The veneration of the photobook as objet d’art continues apace. Next week Christie’s New York will present what is claimed to be one of the finest collections of photographic literature – valued at around $2m – ever to be offered at auction. And later this month the V&A will display a selection of similar titles from their own archives ranging chronologically from Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature to Stephen Gill’s muck-encrusted Buried.


Given that the V&A’s collection of photographic books predates even the foundation of the museum, curator Marta Weiss could afford to be ambitious. “I knew from the start that I wanted to do something that spanned the whole history of the medium, and because the display is an overview I included certain books that are masterpieces or are iconic – Eikoh Hosoe’s Ordeal by Roses, for example, Brassai’s Paris by Night and William Eggleston’s Guide.”


© Eikoh Hosoe

Eikoh Hosoe – Ordeal by Roses Re-edited


“I also wanted a range of books that used photographs in different ways, or tried to do different things with them – like Moholy-Nagy’s Painting Photography Film or Werner Graff’s Here Comes the New Photographer! Both used the photographic book as a manifesto for what modern photography could be, and for what it could include”. Alongside such well-known examples are somewhat unexpected inclusions. “I started scanning the shelves, seeing what caught my eye, and making some discoveries. For instance, Josef Wlha’s Illustrirter Katalog is made up of grids of tiny photographs – of architectural details and of things like ceramic stoves from castles in Austria – and, although it is only a catalogue of art objects, it is incredible to look at.” Other titles were chosen for their extraordinary and innovative design qualities: Hosoe’s Ordeal by Roses is displayed with its illustration-lined, black velvet portfolio case. Masao Yamamoto’s accordion book Omizuao measures fourteen feet wide when fully opened. Stephen Gill’s Buried is still smeared with the Hackney shite that clung to it after exhumation (“the conservators are a bit taken aback”).

© Ed Ruscha


Those unable to make it to the V&A need not worry – many of the titles will be up for grabs at Christie’s New York next week. Graff’s book is expected to fetch around $5,000; the Hosoe title, about $10,000; and Brassai’s Paris by Night, as much as $45,000. Though punters might baulk at the $60,000 – $90,000 forecast for Jindrich Styrsky’s by turn obscene and macabre Emily Comes to me in a Dream. Or the similar amount estimated for a complete set of Ed Ruscha’s books (but you do at least get nineteen volumes for your money). Best go for something more affordable – perhaps Hans Bellmer’s fiendishly rare, hand-coloured Les Jeux de la Poupee, yours for around $70,000


© Hans Bellmer

Hans Bellmer – Les Jeux de la Poupee


Secrecy shrouds the identity of the serial (American) collector who, in little over ten years, has corralled this arguably unparalleled selection of modern photobooks. But it is said that, having amassed the collection, he is now content to dispose of it…and is preparing to start collecting anew in another field. Chacun a son gout. Of particular interest to collectors and historians alike is the fact that many of the titles bear authorial inscriptions that both confer uniqueness and suggest networks of friendships and collaborations. Brassai’s book is inscribed to Andre Kertesz, whose own night photography had so impressed the author. Philip Jones Griffiths and Paul Fusco sign their books to Magnum chiefs. The Americans (first edition, naturally) is inscribed to Peter Turnley; The Decisive Moment, to Edward Weston.

What price now – as books travel from shelves to glass cases – the claim that the cultural products of the modern era would undermine the status of traditional art objects, or the promise that “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art?”


Fine Photobooks from an Important Private Collection – Christie’s, New York. April 10th, 2008 Libraries of Light: Photographic Books from the V&A Collection. From April 24th, 2008