ZUM Magazine 8

Why Photobooks are Important

Gerry Badger Publicado em: 31 de August de 2015
Organizer of a collection on the history of the photobook, GERRY BADGER demonstrates how, with these publications, photography expresses its true creative potential: a literary and narrative art form, which lies between film and romance.
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In recent years, there has been a focus of attention upon the photobook – a particular kind of photography book, in which images overlap the text, and the joint work of the photographer, editor and graphic designer helps build a visual narrative – that is unprecedented in photographic history. There have been histories and anthologies of the photobook, and a flourishing photobook collecting market. Every young photographer looking to make a name in photography must publish a photobook in order to get noticed. A number of major careers, from the Americans Alec Soth and Ryan McGinley to Doug Rickard and Spanish Cristina de Middel, have been significantly boosted by a “hit” photobook. Digital technology has put publishing a photobook within the reach of anyone, and everybody, it would seem, is making a photobook. Indeed, interest in the photobook seems set to continue, despite a plethora of bad and thoroughly forgettable volumes.

So why is the photobook suddenly deemed to be so important? Around almost since the birth of photography in 1839, the photobook was invented more or less as a publishing medium, and Victorian pioneers, such as Anna Atkins and William Henry Fox Talbot, were starting to stick photographs into albums and books around 1843. Yet it is only recently that the significance of the photobook has been fully realised.

A primary reason for the photobook’s importance is the nature of photography itself. Throughout the medium’s history, there has been a struggle for photography to be recognized as a fine art, to be regarded as so complex and as fulfilling as painting.

Photography’s moment finally came, around the 1970s, as the Western tradition of the painted arts seemed to have run its course, and seemed, especially in the eyes of ambitious artists, exhausted and played out.

In the 1970s, the cutting edge of art resided not so much in painting, but in multifarious genres of “conceptual art”, which included the so-called “lens based” media and the phenomenon of “artists utilising photography.”

In the 1980s, with the School of Düsseldorf and such photo-artists as the German Andreas Gursky, photography’s triumph seemed complete. Magnified to 2 metres and more wide by these artists, the humble photograph seemed transformed, attaining all the gravitas and importance of the painting, which it had apparently replaced.

And that is the case today. Walk into many contemporary art galleries and you will see photographs – colonising the spaces once occupied by paintings. Photographers are now talked about as artists, indeed they selfstyle themselves as “artists”, and they make calculating, reductive images in conceptually derived series that give the necessary impression of a consistent visual “signature” for collectors. We all know this tendency. Photograph something very limited. Photograph it in a limited but graphically striking way. Print it large, and hey ho, you have instant photographic art, and a marketable photographic artist.

But do you? In some cases, yes of course you do. Some photographers, like the German Thomas Struth or the Canadian Jeff Wall, actually know what they are doing. However all too oft what you simply get are overenlarged, pretentious, but largely unremarkable photographs – accompanied, of course, by some unreadable theoretical gobbledygook that will claim the world for this mediocrity.

For the fact is, does not the very concept of making singular, discrete works of photographic art cut across many of the medium’s actual strengths? In other words, is photography actually an art in the way that painting is? An art that is in theory about realising everything an artist can do in a single image? Or is photography a different kind of art, a serial art, like the film or the novel, where its true potential is only fully achieved over a sequence of images?

That is, might it be that photography is essentially a literary art, where the photographer is not so much a manipulator of forms within the picture frame, but a narrator using images rather than words, a storyteller?

Of course, I am not throwing out the formalist baby with the bathwater. A photographer still must dispose forms within the pic-ture space, that is, make a “good” picture. Indeed, it seems to me that, with the concentration upon presenting their work in book form, combined with the profligacy encouraged by the digital camera, many photographers today are not paying enough attention to picture-making.

Even with a strong “story”, putting sloppy images between the covers can dissipate the quality of the overall work quite quickly. Form is a constituent part of content, and is surely an essential consideration when making a photobook.

One can take an anti-formalist approach, certainly, as long as that is a conscious decision, but it seems to me that many contemporary photographers seem oblivious to form. But I consider that there is far too much sloppy or careless picture-making around today.

