Clément Chéroux, My library in Normandy, France, 2020
“I know no greater promise than that of a library.” —Guy Sire
My Eureka Moment
A few years ago, I had the somewhat strange idea of printing business cards which, under my name, listed the following for my occupation: “Amateur librarian.” Librarian, because, for around thirty years, I have spent most of my free time looking for the kinds of books that can make life more interesting; I collect, stockpile, and organize them, following a plan that strictly reflects my brain’s topology. Amateur, because this is not my profession; but also, because, according to the Latin etymology of the word, I really love it. When I initially became interested in photography in the mid-1980s, I lived in a provincial town with little access to exhibitions. Books were the main means of access to the medium and they opened, like a door, onto an unknown domain. Books, therefore, strongly shaped my early knowledge of photography—and their importance continued to grow. While working as a museum curator in France and then in the US, I relied more on books than even visits to studios or exhibitions to discover works. For many years, I used books above all as sources, as repertories, as catalogues, in order to select the photographs that might enrich the collection of the institution for which I was working. And a few years ago, I had a revelation, one of those epiphanies that changes how we see things and that we remember for a long time afterwards. I was holding an artist’s book that was entirely made up of photographs. It was so accomplished in its artwork, sequencing, typography, relation between text and image, choice of paper, and in so many other small details, that it struck me: the book itself deserved as much, if not more, of a place in the collection as did the photographs it included. The photobook as a complex and coherent container, became more interesting than its photographic content alone.
The Boom of the Book
I am obviously not the only person to have noticed that the photobook—to borrow the phrase from Michael Fried—“matters as art as never before.” For a number of years now, there has existed a “photobook phenomenon.” Its origins could be placed around the publication of Fotografía pública (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 1999) by Horacio Fernández, who was one of the first to emphasize the importance of photographs’ context of diffusion by reproducing double-page spreads from each of the featured books. For many, the discovery of this work was a revelation. It confirmed, with a clarity compounded by the abundance of illustrations and the page layout, that photography is not only an image, but also an object whose very circulation must also be examined. Studies devoted to the photobook had been published before, such as early essays by Elizabeth McCausland (1943) and Beaumont Newhall (1983), but Fotografía pública established a genre. It was soon followed by The Book of 101 Books (PPP Editions, 2001) by Andrew Roth, and the first volume of The Photobook: A History (Phaidon, 2004) by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. Twenty years later, the bibliography of illustrated anthologies on photobooks includes more than eighty titles. In my own library, these volumes take up more meters of linear space than traditional histories of photography. As these compilations show, the photobook is not a recent invention. It has existed since the very beginning of the medium (Anna Atkins, William Henry Fox Talbot, etc.) and before the twentieth century it constituted a far greater means of diffusion of photography than exhibitions. So it is in terms, not of novelty, but rather of intensity that we should examine this recent development of photographic publications. In 1999, around one hundred publishers were partially or fully devoted to photography internationally. In preparing for this issue, from lists of publishers circulating on the internet, crossed with my own library, I calculated that this number has since been multiplied by almost five. Over the course of twenty years, and with a peak between 2011 and 2014, around three hundred more publishing houses for photobooks were created.
A World of Its Own
The current popularity of the photobook is no mere fad. It has lasted now for more than twenty years and has had important impacts on the ecosystem of photography. The phenomenon is also of historical importance, since it embodies the new face of photophilia. I know several collectors, such as Manfred Heiting and a few others, who stopped collecting vintage prints to concentrate entirely on photobooks. I can no longer count the former students or trainees who declined careers primarily as photographers, curators, or academics, instead preferring to create their own little publishing organizations. In the everyday practice of my profession, I increasingly meet photographers who are more interested in publishing a book than in making an exhibition. For these artists who evolve, more often than not, far from the circuit of large galleries, the book has become the thing. Careers have been launched with the publication of a book. In the current phase of development, the photobook is situated approximately where the artist’s book was in the 1980s. It offers a level of ingenuity, experimentation, consciousness, quality, or sophistication that had rarely been achieved before. The domain of photographic publishing has also reached a certain maturity. It is a world in itself—with its photographers, publishers, dealers, specialists, and collectors. All of this constitutes an organized network that feeds and regulates itself. It is interesting also to note that over the last twenty years, the world of the photobook has built a model of legitimation similar to the one photography itself used at the end of the twentieth century. The great masters and masterpieces had to be selected and organized by country or by genre. Then came the need to create official institutions, figures of authority, annual meetings, a primary and a secondary market, a system of compensation with prizes or medals, etc. The ultimate phase in this process required that the photobook be recognized as an art form in itself. This is where we are today.
