Sequencing is dead. Long live the photo sequence. That's the somewhat schizophrenic equation currently hanging over photography. For many fine art photographers the single image is a bygone relic. The presumption is that anyone can make one, and so the emphasis has switched to curation, projects, and the interaction between images. In this world precise sequencing is vital. Yet in some ways it also impossible, for photographs are now dispersed and digested in such a variety of platforms and formats that any prescription for their consumption is doomed to fail. Even as photographers increase the emphasis on carefully edited projects, never before have they had less control.
So what's a poor photographer to do? One traditional tool still in the arsenal is the photo book, which by its very nature imposes an edit, a cohesion, and a dictated order. In a world dominated and diluted by the chaos of the web, the structure of photobooks provides an inviting outlet. Perhaps this is one reason that their spectacular rise to prominence has roughly coincided with the internet era.
But the sequence of a photobook is -- forgive the pun -- nonbinding. A reader can browse or skip pages in any order. They can set it down a while, read at various times in chunks of assorted size, or turn away completely. So while a photobook may prescribe a specific flow, it can't force the reader to follow.
Recently some publications have taken an alternate tack. In 2009 Shane Lavalette's Lay Flat 01 and Nick Turpin's publication printed photographs on loose leaf card stock, inviting readers to shuffle and form their own sequence. Both were accompanied by traditionally bound volumes of text, so in some sense they had it both ways. More recently, David Alan Harvey's (based on a true story) combined loose leaf and bound formats together in a seamless manner. The book came initially sequenced, but a clever tie-string binding allowed easy removal, reshuffling, and reattachment of pages. The order could be tailored each reader, transforming the book into collaboration between Harvey and his audience.
Bryan Graf's Wildlife Analysis takes sequencing into a new realm. The book's pages were printed normally, then combined by computer algorithm into random order. For each book in the edition of 500, the progression of images is unique.
According to Conveyor, this style "mirrors the meandering tone of the series in its construction." Shot on black & white film in the post-industrial swamps of northern New Jersey, the photos depict natural scenes with occasional glimpses of human artifact. But these aren't your father's social landscapes. The underlying monochromes have been heavily warped and tweaked by color bursts, mirroring the random corrosion and decay of the original scenes. Graf created his effects on film and then later in the color darkroom, deliberately allowing leaks, fogging, chromatic aberrations, and easel-grams, then deftly combining these color "mistakes" with the negatives in unusual ways. Sometimes the effect blurs past the point of recognition. I was halfway through the book before a sense of deja vu kicked in and I realized several of the original photographs were repeating themselves in disguise.
The book is 8 x 10 and presumably shows the original darkroom prints at actual size. But within that constraint, variation is the rule. Some images fill the page while some are cropped. Some are centered, some aren't, and some bleed right off the edge. A few spreads are completely blank. And did I mention the order of images is completely random? The pages can't be reshuffled but each time through they feel as if they have been. The overall effect of Wildlife Analysis is rather hallucinatory. Maybe it's about natural decay, or perhaps it's an homage to the waning days of color film, or a challenge to the presumed order of books, or all of the above. Whatever it is, it works.
My only complaint is the book's rather shoddy build. The photos themselves are nicely reproduced on creamy matte paper, with bright true colors. But when that finish is applied to the thin cover it feels more like cheap construction paper than proper book surface. The short text pieces, bunched at the book's opening and close, have the digitized and slightly off-key glaze of a bus station monitor. Maybe this is intentional. I can't tell. Either way, I don't think it benefits the images. But these are minor defects which the photographs more than make up for, no matter what order they're presented in.