It’s one thing simply to reissue a classic photobook, as Steidl did recently—and exemplarily—with Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, but it’s a bit more to put out a great book in a new, amended edition, as the same publisher did this year with Chris Killip’s In Flagrante Two.
In both In Flagrante One and Two, we get a powerful social examination of England in photos taken between 1973 and 1985, when manufacturing in the north, in Killip’s words, “quickly fell apart.” The book is a social document, but what makes it endure, as with any great photobook, is the originality and power of the photos. So we get almost none of men on the dole and in welfare offices (as Paul Graham shot so effectively in Beyond Caring), but instead vivid, dramatic compositions of people weathering the elements (the very world itself?), making do in a landscape harsh in nature (and no doubt made worse by the collapse of the economic base). But tell me, what does the unforgettable photo of a black-cowl-clad young woman atop a white horse, looking hindward, tell us about Thatcher’s England? What I get from it is: This is one of the most powerful photos I know, something Thomas Hardy might have shot had he a Leica back in the late 19th century.
So one way or another, In Flagrante is a great photobook. There’s a reason it was among the first four chosen by Errata for its celebrated Books on Books series. But what interests me in this piece is what happens when a new edition of a photobook is released years after the original in “a radically updated presentation,” as the publisher puts it.
In an interview with Martin Parr for Time’s Lightbox, Killip talks about how the Errata edition got him thinking about In Flagrante, and how his book could be produced anew, addressing some of the things that always bothered him about the first incarnation, especially all the shots spread across the gutter and the not-great quality of 1988 British printing.
Now I’m always a little suspect of new, rethought editions of work in any medium. Great recordings come out with a remastered CD, but also outtakes and contemporaneous live tracks and anything to make the whole thing a grand box set and charge more money. If it’s the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, I’ll get the box (the first time; there’s a new forthcoming edition I think I’ll pass on), be happy for the remastering, maybe listen to some of the early versions of songs, then let it live on my shelves. Still, when I want to listen to Pet Sounds on CD again, I’ll play the cleaned-up, remastered version—why not? It simply sounds better, richer, more alive.
With books, though, photographers can go all Henry James on their work: rethinking the photos in the book, adding a bunch, changing the order … in effect, making a whole new thing. Is this redoing better? Depends, of course, but there’s a lot to be said for trusting youth and initial impulses and just the way it all first came out.
With In Fragrante Two, we’re getting not so much a rethinking as a remastering of the original, though there is a little reediting. Some photos have been dropped, others added. For instance, following the immensely powerful shot of a boy squinched-in on a brick wall, his grimacing head buried in tight fists, there’s now a wide industrial landscape centering on kids playing on a jail-cell-like climbing apparatus. The two photos work together. The all-important story of the book is enhanced.
But it’s clear that what attracted Killip to a new edition is the way they are positioned (“If I was to do anything … I wouldn’t put the images across the gutter”) and that they now sit one per page, with a white facing page. Also, that they photos be well-reproduced.
Well, Steidl’s putting out the new book, so the reproduction is unparalleled. The blacks and grays are lighter, there’s more tonal range in each shot, more details, too. Intriguingly, each shot is more delicate, more pristine on the page.
Is this right for In Flagrante? If it were a remastered CD, of course it would be: more information, more detail, more depth. Go listen to the Beatles’ first appearance on CD back in the ’80s compared with the current digital versions: no mud, little blur, crisp guitars, distinct voices … indisputably an improvement.
But then play the original LPs. Hmnnn. I don’t want to get too deep into the vinyl versus digital music argument, but vinyl simply sounds better. Does this apply to analogue reproduction (all there was in 1988 for books) versus digital printing? In some cases: No book I’ve ever seen has as rich black and whites as the original photogravures of Brassai’s 1933 Paris du Nuit. Even later analogue editions lose much of the magic.
So each iteration of a book is different. I own all the versions of Robert Frank’s Americans except the French original. Which one do I prefer? Sometimes the Grove—it’s the first. At other times, the lovely, current Steidl book. I imagine Frank sitting in Göttingen getting each photo just to his taste. But sometimes I like the 1969 Grossman edition, with its strong, blurrier blacks and ominously dark reproductions.
I go on about this here because the 1988 In Flagrante is closer in spirit to the Grossman Americans: It’s overall darker, heavier on the page, always murkier, but also more emotional. In the shot of tweed-coated workers before a barbed-wire fence in the original, the man on the left has only a black blob for his cap and hair. In the new version, you can see the strands of his hair, the nap of his coat.
But also in the new version there’s far less of the barbed-wire strands dangling over these men. So which reproduction is truer to the emotions of the shot? I go back and forth, greater detail and finesse from Steidl, stronger yet blotchier blacks from the original. In the case of the men before the fence, though, I think I’ll go with the original book and its far more pronounced barbed-wire fence. I am a sucker for a good symbol, as my recent piece on Fukase’s Ravens will attest.
But my preferences are truly photo by photo. Look at the shot of a boy sitting on a heap of sod carefully holding what appears to be a young chick in his hands. That photo gains nothing from being black and blurry, and is far more moving with Steidl’s delicate touch.
The new version of In Flagrante is terrific. The intensity of Killip’s vision comes through, the slight editing of photos makes for a flowing, still moving experience, and for most photos the greater clarity enhances them. But for others the heaviness in the original increases a shot’s power.
Bottom line: In Flagrante Two is easily available, the original is not. Two may be a bit more like going to a museum show and looking at photos on walls rather than seeing them in the down-and-dirty paperback I own, but that’s the way it is. I also think for the majority of shots, the new book makes the photos stronger.
The good news is that no matter which edition you go with, the power of Chris Killip’s photos hasn’t diminished, and the book remains one of the best ever at taking a socially aware vision of a country and time, and lifting it to the level of enduring art.
A selection of Chris Killip photobooks can be purchased here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info here). In Spring 2017, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.