Why Does Everyone Want a Photobook?


General Photography

Making a photobook out of a body of work is not just compiling a bunch of images. Instead, it is taking the individual images and shaping something bigger, something grander out of them.

Rob Haggart published a post today with the question Why Does Everyone Think They Need a Photo Book? Since I have been dealing with photobooks in all kinds of capacities (I review photobooks on this website, publish them, teaching classes about them, even remix them, collect them [of course!], etc.) I thought I’d offer my two cents. (more)

First of all, I don’t think that many artists think they need a photobook. Instead, they want a photobook. You might think that’s just semantics, but I don’t think it is. It is true, there are stories floating around of galleries telling artists that if they just had that book, they’d be happy to take them on (and the publisher then asking: “But do you have a show?”). But that’s a business aspect. The actual photography aspect is what had me re-phrase Rob’s question.

Technically, a photobook is a book containing photographs. But most photobooks are not mere collections of images. There is a reason why we don’t just call them “photo albums.” If you don’t believe me, take your copy of, say, Robert Frank’s The Americans, cut out the pages with an Xacto knife, reshuffle them and then look at the resulting set of photographs. It’s literally the same photographs, but they don’t work together in the way that The Americans did. Destroying the sequence of a photobook destroys (or at least radically changes) it.

On top of that, The Americans does not just contain a random mix of images Frank took while traveling across the US. If you have way too much time on your hands have a look at Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans (Expanded Edition, which shows you a lot of the contact sheets. You’ll find that very smart choices were made to arrive the relatively small number of images in the book - small compared with the number of “raw”/source images.

So for most photobooks, the edit or selection of the images is important, as is the order in which they are presented. Add to that the presentation itself, the design, and you end up with a fairly complex object, which - when well done - takes on a life of its own. The Americans is not just an album of photographs Robert Frank liked, it’s a carefully edited and presented selection, which tells a very specific story. The individual photographs tell part of that story (in ways that will probably have photographers and writers try to understand it for many more years), but it’s only part of that story.

In that sense, making a photobook out of a body of work is not just compiling a bunch of images. Instead, it is taking the individual images and shaping something bigger, something grander out of them. For many photographers, that is the goal. There is a story to be told, and the way to tell it involves more than “just” taking photographs (don’t take the word “story” too seriously; if you mind the idea there’s a story replace it with whatever else suits you).

I believe that since the production of a photobook has become so much simpler (while, let’s face it, the gallery system simply cannot support the number of photographers active now) making a photobooks has finally become possible for large numbers of artists (Mind you, you could have always made artist books, but that’s for another day). So a photobook has become something that is (or at least feels) attainable. Hence the sheer explosion of independent photobook publishers (while regular/corporate publishers are often struggling): It’s easier to get photobooks printed now than it was years ago. And independent/small publishers often can work with different business models than major publishers (see Rob’s post).

So a photobook for many (most?) artists isn’t just some vanity object. It is, instead, the culmination of the work they’ve put into a project (if you don’t like the word “project” replace it with something you like). In that sense, they want a photobook, because without the book the project might be incomplete.

This idea seems to differ from the one’s in Rob’s post where it is assumed that time will tell whether there should be a book or not. I’d argue that’s an older way of thinking about photobooks, where such a book really is just a collection of images (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the photographs cannot live on the wall of a gallery or someone’s living room. A photograph on a wall and a photograph inside a book - those are two different beasts, simply because the viewer interacts with them in very different ways.

Lastly, this doesn’t mean that really everybody needs to make a photobook - as I indicated above, making a good photobook is very hard and complex work. But I think the above explains why everyone wants a photobook: It’s the lure of something bigger than the set of photographs.

(feel free to send me comments and/or additions - I’ll update this post)

Update (12 Oct 2011): Justin Partyka sent an email, writing

“Wanting a book is a psychological and intellectual process, and is as you describe ‘very hard and complex work.’ In my experience, you get to a point where you need to interact with one’s work at that high level, and I feel that you know instinctively inside when it’s the right time to do this and more importantly when this process is going in the right direction. A book has to come from within, just as the actual photographs do at the beginning, you just HAVE to make them. The book is the final outcome of this.”