Y – upcoming online platform for lens-based documentarY

Y is nearly the last letter of the Roman alphabet, and definitely the last letter of the word ‘documentary’. Y (pronounced in English and put into a photohistorical context) reminds me right away of the title of a seminal documentary photobook: Why Mister Why? by Geert van Kesteren. Y is also representing an initiative to create an online platform by a collective of leading and upcoming organizations in The Netherlands making striking multimedia productions in the tradition of  new documentaries: Paradox and Prospektor, both not for profit organizations recognized for developing long term documentary projects and implementing technological developments. Co-foundres and partners in crime are Kummer & Herrman and Colour & Books. This new online platform, carrying a name stripped off to one single syllable, is a market strategy, with a wink to the ‘i’ products by Apple. Branding is fashionable. Everybody needs a brand name nowadays, above all in social media. The platform, starting with the launch of a database (YdocDB) in April 2012, is open to ‘lens-based documentary’,  it reads on the recently distributed Y-folder. And stripped-off is indeed the graphic design of the  printed folder itself. Introducing the initiators, the aims, a new model for producing, financing and distributing documentary productions, be it printed matter or print on demand, still imagery or audiovisual projects, linear or interactive, analog or digital – starting with photography. But what does it mean ‘lens-based documentary’? How is that notion defined? Unlike …what? In terms of DEVICE, to be distinguished from ‘typewriter-based documentary’ or ‘keyboard-based’? The term ‘lens-based’ is unmistakable derived from the Master in Film and Photographic Studies at the Leiden University, recently renamed and focussing on  ‘the ubiquity of lens-based and projected media in contemporary culture’.

Back to the folder and the definition of documentary. I quote: ‘Critically questioning society and telling human stories are the pillars of documentary photography’. That’s it?…STORYTELLING? And what about profound long term research, which is critical in nature. What about in-depth interviews, oral history? And what about the DISTANCED approach to and critical OBSERVATION of all kinds of aspects of daily life/ the work force / domestic areas? And what about all the different strategies? As soon as a documentary strategy is driven by the so called ‘archival impulse’ it has been defined as ‘conceptual documentary’. To mention one.

This Y-folder has all the charm of postwar modernist Swiss graphic design: sober, clear, sophisticated. Meticulous white being the main color. No images, no illustrations, just a concept, an outline. At the same time the zigzag folder is a derivation from Apple-white designed gadgets in the 21st century. So are the slick white cars and kitchens for the new rich, as well as documentary photobooks such as MIST, SANATORIUM, WHY MISTER WHY? and AMAMI designed by a new generation of Dutch graphic designers (Kummer & Herrman, Mevis Van Deursen and SYB). Y is a marketplace, a webshop (that in itself is not new), a database-in-progress of international documentary productions. That is very useful: archiving seminal documentary productions from the past 20 years. Today prominent platforms for documentary practices / audiovisual presentations are the Internet and tablet-based Apps. Indeed, a DB for enhanched documentary productions is lacking. Not just a database turning out to be a ‘lively magazine-like’ archive, but reviewed and assessed by peer reviewers, in order for YdocDB to develop into a LAB for pivotal doc projects. Will a commission of experts in the field be installed to make nominations? Will YdocDB be accessible for  investors, buyers, curators and such, and in particular for students in advanced photographic studies? Does this ‘filing cabinet’ of digital heritage contain mainstream doc as well as artistic productions (let’s say TOMORROW by FIONA TAN or ASH WEDNESDAY by ALEC SOTH)? What are the selection criteria?

Apart from a store and database, Y is a publishing house and place for matching partners as well as for crowdfunding/-sourcing in doc projects. ‘SYnergY’ is a survival strategy. The point is, budgets of public cultural funds and corporate sponsors are declining substantially. The platform deviates from the conventional distribution model for books – through publishing houses – and from the artist’s practice of a hurdle of young documentary photographers, boycotting the traditional model by managing the production process and distribution of self-published photobooks. Ending up with living rooms, studio’s and offices full of carton boxes with photobooks, while criss crossing the world visiting art book fairs, like salesmen. The real challenge for Y is to establish a new digital platform for enhanced documentary publications, next to the proliferation of websites, audiovisuals and Apps. That would also help saving the planet: less printed matter. One recommendation. Include a digital oral history archive: audio recorded interviews with photographers and designers collaborating in the documentary tradition. AND a portal for films recording the working methods and artists’ strategies of documentary photographers in the 21st century. Like the DUTCHDOC films, orphans from the former portal for documentary photography initiated in 2010 by the, also former, FBKVB.

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