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Conversation with Javier Pérez Iglesias


​I met Javier in Fiebre 2022. I had just finished the talk "Photobooks count: The library of the UCM Faculty of Fine Arts narrated from its own publications."

It was really very attractive. Following the ideal thread of the library-as-garden metaphor, he took the audience on a journey of exploring a selection of photobooks from the collection of the library of which he is director.

I would call Javier's a performance. He calls it little theatre, but whatever name is given to his very personal recipe, below, you will discover the ingredients, the flavor that lingers in my memory is that of a great passion for the world of art books and a incredible ability to engage the public. 


In a crescendo of participation we all find ourselves on our feet, called to open and support the fronts of the wonderful book bound in leporello The naming of a river by Cheng Xinhao.

Fortunately, I wanted to go tell him how much I loved his presentation, because quite casually, while talking about me and my research, he told me that a couple of years ago, the library started creating and cataloging a collection of photobooks for children. 

I couldn't expect anything better. 

Finally discovering the existence of a collection of photobooks for girls in Spain and also linked to such a charming person! 

The next morning I was already in the Library, received with open arms by Javier. 

Here I recount our first conversation, from which beautiful collaboration ideas were born that I will soon tell you about.


Tell me a little about yourself, your talk in Fever was very captivating. I have the idea that you have a theatrical training, is that correct?


Well, actually I do these performative conferences, which I call little theaters, which are conferences in which I talk about a topic. In what you saw in fever I talked about the library.  I have others in which I talk about other topics, for example city life, gardens, nature, animals... all the talks are supported by readings.

What I do is that I take all the readings I talk about and the books appear in the conference. 

Ninety-nine percent of those books are from the library where I work, from the library of the Faculty of Fine Arts of the Complutense.

Then there is another ingredient, most of these books are artist publications or photobooks or fanzines or ephemera, cards, flyers, room sheets, “not books”, as Ulises Carrión said. In other words, publications to which no one normally goes in search of information to create a conference or carry out research on a topic. I use these kinds of sources to illustrate what I'm telling, to argue my discourse as well, and as I name them, they come out to form an installation that, sometimes, also speaks for itself.

I am interested in that side of the stage where there is a meeting between what we usually consider theater together with performance and dance and, well, I do have collaborations with artists who are in that world, in those lines of encounter.


I'm lovin 'it! I would like to talk at length about this, but let's get to the main reason for this conversation. Could you tell me how and why the collection of photobooks for girls came about?


Well, it didn't occur to me and it didn't occur to the library staff, it was because of a friend and collaborator named Ana Garralón who is a specialist in children's books. She was looking for photo books designed for girls and when I told her we had a nice collection of photo books, we looked together to see what was interesting along these lines.

Then, on his advice, we bought some books thinking about making that collection. 

Our library is a research library for learning and creation in a higher education institution, a Faculty of Fine Arts, within a University, so here the photobooks are interesting not only from the point of view of what we learn and do and we investigate, but also for a professional opportunity for many people here who study design and study fine arts. We are also interested in cultural creation for girls as a possible professional activity for our graduates.


In your opinion, why are there so few photobooks for girls?


Well, I don't think there's just one reason. I am also not sure that there are so few works.

It is true that there are few compared to what has been the phenomenon of photobooks for adults, but what it shows us, and I suppose you are also realizing it, is that when you look for photobooks for girls, they appear. Although it is true that there is less than for the adult public.

It occurs to me that the world of childhood has traditionally been associated with drawing, with drawing as part of the expression of girls -all girls draw- and also as a privileged way of approaching them. On the other hand, it is a reality that girls have been taking photos for a long time, in fact, they always have. Of course, they have always been able to take photos if an adult allowed them to handle a camera with their little hands, but now it's easier. 

There is also another important aspect, the children's book market is a broad and consolidated market that gives many benefits to publishers. On the other hand, although the world of photobooks is a great ecosystem, with a lot of production, but also a lot of self-publishing, I honestly don't think any publisher will get rich from them.

So, well, as you can see, I don't have an explanation, I can hypothesize.


Let's talk criteria. You've said that you've decided that some photobooks can be considered photobooks for girls, so that presupposes some criteria. At the Fever conference I remember the knitting book you presented, The manly art of knitting, and you said it could be considered a photobook. So, what are the criteria for deciding that a book with photographs is a photobook?



My criteria are lax, not only with the photobook but with what is an artist publication in general. There is a problem in deciding what is an artist publication. Traditionally, what has been considered an artist publication is an editorial work in which there is an artist who signs it and considers it his own work. That would also affect photobooks.  Yes, it is true that among the criteria there must be a willingness to use the language of art. In other words, a catalog in which an artist's works appear is not necessarily an artist's publication (normally it is not).  The same as a photographer's photo catalog is not a photobook . In principle, because then there are catalogs that could be considered. 

