It is no doubt frustrating for an artist when one particular interpretation lodges firmly in the minds of their audience as the best way to approach a given work, a frustration compounded when this work is the artist’s most widely known and influential. Such is the case with Chris Killip’s In Flagrante, which is generally seen as a response to the social changes that occurred in England during – and as a result of – Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister. Killip attempts to correct this perception with what is perhaps a somewhat tongue-in-cheek gesture in the new and long awaited reprint of the book by renowned publisher Steidl, listing the successive Prime Ministers that held office in the period he was making the work, only the last of which was the notorious Thatcher.[i] This addendum makes clear that, if nothing else, the persistent association of In Flagrante solely with the damaging effects of Thatcherite policy is chronologically wrong and the process of dismantling post-war social reforms that Killip so ably described had actually begun much earlier. In itself this is an important and welcome corrective to entrenched critical attitudes about the work. What the book also brings up, however, and what I want to address here is the issue of those changes a photographer might make between various editions of a book and the extent to which these are warranted or worthwhile.
The comparatively high price of the original means it is difficult to make a complete comparison; even the Errata Editions title on In Flagrante is now expensive to obtain. In fact, it might be more interesting to consider the rationale for making any changes at all, to what is, for many, an acknowledged masterpiece. The changes that have taken place are alluded to in the title, which is now appended by the word Two, differentiating this edition of the book and defining its successor status – a not quite sequel. Killip has taken the opportunity to include three images that had been left out of the first version. He doesn’t give any indication why they were excluded in the first place, as Stephen Shore, for example, does in the ‘Artist’s Note’ that introduces the 2014 reprint of his own seminal Uncommon Places, explaining that several of the images were absent from the original printing of the book because they required the intervention of digital technology to be useable. Advances in reproduction are in fact an excellent reason for a new edition of a book, especially in the case of colour printing. More significantly, Shore expanded on the original 1982 edition in 2004, so as to give a more representative view of his concerns in making that work, something he felt was not communicated by the original publication. Twenty further images have been added to the 2014 edition. The book is consequentially billed as the ‘complete’ work, though in many ways it seems doubtful that those pictures will substantially change our understanding of Shore’s essential aims.
The inclusion of three images by Killip is the least of the changes that have taken place, although they are powerful photographs in their own right. What he has left out is perhaps just as significant, including his own brief, somewhat enigmatic introduction, along with the closing texts by John Berger and Sylvia Grant. The most striking change is a simple, formal one; he has moved the images uniformly to the right-hand page, where each image appears by itself, in that classic format for the photobook. The book itself is also bigger, so that we can now lose ourselves in the rich, often painful details of each picture, such as the iconic image Torso, Pelaw, Gateshead, Tyneside (1978), where each crease of the man’s worn hands, the unravelling hem of his overcoat sleeve, its crudely darned pocket, his precarious balance on the wall, all have the force of a revelation. But this change in placement and rhythm means that each image also becomes, in effect, an object of aesthetic contemplation in a way that tends to dull the sheer urgency of the original narrative – an urgency that is once again, sadly, as pressing as ever. Whatever else the movement of images across the page in the original might have done, it reinforced the sense that these images are part of a dynamic whole, one that sat, as Killip himself said at the time, somewhere between fiction and metaphor. So there is a certain ambivalence in the experience of looking at the reissue; however much one might enjoy the complexity of individual pictures, this now comes at the expense of the book’s overall narrative complexity.