In 1938, the relatively new Museum of Modern Art in New York gave its first ever one person photographic exhibition to a young man called Walker Evans, who interestingly came to photography after studying literature, especially the 19th century French realist school. The small prints lining the walls of the Rockefeller Center galleries – where MoMa used to be – have been largely forgotten about (except for the fact that MoMA has probably the finest collection of vintage Evans prints extant) but with the show came a publication, and that has not been forgotten. American Photographs, the book accompanying Evans’ exhibit from 1938, can be considered the most important photobook of them all.

It not only set out an idea of what the photobook could accomplish, but what photography could be – the medium not simply as a documentary method, or as an adjunct to “real” art, but as an art of intricate structure and intellectual coherence.

American Photographs demonstrated, as Evans intended, that photography was essentially a literary art, in which photographs ordered in a specific sequence could say something that was more than just the sum of their separate parts.

Of course, the so-called “photo essay” was not a new idea; it had been developed to a sophisticated level in the books and illustrated magazines of the 1920s and 30s. But Evans took it to a new height, relying not simply upon the visual relationship between images, but making use of metaphor and symbol to introduce a new depth and complexity. As professor and researcher Alan Trachtenberg has noted, Evans “introduced difficulty into modern photography.” That says it all. American Photographs set the standard for all subsequent photobooks.

American Photographs is by no means a perfect book, its beginning is considerably better than its ending. The first sequence, of say ten or twelve pictures, is hugely significant, however. A concise visual poem about the state of America and about the place of photography within society, it demonstrates perfectly how photography, through the medium of the photobook, might “speak” in a complex and literary way.

If American Photographs is not quite perfect, a book largely inspired by Evans’ example certainly is. Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) was a freewheeling odyssey across America that chimed in perfectly with the mood of a post World War Two society, where unprecedented prosperity (in the Western world and Japan at least), was accompanied by the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation. Frank managed to suggest all of this in a book that also encapsulated a new trend in art towards the personal expression. The Americans was as much a diary of Frank’s journeyings as an objective document.

Also exemplifying the individualistic, existential tenor of 1950s art, but demonstrating a slightly different approach to bookmaking, was William Klein’s New York (1956), a hugely influential volume. Klein brought the freewheeling energy of action painting into photography, then put that into a book which was in essence a giant collage, like one of the assemblages painter Robert Rauschenberg was making at the same time, with their encoded message relating to everything from world politics and popular culture to the most deeply personal issues.

The exuberance and complexity of Klein’s kaleidoscopic view of the city was widely popular, perhaps nowhere more so than in that great photobook culture, Japan. The contemporary city was an important theme for Japanese photography, because it had both personal and political implications for Japanese art, stemming from Japan’s difficult relationship with the United States, a relationship that might be described as “love-hate.” Young Japanese felt excited by certain aspects of American culture, but were also highly critical of American foreign policy (as in Vietnam) and ever mindful of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Armed with the rough-and-ready style of Frank and Klein, many Japanese photobooks actively explored the somewhat schizoid attitude they had towards America. This also applies to many photobooks published in Latin America.

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So books like Takuma Nakahira’s For a Language to Come (Kitarubeki kotoba no tame, 1970) and Daido Moriyama’s Bye Bye Photography (Shashin yo sayonara, 1972) deliberately take Klein’s expressive language close to the edge of incoherence. Their psychological mood is uncertain, blurring the boundaries between reality and unreality, between exultation and angst. We do not know whether we are experiencing the city as in a dream or in a nightmare. Both are ostensibly non-political books, but their political message – good cop, bad cop America – is contained just beneath the ambiguous surface of their expressive poetry.

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Let us take a step backward. I have begun to talk about the photobook in political terms because I feel that this is a major reason why it is so important. Not necessarily because it should be political in the fixed ideological sense, but because it is uniquely equipped to reflect the world view of its author. I oft quote the American photographer, John Gossage, and the definition of the ideal photobook which he proposed for Volume One of our Photobook History, which I organized together with photographer Martin Parr in 2004. Gossage indicated the four criterion necessary to make a successful photobook: “Firstly, it should contain great work. Secondly, it should make that work function as a concise world within the book itself. Thirdly, it should have a design that compliments what is being dealt with. And finally, it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest.”

