Thursday, February 11, 2010

Gerry Badger and Martin Parr on the Photobook

Writing in the British Journal of Photography with their respective lists of the decades best photobooks, Gerry and Martin have this to say about the genre.

Gerry Badger -
Despite the frequently expressed, gloomy prognosis about the health of the book and the future of the printed page, one area of publishing seems to flourish unabated. Indeed, interest in the photobook has never been higher and is, if anything, intensifying, at a time when photography is subject to great sea changes and a marked degree of uncertainty, especially in traditional editorial markets.

Not all of the publishing activity is with 'regular' publishers. Indeed, large mainstream publishers such as Thames and Hudson and Phaidon, have reined in their photo-publishing programmes, sticking to tried-and-trusted names. The small independents, who are lead by the inimitable Steidl (if Steidl can be called 'small') and for whom a 1500 to 200 print-run is the norm, remain the bedrock of photographic publishing.

As with everything else, the digital revolution has made an enormous impact though. Thanks to online print to order companies such as Blurb, making a photobook is now within everyone's reach. We haven't seen the first online classic but we soon will, and at the very least online printing allows photographers to make great calling cards for regular publishers.

In the last ten years some extraordinary photobooks have been published. Picking out ten to showcase as the 'best' can only be a matter of personal preference, and if ten people were doing it perhaps few would be chosen by more than one selector. I might even choose a different ten on a different day.

A number of elements go into making an important photobook. Firstly, the work. It is possible to make a successful book from less than first-rate images, but in general, the better the imagery, the better the book is likely to be. Secondly, the package presenting the work - design, typography, and so on - can make a crucial difference. Thirdly, the sequencing and narrative drive of the book is vital - that, after all, is why photographers make photobooks, to play photographs off against each other, to create a plausible and telling narrative of some kind. Fourthly, there is the 'X factor', where these elements come together to create a special narrative world of their own, making the book stand out both as a physical and intellectual object.

As in any other artform I'm also on the lookout for newness, although not novelty for its own sake. Perhaps I can call it freshness - a pushing of the envelope, a new twist on an old tale. Here, in no particular order, are ten books from the last decade that I feel meet these criteria in an outstanding way.

Martin Parr -
This has been the decade when people have rediscovered the book. And that's been prompted by some important new references, starting with Fotografia Republica, published by Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia to coincide with its exhibition during Photo Espana in 2000 and edited by Horacio Fernandez. It was really the first to publish actual spreads from books and magazines, so we must always credit him for getting the ball rolling. Next was Andrew Roth with The Book of 101 Books (PPP Editions, 2001), whose list was predominantly American, with a few Japanese thrown in. And then of course there was my and Gerry Badger's contribution (The Photobook - A History, published in two volumes by Phaidon in 2005 and 2006), and since then there have been many others.

So suddenly the status of the book has improved dramatically and people now take it a lot more seriously as a contributing factor to our understanding of photographic culture. I have always maintained its significance, being a photographer and knowing that I and other photographers always cite books as their inspiration. History is so subjective; it's constantly in flux. It's usually written by theorists and academics, who don't have the same regard for the photographic book that photographers do. So we think of our (Parr and Badger's) contribution as being a revision of history, taking on board many books and photographers that have been somewhat marginalised and overlooked, and bringing them to the attention of a wider audience.

Better by design
First off, a good book consists of great pictures. Secondly, you've got to have the production and the narrative that really makes those pictures come through to the viewer most effectively. Every aspect of the book has to be working in its favour. One of the criteria I've used here, in my selection of books from the past decade, is whether the book explores different ways of printing, different narratives and different looks and feels. The way that Dash Snow organised his books is integral to the understanding of his work. Others are more traditional. Rinko Kawauchi's book, Utatane, is not dynamic in terms of production values, but the photographs are nonetheless beautifully laid out and simple to read.

Photographers and designers are exploring creative possibilities a lot more, but all we're doing really is catching up with the great achievements of the Japanese. They were doing all this in their post-war publishing period in a way that was so far ahead of the west it was quite remarkable. The thing that still completely stuns me is that we chose to ignore this. So until I went there in 1992, I had no idea how spectacular the books were. I'd seen the work of many of the photographers, in books such as Mark Holborn's Black Sun: The Eyes of Four, Roots and Innovation in Japanese Photography (published by Aperture in 1986) and curated into shows such as John Szarkowski's New Japanese Photography in 1974, and I liked the pictures. But it's only when you see the books that you realise how amazing they were as vehicles for ideas within photography.

Now we've caught up, and the design aspects of books are so much bolder and more adventurous than in the 1960s and 70s. That was the great heyday of American photography but the books they were producing were not as exciting as the actual work, and you'd have two white pages with a picture on the right. At the same time, the Japanese were exploring full bleed, special cuts and all kinds of other things. Occasionally in Europe and America you'd have someone like William Klein in 1956, who would tear up these rules and do something radical, but in general we were much more conservative. Now the playing field is much more level and we are learning what the Japanese learnt 30 or 40 years ago. This is evident in some of the books in this selection.

We need and require mainstream publishers, but their books tend to be a lot more conservative. So the real workshop, and the place where people can experiment with ideas, is small publishers, or indeed self-publishing. The quality and variety of print-on-demand books is improving. When people like Blurb first appeared they too were very conservative, but they are constantly improving. In another 10 years time, you'll find many more photographers self-publishing their own Blurb books.

One thing that's problematic with all this is that all photographers believe they deserve a book, and that it will have a dramatic affect on their careers. Sadly, very few of these books capture the imagination and become a cult item. For most books, if you sell 500 you're very lucky. Few have the momentum of some of the books here, which are celebrated and collected and known as being important signposts in photographic publishing.

The reason Japan was so successful in the post-war Provoke period was that designers were literally given pictures by photographers and asked to come up with the ideas. Total collaboration with amazing designers such as Tadanori Yokoo allowed photographers to create these incredibly exciting books. But the potential is still underexploited - as is the capacity to be bold, to be exciting, and to really think and problem solve. It's getting the balance right. You've got to have the right project and the right vehicle to bring it to its full potential, and that's not such an easy thing to determine. Photography is often a problem-solving exercise and so is making a book, thinking of ways of making the work you've got come out and sing on the page more effectively. So often conservative design holds things back.

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