It seems a long time since the period when large publishing houses attached to international groups, with branches in several capitals, published photobooks in large print runs. Photographic publishing, in the first decades of the twenty-first century, has been marked above all by the multiplication of the little entities that can only be described adequately with a metaphor from astronomy—with its fields of meteorites, Pleiades, and its constellations. In this extremely dynamic domain that is constantly reinventing itself, it would be risky to try to define the profiletype of these young publishers. One online resource allows us, however, to ascertain what it is that drives them, and that is their presentation page, often entitled “About Us.” Without any definition, a synthesis of these blurbs makes up a sort of identikit-picture of this new generation of publishers. In these statements of purpose, the words “love” or “passion” regularly appear. These publishers love with a passion the book, the photograph, and perhaps above all the combination of the two. They are divided into small structures that are proudly independent, willingly placing themselves on the edges of dominant currents of mass culture. They publish only a few books per year, in relatively small print runs, and are fully conscious of evolving in a niche market. The search for profit is not their main ambition. These new publishers take a political position that defends education, responsibility, ecology, diversity, or social justice. They still believe that a book can change the course of a life and think of themselves as go-betweens of art, ideas, or histories. One of the most common claims in these mission statements is that the book is not the work of one single person, but rather the product of creative chemistry between artists, graphic designers, writers, curators, printers, binders, and publishers. One collaborative American publishing platform even refers to those who take the risk of prepurchasing their works as copublishers. The book is made together, in a community of talents. The result of this tight cooperation goes beyond the mere sum of its parts.
This Is Art!
Books published by this new generation of publishers are thought of as singular objects. Unlike many monograph collections from the last decades of the twentieth century, each volume has its own identity. These works are conceived to withstand the tests of time, with hopes that the grandchildren of the initial buyers will find them still worthy of interest. In their presentations online, these publishers insist on the equality between form and content. The content of the book (subject, vision, narration) is certainly primordial, but the attention given to the conception of its container is just as crucial. Several of these small publishers promote an experimental approach to the book-object in terms of graphic art, printing, or binding. In this context the materiality of the book is also very important. Haptics are combined with optics to offer a sensory experience distinct from the discovery of images on the screen. “Attention to every detail,” “cutting edge,” “highest quality,” “sophisticated,” are words that frequently appear in these publishers’ descriptions. They claim a level of expertise that is far above the general standards of publishing. Strangely, the word “craft” is used very little here. That may be because it refers more to the nineteenth century than to the trendy or connected vocabulary of our Web 2.0 era. But its philosophy is present in the way these publishers describe their profession. Ever since the Arts and Crafts movement, craftsmanship has been linked with art. Some contemporary publishers of photobooks consider themselves craftsmen. They see bookmaking as a vector for the diffusion of art: a gallery without a wall, or a paper museum. Others are artists. In the last years, many photographers—Alec Soth, Stephen Gill, Cristina de Middel, Lukas Birk, Jason Fulford, Vasantha Yogananthan, among so many others—created their own houses to independently publish their own projects or those of like-minded artists. While maintaining the conflation between the container and the content, they also claim that the photobook is a form of art in itself.
I remember very well that when I first became interested in photography, the discussion revolved primarily around the way images were produced. Important subjects included operating technique, zone system, and decisive moments. “At Work” was a common subtitle for the monographs of great photographers, for the principal challenge was to explain how they operated. Henceforth, it has become less the question of production, and more that of diffusion that is at the heart of all conversations on the medium. Numerous recent studies, exhibitions, and conferences have examined the different modalities of photo publication. Today, the internet and social networks have of course become the main vectors for the circulation of images. Yet historically, during the twentieth century, the main channels for the distribution of photographs were exhibitions and books. While these two interfaces with the public have had an absolutely complementary function whose interrelated history should one day be written, they offer a radically different experience of photography. The experience offered by a museum or gallery is generally collective, while that of the photobook invites itself into the home and offers a more intimate and personal understanding of the work. In the exhibition, the photograph is looked at mostly vertically, while in the book, held in one’s hands, placed on a table or on one’s lap, the photograph tends to be appreciated horizontally. The photograph on the wall is generally protected behind glass or plexiglass, unlike the book where the surface of the image remains directly accessible. The wandering in the space of the exhibition solicits the eye as much as the feet, whereas the discovery of a work in a book rests essentially on a combination of the gaze and the hand. Framed and hung up, photographs have a presence, but rarely a physicality, whereas the photobook is an object with weight, materiality, and tangibility. Our relation to the photograph through the book seems then to respond more to the subversive invitation that Marcel Duchamp had written out clearly on the catalogue for the surrealist exhibition of 1947: Prière de toucher.