But in the photobook there is something specific, as Horacio Fernández said: “they are photos that are books, books that are photos”. The photograph, of course, has to be there. 

To what extent that being there makes the photograph important for the story is what would be a criterion for me.

Some of the photobooks in our library contain a lot of text, for example, in Los Modlin by Paco Gómez, but we consider it a photobook. One thing I like about this book is that the photos are very important in the story, that is, the photos make the story exist, even if they don't always contribute to the story with their mere presence._cc781905-5cde-3194-bb3b- 136bad5cf58d_


I am going to give you an example of a project that for me has to do with photography, I saw it in the last Documenta 2022. It is a project by the Palestinian artist Yasmine Ei-Sabbagh ( /lumbung-members-artists/yasmine-eid-sabbagh/ ) who did work in some refugee camps in Lebanon inviting people in those camps to collect family photos or even take and talk about them. But in the project in Kassel you don't see a single photo from that photographic archive that has been digitized, you don't see the photos. At most someone whispers a photo to you, when you are in a prepared space, a large room with carpets, where there is a piano and drums, where music is improvised and where sometimes people meet to talk, people who are part of the project or someone who comes there to talk about the project and the photos. For me this is a photographic project, although the photos do not appear.  


In the case of the knitting book, can we speak of a photographic story in that case?


Yes, for me it is clearly a photobook, but very clearly. There is a use of photos that has a clearly didactic intention on the one hand, you see types of dots in the photo and that is combined with drawings. On the other hand, there is a use of the photos that goes beyond the didactic and that is very important, for example, at the beginning of each chapter there are always some hands, a photo of the hands with some skeins and some needles. There is also an artistic intention in the humor, in the ironic wink that underlies this entire manual because everything that is woven has to do with the life of a cowboy, who is the one who tells it, and who appears on the cover knitting uploaded to His horse. It's like a weaving manual for cowboys and the rest of the world in photobook format.


I think what you say has to do with the expansion of the canon that you mentioned in Fever. I wanted to ask you to elaborate on this concept of extending the canon.


This canon expansion also has to do with a researcher friend who is working with the library, Mela Dávila. She is doing research on artist publications for her doctoral thesis. In addition, her research is generating publications that she makes and that fall into the typology of artist publications.  Her hypothesis is that the restrictive canon of what an artist book is has meant that, from the 60s to here, there are mainly men. His hypothesis states that if we expand this canon and start to think of artist publications as other publications that have not been included, for example, collective works, there will be more presence of women.


Before you talked about the artist's book in relation to the photo book, can you explain this relationship better?


For me the photobook is a category of artist publications. It is true that there can also be photobooks that have not been made by an artist, that can also happen, an example could be that knitting manual, whoever did it may not be an artist, although for us they have made something that is art.   Here we enter the field of canon expansion.  

Before I knew that photobooks existed, I bought them for the library as artist publications. Our collection of photobooks began to exist, and that is something that I also told there in that talk in which we met, because a design student came and asked if we had photobooks and when I started talking to him about what it was that interested I realized that yes, we did, but not separated as a category. It immediately made sense that they were a subcategory because there were a lot of artists who called what they did photobooks.  I think any theoretical work on artist publishing includes photobooks and any work on photobooks includes artist books, although they do not call it an artist's book, but a photobook. 


Why is there so little presence of children's creations in the world of photobooks? 


Let us also think about what happened to those who wrote or illustrated for girls. The same.  Until not long ago it was an inferior world, it was not in the canon of literature, it was children's or girls' literature, a bit like saying that it is not literature, it is children's literature.   And this persists, despite the fact that there are many things for girls that we adults buy and read, but this prejudice persists, so how can it not happen with photos and photobooks?


I agree, there is still a lot of work to be done to end prejudice. And, in fact, even worlds that are said to be open are always a little closed in their enclosure. In your opinion, what kind of aesthetic and specific reading experience can a photobook offer girls compared to other types of publications?


I think that, taking into account that a photobook is a book with photos that are put together in the form of a book to tell a story, it exploits the possibilities that a book gives us to use the sequentiality of the pages to tell a story._cc781905-5cde- 3194-bb3b-136bad5cf58d_ Although sometimes many photobooks and artist books break this. They look like normal books, but when we open them they don't tell the story sequentially from page 1 to 2 to 3. Sometimes other things are allowed and I think this is an important encouragement for girls._cc781905-5cde-3194-bb3b- 136bad5cf58d_


Girls who are, let's say, cared for in an artistic way already have contact with albums from a very young age, with these books that have no words, that prepares them for the photobook. Those albums that only have images that when we see them with the girls we have to tell the story between them and us. 


