Miwa Susuda: What is Photography?

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Photography is about one’s identity—it reveals how an individual perceives his or her own world.

By way of explanation, consider Nobuyoshi Araki and Paul Graham, two very different photographers. Araki is a notable example of someone who photographs his daily experiences, relying on an intrusive impulse that eschews any analytical observation of his sitters. By contrast, Paul Graham’s approach to conceptual documentary work is informed by intellectual examination. Indeed, Graham conceives of photography as akin to an art project, rather than mere documentation alone. As both men embody disparate beliefs, there is no overlap, no crossover between their presentations.

It’s become a sort of cliché to bemoan photography’s supposed decline. All too often, I hear people claim that photography has lost its teeth and is no longer effective in contemporary society. These same naysayers would also have you believe that photography has ceased to function as art. They point to the medium’s increased accessibility—available to anyone, anywhere, anytime—as evidence of photography’s lessened impact in a society oversaturated with digital stimulation.

I strongly disagree.

Now that the image is dead, photography and photo books matter more than ever.

The images that scroll past in a blur on Instagram are not photography, but rather, merely information in pixel form. These data-fied images are inherently limiting, in that they dilute our experience of the photographer’s individual voice. As evinced by the juxtaposition of Araki and Graham, there is a rich palette of expression to be found among photographers, but such distinctions cannot be fully appreciated on a tiny iPhone screen. On the other hand, photography on physical paper is far more conducive to deeper engagement. There’s something about a printed photograph’s organic quality that makes it more likely the viewer will find greater involvement with a photographer’s unique perspectives.

In a testament to the power of the printed photo, most photographers share an obsessive attention to detail with it comes to selecting the paper, design, format, and printing of their own book. Inevitably, the designers, publishers, and printers will fervently argue all sorts of minutiae with the photographer, toward the common goal of creating a better finished book. We debate each book intensely, because we know that each step behind the production of each volume is crucial in manifesting the photographer’s idea.

As the publisher of Session Press, I am fortunate to work with a dream team who devote their innumerable talents to the creation of our photo books. I rely on their opinions tremendously. If my venture enjoys any measure of credibility, it is thanks to the sincerity and hard work of these colleagues. Granted, our modus operandi does, at times, seem comically inefficient. Between all the back-and-forth liaising and tedious testing (sometimes even creating mockups by hand), book production does not always make sense in today’s economy. Although I generally don’t like to work in a muddle, I am still a believer in the power of inefficiency in palatable doses. When it comes to making books, there are certain instances where efficiency simply won’t work. The “right decision” can’t always be quantified by coldly rational or mechanical means. In a creative realm, the “right decision” must also account for emotion and intuition, both of which are not always reasonable. In this sense, the act of creating a photo book is an irrational pursuit. Irrational because the photo book ultimately revolves around people, not products. The human mind does not always work linearly, rationally, and cohesively, but rather breaks the rules to soar discretely, spontaneously, and organically. Creativity has to be real, a genuine reflection of our own fallibility, imbued with all those imperfections in the way we feel and think. After all, we are not machines.

But don’t get me wrong. Far from denying the convenience of digital mediums, I do believe it’s quite important that images be distributed online to help “spread the word” and reach a greater audience. The digital medium is simply another, alternate method that doesn’t degrade the saliency of photo books (photos on paper).

The photo book is here to stay. Rightfully so, for I believe that photo books have been and will continue to be an authentic vehicle for expressing the photographer’s vision. I count myself fortunate to have worked with many such creative talents throughout my career and look forward to what the future holds.

Miwa Susuda, Publisher at Session Press

Photograph by © Cory Rice

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