ladd.
For the last three years I have been asked to be one of the eight judges on the ‘pre-jury’ for the Kassel Photobook Festival. As a pre-jury we narrow down the hundreds of submissions to the Kassel Dummy Award to around 50. This year over 470 entries filled nine tightly packed, large grey shipping containers. The odds of inclusion into the final selection were not promising – only one out of every ten books. The process takes hours. Each jury member must look at every entry and must make a judgment. This is the most difficult aspect for me personally as I recognize that every book, no matter of its ability to fulfill my criteria of what a “noteworthy book” comprises, comes from a person who has hopes, passion and felt they had something important to say to an audience through their book.
The title of this short introduction basically encompasses what the judges must face and decide, often in a very short time. The process can seem, even to judges, unfair and imperfect. Perhaps it is, as it is impossible to ‘read’ every submission completely and grasp everything the artist wanted to pack into their books. There is certainly nuance and meaning, important texts left unread and intended metaphor left unnoticed in this process. Each judge has their own approach and criteria, all formed by subjectivity. Mine starts with the photography and extends outward to the book form. Other jurors lean towards the book form and forgive weaker photography in favor of object. For me it is a delicate balance, the photography must dictate the form and in turn, the form dictates the content. The lingering question for me is always – Is this necessary? Do I feel I would be compelled to pick this book up more than just once or is it simply the photobook equivalent of an enjoyable one-night stand? Flashy design or intricate bindings are not necessarily better entries. The polished, finished-looking book that ‘could easily be sitting in a bookstore’ is also not necessarily the best entry. (Many jurors actually remark on the lack of entries that feel made by hand and still “in process.” Book dummies, after all, are traditionally the closest translation of an idea and not often the final object.) For books that have elaborate wrapping requiring the juror to first spend valuable time to get to the first image, I give one bit of advice; the wrapping itself had better prove to be important to the content. Otherwise that silk-wrapped, twine-tied, clam-shelled, AND slip-cased jury time waster (actual term) can actually damage the impression you think you are improving.
Being exposed to so many books, one can see many interesting overlaps between practices. For instance, I was delighted to see a few books trying to address planes and flight; a couple others addressed space exploration using appropriated material; one strong ‘trend’ (for lack of a better term) is the use of archive material to build stories interspaced with the author’s photography; three books by coincidence, by three different artists, acted as ‘flipbooks’ enlarging single digital images until they broke apart into pixels; two different artists used a Xerox machine to break images apart into black and white smudges; many books addressed the plight of war and the refugee experience; and of course, there were a large number of ‘stream of consciousness’ books, personal and with purposely disjointed narratives. One juror also made the surprising observation that a great number of the books had no photography on their covers at all.
In the end, year after year, the most surprising aspect of this competition and the selection process is; when the final 50 books are spread out on the long jury table they always seemed full and representative. I don’t agree with all of the selections and I certainly fought for books which didn’t make the cut against the inclusion of others, but what lays before you is a large tapestry of ideas, stories and experience made into physical objects – objects whose individual presence may potentially change what you thought you knew of your world.
Jan McCullough »Home Instruction Manual«
The dummy book Home Instruction Manual entered in the competition by Jan McCullough is a real discovery in 2015. Jan is a photographer from Belfast with a weak spot for manuals, books that tell you how to do things. For this project she searched the internet for tips on how to build your perfect home. After collecting all the tips, Jan rented a house and followed all the instructions given to her. She photographed the end result; a home with a forced personality. Something you can’t say about Jan McCullough, a natural talent to watch out for.
Kumiko Motokis’s White Fang was for me perhaps the most exciting book dummy submitted to this year’s Kassel Fotobookfestival. Based on an actual dog fight that took place in Aomori in Northern Japan in early 2014, this slim soft-cover publication moves cleverly between colour and black-and-white imagery: colour for the build-up before the event; black and white for the fight scenes; colour for the brutal outcome. Varying between formal, straight-up portraiture, and Antoine D’Agataesque blurred imagery, along with well-placed inserts on the history of dog fighting in Japan — which is only banned in some areas across the country — this book perfectly manages to walk the fine line between the gruesomeness of this ancient and brutal practice and the well-crafted aesthetic of a modern-day photo book.

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