The Photobook: Regression not Revolution?

1024px-Miniskirts_in_snow_storm

A resident struggles to walk in a blizzard in Manhattan,
New York, 1969 (author unknown)

As a writer it’s sometimes interesting to use the tools at your disposal not only as a way to put forth a fully fledged and developed argument, or even an argument that you completely believe in. Instead sometimes it is worthwhile to tentatively explore an idea one suspects has some kernel of truth in it, or even simply to play devil’s advocate, to push forward an idea which might be flawed and suspect, but which there is still some value in discussing, even if it is ultimately dismissed. I issue this slight disclaimer before launching into the discussion proper because what I am about to suggest will seem extremely inconsistent to the many who will know me as someone who is heavily invested in photobooks and photobook making.

My suggestion then is this; that the current clamour around the photo book actually has very little at all to do with photo books as an end in themselves. Rather the enormous interest in this form as a way to package, distribute and view photographs is a reflection of something else. That is a something else which has spurned similar revivals in other rather anachronistic areas, like the rediscovery of analogue photography by so many who had abandoned it or who gained admission into photography sometime after silver halide’s departure into obsolescence. I increasingly suspect that what these rediscoveries or renaissances of rather old fashioned practices are really about is a deep rooted angst about the status of the photographic image, and by association the status of photography as whole, in contemporary society.

The nature of that angst is well charted on this blog and elsewhere and so I will only pay it cursory attention in this post, but I think it can be traced to two principal characteristics of contemporary photography. Firstly and most obviously it’s ubiquity, the massive explosion in the production and dissemination of imagery which has taken place over the past decade or so. This is inextricably linked to the second characteristic, the de-materialisation of photography from the physical object of a film or glass negative into an abstract collection of alphanumeric data, something which is natively no longer physical nor visual. These two things, but in particular the former, have contributed to a growing disquiet about the value and nature of the individual image in a world where photographs are abundant, slippery and often untrustworthy.

The more I look at photobooks the more I feel that to employ them is often an unconscious attempt to reclaim some token sense of control over what Siegfried Krakeur called the blizzard of images, the raging storm of a visual culture, in his case an analogue one, in our case a digital one. In many ways Krakeur’s analogy is all the more apt for our present, a world of pixels, fragments and reductions, together making up an increasingly incomprehensible whole. To apparently reclaim some control back through reversion to such old fashion forms as book and analogue film is a satisfying and empowering experience for a photographer, but it is an illusory form of control, the equivalent of pulling down the shutters and trying to ignore the raging squall outside.

The nature of photography has changed completely, and as much of a pleasant or reassuring distraction from this as books might be they are ultimately an unhelpful diversion from attempting to answer or even just identify some of the huge questions that this shift in the nature of the image presents us with. I am generalising somewhat, and a small and determined minority of book makers use the form in a way which runs exactly counter to the mode I have described above, turning it instead unexpectedly into a way to raise and contest these questions about the status of the photograph. These are few however, often viewed for their progressive tendencies as strange eccentrics or outsiders, by a majority and a ruling circle of photobook insiders lost in anachronistic notions of photography.

This view of this minority of innovators is ironic also because the rediscovery of the photo book is so often described in terms which imply that as a movement it is inherently forward looking. Terms like ‘revolution’ and ‘manifesto’ are thrown around, suggesting the rediscovery of the photo book is a progressive, indeed even political practice, aligned in some way to the progression and development of photography. In reality it is at best a slackening of progression, and at worse perhaps a reversal, a turning towards the past which has ever less to do with the present. Photo books in themselves are not revolutionary, they’ve been with as since the birth of the medium and while there might be technical or conceptual innovations within the broad field of photo book making, this should not be mistaken for photographic innovation. The photobook genre as a whole is not, and can never again, be innovative.

Despite the happy, cheerful and independent packaging that the photobook publishers and advocates often give the practice, I’d suggest that what photobook publishing really masks a deeply entreched form of photographic conservatism, a denialist desire for the medium to be something other than what it is now. As I remarked at the start of this piece, such a claim might seem odd coming from someone who long been a devotee of the photobook. Increasingly however find myself less and less interested in the format, and more and more I feel this sense of it as a distraction from more pressing concerns. I have been wondering for a while if this means that without realising it I am gradually coming to terms with my own angst about the present form of photography. That I am finally accepting the idea of myself not anymore as a photographer who makes images and then attempts to make them stand out against this storm of competitor images, and more and more as someone who simply moves through this blizzard, trying to regard it as a whole.

