The Photobook - An Appreciation



I’m just back from visiting the New York Art Book Fair, and I’ve been thinking about what I like about photobooks so much. Individual books might appeal to me for particular reasons, but as a whole, as a species, photobooks have become incredibly dear to me. Why do I spend so much time looking at them, thinking about them, even making them (Meier & Müller’s forthcoming books are currently being conceived)? (more)

People often note that while an artist’s exhibition will inevitably be gone at some stage, a book will outlive each and every exhibition, and that’s certainly true. I’ve seen many great shows (and even more not so great ones). But I have actually never felt particularly sad about not being able to see a photography exhibition again. I have gone back to see a show again, and there is some photography that I always look forward to seeing on the wall. But I have never thought that I was glad that there was a book, given that the show was gone - even for photography that I really love.

Maybe exhibitions are too public for me. Maybe it’s the atmosphere in galleries and museums, which I tend to find off-putting. I don’t know what it is. Even though some photographs look fantastic printed on a large scale, with a few exceptions I tend to prefer the image in a book. An example I mentioned on my blog is provided by Thomas Ruff and his jpegs. The shows left me cold, I thought the scale of the prints was gratuitous; but in book form, these images truly, truly shine (c.f. this review).

This all seems to indicate that the experience of the book is what makes a lot of photography for me: The book is entirely mine, in the sense that it is I who determines who the work can be approached (this, of course, within the limits of the book’s design etc.). Whenever the impulse strikes me, I can go to my book shelves, (hopefully) locate the book that just came to my mind and go through it, at my own pace, an intense one-on-one, disturbed by nobody (other than that one cat who tends to decide at that particular moment that he really needs my attention and/or affection).

The book allows me to make connections between the photographs in ways that no exhibition could. I will admit this, I am probably less focused on a book’s sequence than most other people. I do see the value of a good sequence, but I also find myself making my own sequence or ignoring the sequence altogether. In fact, I often look at photobooks from back to front (as if it was a Japanese book), and I know I’m not the only person doing that. In book shops, I almost always do that, I don’t know why.

For a variety of reasons, in my home there are almost no photographs on the walls. I often think if someone gave me a copy of Gursky’s 99 Cents image, I’d probably sell it. I love that photography. But apart from the fact that I don’t even have the wall space for it, I’d hate for the photo to become part of the furniture. It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to have that photo on my wall, of course. Probably, for a few days, I’d go and stand in front of it, in awe. But ultimately, I’d probably get used to it in the same way that I’m used to my couch. Mind you, it’s a nice and comfortable couch, but I don’t think much about it any more.

I would hate for an image that I love so much to become visual furniture, or a decoration of my home. There’s nothing wrong with a beautiful decoration - but I don’t look at photography for its decorative value. Not that there’s anything wrong with decorative photography (I might be mistaken, but ever since the art market crashed, photography in galleries seems to have moved a bit more towards the decorative, safe side), it’s just not my cup of tea.

In a book, my favourite images are usually hidden. The books are all on their shelves. I don’t have books lying around, their images exposed (ever since one of the cats once threw up on an Alfred Steichen book [a possible sign that her taste is strictly contemporary, but I don’t want to overinterpret things] I am a bit careful with books). If I want to see an image, I go and open the book, and then… there it is. It’s almost a bit like as if it was newly revealed, and I can look at it again.

And then there is, of course, the feel of a book, even the way it smells. There is a lot to be said about the tactile experience. What does it feel like to hold the book? My lap space is limited so I tend to find books that are too large off-putting to say the least. I also don’t like books that are so thick that it’s impossible to look at them, because you can’t even open them properly, and you’re running the risk of getting crushed.

The actual experience of size and feel, I think, often is not very well understood. Have you ever looked the book The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings? Isn’t that just the perfect size for this very intimate and loving portrait of this old man? Not that I want my books all to be small, but some books just need to be small. You could imagine to bring that book to a long and tedious business trip, say, and sitting in your crappy chain-hotel room you’d open the book, and all would be well again. No really, that’s what photobooks can do.

Not that that’s necessarily what I want all books to do. In fact, each book tends to have its own purpose, or rather the books that I love seem to have one. Many books are just gallery shows on paper, and I usually look at them once or twice, and then they start collecting dust on my shelves. Unlike my favourite books, they never ask me to come back to them. So why bother?

Independent publishing brings yet another aspect to photobooks, often because budget restrictions mean that the production is not so lavish that it distracts from the work. Here’s the thing, if the photography is great, and if the concept works, you can print photographs on newsprint, and the book will still blow you away. Some “zines” are produced, well, crappily, but they still engage you in ways that many lavish productions won’t. Isn’t that amazing?

So whatever it might be that draws me to photobooks, it seems to be getting stronger and stronger. I find myself being less interested in exhibitions than I was a couple of years ago (this might be correlated with what I wrote above about shows having become a bit safe lately) and way more interested in seeing photography in book form. In fact, thinking of the debate about wall versus book photography (it’s somewhere on Alec Soth’s old blog, find him repeating it here), I now have days where I think that all photography should be able to work - or maybe I should say: speak - in book form, regardless of whether or not it looks great on the wall (this clearly is a debate for another day, maybe Alec will be up for it). That might be taking it too far, who knows?

Regardless, this post has so far been a person reflection; I’m sure in five years my thinking will be (somewhat) different. But given so many people like photobooks, why not add more voices here? Let’s make it simple. If you want your voice to be added, send in an email, with your name and (strictly!) one or two sentence(s) “I love photobooks because…”, and I’ll add your contribution below.

I love photobooks because…

“… because they’re unsafe for the artist. Once a book is printed and loosed upon the readership, the artist relinquishes control and the photography/art takes on a life* of its own. (*possibly longer/more interesting than the artist’s)” - Jonathon Demske

“… they are condensed, stand alone works of art. The graphics, typography, paper, editing, sequencing and image content contribute to the complex experience that is the photobook.” - Shaun O’Boyle