Andy Mattern – Average Subject / Medium Distance

Review by Paul Anderson • 

How did mid-20th century photographic technology, popular aesthetic influences, and corporate priorities combine to shape public opinion on “good” photography? Andy Mattern’s work considers the influence of a once-popular photographic tool on the burgeoning field of amateur and professional photography from the 1940s through the 1980s.

The subjects of his work are Kodaguides. These photographic aides were produced by the Eastman Kodak Company over roughly four decades. Cameras of that era lacked the automated features that we take for granted today, so Kodak produced a series of spinning-dial calculators that provided the amateur photographer with recommended camera and flash settings for a variety of subjects, lighting situations, films, filters, and so on. These guides were relatively sophisticated, brimming with information and instructions in a small package that could be kept handy in a camera bag. The introductory essay by Matthew Kluk explores their history and use, providing important background information to the reader. The essay also includes a picture of an original Kodaguide.

Mattern collected Kodaguides, photographed them, and then employed image processing tools to abstract them. He removed most text and other identifying elements, leaving behind strong geometric forms with bright colors, arrows, dots, and lines, along with one or two cryptic words. Information pointing to the original use of the guides is lost in the process, leaving graphic images that ironically do not resemble traditional photographs, yet are strongly linked to devices that were explicitly made to help create traditional photographs. Presumably, Kodak designed these guides to point photographers toward a mainstream photographic aesthetic. As Andy Mattern told me in an email exchange: 

“The guides fit in neatly to a whole host of other instructional information out there for photographers on how to make ‘good pictures.’  On the one hand, it is very practical and sensible and necessary: you can’t make a picture without letting in the appropriate amount of light. However, on the other hand, they help to codify certain notions of what photography can and should be. My interest in the guides is how they reflect these norms and how those notions still ripple through the medium today.”

As with any worthwhile body of art, his work can be interpreted many ways. Three of them are offered here.

First, the images can be viewed as graphic designs in their own right. These guides were undoubtedly designed to make them attractive and useful to photographers. Stripped of most of their text and other visual clutter, basic graphic designs are allowed to show through. Doing so emphasizes their strong similarity to pop and comic book art.

In a second interpretation, the artwork asks questions about the use of these guides in setting aesthetic norms for photographers, and perhaps especially for amateur photographers. Besides the author’s own words, this interpretation is supported by Mattern’s retention of an isolated word or two within each of his images. Examples of these retained words include “color,” ”more / less,” “equivalent,” “shallow,” “subject,” “practical,” and, following the book’s title, “average subject,” and “medium distance.” In the opening essay, Matthew Kluk says these retained words are “…loaded and subjective terms … ,” and so they are. 

Images on facing pages have often been paired such that the retained words form interesting combinations across the fold. In one example, an image containing the word ”normal” is placed opposite an image containing the word “pose.” Other pairings include an image with “proper” placed opposite an image with “figure,” and “permanence” placed opposite “trouble.” This reviewer’s favorite pairing is an image with the word “doubt” placed opposite “desire.”

In addition to retained words, there are many instances of open parenthesis with the intervening text erased. This invites the viewer to fill in the blank spaces with their own imaginings.

A third interpretation considers the images in the context of scientific or engineering instrumentation. The rotating needle or circular gauge form has been a go-to design for many years. To see this style of instrumentation viewed as an artistic form is quite novel. This approach is, of course, still in active use today. It can be seen on many automobile dashboards, home thermometers, hobbyist multimeters, and even the weather app on a widely sold smart phone, where a virtual circular dial provides the user with information on wind direction and atmospheric pressure. To push the analogy even further, the retained words that were discussed previously can hold meaning here. For example, the word “effective” in one image could reflect the hopes of every engineer for his or her design, and the word “value” in another could represent the hopes of scientists regarding the usefulness of their work.

Looked at on another level, one could ask if these are indeed photographs. The images originate from photographs; they can be considered meta-photography because they concern the practice of photography, and the images easily fit within the world of graphic arts that include photography. But, why categorize? These can and should be enjoyed as colorful, detailed compositions of geometric objects based around the rotating disc form that comment on the societal impact of photographic and scientific tools. We should enjoy them as such.

The main body of the book is well thought out and sequenced, with images derived from full Kodaguides interspersed with more detailed views. Print quality is good, and it brings out the bright colors to good effect. 

There is an appendix of note called “A Sublime Index” that features grids of arrows, rivets, dots, and color swatches, which will be of interest to those who want to further explore these graphic elements. There is a second essay by Lisa Volpe that focuses on the humorous elements of Mattern’s work.

This book should appeal to those interested in abstract forms, the history of photography, or the development of photographic norms.

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Paul Anderson is a photographer/digital artist, working in Hermosa Beach, CA

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Average Subject / Medium Distance – Andy Mattern

Photographer: Andy Mattern (born in Albuquerque, New Mexico; currently lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma), and is an Associate Professor of Photography at Oklahoma State University

Publisher: Aint-Bad, Savannah, Georgia; © 2021

Essays: “A Little History of Making “Good” Pictures” by Matthew Kluk; “Right Wrong” by Lisa Volpe

Text: English

Hardcover, Perfect Bound, 9 x 7 inches, 128 pages, Edition size 300, printed by Tuijtel, Netherlands

Design: Martin Venezky

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Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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