Photobook: A History: Volume II

One of the arduous pleasures of visiting the Arles Photography Festival is to amble up and down the massed entries for the annual Book Prize. Located in a huge disused railway repair shed, seemingly endless rows of trestle tables groan with around 400 books of all shapes, sizes, provenances and production qualities. Their subject matter is beyond eclectic; an incredibly weighty and authoritative study of, say, 19th century developments in photographic printing techniques can nestle next to a self-published bookzine such as Geert van Kesteren’s innovative Why Mister, Why. Two things quickly become apparent: contemporary photographic book publishing is in a healthy state, editorially at least, and many mid-to late-career photographers now look on the book as being their chosen mode of expression.

Photographers love books because they tend to get a lot more input into and control over the editing. The production process usually happens over a period of time, with much coming and going and gnashing of teeth, allowing the opportunity for the theme or vision to be developed in a quasi-satisfactory way (have you ever met a photographer who was entirely happy with the way his work was presented?). By contrast, in a magazine context, photographers seldom get invited to participate in the editorial business of editing and design.
What leaps out of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s Photobook II is the integral relationship between picture editing and design that contributes to the overall success or failure of a publication. Many a magazine feature has got by solely on the strength of its images, isolated from matters of design, sequencing and editorial coherence (Ed: not in this magazine). Few sloppily constructed books will stand the test of sustained scrutiny and repeated analysis over time. Indeed, this is both the strength and the inherent vulnerability of the photo book; magazines seldom get more than a once-over and do not often lie around to be critically examined well after the event.

Badger and Parr – does it have the ring of a comedy duo? – function well as a team. Parr does the leg-work, buzzing around the world and storing his vast collection of photo books in his house. Badger the critic and historian writes it all up, providing the history and the context and neatly underlining the role of photography festivals, galleries and critics in the making or breaking of the reputation of photography books (and indeed of photographers) – nothing new there then.

Parr makes the reasonable, if rather self-serving, claim that the first volume of Photobook added significantly to the status of photography book collecting and raised the monetary value of many of the volumes featured. It would be churlish to point out that as probably the world’s most avid collector of visual books, Parr himself is the principal benefactor of this trend. I am reminded of those horse trainers who place enormous bets on their brilliant unknown young racers confident that they are unlikely to lose.

Parr’s reputation as a collector may well overtake the value of his photographic work in the eyes of posterity. Who knows, the Parr Museum of the Book is not such a far-fetched idea. His international perspective is a major contribution to cultural history providing a kick up the arse for those of us stuck in narrowly defined national or continental mind-sets. He speculates that more than a thousand photography books are produced annually around the world. It shows beyond reasonable doubt that photography outside the gallery circuit is alive and well and living worldwide in the realm of the book. Indeed, the authors intimate that we ain’t seen nothing yet. Within the next decade, numerous photo books will start rolling in from China and India. Heavens, how long will it take to do the Arles Book walk then?

Photobook II proffers many of the usual suspects in chapters on American and European books but there are surprises in “Point of Sale”, a section devoted to “The Company Photobook”. “Home and Away” covering “Modern Life and the Photobook” looks at contemporary attempts to redefine documentary work in the face of the decline of reportage and the cross-over into the gallery. By far the most interesting chapter was “Other Territories: The Worldwide Photobook”, including an impressive excerpt from The Death of a Lake by Peter Merom (1961), a prescient study of the conflict between Israel’s need for water and the environmental effects this caused. There is some stunning work from Central and South America, including two city books, La Ciudad de Mexico III by Nacho Lopez (1960) and Buenos Aires Buenos Aires I by Alicia D’Amico and Sara Facio (1968). I was left in awe, wondering where are these excellent photographers now?

The book also contains a neat little epilogue that, like the film critic, I will not reveal for fear of spoiling your enjoyment – but suffice to say, it’s very postmodern. CJ

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