Picture Summer on Kodak Film • A new book by Jason Fulford
In A Picture Summer on Kodak Film, the new book by Jason Fulford, photographs taken across the world ((in Canada, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Nepal, Thailand, USA and Vietnam) created a fictional, timeless place where the reader is invited to wander in search of connections, following the rhythm of the sequence of images and their kaleidoscopic compositions.
Jason Fulford’s new book, Picture Summer on Kodak Film, just published by MACK, arrived in my mailbox one day in early March. Yet it was not an ordinary day: recently Italy had been placed on a four-weeks quarantine by the government in order to tackle the Coronavirus emergency. “And what does this have to do with it?” you will say. Well, maybe not much. Still, unpacking the book and browsing through it I immediately got the sense of traveling with my mind: here I was, walking on the streets of an unknown neighborhood, stopping every now and then to look at apparently banal details — two cats staring at me from a window, the sign of a shop, the colors of painted wood.
I have heard that at times like this, the strongest antidote is the power of imagination. Children make up an imaginary friend to survive boredom and loneliness. We adults instead dwell upon our concern, some giving way to far-fetched states of paranoia, others trying to analyze the situation from a rational point of view. None of us indulges in fantasy. And here it comes the connection with Fulford’s work, which is, examined in its entirety, a sort of invitation to let ourselves go, to rediscover the irrational side of our mind, the non-linearity of thoughts.
Photographer and publisher (he co-founded J&L Books with his friend Leanne Shapton), Jason Fulford has a background in graphic design, which has deeply shaped the way he thinks and works. Fulford’s photographs have been described as open metaphors, and his books are often associated with jigsaw puzzles for the enigmatic visual structure behind them. Yet, unlike other cases where the photographer makes the rules of the game, I feel Jason himself is a player in solving the puzzle. He also doesn’t know what the solution is. He plays with us. After all, does there have to be a solution? Or does it have to be the same for everyone?
Jason Fulford’s photography is an experience taking the form of an object, mostly in a photobook format. Just to name a few, his monographs include Raising Frogs for $$$ (2006), The Mushroom Collector (2010), Oracle Hotel (2013), Contains: 3 Books (2016) and he is co-author with Tamara Shopsin of the photobook for children This Equals That (2014) and co-editor with Gregory Halpern of The Photographer’s Playbook (2014).
In his new book, Picture Summer on Kodak Film, photographs taken across the world (in Canada, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Nepal, Thailand, USA and Vietnam) created a fictional, timeless place where the reader is invited to wander in search of connections, following the rhythm of the sequence of images and their kaleidoscopic compositions.
In Another Way of Telling (1982) John Berger suggested that in order to achieve successful visual storytelling, the author should “speak only through quotations, through his choice and placing of the photographs”. The discontinuities between each image are to be filled by the spectator (or the reader), who “enters the narration” and becomes part of it. The latter is possible only if the author is less present, if he allows the reader to take an active role in the creative process of reading images, and I firmly believe that this is what happens in Picture Summer on Kodak Film. Jason guides us to a place that doesn’t exist, a metaphysical world where different times coexist, opening secret passages between the conscious and the unconscious. This is how fantasy works; this is how memory works.
Besides the flow of images, the pace is also given by a poem written by two sisters, punctuated in coincident sentences reminiscent of modern haiku — wait, is it maybe a chat conversation? Who knows. My favorite: I need a new font for my name.
With the copy of Picture Summer on Kodak Film—An A4 yellow hardcover — in my hands, I interviewed Jason Fulford to learn more about the book and his approach to photography.
Let’s start from your new book. How was the idea born?
My working process is taking pictures all the time. I carry my camera with me, and the pictures I take are intuitively influenced by whatever I have been reading lately or conversations I’ve been having or even subconscious things. I usually think of photographers as either collector photographers or sculptor photographers, and I’m the collector type. So for me it’s a matter of wandering and finding things. Often when you take pictures, you get a sense that they’re meaningful but you don’t know yet why.
The process for this book was the same. These pictures were taken mostly over the last three or four years, and only after I start to look at things that I’ve been shooting, do I start to understand them.
The first thing I noticed was that I had a lot of work from California, which seemed to be capturing a feeling of the place that was hard to describe in words. This feeling you get when you’re walking around the desert suburb and, you know, things are sort of slightly out of focus. It’s hot, and there’s pop culture and the harsh sun and shadows … and then I remembered that a few years before, I had seen some early paintings of Giorgio De Chirico. There was a show in Ferrara with these paintings he had made there. I didn’t know his work very well, and those early paintings really blew me away. When I started to look at the pictures from California, it was almost like I was inside De Chirico’s paintings, finding details that could have been in his scenes — the shadows and the stillness of time, and the kinds of objects he painted that have an enigmatic feeling. So then I started to think that this might be a body of work.
And what about the title? Where does it come from?
I was driving around the suburbs of Los Angeles, and found an old photo store. One of those places where the shelves are full of brand-new 40 year old equipment, and boxes are all dusty but they’re still for sale .. I loved it, and spent an hour in there. I bought some novelty filters. Old Kodak advertisements from the 1980s were still being used, and the title and type treatment on the cover actually comes from one of those.
And so then this old photo store started to mix into what I already described to you. The themes of light and time which happen in De Chirico’s work, and in the California pictures, now also started to relate to photography. Time and light are the fundamental elements of photography. And they are also the basis —at the risk of sounding pretentious — of existence itself.
