The Photobook

  By John Veldhoen

In the last year, The Camera Store widened the area that it keeps aside for books, and in honor of this commitment to photographic books, and books related to the technical exercise of making photographs, I hope to write a series of reviews about various useful and exemplary titles for people interested in the art and craft of photography. As I go along, I hope I can be of some use to anyone reading who may want guidance in collecting, or at least pique a little interest in what I think are interesting or inspiring works, and give some guidance to what books are at the cusp of educating the technical enterprise of making pictures. 

My own interest in photography began while reading fiction, and finding the strange amalgam of the photobook in the interstice of photography and literature. For a period, I sold photobooks at a US gallery that was itself dedicated to the practice and understanding of photography. So to begin, I want to take a look in The Photobook: A History, by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, as this compendious and outstanding book is the best resource for appreciating the tradition of photobooks. The two volumes are marvelously illustrated and well made by Phaidon books, and they select titles over a vast stylistic, chronological, and geographical range. In addition, at the end of this review, I want to make a quick reference to Douglas Kirkland’s “Coco Chanel: Three Weeks, 1962” and “With Marilyn: An Evening 1961”. These books may seem incongruous, but I hope to draw them together. 

The Photobook: A History begins with an essay by Gerry Badger, a writer, curator, and a photographer himself. This essay, entitled “The Photobook; Between Novel and Film”, seeks to define the photobook as poorly fitted to definition. Badger quotes Ralph Prins, a Dutch designer, teacher, and photographer, who wrote that the photobook is “an autonomous art form, comparable with a piece of sculpture, or a play, or a film. The photographs lose their own photographic character as things ‘in themselves’ and become parts, translated into printing ink, of a dramatic event, that become a book.” This is an astute assessment of what a photobook often achieves for a “reader” or “viewer”, although there is provocation in the language used by Prins. Not all photographers eschew ‘in-themselves” photographs, while still active in the pursuit of making photographic books. Some books contain representative photographs from a photographers’ work, and some books are photobooks made of photographs that were created by a photographer to achieve an effect through seriality. This affective sensibility may frustrate easy narrative assembly, but at their best a photobook carries with it a near mystical concatenation of images into an event, as likened by Prinz to sculpture. Or, like Badger writes, here from Volume I, commenting on Auguste Salzmann’s 1856 book, “Jerusalem: Photographs of the Monuments of the Holy City”, a book of images, he writes, that has the dual quality of “flickering rapidly between documentary and poetry”. A combination that is a good summation of photobooks, too. 

This affective state is by no means new to the history of the book, for hundreds of years artists have made books that combine images into what seem like experiential processes. Prayer books from the middle-ages would depict images that were linked to events that occurred in liturgical time, like photobooks that have narrativity innately embedded in them. Photobooks can often be read as well as seen, with viewers decoding the montage of images, as pages turn with filmic cuts. Half-turned pages reveal fragmentary views of front (called recto in bookmaking) and back pages (called verso), almost like in a dream. Images in photobooks can combine in strange and sometimes revelatory patterns. 

The Photobook: A History floats along a course that begins with the photographic origin of documentary, and then on to modernist constructivism and surrealism, then to post-war, post-everything-ism. Volume II begins by shining a light on the other geographic photographic powerhouse, the United States, and does so with a terrific selection of iconic but stylistically mixed titles like Lee Friedlander’s ironic “The American Monument”, and Nan Goldin’s harrowing “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”. Later American work, anticipating the current visual regime of aesthetic values in art and fashion, like those seen in recent music videos, appear as well. The antidote seems to come with the European photobook, effusive with theoretical depth that in the end turns out to be nothing more than photographs going blank, or images that descend into the scratched surface, and defacement, embracing the European painting style called Tachisme, like in Paul Graham’s “New Europe”. 

The view that I take on life informs my criticism of the work in these periods, or the geographic zones, that the Photobook: A History diligently arrays, as the section on the camera as witness, or on the “concerned” photobook after World War II, strikes me as the most important. Jacob Holdt’s “Amercian Pictures”, for instance, is a book that is totally lacking in objectivity, as Badger notes it stands alone as an example where words come “closest to overpowering images”. It is a book that defies description, but it is credibly referenced in The Photobook: A History. I would go so far as to say that it is the credential for this history to such an extent that what follows Holdt, and what comes before his work in The Photobook: A History is merely a trace, culminating in Alexander Honory’s “Ultimate Photobook,” which is, in a way, a book yet to come. “The Ultimate Photobook” is the last photobook in the set, and it consists of words describing lost photographs that, according to Badger, “take the form of a haiku, sometimes very short – ‘boy, pistol, tree’ – sometimes longer – ‘young woman, long skirt, white blouse, long necklace, earring, red lips, young soldier, two medals’ in order to evoke lost pictures, and lost worlds. This apophatic citation of a last book, idealized and absolute, is the “ultimate” because it is always yet to come, a testimony to the witness of the world, and what is created in it, by anyone passionate, and concerned enough, to grab hold of a camera. 

What I love so much about the photobook (and the Photobook: A History) is the diversity of presented experiences, lives, and attitudes that reduce to perspectives, forming over time. Throughout this review I have taken an argumentative tone, and have not gone into great formal detail. I like opinionated discussion about books, and other things, and I am trying to allude to a particular discourse, beginning with a statement by the art-historian Arnold Hauser that art began as “flat, symbolic, formalized, abstract and concerned with spiritual beings” and then became more “realistic” over time. John O’Brian, a Canadian art historian, and curator, wrote an essay about critic Clement Greenberg’s activity as a book reviewer called “Greenberg on Hauser: The Art Critic as Book Critic”. I do not intend to draw too much of a parallel here, to Greenberg, or Hauser, and the attitude that I express in this review, but sometimes I like very different photobooks for similar reasons.

Two books, recent additions to our collection of rare books for sale, Douglas Kirkland’s “Coco Chanel, Three Weeks, 1962” and “With Marilyn: An Evening 1961”, come to mind. There are two editions of both, we have the trade hardbacks, and the rarer, collectible, and exquisite deluxe editions. Both come with cloth cases, boxes with artwork, stamping, and signed, numbered, artist’s prints. I mention these books because I think it is both, dare I say it, ecclesiastically correct (Proverbs 27:9 says “ointment and perfume delight the heart”), and aesthetically consistent with Clement Greenberg’s assessment of Bernard Berenson, another historian of art, that he was “no adept of systematic thought”, to do so. Kirkland’s photographs are beautifully made, they have a sensibility that is nearly the opposite of recent fashion photography by Terry Richardson, or Mario Testino, or David La Chappelle, all who mimic the hard reality of poverty, “trash”, and drugs, for their sense of what is beautiful. As well, the current treatment of feminine beauty bares contrast to Kirkland’s completely rapturous eye, as focused on Marilyn Monroe, who in these pictures can be seen as the epitome of sensuality. What makes the Photobook: A History good is it can be depended on for a forgiving, neutral survey of the art form. It is nowhere nearly as biased as this reviewer. Kirkland’s book on Chanel is earthly delight. I recommend them both equally.

John Veldhoen

John Veldhoen

In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.