The sequence is now basically framed by two images, one of which does not feature in the original. They are two views of the same place, Wallsend, Tyneside, with a row of terraced houses on the left of the frame. In the second, newly included, and presumably later image, it appears as if a war has taken place – and, of course, in a sense, it has. The houses are abandoned, some apparently burned out, debris is strewn everywhere. A lone figure surveys the wreckage. There’s no indication as to what has actually taken place, but the implications are clear; a devastating break has occurred, a whole world, with its values and traditions, has been lost – or rather, has been wilfully thrown away. The effect of how these images are placed creates a sort of closure, by progressing from that world as it was to how it ended. What should be clear is that the new edition of the book works, as a book, in a substantially different way from the original; we might also note that the impression that it leaves, as a net result of this change, is substantially different was well. Still angry, it is now decidedly, if subtly elegiac, as though suggesting the damage has already been done. Leaving out Killip’s own short introduction and the concluding essay(s) has an effect as well. Berger’s text probably went a long way toward associating the work with a critique of Thatcherite policies, so it makes sense to cut it, given Killip’s desire to broaden the scope of responses the project has garnered. But this absence also serves to strengthen the impression that the pictures are the product of a history that has now largely been resolved.
It could be said, of course, that there is a difference between a facsimile edition and a reissue, which merely presents the work in as close a form to the original as the artist currently sees fit, affording the scope to correct issues with the original, such as Killip clearly felt was needed with both the printing, which was significantly darker the first time around, perhaps due to limitations in technology, and, as I have just outlined, the placement of the images. At the same time, how justifiable is it to apply such significant changes to a landmark work when the original books are so inaccessible to begin with? Its might be argued that this expanded format is a real advantage to our understanding of the work, which perhaps it is. But the fact that such major works in photographic book-making are not more widely available in some alternative form is increasingly hard to excuse. This need not involve the production of costly printed facsimiles, but could easily make use of high-resolution imaging and be distributed digitally instead. Although they don’t make ‘facsimiles’ as such, the aforementioned Errata Editions is an important model for what might be possible in this vein. Of course, a screen-based reproduction is not at all the same as seeing the original, but it would still provide a clear sense of sequencing and other important details, which are at least as important as the book’s materiality.
Given that most publishers are in the business of making products that will reliably sell, rather than promoting niche scholarship, this seems unlikely to happen on any kind of large scale, but it remains a worthwhile possibility to consider, especially since so many of the important books in photography are beyond the reach of most interested buyers and those studying the medium. Of course, no artist wants to be forever beholden to their past work, but the continuing inaccessibility of many important works in their original form is a serious impediment to the critical understanding of photography – and even of simple enjoyment, with publishers (and institutions) unwilling to make full use of the tools that are now available to them, especially since the promise of an ‘updated’ and ‘all new’ edition of a classic seems more likely to offer a better return on the steep investment of producing a photobook, whatever its reputation. The opposite extreme is the production of elaborate, ostensibly ‘complete’ works especially aimed at collectors. A good example of this trend in recent years has been the reissue of William Eggleston’s books in full, often consisting of multi-volume sets, including most or all of the material that was left out of the original publications.
While there’s certainly a case to be made that the best way to understand Eggleston is, simply, more Eggleston, and that the printing of these sets is also orders of magnitude better than the originals, especially true in the case of The Democratic Forest, the importance of letting the audience see (a version of) the original books for themselves and to understand the decisions – indeed, the compromises – that went into making them, should not be underestimated. If The Democratic Forest doesn’t seem to be terribly inaccessible or expensive on the used market right now, the same can’t really be said of Los Alamos, published by the sadly defunct Scalo. This is one of Eggleston’s essential works, crucial to understanding the themes and preoccupations that would define his output. The Los Alamos Revisited box-set from Steidl makes all those images available, plus a great many more and, in a way, the justification for the scope of these sets is that they reveal Eggleston’s vision in full, away from the pruning hands of his various editors.[ii] Not quite Eggleston unfiltered, but nearly. And the sumptuous production makes the purchase of these sets seem like a worthwhile investment. But understanding the work means taking account of all of the forces that have shaped it, even those that might retrospectively come to seem like ‘mistakes’ to the artists themselves, much as with Killip’s decision to change to layout of In Flagrante.