This Moment of Absolute Joy
I need to confess here that I have a very sensory relationship with books. Once the cellophane wrapping has been removed from the book, I open it and, with an almost Pavlovian reflex, plunge my nose into the hollows between the pages. Its odor is a mix of glue, ink, and paper. I unfold the dust jacket to see if it is hiding any details deliberately concealed from the surface gaze. “Photography is a secret about a secret,” said Diane Arbus. I caress the grain of the paper with the flat of my palm. I follow the outline of the embossing with my fingertips. I enjoy hearing the cracking of the binding. My thumb on the edge of the pages, I feel the flexibility of the paper and free the pages in a cadence guided by my curiosity. After this initial phase of approaching the book, I put it down and slowly begin its discovery from cover to cover. I scrutinize the colophon, read the texts, and pause for a long time in front of certain images; I evaluate the page layout, go back a few pages, open the folding plates, then carefully close them again so as not to damage them. The history of photography has, for years, been marked by an uninterrupted pursuit of speed. Those who have tried to improve it have always sought to make it faster: from the instantaneity of the shot (Kodak, 1888), to the reduction of the development time (Polaroid, 1948), to the immediacy of sharing (Instagram, 2007). In my own relations with images, I very much enjoy the deceleration imposed by the photobook. It allows a richer appreciation than the hasty scrolling of images stimulated by a nervous movement of the thumb against the screen of a smartphone. Seated at a table or in an armchair, with the book nicely placed between my eye and my hand, I feel as though a force field is becoming harmonized, as though something is finding its equilibrium, as in a yoga position. When I think about it carefully, it seems crazy how much intensity a mere stack of partly inked sheets of paper, assembled in a certain order, held between two thicker cardboard sheets, can contain.
This Replaces That
At the turn of the twenty-first century, the moment when digital images began to acquire a more and more important place in our daily activities, many predicted the end of the paper book. And it is in fact the opposite that came about in the domain of photography. While visual culture on the web developed, photographic book publishing surprisingly followed the same upward curve. Among curators, John Szarkowski is one of the first to have anticipated the positive impact of digital images on the publishing of photobooks. In a televised interview on February 9, 2005, in response to a question regarding his thoughts on new technologies, he avoided the usual soundbites on the end of photographic truth and replied enthusiastically: “I think there is a terrific opportunity in the digital system for making books.” The digital system, he explained, allowed us to reduce the costs of making books in small print runs: “There are some great books that only 200 or 500 people need to have.” The future proved him very right. The digital system helped to reduce circulation costs. Via the internet, it is possible to order directly from the publisher, without using an intermediary. Social networks also announce the publication of a work with a power of dissemination and captivation that had never been seen before in this domain. They offer numerous resources—leaf-throughs,presentations, insight into the making of, etc.—that facilitate the understanding of the book. Many times I have flicked through the pages of a new book in a bookshop and put it back on the stack, only to run back out to get it later after having seen a presentation of the photographer on the internet. Today, the digital system adds a supplementary layer around this already complex object. It is this virtual cocoon that creates the conditions for the extraordinary vitality of photographic publishing. Against all expectations, the book and the digital system are not opposed. Instead, they are perfectly complementary. Szarkowski rightly intuited that they should not necessarily be seen as contradictory.
History in the Making
This current issue of The PhotoBook Review is the twentieth. It marks the tenth year of the existence of this biannual newsprint journal, which is brilliantly directed by Lesley A. Martin and the team from Aperture. In one decade, PBR, as those familiar with it call it, has become one of the main exchange forums for amateurs of the photobook. It has both widely contributed to, and recorded the history of, the photobook as a publishing phenomenon. If we reread the nineteen available issues, we can find almost all of the important debates of the period, along with the photographers, publishers, and graphic artists that were particularly active, and, of course, the most influential books. When Lesley invited me to take on the role as guest editor for this issue, I accepted without hesitation. First, because I am an avid reader and great admirer of PBR. But second because the archival nature of this publication, its ability to record this publishing history while participating in it actively, seems to me to make it the ideal place to attempt an examination of the photobook’s development in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Our discussion began with simple questions: How do we define a photobook? How many publishers of photobooks are there today? Where are they? And then things became more complex, as is always the case when you want to do things thoroughly. It is within a necessarily temporary and incomplete state of questioning that we imagine this issue. PBR, issue 020, poses questions to the contemporary actors in the world of the photobook, as well as a new generation of professionals. It also offers a chronology of the key moments in photographic publishing since 1999, statistics concerning the multiplication of publishing houses, and a cartography showing their locations around the globe. Without claiming to cover everything, this issue aims to bring together a few useful resources that will allow readers, and perhaps also future historians, to understand better the current taste for this fascinating object, the photobook.
This article originally appeared in The PhotoBook Review, Issue 020, under the title “The New Face of Photophilia.” Translated from the French by Shane Lillis.