In the photobook there is a lot of power for all that. Furthermore, the photos are not a literal document of reality. When we see them in a book, we create a story based on what that photo does there, along with the others. That seems to me an artistic training and an intellectual training too. So I think photobooks are an interesting tool, one more. 


What are the specificities of the photobook as a mediation tool for visual language?


It has this possibility, which was already explored in the photo books of the 1930s, such as The first picture book, where there are images very focused on the everyday object where the girls not only learn the word, but also bring a story to life. in each one of them. I think this is an advantage because, although we mentioned before that the image is not a literal document of what is in reality, sometimes it is easier with the image to name an object. However, a story can also be invented from this descriptive process. 


This is a specific and very interesting possibility that the photobook has. That of allowing a transition from literality to imagination. 


Because girls recognize what is in an image much more immediately than in a drawing. This possibility of going from the literal to the narrative well, honestly, I think that with girls it can sometimes be greater with a photobook. I say maybe, I'm not saying I'm sure.


In an age of overexposure to images, does it make sense to make photobooks for girls?


In a time of overexposure to the image, it makes sense to work with the images with the girls, whether they are photos or not. With the girls and with the older ones too. I believe that one of the effects of overexposure to the image is to dull the look. In other words, file it down in the sense of diminishing the ability of the whole world. 


It is the same thing that happens with what is called "infoxication", the excess of information, which causes people to lose critical capacity when it comes to analyzing what comes to them as information: what they read, what they listen to, what see also. 


But of course, for me, images and photobooks are not only a source of information but also a means of artistic creation, of enjoyment, and that enjoyment also has an effect on our ability to know and to approach knowledge._cc781905-5cde-3194 -bb3b-136bad5cf58d_


I don't separate what is useful from what is pleasant, which is why I think photobooks for girls make a lot of sense. The girls with the books, and the older ones too, it wouldn't make a difference there, they learn and enjoy. 


It is not the same to learn and enjoy, with a poem by Rimbaud, for example, than with a riddle that comes on a piece of paper inside a bag of sweets or with what comes out of the cupcakes. It is not at the same level. Therefore, it is necessary to work with the quality of the language. working with images and photobooks for girls make sense, a lot of sense.


Furthermore, the idea that photography is a mere document of reality has been dismantled for a long time, but it is something that has been dismantled at a theoretical level, in the artistic medium. This trap that photography is something objective, when in reality what it does is hide the ways of seeing, determines the need to train and exercise ourselves in the ways of seeing through photography.


What approaches are being developed in the field of photo books that would also work for girls?


I see in some photobooks, that we in the library have decided that they could be for girls, although they were not necessarily designed that way, a work with humor as a way of confronting images, of relating with images that arouse a smile. I think this is important to work with girls. 


Then also in many photobooks I see an unprejudiced use of images, unprejudiced in the sense that they can use found photos, photos that the artist himself has not taken, who is going to handle them to make a story and that also interests me a lot for children. and the girls. I am interested because girls must learn to look at the everyday, well I think they have that capacity, but it is very important to promote that way of looking at the everyday with different eyes. 

In other words, the ability that girls have to turn a box or any everyday artifact into a toy seems to me that this also has to be worked on with them with images. Some photobooks do that.  Family album photos, for example, that the girls are able to see that it tells a story or that a story can be told with it to the point that they too they can create, encourage them to create stories with pictures, a story of their own, of their own family, of themselves, and so on.  


Other photobooks join objects in an unusual way, make unusual mixtures of objects or place objects in places where they are not expected. I think that all this is also interesting to laugh and work with the girls. 


And one last thing, many photobooks also explore different formats in the book, different ways of binding, ways of unfolding the book in a different way or creating surprises inside, in the way of teaching, among other special things that make photobooks and other artist's books, I'm not so interested from the point of view of whim, although whims are always delicious, but when it enhances what is being narrated. It's very powerful to be able to explore that with the girls.


Is there any memory of a photobook in your childhood?


There is no photobook of my childhood. There are many picture books, but I don't remember any with photos. What I do remember, although they were not designed for children, were the fotonovelas. Whenever one fell into my hands, I was fascinated by that way of narrating with photos and comic-style speech bubbles for conversations. That way of narrating continues to fascinate me. I think there are very interesting contributions along these lines, such as what the Fehras Publishing Practices collective does with Borrowed faces: a Phtonovel on Publishing Culture or what the Husos collective experiences in Urbanisms of remittances (book published by the Caniche publishing house). They are not children's publications, but to explore a world of popular culture, to tell stories of sophisticated thinking, that I think could work for children.


Can you give me a sentence for the Contemporary Visual Children's Book Manifesto?


Well, it should be a book that allows girls to be in these images, they can be in them and they can do things with them and do things not only with their hands but also with their thoughts.

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