Beth Dow the photographer is also Beth Dow the leather worker and Beth Dow the book maker. I’m interested in the confluence of the first and last Beth Dows at the moment, though there are some awesome leather goods I want to talk to her about.
This BotW note arises from a conversation I had with Beth last week. We held our conversation in the Northeast branch of the Hennepin County Library last Wednesday; it was the fourth in a series of PhotoBook Talks I’ve been conducting as part of the program for TC Photo, my emerging non-profit organization. We had a very good dialogue, during which I learned about her non-photographic skills. It was video-recorded, so at some point it will appear on the TC Photo web site (www.tcphotomn.org).
I’ve known Beth and her husband Keith Taylor since around the millennial turn. (She is a Minnesota native who met her British husband-to-be over there, then brought him back to the American Midwest.) Beth has a keen eye for culturally-inflected landscapes, and has produced several bodies of work dedicated to the anomalous curiosities of gardens and other built environments.
In 2008 her first book, In the Garden, won the inaugural Blurb Photography Book Now competition and garnered her a nice cash prize.
From her perspective, however, the book wasn’t ready for competition, and certainly didn’t deserve to win. Her intent in making In the Garden was to prepare a maquette, a step along the way to a more fully realized book that would showcase her images in high quality printing on good papers. But her skills as a photographer, combined with her appreciation for and commitment to design, typography, and editing, made her book stand out from a crowd of hundreds of other Blurb-published titles in the competition.
A nice surprise, though, to win. And something of a watershed, photo-bibliographically speaking. As I see it, In the Garden‘s success in the Blurb competition signalled a transition in the photography book publishing landscape. The book has (and had, then) all the earmarks of a traditional monograph, including images set one to a page, surrounded by white space, as though window-matted for framed presentation. The subject matter, too, has a gravitas and composure that merits admission into the modernist canon. Everything neatly sealed and delivered, though very rarely signed since the books ship directly to the purchaser fresh from the printer/binder. It would be very unusual, not to mention a significant layout of funds by the event organizer, to see a stack of Blurb books next to the artist at a book release event.
Beth has not yet had a monograph produced by a mainstream publisher—what we might refer to as pre-DIY, pre-digital photobook-making, the full Monty—and this remains a goal for her. In the meantime she is pursuing alternate paths to publication.
Last week Beth spoke about her 2015 book Third Person. If her name wasn’t on it, and you only knew her earlier garden photographs, you’d be unlikely to recognize it as issuing from the same artist. The black-and-white photographs (68, give or take) were made with Olympus point-and-shoot film cameras (I think she said she has about nine of them). They were made in dark bars and other nighttime settings where what she was photographing wasn’t apparent until the on-camera flash hit it, and then not again until the film was developed. Control is traded for a palpable energy in the images.
The book is scarcely bigger than a mass market paperback (actually, it reminds me most of paperback books of new poetry, hand-sized and pencil thin), printed effectively and expressively, with images running full bleed and frequently recto/verso. It’s almost entirely images. No essays, no photographer’s notes, only a phrase of thought-provocation from Eudora Welty on the very last page. Beth wanted this book, and the two that will follow it in an unnamed series, to be the kind of non-precious objects that get dog-eared and worn from use and misuse.
Contemporary photobooks like Third Person are the necessary end point of a creative process. Not, as in the mid- to late 20th century publishing model, an honorific prize bestowed upon an artist after some unspoken number of toiling years by one of a handful of authoritative, oligarchic publishers. Beth Dow’s photographs in Third Person were made to be in a book. In this book. And it’s a book that no traditional publisher would have supported. It’s a book that had to be self-published. And all the more significant for that.