I’ve just returned from a weekend at Photobook Bristol, an informal congregation of photobook makers, publishers, designers and enthusiasts who gather in the city each year to hear talks, see books, share ideas, inspiration and woes, and to generally just party (it’s a great opportunity to see how photography’s finest perform on the dance floor, it turns out that Danish legend Krass Clements has some serious moves on him). It’s also a great place to catch up with far flung friends, see what they are working on, what get a sense of what work might be next to explode into the photography world. Despite my mounting misgivings about the pseudo-revolutionary hype around them, photobooks clearly remain a capable and relevant platform for disseminating exciting work, and this was really evidenced by the number of important names in photography who were speaking at the event, ranging from Susan Meiselas to Laura el-Tantawy. It is needless to say a rather questionable activity to attempt to judge a huge and international field of publishing based on one festival since all such events have their predilections and prejudices, but I feel I ought to at least attempt to summarise a few of the trends in what was discussed.
Perhaps one of the most notable things, and one which underpins many of the other discussions had over the weekend is that the conflict between form and function remains alive and well. It seems that the photobook remains closely aligned with the exquisite artist’s book much more so than more mass produced forms of trade or consumer book, and that continues to create tensions between the aspirations often held for a book and the reality of what it is able to do. It was interesting to hear discussions taking in different generations of photobook makers (notably a discussion between Susan Miselas and Oliva Arthur chaired by David Solo) where there were noticeable similarities over time but also changes print run, design, form and more, trends towards smaller runs and more complex design. Another interesting talk came from Yumi Goto of Reminders Project where she discussed a series of books published by the organization and some of the approaches and techniques used. Interestingly she referred to the number of copies published of each book not as an edition of say, 45 books, but as 45 editions, a linguistic subtlety which seemed to nicely reflect the fact that photobooks are still often rather unique objects which can incorporate some quite handmade, unique elements even when they reach larger print runs. I saw relatively few books over the weekend which really eschewed a fussy form (whatever happened to print on demand?) and it seems in this ever more competitive world that is less and less an option. On this topic a breath of fresh air came in a talk from designer Ania Nalecka who cautioned photographers against over design or complex design divorced from the meaning of their work.
Another issue often discussed was the question of the photobook’s relevancy and accessibility to wider audiences. There was much discussion of how the book can push beyond the niche of devotees and those wealthy enough to buy what remains essentially a luxury item. This is clearly related to the previous point in some respects, since design remains closely connected to the issue of cost, with more complex designs invariably demanding costlier production processes. There are of course exceptions, Craig Atikinson’s Café Royal Books being the most obvious representative of the alternative model, and Craig marked reaching the landmark of 300+ publications with a talk at the festival. Another interesting talk came from Julian Germain, discussing amongst other things the free citizen produced newspaper the Ashington District Star which he helps to organise and edit. The issue of relevancy and availability is also linked to other issues, for example distribution (a word my spellchecker perhaps rather aptly wanted to change to ‘devotion’). The fantasy of photobooks appearing for sale in supermarkets which I recall being aired at the previous year’s festival remains out of reach, but it remains a worthy aspiration. At the same time there were some interesting talks from a number of people who are comparatively new to photobooks, including an interesting collaboration between Mark Power, poet Daniel Cockrill and designer Dominic Brookman to produce a hybrid book aimed at poetry and photography enthusiasts. It was also a thrill to hear from the veteran Ghanian photographer James Barnor, who has published the first book of his work at the sprightly age of 87. He modestly prefigured his talk by saying he wanted to speak little and leave plenty of time for questions, because if a dinosaur came back to life then he imagined people would have plenty of things they might want to ask it.
Connected to the above, the issue of making out of prints books available in alternative and more accessible formats was also something I often found came up in the conversations between talks. It’s something I’ve always been keen on and have done with a few of my publications which are no longer in print. During the weekend I chatted with a few people about this including with Andrea Copetti of Tipi Bookshop about this and we had an interesting dialogue weighing up the pros and cons of making PDFs of unavailable books available versus offering high resolution videos of the physical books. I came down more on the side of the former, he on the latter, but clearly both have advantages and disadvantages and both succeed and fail at representing the nature of a physical book in different ways. The thing that I think most of the people I discussed this with agreed on was that small, closed editions and artificially unattainable books only really benefit collectors and perhaps sometimes publishers, not photographers and audiences. Solutions are much needed and having better opportunities to see and understand the seminal books which have come before can only benefit the vibrancy of photobook making. Certainly as a teacher there is a list of books both contemporary and classic which I would love to be able to show my students and which I think they would learn much from, but which are unfortunately impossibly rare. To some extent I sense that many of the issues that remain troubling with regards to the photobook stem from that prefix ‘photo’ and some of the most exciting books I saw and heard about over the weekend were those where the photographic element is almost secondary to the book fulfilling some other function, whether as strange documentation, journalistic investigation or something else entirely. I’ll be picking up on some of these titles in more detail on Disphotic very soon. In short the photobook remains alive and well but by no means completely resolved. There remain plenty of rather existential questions about the book that it’s more reflective adherents need to continue to discuss and address.
(Critical transparency: There are so many potential conflicts of interest here – ranging from the fact I’ve at spoken at previous incarnations of Photobook Bristol, to my having written an essay for Cafe Royal Books – that I would hardly know where to start with listing them. Suffice to say that if you that think I’m irredeemably corrupt as a critic then these attempts at disclaimers probably don’t help much (but at least unlike most critics I make an attempt at them.) Also my attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.