Documentum, Volumes 1 and 2
Founding editors: William Boling, Dawn Kim, Stephen Shore
Volume editors and curators: various
Fall Line Press, 2016
Reviewed by Leo Hsu
“The content of a medium is always another medium.”
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964
What happens when media content that is native to Instagram – work that was made for Instagram’s format, and that innovates within the platform – is moved to a different platform, traditional print? How is the experience of the work transformed? Documentum, a four-volume periodical series from Fall Line Press, offers a response to this question by publishing Instagram work in print form. In so doing Documentum provides some material longevity to the work (though newsprint is susceptible to its own set of material risks). But Documentum’s play with cross-media translation is also a fascinating experiment: the project challenges us to examine our changing beliefs of what constitutes the necessary or essential characteristics of both old and new media. At a moment when our statements (visual, textual) are increasingly modular or even isolated units that are assembled on demand, there’s a stake in understanding how media forms enable us, and how they inhibit us.
Stephen Shore and his co-editors William Boling and Dawn Kim are producing the Documentum series with Boling’s Fall Line Press. Shore’s influence on photography cannot be overstated, and his involvement in this project feels uniquely appropriate; his influence is strongly felt on Instagram, where so many photographers attend to their everyday surroundings, finding grace or gravitas in the way that the everyday appears when photographed. In a position statement in Documentum Volume 1, Shore, whose work features prominently throughout both volumes, notes that he loves that Instagram is notational, or diaristic; that it forms communities; and that it is fun. “It accepts complexity but doesn’t demand it,” he writes, and this is core to its appeal – it’s a platform with a great deal of flexibility, and the experience of it will vary from user to user, from viewer to viewer. Unlike a print magazine, its form is dynamic, and both publishers and viewers can determine the terms of their own engagement.
Documentum Volume 1 presents a variety of uses of Instagram by twenty-seven photographers chosen by five guest editors. Many of the artists present large groups of notational pictures, displayed in a grid, drawing attention to the equivalent weight of images on Instagram. Some photographers’ contributions, like their feeds, are devoted to a single theme or revisit specific themes, such as Peter Halley’s satellite landscapes, or Daniel Blaufuks’ still lifes, or Jinjoo Hwang’s minimalist play with shadows and silhouettes. Image pairs, such as Katrin Koening’s kinetic pairing of waterfall and moving face, and Heather Sten’s fruit and landscape, encourage a closer reading of the images and highlight the relationship between pictures.
Paging through the sections, the different expectations that print and Instagram encourage quickly become evident. The print layouts sometimes feel static, especially when you know that they are drawn from larger bodies of work. On Instagram you can always explore more; the feed reaches back into time (load more), and advances forwards like a living thing. You can jump out onto a user’s own website if they offer a link, or you can see what they like, what their followers are doing; there are a thousand paths to follow. Notations and observational records are compelling because they tell a story about the way that a person’s interest and attention change over time. Seeing these as fixed layouts, in twelve or thirty images, sets an expectation that these are finished pieces. One of the projects that I enjoyed the most, because it was adapted to the print form and included brief notes, was Tanya Marcuse’s notational feed. “[As] playful as IG is,” writes Marcuse, “I enjoy the rigor of making daily photographs within the constraints of the IG format.” And so, in a two-page layout, we get a feel for how she sees and how she works: it’s neither a truly self-contained thing nor an ongoing feed, but sits across the expectations of both.
The translation to print is noticeable in other ways. Most of the reproduction is very good, as good as you can expect newsprint to be. But some of the images printed in black and white suffer: Awoiska van der Molen’s feed displays her work with subtle tones and textures, small but legible; in newsprint these tones have merged together muddily. The use of the recognizable grid convention as a layout device did not always serve the pictures well. Looking at some of these spreads felt like looking at thumbnails, and I wished that I could inspect the pictures more closely as you can’t click to enlarge.
The print form makes the work sharable in different ways than social media content is shared (the first issue was hung as a gallery exhibition at Poem 88 in Atlanta). But the medium changes the physical relationship between the viewer and the work. It’s a trade off: where you can look at Instagram anywhere that you have an internet connection, you can only look at Documentum where you have space to spread it out, especially with Volume 1’s full broadsheet layouts. David La Spina’s street photographs occupy a double truck and the lead image is printed at 13” x 18”. The orientation of the sections changes several times. Many of the layouts are best viewed at a distance greater than arm’s length. Anyone will have a hard time reading this on a bus; it may look like a newspaper, but it’s not laid out like a newspaper.
These effects are notable because they indicate the distance between experiences of online and print media. Seen as functions of translation rather than as problems of design, they draw attention to our expectations, the ways that we physically interact with media, and the degree to which our reading of photography and text on Instagram is associated with the way these media are presented on the Instagram platform. The editors seem to want to show that translation across media is neither obvious nor easy. This is sometimes to the detriment of individual images, but it’s to the benefit of the project overall as an experiment.
