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The Photobook: A History,
As Martin writes, photographers learn
more from other photographers’ books than anywhere else.
While some of the books are obscure and fun to learn about, it’s disappointing sometimes and down right confounding to see what Badger and Parr selected.
A History, Volume 2
review by Ken Light
Photography books have been a stepchild in the history of photography until recently. These books appear year after year, too numerous to list. Many end up on the remainder piles. Print runs are amazingly small by publishing industry standards. Two thousand copies is a big run; five thousand copies unusual. This is puzzling, given the number of photographers out in the world who, one would think, are potential buyers, not to mention the general public interested in the subjects explored in these books, from fine art to documentary. Yet, for most photographers a book is the most important vehicle for the display of a fully completed body of work and its communication to a mass audience. So few of us will ever see an original print, or even see the complete body of work. When we do visit an exhibition; who can even remember that experience ten, twenty or thirty years later? As Martin writes, photographers learn more from other photographers’ books than anywhere else.
This second of two volumes, co-edited by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, pays much needed critical attention to this phenomenon, with wonderful essays that explain and consider the photobook as a genre unto itself, a rising star. They explore the cultural context of these creations and our various connections to them.
This second volume categorizes contemporary photo books into company photo books, artists' photo books, editors’ compilations (rather than photographers), art photo books, American and European photo books, “New Objective” books, and finally, those chronicling “Modern Life”. Each book is beautifully illustrated with the cover or jacket and a selection of spreads from each of the books is shown. I love the fact that many of the book images are dog-eared from being used and loved by their owners.
It’s a wonderful addition to any library — a great opportunity to see books that have passed into the history of photography and are almost impossible to find, even with the internet: such volumes as The American Monument by Lee Friedlander, Public Relations by Gary Winogrand, Bill Burke's I Want To Take A Picture, Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street or Danny Lyon’s Conversation with the Dead. These are legendary books, talked about in classrooms and among photographers. To its credit, this book takes a look at almost 200 books from around the planet, giving all readers a chance to see what’s happening on the other side of the globe. While some of the books are obscure and fun to learn about, it’s disappointing sometimes and down right confounding to see what Badger and Parr selected.
So many great books are missing. No books by Sebastião Salgado, especially his first book, The Other America, which was eventually remaindered because Salgado was unknown at that time. This is either a slight at an ex -Magnum member whom Parr (a current Magnum member) wants to get even with or it’s just stupid. Where is Danny Seymour’s A Loud Song, one of the most cutting edge books in the early '70s? Steve Fitch’s Diesels and Dinosaurs: Photographs from the American Highway, or for that matter, many of the independent books released and self published on the West Coast. But, one can’t expect the scholarship to be perfect, can one? Those of us who love photography books and continue to seek them out, probably will all have a few books that we know should have been included but were not.
This book brought back memories of when I ordered Eugene Richards book Dorchester Days, in the late 1970s. I sent a check off to Gene in Massachusetts, and he sent back the signed copy of his self published book. It’s hard to believe that book I purchased for less than $15 now sells for $500+ (now, after appearing in this volume, for even more).
In the end, this book is a wonderful overview and combined with volume one is fun, entertaining and educational. It forced me to add a few books to my secret wish list of photo books that I want to add to my library. I’ll keep that list, but it’s a secret as I don’t want the prices to get too high, allowing only the rich new collectors in this genre to corner the market. After all, photo books are made to curl up with and enjoy the hard work that is shared within its bindings — for all to see, not just a few.
© Ken Light, 2007. All rights reserved.
Ken LIght is a documentary photographer; adjunct Professor and curator of the Center for Photography at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley; author; and co-founder of the excellent non-profit, FotoVision. For more information, visit: www.kenlight.com and www.fotovision.org. If you buy this book via the FotoVision site, they will earn a small commission to help support their work.
© 2007 Lens Culture and individual contributors. All rights reserved.