Josef Koudelka’s Exiles also provides a useful case study for the problems that can be encountered in the course of reissuing a book. Counting the most recent edition, which appeared in 2015, there are now three versions of the book in circulation, each slightly but meaningfully different from the others.[iii] The latest version shares the cover image with the second, but differs in typography and layout, while the first edition is more markedly different still. The recent edition is not being presented in any specific way, except as a standard reprint, so it seems like we should safely be able to assume that the work is structured in the same way as the earlier editions. But the first clue that this is not so must be the fact that several ‘new’ images have been included for the first time – standard practice, as we have seen, with the reprinting of classic photobooks. The changes that have been implemented here are more substantial than the inclusion of these new images would suggest by itself, however. What they involve is a restructuring of the book’s sequence, presumably to better accommodate the new pictures, but also because the occasion of this reprinting offers the opportunity for Koudelka to make a final ‘definitive’ version of the book and one that, not coincidentally, makes use of the heavier tonality that he prefers for his more recent work.
To be clear, this isn’t about preserving the book as a static record of the artist’s vision at a particular moment closest to its creation, but about understanding that the artwork (a book, in this case) is the product of those decisions that make it up and being able to read the worth of those decisions critically, because retrospectively altering them must inevitably change the work – and not always for the better. With books especially the sequencing of the pictures and the alchemy of what happens between them is central to the form, so to change that, either for the sake of making the book into an ostensibly new product or because the artist’s sense of what the work should be has altered in the meantime is essentially to re-make the work on its most basic level. Obviously there are arguments in favour of either position, but the scope and the effect of such changes have to be understood for what they are. With the case of Koudelka’s Exiles it seems to me that viewers coming to the work for the first time, not having seen the earlier versions, will be getting an impression of the work that is substantially less complete than it should – or could – be. [iv] The rationale for a straightforward facsimile edition of the original book seems clear, given the status of the work, but the opportunity wasn’t availed of – without, I would argue, any solid reason why such a project hasn’t been undertaken.
Even the varied and somewhat inconsistent terminology being used here – facsimile, reissue and so on – reflects the confused state of the market, a situation that seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.[v] It’s clear as well that no single approach will be workable in every case. As a tentative conclusion, however, we might say that the reluctance to embrace the full range of tools now available to facilitate scholarship in this crucial area of the medium is increasingly unjustifiable, not because digital editions can in any sense replace printed books, but because they can potentially provide a useful insight into the history of a particular book or artist when physical copies of the work are prohibitively expensive to acquire or just not available. Put simply, they are a further means of appreciation. It also needs to be recognised that there is a place for proper facsimile editions of books, even in those instances where ‘complete’ or alternate versions of the work exists, as in the case of Eggleston, or where the original work no longer conforms to the photographer’s current vision, such as can be seen with Chris Killip and Josef Koudelka in the examples cited above. This is certainly not to disregard the wishes or the intentions of the artists in question, but is a demand that arises from the sincere desire to deepen our understanding of how their work has progressed, with all of its complexities intact.
[i] He is also conscientious enough to include the political affiliation of these successive PMs. He neglects to provide a date for almost all of the pictures, however, and to my mind this is a serious omission, although admittedly that information is not given in the original either.
[ii] These include Thomas Weski for Los Alamos, Mark Holborn for The Democratic Forest and John Swarkowski for William Eggleston’s Guide, which reassuringly remains available as a very nice – and quite affordable – facsimile edition. Strictly speaking the Eggleston box-sets are not ‘reissues’ at all, but they do still have significant bearing on the discussion.
[iii] To confuse matters further, the three versions of the book that I refer to above include only the English editions. The very first is the French edition published by Robert Delpire. This also presents a different selection and sequence of images compared to the first English edition published by Thames & Hudson.
[iv] My own admittedly subjective view is that these changes largely undermine the subtle narrative poetry that made the original (English) edition so special.
[v] For the sake of clarity, however, let’s say that a facsimile edition reproduces the book in a way that is as near as possible to its original form and that a reprint is generally much the same, while a reissue may be all of these, but also leaves scope to change the existing presentation of the work entirely.