Volume 2, featuring thirty-six artists selected by six guest editors, approaches the interplay of images and texts, and reads more like a conventional magazine, a newsprint half-page in a single volume. The format is well-suited for the scale within its pages, where we encounter: images of text, images complementing text, and images set into longer essays. Instagram provides a context in which an individual can put forward complex and strong emotional information by authoring in two different media. As Boling notes, “Something in the Instagram space or community itself perhaps seems to be luring out great writing and picture sharing that is at its best flowing respectfully and beautifully together.”
Many of the artists present texts that respond to images. Sometimes this is explicit, like Rachel Cohen’s commentary on a photograph of Sojourner Truth. More often this happens in parallel: Magda Kapa, Rebecca Norris Webb, and many others create reflective photographs that then inspire reflective texts. There are also longer essays, drawn from larger journalistic or documentary projects. Jeff Sharlet, a pioneer of using instagram as a journalistic platform reflects on his experiences interviewing sex workers. Randy Potts travels to meet and interview people whose sexuality might put them at odds with being Christian in conservative rural Texas; her feeds are personal memoirs and journalistic narratives. For both, photographs and writing are part of a unified, intimate, complex story-telling process.
Other works play with picturing text as typography, or as found in the environment. Alec Soth’s contribution is reflexive; he photographs notes of ideas followed by a picture or two in response (“Idea #9: Redaction”, followed by two pictures with blacked out areas). The wrapper for the volume is similarly self-referential: the sheet is printed on one side with “every picture in this issue” set into a uniform grid, and on the other, “all of the words” printed in eight unbroken columns, a recognition that those basic media are like data waiting to be called, information to be organized and made meaningful by the media in which they are set.
The Documentum project is ambitious and plunges forwards with heady enthusiasm. The greatest difference between Instagram and the Documentum publication is the way in which the print medium is undeniably fixed. Where a periodical is a finished thing, Instagram is never finished. In trying to imagine a print medium that wants to emulate Instagram in certain aspects of its sensibility, Documentum ends up as neither a hybrid nor a conventional form, but as a satisfyingly daring experiment. Documentum introduces the reader to artists and their work but also creates a new kind of space that is stimulating even as it is forces us to ask what we take for granted about media; this awareness enables us to innovate, as so many of the featured artists have.
Ultimately, the significance of media is not its form but in the way that form informs how we know the world: what information it allows us to access, and how it colors the meaning of information. I’m very curious to see what the upcoming Volume 3, exploring vernacular photography, will look like, as the editors navigate between the formal dissonances of Volume 1 and the more traditional mode of Volume 2. I don’t know what the editors have in mind for Volume 4 but I would love to see a “Social” issue that explores the social dynamics of Instagram: the ways that photographic approaches and styles converge and diverge; the way that conversations form on Instagram, perhaps addressing hashtag cross-referencing and the tangential paths that hashtags facilitate; the economy of ancillary apps and like-for-like practices that facilitate the collection of followers; the ways that communities coalesce around certain aesthetics, or in following celebrities; how different modes of art photography bleed into one another on Instagram. I hope that future volumes in this project are able to speak of the audience, and the active production of media feeds, whether online or material. It is in our participation, after all, that the media becomes meaningful.
Documentum Volume 1
Guest Curators: William Boling, David Campany, Dawn Kim, Chris Rhodes, Stephen Shore
Featuring the work of artists: Daniel Blaufuks, Céline Bodin, Matthew Brown, Cessare Fabbri & Silvia Loddo, Daphne Fitzpatrick, Emma Georgiou, Maury Gortemiller, Justin Graefer, Peter Halley, Marvin Heiferman, Jinjoo Hwang, Phillip March Jones, Christopher Kasprzak, Katrin Koenning, David La Spina, Tanya Marcuse, George Miles, Awoiska van der Molen, Erig Oglander, Buku Sarkar, Heather Sten, Yu Ukai. Grant Willing, Julian Woodcock
Documentum Volume 2, Pictures and Words
Guest Editors: Kate Palmer Albers, Teju Cole, Colette LaBouff, John Pilson, Jeff Sharlet, Rebecca Norris Webb
Featuring the work of artists: Elizabeth Adams, Fabiola Alondra, Fran Antmann, Lisa Anne Auerbach, Adam Bell, Nick Benson, Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, Elaine Bleakney, Blair Braverman, Ryan Canlas, Wah-Ming Chang, Rachel Cohen, Saudamini Deo, T. Foley, WarrenOatesGTO, Sadia Hassan, Mishka Henner, David Horvitz, Emily Johnston, Magda Kapa, Sita Kaylin, Louise Mathias, Quine Mountain, Alexander Nemerov, Naveen Naqvi, Vernon Ng, Randy Potts, David Pudlo, Jacinda Russell, Divya Sachar, Neil Shea, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, Meera Subramanian, Kristina Williams, Carmen Winan
Purchase Documentum from Fall Line Press