The ‘Photobook’: What’s in a name?

The PhotoBook Review #007, Aperture, Winter, 2014


The ‘Photobook’: What’s in a name?

The term ‘photobook’ is recent. It hardly appears in writings and discussions before the twenty-first century. This is surprising given that some of the various kinds of objects it purports to designate have been around since the 1840s. It seems that makers and audiences of photographic books did not require the term to exist. Indeed they might have benefitted from its absence. Perhaps photographic book making was so rich and varied precisely because it was not conceptualized as a practice with a unified name. So does the advent of the term ‘photobook’ mark some kind of change?

There was little serious writing on the subject of photographically illustrated books throughout what was arguably the most important period for the form: 1920 to 1970. In that half century, when so many remarkable and important books were published, barely a single intelligent essay was written about them. For example, August Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit (The Face of Our Time, 1929) and Atget: Photographe de Paris (1930) received almost no critical attention, beyond a few lines from Walter Benjamin and Walker Evans. Today they are among the most discussed. Even Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958/9) attracted little serious commentary when it first appeared (although there were plenty of ranting column inches, for and against).

For all the sophistication of the photographs, the design, editing and printing techniques; and for all the nuanced grasp of how a book of photographs might contribute to its cultural moment, or become a complex document, something seemed to elude critics and commentators. It’s as if it was only once photographically illustrated printed matter had begun to be eclipsed by television, video and later the Internet that it could come under close scrutiny.


In 1998 the American scholar Carol Armstrong published Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843-1875 (MIT Press). It is a remarkable reflection on the very early interplay of photography, writing and the printed page. Armstrong’s discussion of books by Anna Atkins, William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron and others is very illuminating and her way of seeing that distant but vital moment through the prism of more recent critical theory is ambitious. Upon reading it I felt convinced it was going to be the book to open a new field of study. But it didn’t. Maybe it was still a little too early. It never got out of its expensive hardback and has now slipped out of print.

By contrast the dominant form for books about photographic books follows the template set in 2001 by Andrew Roth’s The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century and consolidated by Martin Parr & Gerry Badger’s three volumes of The Photobook: a history (2004-). These densely illustrated anthologies introduce a range of titles, establish some kind of canon and function as guides for collectors, connoisseurs and curators. There have been more than a dozen published in this vein, most often taking a national or regional theme. Dutch books, Japanese books, Latin American, German, and so on. These anthologies are invaluable because the area of study is still so new and there’s still much to discover, but they also frustrate because the writing on each entry is usually short. Swiss Photobooks from 1927 to the Present (Lars Müller Publishers, 2011) is a welcome exception, with more sustained essays about the context, production and reception of each book included.


Generally the more serious scholarship is scattered and a little harder to spot but it is there. The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond (I. B. Tauris 2012, edited by Patrizia Di Bello, Colette Wilson and Shamoon Zamir) emerged from the regular meetings of a bunch of UK academics, myself included. The meetings didn’t really cohere and neither does this collection of papers but maybe that doesn’t matter. If the writing of one of the various thinkers is of interest to you, it’s not difficult to track down more of what they’ve been up to. For example, Caroline Blinder writes extensively on the intersection of photography and literature in the USA; Ian Walker’s books on surrealism are attentive to image/text interplay; the reliably provocative David Evans writes on everything from photomontage and Situationism to Jean-Luc Godard and Wolfgang Tillmans, always with an interest in editing. I look forward to his forthcoming book 1+1, a primer on the history of photo editing.

This brings me to what I think has been the real stumbling block for sustained discussion of photographic books. A critical framework for thinking about editing has never really taken hold. How do we articulate the endlessly varied ways in which one image affects another and another? In the 1920s, filmmakers and film theorists worked up sophisticated (even revolutionary) theories of cinematic editing. Think of the Soviet situation with the intensity of the ideas of Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Given the expansion of the popular press and the extraordinary experiments with the book form around that time, one might have expected an equally sophisticated discourse around the editing of photographs. Beyond pockets of debate about photomontage and collage there really wasn’t. Even the great image editors of the last century, from Stefan Lorant and André Malraux to Franz Roh and Robert Delpire spoke little and wrote less about how they actually operated.

Nevertheless editing is ubiquitous. For over a century nearly all photographic culture – from mainstream magazine photo essays to independent books and website presentations – has involved the ordering of bodies of images. ‘Composition’ is not confined to the rectangle of the viewfinder; it is also a matter of the composition of the set, series, suite, typology, archive, album, sequence, slideshow, story and so forth. So are we to presume editing and its effects upon us are simply ineffable, beyond language, pursued entirely intuitively? Is editing a poetic practice that is not to be thought about too hard? Maybe. Do we not discuss editing because it’s a painful truth that the majority of photographers are lousy editors of their own work? Many a landmark photographic book has resulted from collaboration between photographer and editor. This complicates the presumption of the singular authorial voice that still dominates discussion of photographic books.


In this light Blake Stimson’s The Pivot of the World: Photography and its Nation  (MIT Press, 2006) is a significant study, with its sustained chapters on Frank’s The Americans, The Family of Man book/show and the serial studies of industrial architecture made by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Stimson’s central contention is that “The photographic essay was born of the promise of another kind of truth from that given by the individual photograph or image on its own, a truth available only in the interstices between pictures, in the movement from one picture to the next.” From this, he develops a nuanced argument in which photographic meaning is as much about gaps and the unrepresentable as it is about what can be revealed or expressed visually. It is refreshing to see this idea articulated and thought through. At its core it’s not a wildly original insight – anyone who has ever sequenced photographs will at least intuit what Stimson is getting at – but this might be precisely why his book is starting to have an influence. Sarah E. James’s Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures across the Iron Curtain (Yale, 2013), which emerged from her doctoral research, is a good example and the debt to Stimson is clear.