Note that the first criterion was “great work.” I totally agree with this, but the last of Gossage’s criteria is also crucial for me. “… it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest.” In other words, the great photobook is not simply a bunch of pictures connected only by the fact that one photographer made them, no matter how good they are individually. The great photobook must have a theme, an overarching idea, and it should function, as Gossage put it to me in a later conversation, as “a world of its own.” That is, it should demonstrate a unique authorial voice, perhaps unique only to that particular volume. Defining it further, when one looks back at Evans, Frank, Klein, and the other books I have mentioned, they are 1) about the photographer, reflecting his or her opinion; 2) they are about the medium, helping to push its boundaries in some way; 3) and they are about the world, about issues that concern the author.

One of the arguments in favour of the photobook is that there is less necessity for the photographer to maintain the “signature” visual style demanded by the galleries. Susan Sontag argued that the notion of photographic style was a nonsense anyway, at least in terms of the strict modernist criteria applied to painters. Where, she asked, was the stylistic consistency in various bodies of work by Eadward Muybridge – between his Panama “reportage”, his Yosemite landscapes, and his renowned scientific motion studies. There is nothing, she argues, to connect the Yosemite landscapes with the movement studies, except for the fact that we know that they are by the same author. Thus style in photography, concludes Sontag, would seem to be more a by-product of subject-matter rather than authorial treatment.

Of course, there is nothing stopping a photographer practising art gallery reductionism in their books to achieve stylistic consistency, if they so desire. Indeed, many do so, because they want to eat the starter, which is represented by their photobook, as well as the main course, which are the galleries, and photobooks make good catalogues. Although for an increasing number of practitioners, the photobook is an end in itself, for many it can be seen as a calling card, a way of spreading the word about the work and securing gallery representation. In recent years, the photobook has become so international, it can take a photographer’s work to places galleries cannot reach – even if the market is following rapidly. Indeed, that has always been the case to a certain extent. Japanese photographers became interested in Klein and Frank when their books appeared in Japan, and the West (although more gradually) became aware of Japanese photography when copies of their books appeared in Europe and America.

As well as this internationalism, the photobook is responsible, along with the Internet, for a new democracy of photographic imagery, a new eclecticism, and this is reflected in many of today’s works. Photographers can roam across different genres if they so desire, reflecting upon the way different kinds of photograph can inform us – objectively one minute, expressively the next, in colour or in black-and-white. As long as it makes a comprehensible and integrated statement between the covers, anything goes.

And as long as it is “about something.” When I was looking with Martin Parr at potential inclusions for Volume Three of our Photobook History, the big issues which have concerned photographers all around the world over the past 50 or 60 years became apparent, and we decided to structure the book around these. For example, protest and desire (the sexual revolution) were important in the 1960s and 1970s, two sides of the youthful “counter culture” which developed in that era. The depiction of society and place, as always, were crucial, and in recent decades, memory and identity have become important subjects, as have investigations of the photographic medium itself.

Looking at vast numbers of books published during six decades, it became very clear that the photobook in particular exemplifies a trend in photography that began in the 1950s, but has become very pronounced in the 21st century, when digital technology has taken hold of the medium, influencing not only how photographs are disseminated and seen, but the kinds of things about which they say.

I call this tendency, which the photobook probably encouraged somewhat more than photography’s rush to the art gallery, the “personalisation” of the medium.

It was first talked about by John Szarkowski, then the director of the Photography Department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the introduction to his 1967 exhibition, New Documents, shown at the same museum. Szarkowski noted the following, in what might be one of the most far-reaching statements about photography in the late20th century: “In the past decade a new generation of documentary photographers has directed the documentary approach towards more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy – almost an affection – for the imperfections and frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as a source of all wonder and fascination and value – no less precious for being irrational.”

I am sure that at that time Szarkowski did not realise the full significance of this remark (it has taken me about thirty years to catch up with it), but his observation defines the course photography took after he made it. He was suggesting that it was futile to try and change the world through photography, but to use it to “know the world”, as he put it, is to show concern for it, for all its joys, but also for its ills. As the great reformist photographer Lewis Hine put it – in a statement that should be engraved upon every photographer’s heart: “There were two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected; and I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.”

