Xiang Yun LOH interrogates how people relate to nature in her work. Using her skills as an illustrator, painter and photographer, LOH studies how nature is structured and managed in our cities. We talk to the exciting Singaporean artist about her relationship with the photobook.
The term ‘photobook’ is recent. What is your definition of a photobook? What is a photobook?
I hesitate to agree that the term photobook is recent because, in fact, there’s a very early well known photobook, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843–1853), self-published by Anna Atkins in 1843. Perhaps what we should be asking is what is the recent definition for the photobook, which is a rather interesting question.
What audience do we go to to answer this question? Is it the general public, the independent publishing scene? The contemporary art or photographic art scenes? The readership of course plays a significant role in the term’s definition. Also, some scenes are very protective and tend to quickly draw demarcations when using the term. The definition may change according to the time and company we are in.
According to Wikipedia, the definition of a photobook is a book in which photographs make a significant contribution to the overall content. A photobook is related to and also often used as a coffee table book. My breakdown of Wikipedia’s definition would be that the photobook is seen as an object in book form comprising a set of images which creates new meanings when components are combined. We could go down the rabbit hole to talk about the definition of what a book or a photo is but let’s save it for some other time! I welcome a conversation from anyone about this via email.
We have to be mindful not to think that about photobooks as a medium in and of itself. It should be understood in isolation from other modes of expression. There is also the danger of regarding photobooks as a separate category from other books. Structurally speaking a photobook is just a book which contains photographs in it. When I use the term to define a particular piece of work, what I look out for is the intention of the usage of the book as a form to communicate with images that are in some way tied to the photography.
This is a term which I am constantly conscious about as people have come up to me on multiple occasions referring to my self-published books as artist books or photobooks. My readers have the freedom to define my work and draw their own conclusions. I have no urge to ‘correct’ them as what I’m really curious about is what they have perceived my work to be. This thinking opens up opportunities for interesting conversations and broadens my perspective.
What is it about the book form that appeals?
I didn’t start out as an artist who intentionally made books or took photos. Initially I drew scientific botanical drawings – which I still do now for the Singapore Botanic Gardens. I took photos as a way to document my own observations in the hope to use them for my contemporary drawings.
However, I quickly began to see that there’s no purpose in making a drawing if it is going to turn out looking exactly the same as a photograph. Around that time, the THEBOOKSHOW organised a photobook open call. I jumped at the opportunity to make and submit a book, using the collections of horticultural photos I’d taken over the past two years. My first photobook Plant-ed was selected by the jury for the exhibition and it was very well received by readers. I saw that as my calling and have continued with it. So far, I have self-published three photobooks over a period of five years.
From when I was a child to my early 20s, I spent many moments isolating myself in my own room buried in books and films as a way to avoid the dramas of my dysfunctional family. Books hold a significant value in my life. I always borrowed as many books as I could from the public library. I’d hide the books I couldn’t take home, tucking them into a corner of a bookshelf hoping that no one would spot and borrow them before I could. In retrospect, that was rather selfish! I remembered one day when I returned and saw a librarian scanning the bookshelves with a device and was washed over with fear that the books I have hidden were all gone. True enough, the staff must have discovered my sweet hiding spot!
The book form is hardly a new medium but the possibilities of using the book as a medium to communicate our ideas are extraordinary. The book explores infinite ways of sequencing images that influence how we read, absorb, interpret and form our own meanings of the content.
For someone unfamiliar with the photobook genre, what are your tips on how to read a photobook?
Read a ‘photobook’ like you’d read any book. The readers should pay attention to what they are perceiving when they read the book. This kind of intentional reading is what any book should deserve from the reader.
What are the possibilities and limitations of self-publishing?
I find self-publishing is a path for self-exploration. Knowing my limitations creates possibilities for me to want to work with other collaborators.
I self-published my first photobooks in 2015 and took a period of five years to discover what I wanted to achieve and can excel while at the same time learning and accepting what I’m not good at or don’t want to spend my time doing.
I used to be a graphic designer in advertising before pursuing my career as an artist. The skills I’d developed made it easy for me to self-publish. When doing this alone, it did require me to be attentive to every step of the process whether I liked it or not. I had to come out with the concept, design and printing of the book, as well as work on marketing strategies, handling orders and payment, be active with my outreach, and so on. There’s a lot of control which I like but it also comes with a lot of responsibilities. Letting go of the control can be liberating.
In 2020 I started to feel isolated and wasn’t growing much in my practice, so I decided to reach out to Temporary Press – an independent press – to collaborate on a new photobook. The book would consist of the microscopic images I took for my scientific botanical illustration works that are commissioned by the Singapore Botanic Gardens. I like and welcome someone else interpreting my thoughts, challenging my views and questioning my perspective. Acknowledging that my collaborator is good at some aspects of the work of which I don’t have the time to invest in, and allowing them the freedom to express their creativity can be very rewarding. Two heads are always better than one!
Can you share with us the one photobook that profoundly changed your thinking about photography? Or the first photobook you bought?
My first photobook was Utatane by Rinko Kawauchi. It’s a well known book among the photographic art scene. Her work immediately resonated because of her graphic approach to how she treated the photographs. I’m trained in graphic design and noticed the good balance of colour palette and compositional shapes in the book’s layout.
I wouldn’t say the one photobook I’ve decided to highlight profoundly changed my thinking about photography but it has certainly made me realise some processes which I was heavily using for my scientific botanical illustration work is in actual fact, a way of photographing.
The title is The Encyclopedia of Kurt Caviezel by Kurt Caviezel published by Rorhof. The artist has been monitoring 15,000 publicly accessible webcams in his Zurich studio for the past 15 years. He’s taken screenshots of any situations he found interesting and compiled an archive of more than three million images. His dedication is astounding! If you think about it, the internet is his camera, the screen his viewfinder, the mouse his shutter release, the webcams are his lenses. The conventional definition of what a camera is is challenged.
In 2019, I suddenly lost the instinctive urge to whip out my phone or camera to shoot what I observed and I became very concerned. I thought I’d hit a plateau in my art practice. When I came across this photobook I realised I have been involved heavily in the photographic process, specifically for my scientific botanical illustration work! I had often used a Nikon SMZ25 to take digital images of the plant specimens I dissected under a microscope as a reference for my pen and ink illustrations. As of now, I have amassed a total of more than 3,000 microscopic photographs of plants over the past two years. The collection of images would be used for my new photobook coming out early quarter of this year.