It might still be early days for the discipline, but is discipline what is needed? I know you can’t unring a bell but I rather miss those days before the dubious term ‘photobook’ became so widespread. It’s not an innocent word. It has been welcomed and taken up in order to impose some kind of unity where there simply was none and perhaps should be none. A few years ago I wrote this in the British magazine Source: “The compound noun ‘photobook’ is a nifty little invention, designed to turn an infinite field (books with photographs in them) into something much more definable.  What chancer would dare try to coin the term ‘wordbook’ to make something coherent of all books with words in them? But here we are. A field needs a name and until we find a better one we’re stuck with ‘photobook’.”

The emergence of the term and the institutionalization of a field of study does signal a change, and nobody who has witnessed the boom in interest in the last decade could fail to ask themselves “Why ‘photobooks’ now?” Although I don’t think the term signals an end, it does mark a watershed. New media don’t replace old ones but they do redefine them.  The take up of the term ‘photobook’ is a consequence of the Internet, and so is the field of study it marks.  And for all its various forms the photobook is a relatively tame object of study, compared to the wild hall of mirrors that is the photograph online.

by David Campany, for The PhotoBook Review 007, Aperture 2014.


A little bonus – a review of Martin Parr & Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: a History, volume III (Phaidon, 2014), first published in Source magazine:

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s epic The Photobook: a history has reached its third and possibly final volume. When the first was published back in 2004, the idea of a canon of photographic books still seemed new and slightly exotic, despite the extraordinarily rich history that was beginning to be pieced together. In 1999 Horacio Fernandez had published an exciting catalogue for the Spanish exhibition Fotografica Publica: Photography in Print 1919-1939. In 2001 the American Andrew Roth published his contentious The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century. Several serious websites dedicated to photographic books were attracting interest. More and more academics were starting to think about the photographic book as an overlooked object of study. Exhibitions were beginning to include photographic books in recognition of their importance (such as Tate Modern’s Cruel and Tender: the real in the twentieth century photograph 2003). At that time, I was preparing a survey book for Phaidon Press about photography in art since the 1960s, and I distinctly remember my editor looking at me quizzically when I said I wanted to reproduce not just the images but whole page spreads of several projects whose primary form was the book (Bernhard and Hilla Becher’s Anonyme Skulpturen 1970, Christian Boltanksi’s Menschlich 1994, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence 1977, Sol Lewitt’s Autobiography 1980).

A decade on, it’s difficult to imagine that the history of photographic books was barely known, even by most serious photographers. It seemed to be the province of a few enthusiasts and dealers. There was of course plenty of interest, but photographic books of the past were obscure things that rarely surfaced in bookshops and thus were rarely seen or discussed. The Internet changed all that. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan had noted decades before, new technologies eclipse older ones but in doing so they reinvent them on their own terms. For all its physicality (looking at them, studying them, acquiring them, making them), the massive renaissance of the photobook  has been a consequence of online culture: it has made books available as never before and it has alerted us all to the specific qualities of printed matter.

In their first volume, Parr & Badger did have a go at defining some criteria that might justify the word ‘photobook’ and provide a framework for judgement. They took their cue from the photographer John Gossage who suggested that a good photobook should ‘contain great work’, should ‘have a design that complements what is being dealt with’, should ‘function as a concise world within itself’ and should ‘deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest’. Should, not must. Since then, Parr & Badger have selected many books that at least strive to meet those criteria. And to their credit they have also selected many that don’t meet them, or don’t meet all of them, or even scoff at them. Rules in photography can only lead to stagnation.

Volume 1 had an open playing field and Parr & Badger set out their approach. Rather cruelly, nineteenth and early twentieth century books were dispatched in two brief chapters. This made way for a focus set firmly on photobooks since the modernist heyday of the 1920s. However, writing any history of photography is like herding cats. No sooner soon have the authors dealt with a genre or theme, than forgotten books emerge that beg to be included in subsequent volumes. So Parr & Badger must take one step back for every two steps forward. That’s not a failing. It’s an unavoidable consequence. But there is progress of a kind and the latest volume has much more of an emphasis on books made in the last few decades where the tendency has been towards more openly subjective practices, more conscious use of graphic design, a widening of what might be deemed significant or legitimate subject matter, and a blurring of the distinction between ‘original’ and ‘found’ photography.

Are there sins of omission and commission here? Plenty. I shan’t nit-pick about particular examples but there are whole areas left untouched. The legacy of conceptual art seems to have been reduced to books by, or influenced by Ed Ruscha, Hans-Peter Feldmann and Sophie Calle (meanwhile while several anthologies of conceptual art’s book production have been published). The great interactions of photography and literature don’t seem to interest Parr & Badger either. In fact books with writing beyond an introductory essay are generally ignored. Maybe they just don’t read much, which does bring me to a more serious point. While the authors are commendably global in their reach – with interest in books from South America, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe – I suspect the text of these books has largely gone unread. For example, Volume III includes many Japanese protest books but without the language or the contextual understanding we are reduced to drawing worryingly sketchy conclusions. No doubt more specialized studies will address this.

All this said, to be honest I much prefer it when Parr & Badger are being loose cannons, rather and strictly canonical. I welcome the wild unpredictability of their choices, not least because it keeps the very idea of an official history alive and up for grabs. It also pokes great fun at those slavish and lazy collectors who use these three volumes as some sort of connoisseur’s buying guide. The joke’s on them.

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