Matt Johnston on the Photobook Club
My interest and inquiry into photobooks truly began only five or so years ago. Martin Parr, Gerry Badger, and co. had already helped to further (or establish or even destroy, depending on who you spoke to) the economic and cultural value of the photobook, yet I was frustrated with the available discourse. So many works were highly regarded and touted as masterpieces with little thought of genuine discussion. I started the Photobook Club online as a platform for these discussions: a place to ask why The Americans is important, or what exactly it is about Yukichi Watabe’s A Criminal Investigation (2011) that merits a third printing in as many years.
It was evident early on, however, that these discussions of tactile and personal experiences did not always translate well to a digital space. This is not to say we cannot write about bookworks online, but that, for many, the informal round-table discussion of a traditional book group is both more encouraging and more responsive. With this in mind, I ran meet-ups at the university at which I teach, as well as outside the academy in London. As a testament to the desire for this sort of interaction, with support new groups started to form in cities all over the world.
It is within this large and engaged network that I have sent out two boxes of photobooks (one in 2013 and the other in 2014), received and passed on by any clubs or communities who have requested a stopover. The idea is to connect sometimes geographically distant communities through common works—in this case, a selection of chosen books. The distributed authorship of the Photobook Club project means that ownership and responsibility rests with individual groups, which is wonderful for diversity and creativity. I have noticed, however, that sometimes these groups can become satellites rather than nodes, working as standalones rather than seeing and exploiting the benefits of the meta-community of Photobook Clubs.
Although my report from the photobook fields is somewhat rosy, it is incomplete. While we are just now beginning to scratch beneath the surface of the photobook in the twenty-first century, with publications such as The PhotoBook Review as well as the recent opening of the PhotoBook Museum in Cologne, we still operate within a relatively small population. As I look now into the field, there are large voids into which the modern photobook has not ventured: non-arts-based education and mainstream narrative storytelling, primarily. How might books such as Jo Metson Scott’s The Grey Line (2013) be used in schools as an anchor for discussion? I plan now to work towards these needs with the Photobook Club.
Matt Johnston is a photographer, educator, and researcher based in the UK. He has codeveloped several world-leading open photography classes at Coventry University, as well as working to promote and enable discussion around the physical photobook. He launched the Photobook Club in 2011.
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.