Mack Books has been on a roll lately. Christian Patterson's Redheaded Peckerwood topped many 2011 year-end lists. That book alone would be the feather in most publishers' caps. For Michael Mack it was just one component in a very strong catalog, as last year also saw the release of Gerry Johansson's Pontiac, Bertien van Manen's Let's Sit Down Before We Go, Mark Dion's Oceanomania, Paul Graham's Films, and several other excellent monographs.
Almost lost in the mix was Julian Germain's For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness. Originally published by SteidlMack in 2005, the first edition quickly went out of print. Now the book has followed Mack to his eponymous imprint, republished in November as a slightly expanded second edition. It's as strong as any book in Mack's catalog.
Entitled with a sentimental truism and sealed with a flower-stamped cover, one might expect such a book to have some element of irony or campiness. Accustomed to a steady diet of visual double-entendres, the contemporary reader might wonder what's the angle here? Fortunately there is none. The book is straight and earnest. It's a simple portrait of an elderly man's life.
Germain befriended Charles Snelling in the early nineties, became interested in his life, and then began photographing him. His visits with Snelling were initiated more out of companionship than photographic goals. "Photography was undoubtedly part of it because I always took my camera," Germain says, "but it was a relatively small part with no end product in mind, no deadline and no pressure to 'succeed'." Nevertheless, Germain produced a series of quality photos, enough to fill roughly two thirds of the book.
The remaining third is composed of Snelling's scrapbook albums, which are woven seamlessly into the material with Germain's own photographs. The albums are presented as true facsimiles with yellowed pages, dog-eared covers, and all, as if one were viewing them directly. When applied to the book's endpapers with the scrapbook binding right through the gutter, the effect is quite stirring.
Through these old scrapbooks the reader gets a sense of Snelling's earlier life before he met Germain. We see its central figure, his deceased wife Betty, in a series of vacation photos and everyday snapshots. We take a trip to the shore, to the zoo, through greenhouses and various flower collections echoing the cover.
The experience of thumbing Snelling's old scrapbooks is rich and cinematic, and the photos have an authenticity that no outside photographer can match. Indeed, this is one of the project's central paradoxes. Germain's photographs of Snelling -- artfully composed with shallow depth of field -- are wonderful. But they look like, well, fine art photographs. The fact that an old snapshot might communicate more information, or at least convey it more directly, is a problem most photographers would prefer not to think about. But Germain addresses it head-on. He not only throws scrapbooks into the mix, but they're given equal treatment with his own photos. For Germain, this is only one example in a long career of reinterpreting found photographs. A collaborator with Erik Kessels and board member of Useful Photography, Germain finds recontextualizing the vernacular familiar territory. To the extent that it works in this case, it's due to the obvious affection Germain has for Snelling. As much love and care as Charles and Betty have put into their scrapbooks, Germain has put into his own photos.
Germain's approach contrasts with similar projects by others. Kaylynn Deveney's The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings, for example, is probably the book to which it will be most closely compared. They are quite alike in many ways, yet unlike Germain's, Deveney's book is firmly rooted in contemporary fine art, with traditional author/subject division. In comparison, Germain's book splices together eras and authorship, and erases the boundary between high and low art.
As usual Mack's production quality is excellent. The textured binding holds the pages tightly. Inside, the reproductions are gorgeous. Snelling's scrapbooks look virtually real, and Germain's photos have been tinged with just enough yellow to give them some of the same nostalgic feeling. Given a few years, this book won't look out of place amidst the rest of Snelling's family albums.