Two points can be made about the personalisation of photography. Firstly, I think it has made the photobook the most important vehicle for the dissemination of photographic ideas, especially personal, even inward looking ideas. The book’s intimacy, the sense it gives of talking one to one, is ideal. And yet, secondly, personalisation did not mean that photography has become any less political, far from it. Around the time that Szarkowski was writing his prescient words, feminists and other political youth activists were using the slogan, “the personal is the political.” And of course, its natural corollary, “the political is the personal.” In fact, the so-called “self regarding” youth generation of the 1960s and 1970s also displayed more idealism than many of their elders, reflected in a photography bibliography that looked both inwards and outwards, from American Joseph Szabo’s Almost Grown (1978), which looked at the personal lives of Long Island teenagers, to Italian Tano D’Am-ico’s È il ‘77 (This is ‘77) (1978), which showed their Italian equivalents demonstrating on the streets of Rome.

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The personalisation of the medium has continued, especially with the advent of digital cameras and the so-called “social media.” These have become the “platforms” for even hard-news documentary photography, and have changed markets for photojournalism. Even reportage photographers covering conflict now brand their work “my diary when embedded with the troops” rather than the old styling of the professional, disinterested, objective observer.

In most cases, such work looks familiar. The imagery itself has changed less than our acknowledgement that photography was always personal. It was always about the photographer’s point of view – although that has tended to become intimate and confessional in tone, ideal for the photobook. The “diaristic mode” of American photographers like Danny Lyon and Nan Goldin has become the actual diary in photographs, with books like (to take only two examples) Sweddish Katinka Goldberg’s Surfacing (2011), which deals with her relationship with her mother, and American Mike Brodie’s A Period of Juvenile Prosperity (2012), which chronicles his illicit journeys on American trains.


Now let us take one or two Brazilian examples. Claudia Andujar and George Love’s Amazônia (1978), for example, is a particular mix of the personal and the political. On one level, it is an important environmental photobook, advocating both the preservation of the Amazonian rainforest and respect for the Yanomami tribe. On another level, it reflects a personal interest in the spiritual as explored through hallucinogenic drugs, a 1960s and 1970s interest that was not confined to the Yanomami alone.

And one of the greatest of Brazilian photobooks, Roberto Piva’s Paranoia (1963), combines Piva’s bitter poetry with urban landscapes of São Paulo taken by Wesley Duke Lee in a rare example of an image-text book that is wholly successful, portraying a nightmarish, almost hallucinatory city, a theme that was common throughout the urbanised world in the 1960s.

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Two other significant Brazilian books deal with more local, and culturally specific issues. Luiz Alphonsus’s Bares Cariocas (1980) has the rough, almost casual look of today’s “zines” or digitally self-published books and shows a penetrating and affectionate view of bars in Rio. And Mario Cravo Neto’s Laróyè! (2001) continues his fascination, not only with the Afro-Brazilian culture of Bahia, but also with the body beautiful.

So, in only four books – each very different, none of them “documentary” in the traditional sense, each personal, and yet each illuminating an aspect of Brazilian society – a picture begins to build. Combine these four with other Brazilian photobooks, then with Latin American photobooks, and you have as much of a history of the continent of South America as is contained in novels and films over the same period. You are also, courtesy of the medium of the photobook, taken there. I have never been to Amazonia, or Rio, or Bahia, but these photographers are taking me there in a very specific way, and giving me a point of view, however broad or narrow in each case, about their country’s history and its society. The photobook does this in a particular, complex, intriguing, and creative way.

For me, the true importance of the photobook is this. It is not so much a question of wall or book, whether one regards photography as a visual art or as literature – it is both, of course, and why not? – but rather, where one believes that photography sings its fullest and most significant song. ///

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captions: ; È il ’77, by Tano D’Amico, 1978; Almost Grown, by Joseph Szabo, 1978; Surfacing, by Katinka Goldberg, 2010; A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, by Mike Brodie, 2012; Kitarubeki kotoba no tame ni, by Takuma Nakahira, 1970

reproductions: The Manhattan Rare Book Company (American Photographs, The Americans); courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo (Shashin yo sayonara); Jorge Bastos (Paranoia); courtesy Joseph Szabo (Almost Grown); courtesy Harper’s Books (È il ‘77); Ailton Silva and Tatiana Novás de S. Carvalho (A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, Amazônia, Bares cariocas, Laróyè!).

The Photobook: A History, 3 vols., by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger (Phaidon Press, 2004-14); The Latin American Photobook, by Horacio Fernández (Aperture, 2011).

Gerry Badger (1948) is a photographer, architect and photography critic.


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