Sunday, October 11, 2009

The photobook - its rise and rise

Worth a shot
The market for fine photographic prints has exploded over the past decade, yet the photobook (as it has come to be known) was, until recently, relegated to the sidelines by dealers and collectors alike. But as photography has become more valued and collected, photobooks have slowly come to be recognised as desirable (and collectable) in their own right and the market is burgeoning, according to Laura Noble, director of the Diemar Noble Photography Gallery. “In the mid-1990s one could have picked up a first edition of Bill Brandt’s A Night in London for £20”, remembers her co-director Michael Diemar. “A copy of the same book sold recently at Christie’s for £4,800.”

So what has prompted this once-forgotten art form to be brought back into view? As vintage prints have become scarce and contemporary photography prohibitively expensive, photobooks may seem a more accessible and affordable way of collecting photography. The publication of The Photobook: A History by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger and Andrew Roth’s 101 Books (itself now rare and worth around £1,000) helped to ignite the current interest in the genre. For Parr, an obsessive collector who admits to owning tens of thousands of titles, the shift in the market was inevitable. “Photobooks were previously unrecognised and therefore undervalued,” he says.

The history of photography is rooted in books. Until the mid-20th century, photographers were far more likely to see their work between covers than on a gallery wall. Indeed, the first great artistic statement in the medium was grandly presented in book form. Published in 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, made up of 24 original prints, heralded the invention of the calotype – the first negative-positive photography. Many of the 19th-century prints for which collectors and museums are now paying hefty sums come from such albums, which have been broken up.

For many photographers the photobook is a source for photographic ideas – who’s doing what, what’s new – and trends spread rapidly from the US and Europe to Japan and back again.

“For contemporary photographers the photobook is still an important influence,” agrees curator Nina Poppe. When I met her earlier this year at Amsterdam’s Foam photography gallery, she was hanging Marks of Honour, a show of work by 13 photographers who pay homage to a photobook they found inspiring. Among the most compelling in the collection – which will be auctioned in Paris next month – are American photographer Michael Light’s tribute to Ansel Adams’ Yosemite and the Range of Light, in which Light has made precise cutouts following the lines of Adams’ monumental landscapes and inserted his own prints of LA night scenes into the spaces, and Japanese Onaka Koji’s thoughtfully constructed celebration of Daido Moriyama’s Tales of Tohno, which includes five prints and a contact sheet housed in a box handmade by Koji from wood of the forests where Moriyama shot his original 1976 work.

Japanese photobooks distinguish themselves by their attention to detail. The layout, binding, paper, printing, dustwrapper, obi (the bellyband) and the outer case (the so-called soto-bako or okuribako) are all meticulously crafted. After 1960, the photography scene in Japan changed dramatically and the photobook – with its ability to help create a narrative and rhythm – overtook the print as the most popular mode of artistic statement for the Japanese photographer.

This important and prolific period is examined in Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s published by the Aperture Foundation next month.

There has been a strong rise in demand for Japanese photobooks, and prices have doubled or tripled in the past three to four years. “Curiously, the Japanese photobook market really didn’t exist until western collectors started to show interest,” says Titus Boeder of Maggs Books. “When I started buying them in Japan eight years ago, prices were lower than the original retail cost. They weren’t collected in Japan.”

Elsewhere, in the US and Europe, the market for good quality photobooks shows little sign of slowing down, with demand particularly high for those inscribed by the artist or an important previous owner. Sven Becker, book specialist at Christie’s, recently auctioned a copy of William Klein’s Tokyo that once belonged to William Eggleston, for a lofty £2750. Signed by Klein, and with Eggleston’s ownership signature dated January 1969, it’s a perfect example of the type of books that are attracting the attention of collectors with discerning tastes and deep pockets.

Prices for similar books reached unprecedented levels earlier this year at New York’s Swann Galleries. A signed copy of Nobuyoshi Araki’s ABCD and a first edition of Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk, inscribed by Ruscha to Andy Warhol, achieved US$10,800 and US$15,600 respectively. This autumn Swann is offering a signed deluxe edition of Lucas Samaras’s Autointerview, Autobiography, Autopolaroid, issued with a Polaroid (estimate $2500-$3500), and a signed first edition of Helmut Newton’s gigantic Sumo, weighing in at nearly 70 pounds and supplied with its own Philippe Starck-designed chrome stand (estimate $5,000-$7,500).

Rare art book specialists Sims Reed recently showed some fine examples at the London Art Book Fair, including a first edition of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s exquisite Time Exposed (£12,000) and John Baldessari’s Fable: A Sentence of Thirteen Parts (£3,500). But it is not necessary to shell out vast sums of money to start building an impressive (and one day possibly quite valuable) library.

Ebay is a thriving market place for rare books and there are bargains to be had. The Photographers’ Gallery regularly promotes limited editions of new titles, often signed by the artist. Nazraeli Press offer very reasonably priced special editions and limited availability titles on their website. Gems include Masao Yamamoto’s A Box of Ku ($200) and Joseph Mills’ wonderfully surreal photomontages in The Loves of Poets ($250). Photography specialists Schaden offer recommendations, signed copies and a research service.

Parr’s advice is simple: “Buy what you like,” he says. And, if you buy books you genuinely like, it doesn’t matter if they increase in value or not. Good taste is rewarded, and a little knowledge can go a long way in identifying important books. “A few years ago a collector friend of mine went to a flea market in Paris and picked up Man Ray’s Electricité for €50,” says Noble. “The auction value? £20,000.” Who knows, you may just get that lucky.

By Claire Holland From the Financial Times, published: October 9 2009

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