6 thoughts on “The Photobook: Regression not Revolution?

  1. That’s just silly. Photography books offer a way to view, learn from, and enjoy photographs in a way that is unique upon itself. It has since it inception and continues to do so today. That there is now another way to see photographs does not detract from the pleasures of photographs reproduced in book form. Are all books irrelevant now because of Kindle, and are all books that do not explore structuralism passe. It is not the role of all photographers “to raise and contest . . . questions about the status of the photograph.” Your study of Theory has not opened the world to you–or even what the nature of photography is–it has placed blinders on you.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, the photo book world now has a set modernist template with a revisionist Japanese wing and a group of ‘stars’ who pick the end of year best of within the confines of the genre. It is one boring out of control cluster fuck and the Cortes within which it exists is totally redundant

    • I too am trying to come to terms with the photo book explosion. I’ve always been interested in them, since I was in elementary school and a relative gave me a gift of the Time Life series on photography that he had won in a raffle.

      As a juror for Critical Mass, whose top award is a published photo book, I thoroughly welcome the opportunity to see so much work, but I don’t know how to actually internalize all the books that I see. I’ve made a few Blurb books of my own work, which was really exciting to see my work on paper, bound, and professional. Just amazing, so I can see where the addiction begins.

      With the rise in projects dependent on one-of-a-kind technology, like collodion, platinum, cyanotype, and many other alternative process techniques, I like the outlines of this essay. Holding something in your hand is a comforting way to express yourself, it also allows you to dictate the viewing experience, in a vastly different form then a digital device allows, although I can see the argument that a pixel is a pixel is a pixel, so all viewing experiences on a digital device are essentially the same, with adjustments made for scale, color balance, etc.

      I also think the photo book serves another master, self-promotion. I’ve known of colleagues who have self-funded photo books in order to gain tenure, or promotion. Photographers who send them to art and photo editors, in order to gain a toehold for future assignments. But that is no difference than the Black Book of the past where photographers paid $20,000 and up for a page or two to advertise themselves.

      My personal view is that the never ending pursuit of legitimizing and ameliorating our insecurities is another player in the photo book explosions. Our work, in book form on paper, at least we like to believe, is proof that not only do we exist, but our work has meaning to the world. Even if the world is made up of the tiny community of obsessed photographers.

      P.S. Hi Nick! It’s been too long!

  3. I have a lot to say about photo books but will confine myself to one remark here.

    Photography as it exists today has destroyed the idea of the single iconic image. Every picture has been taken, roughly. Anything good is instantly replicated.

    What had not been done is to place every picture next to every other picture. Not all collections or sequences have been made, and they never will. That well is infinitely deeper.

    The photo book is therefore a mode of photography in which one can still make an individual statement, in which one can add they say ‘say something new’.

    • Andrew – this is such a good point.
      I love photobooks and collect them. I look through them regularly, to be inspired and challenged. Whilst academic approaches can be stimulating in the context of lectures and debates, if I’m to buy something it will be something beautiful to cherish and keep.

      I often think of the “questioning of the medium” of photography and its extensions (books) in parallel with music. At the beginning of the 20th century, a number of very vocal musicians and musicologists (most notably the 2nd Viennese school) questioned tonality, and promoted new structures (or lack thereof) as the way forward. For decades composers who clung on to tonality were ridiculed and discredited. But the public just never bought into serial music, or aleatoric music, and only marginally into minimal music – because the music is ugly/boring, and it’s not particularly clever either.
      It’s taken a full century for the classical music world to quietly but surely re-embrace more conventional structures for composition, and unsurprisingly the audience is reengaging. There was an excellent article in the British Journal of Photography by Tom Clinch a few months ago and I have to agree with him – I still believe that making something beautiful is more challenging and valuable than making something that is not.

  4. It may well be that this photobook renaissance is (also) a reaction to the exponential increase of images we are exposed to, just like baroque was a reaction to the horror vacui determined by the awareness of being but a tiny stone lost in the universe. But the remarks by Harris Fogel and Andrew Molitor sound strong enough to me to make me think that it’s possible that, in a not so distant future, photobooks could change their skin (i.e. won’t be paper anymore) but not much their soul.

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