In the end I think the book, on the surface level, it’s like a wander or a stroll through some fictional landscape made of a lot of different places, but then hopefully as you go along you, as a reader, you start to have a similar experience to mine, where you realize that there are recurring motifs, and then you put those pieces together.
Shadows, texture and light are some of the recurring motifs in the book. Indeed I see only one portrait. Who is that girl?
Well, I had a lot of portraits in the book at one point, and eventually took them all out, except for this one. She seemed to have the best effect, out of all the portraits. In the context of the book, she’s somebody that you encounter as you’re walking through. Later, you also see these cats looking at you from a window, so she and the cats, they’re from inside the world of the book looking back at you and acknowledging your presence.
The flow of images is punctuated by short sentences printed on a black thinner paper. What is the function of text in the narrative of the book?
The text was written by two sisters from Toronto, and to be honest I don’t know what it means yet, but I know that it is right. When I make a book, I want a rich mix of elements that energize each other. I don’t want it to be all figured out, like “this is what it means”, “this is what you should think”. When you read it, I like that it’s open. And in general I like it best when the text and the image play off each other. So one makes the other better and vice versa. It’s not like one illustrates the other or explains the other, but somehow they work in parallel.
I want this book to be really fun for someone as a reader, and I want them to be able to kind of dance through it. I think about music a lot when editing a book, and I want the text to be one element of that music.
Your whole body of work is based on associative thinking, the editing of images and the importance of visual literacy. You also made a lot of books for children with your wife Tamara. In your opinion, why is visual education important? What can we do in our everyday lives to teach children to look at and understand images?
In some ways I think children are better equipped for visual literacy than adults. We’re sort of trained out of open interpretation into more rigid ways of looking at things. In my personal experience, the first year of art school was where all of those rigid things were undone, and it was really liberating. I went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and they used a sort of Bauhaus structure, so we worked in all different media. I remember one assignment a teacher gave us: to draw a chair. Everybody spent a few hours drawing classic chairs, very detailed. And somebody just drew a rock or a mound or something, and that was the one that the teacher said “This is a great chair!”
It’s one of the reasons why I make books in ways that are stubbornly ambiguous. I want the readers to participate.
What about adults then? How can we deal with the amount of images we see everyday? Is it the role of photographers to teach us and inform us about that?
No, I think we (as photographers) struggle with this as much as anyone else. Most images out in the world probably influence us in a subconscious way. Maybe it’s the role of the philosopher to teach us about that?
There have been artists who address this — I just saw a great exhibition of Sarah Charlesworth’s work at Printed Matter in New York. In the 1970s she would follow a particular image across multiple newspapers, and highlight the way it was used by removing all the other pictures and words around it. Hans Peter Feldmann’s book Voyeur jams hundreds of found pictures of different subject matter together. The video artist Gretchen Bender would install a grid of TV sets, each tuned to a different station, sometimes with associative words printed on the screens.
Your projects are conceived mostly as photobooks. What is a good photobook for you?
For me a good photobook is one that you can pick up over and over, and still be engaged with — you won’t necessarily think the same thoughts as the first time. Once every year or two I go through my bookshelves, and fill up boxes that I donate to the library, because I’m done with the books. But there are other books that I’ll never give away because they keep giving to me. So that’s what I want out of a book. That’s not to say that it’s the only type of book I like, but it’s the book I prefer or that I prefer to keep, and of course that’s the book that I prefer to make — the one that keeps giving.
And as a publisher, what do you look for in a photobook?
Well, we’re always looking for original and authentic voices. Once I meet an artist, I also want to understand the motivation behind their work, and I hope that it’s not strategic, but personally important. You never really know, just from seeing the work.
Your book launches are famous for being a kind of performance. Are you doing something for Picture Summer on Kodak Film?
Yes, the book usually comes first for me and then when I think about events such as a book launch, I don’t want to just have like wine and cheese and chit-chat, I’d rather do something more meaningful. I think about where it’s gonna be, and what could happen there that relates to the ideas in the book.
For this book I’ll be doing some performances in London, Milan, Berlin, New York and Amsterdam — if this stupid virus doesn’t get in the way. It will be a video performance, with a camera aiming down at the table, looking at the book which is stuffed with all sorts of papers. I’ll go through the entire book, and whenever I come to a piece of paper I’ll tell a story. The elements are related to back stories of my life that feed into this work. So you get almost like an appendix for the book. The room will be totally dark and I’ll have little flashlights that will light the surface of the book, and what the video camera sees will be projected onto a screen.
This kind of approach shows that photography can be seen as an object, like in the form of a photobook or a fine art print, and as an act of relating, an experience, as well.
Yes, I think photography is all of those things. It depends on the context in which you’re using it. I often think about photography in relation to writing, and in the same terms. You have people who are great at writing emails or great at writing jokes or great at writing historical essays — they’re all writers, but they don’t necessarily have anything else in common with each other. I think it’s the same with photography. For some reason we often talk about photography as one thing, but I think it’s the wrong way to think about it.
In a previous interview you said “For me graphic design is just something in the tool belt.” What else is in your tool belt then? What do you take inspiration from?
We can say for example that ambiguity is something in my tool belt. Then there’s a whole set of actual skills like knowing how to use a camera or how to use Photoshop. When you put a book together you can think of everything that goes into the design, like size of the book, the amount of white space, how pictures relate to each other on the page, what happens in the overall edit vs each spread … and all these aspects are content. The physical material of the book is also part of the content. When I teach in workshops, we talk about how the editing is just as much your voice as the picture taking, which is only one tiny part of the whole process, and I really believe in that.