Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Photobook - Yin and Yang

MOCA Sydney - Sunday May 25
The Sunday before last I took part in a panel discussion at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art where a panel consisting of publishers, photography educators and photographers attempted to prise open the photobook oyster to see if we could come up with any pearls of wisdom. The subject was tossed back and forth before a receptive audience and in an hour and a half not many substantive conclusions were reached.

As a committed maker of photobooks I’ve been thinking a lot about the photobook and the problems and opportunities of book making and distribution. Since I made my first photobook twenty years ago much has changed. On one hand it’s become hugely easier to actually get a book produced. With InDesign, working from PDF’s in a computer to plate environment, sheet-fed offset books are simpler to produce. Make-ready press times are shorter, plate turn around on the presses are faster and printers can now cost effectively print smaller runs, down to even 500 units. Possibly less. On top of this there is digital printing with state of the art printers from both Fuji Xerox and HP. And soon in this arena sheet sizes larger than A3. All this has meant a flood of photobooks. In effect the haystack has got bigger but the needle much smaller. What I’m saying is that amongst the flood of books, some books are not very good and it’s harder to get ones hands on the really outstanding stuff. Somebody commented at the panel discussion, “how many times have you gone into a photobook store and come out with nothing”. Right!

Once you’ve got your book in your hand the killer is distribution. Today, there are many more books seeking shelf-space with less shelf-space to go round. High Street art bookshops have closed and those that keep going have become more selective in what they stock. And for example the wonderful Flammarion bookshop in Centre Pompidou, Paris, seems to have a policy of just one stock-turn for most books. In other words they will order a book, display it, sell it but not restock. Then there is Amazon and Book Depository with their huge market share which enable them to dictate terms to publishers. Book resellers demand hefty discounts and more often than not publishers pay the freight costs of unsold returned books. I am still convinced that the photobook is the best vehicle for photography. The book makes a series of pictures into a work in itself. There is a wonderful tactile, format, scale thing that works with photographs in book form which adds to the experience of viewing the work. And unlike a short lived gallery show a book has long life, it can travel and becomes the photographers ultimate calling card.

As for acquiring photobooks, in my view you can’t go wrong it you buy and collect every new book from those photographers you admire with a history of making books where often one book can inform the next. For example I get hold of, sight unseen, every book from luminaries such as Robert Adams, Paul Graham, John Gossage, Wolfgang Tillmans and Collier Schorr, to name a few. I do this because I follow their work and know their books will be good. And I look for books from new voices such as Sacha Maric, Lucas Blalock and others.

Despite the changes of the last few years there is still life in photobook. Long live the photobook!

Harvey Benge - Can I leave the room?

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