Libraries multiply the audience for a book—almost without limit.
By Dierdre Donahue
In October 2017, the Tate announced the acquisition of a remarkable collection of photobooks. These books are known to many photobook enthusiasts because a considerable number of them are included in the marvelous series The Photobook: A History, written by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, as well as in some regional examinations of photobooks in Latin America and China. Parr and the Tate (with the support, in part, of Maja Hoffmann of the LUMA Foundation) have made it possible for Tate Library visitors to study these photobooks in person, turning the pages, comparing them side by side, making their own microscopic discoveries.
Having spent half my career as a librarian at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York, a school and museum of photography, I have naturally thought deeply about photobooks in libraries, as well as libraries’ relationship with artists. Libraries and photography have been dancing together since Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins recognized the medium as especially well suited for reproduction and, once those reproductions were bound together, as a vehicle for the distribution of information. Many photobook collections, in institutions such as the New York Public Library and the British Library, accidentally became great photobook libraries because of the pervasive use of photography as the kind of information that libraries aim to collect comprehensively. When we think of Eugène Atget or Walker Evans, we don’t think of them as suppliers for picture collections in libraries, yet that is what they were. Photobook libraries can also begin as one collector’s passion, transferred by some means into an institution and then appended with the results of others’ passionate collecting. The institution’s stewards then make judicious decisions about how to keep the collection safe, make it discoverable, and continue to add to it.
The greatest part about the young medium of the photobook is that it is so vast that it’s impossible to know fully. Every day I learn of new wonders from the past, present, and even future. This issue of The PhotoBook Review presents a few souvenirs of that daily serendipity: friends I have met in the library, books encountered, and ideas that have percolated there.
For example, I was first introduced to the artist Ishiuchi Miyako by the wise ICP alum Hisashi Murayama, who gingerly handed me Apartment (1978) and said that it was the greatest photobook ever made. It is truly among them, I acknowledge, and I am excited to have a new essay by this remarkable artist to read, thanks to the collaborative ethos of 10×10 Photobooks, a group of photobook aficionados on whose board I have had the pleasure of serving for a number of years. Other former ICP colleagues have likewise impacted my expanding photobook knowledge. ICP faculty Stephen Ferry showed me early maquettes of the book that became La Batea, a work about gold mining written by him and his sister Elizabeth Ferry. I am delighted to have it reviewed in these pages. Ed Grazda, also an ICP faculty member and one of my wisest teachers, is also featured here, as an avid photobook collector. What a fortunate thing it is to be a librarian, where I learn from such brilliant people every day and get paid to do it!
With subjects such as artists and photobook libraries, the greatest challenge as guest editor was whittling down the choices to a rational number to include. The photobook repositories I survey range from very old and established ones to one that is merely months old. (It would be a great service to put together a really comprehensive guide, as the George Eastman Museum staff did for photography collections in 1998—but that remains a project for another time.)
At the New York Public Library, I think a lot about all the collectors whose collections formed the basis of the material we are handing over to new readers each day, and even more about who, in the future, will add their collections to the treasure trove guarded by the lions. Including collectors’ voices recognizes their part in the ecology of the photobook and library community. What I would like is for everyone who collects books feverishly, as I do, to never forget that libraries multiply the audience for a book almost without limit. It’s also worth noting that photographers too would benefit from thinking about libraries and collectors as a critical part of their community and audience—they can be an invaluable part of the support system for bookmakers everywhere.
Dr. S. R. Ranganathan, a mentor for all librarians, published his five laws of library science in 1931, and the fifth and final law is: “A library is a growing organism.” I think this tenet should both guide and check any collector—to grow and learn and create new relationships among items in the collection, and check that there is sufficient room to add to it and build its audience.
That is the spirit I hope fuels this issue.
Deirdre Donohue is the Managing Research Librarian in the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs of the New York Public Library (NYPL). Prior to joining the NYPL, she was the Stephanie Shuman Director of Library, Archives, and Museum Collections at the International Center of Photography in New York.
The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.