Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Contrarian View: A Collector’s Thoughts on Photobooks

For the past month or so, there has been a far reaching discussion on the future of the photobook going on at RESOLVE/Livebooks (here), with dozens of interested parties (photographers, publishers, critics/writers, curators etc.) contributing their ideas. After reading quite a few of the posts, it became clear that the voice of the photography collector has been generally absent from this otherwise broad and thoughtful conversation. For the most part, the discussion to date has been mostly artist and publisher centric (supply), with a primary focus on how changes in technology (digitization and websites, low cost print-on-demand, etc.) might impact the ability of artists/publishers to make/sell amazing books or use new replacements to achieve some of the same end goals. The view from the other end of the pipe (demand) has been covered with somewhat less detail. So it is from the position of collector (and active user of photobooks) that I pass along a few disconnected thoughts:

1.) The primary reasons to buy a photobook for a photography collector are two-fold: reference and education.

I have yet to meet a large and serious photography collector who doesn’t also have a deep library of photobooks (numbering in at least hundreds if not thousands of books). These books are constantly being purchased and carefully read/reviewed as a method of increasing the volume of “seeing” that we do. This is a completely separate activity from “collecting” photobooks (rare or otherwise) – we are not searching for mylar covered signed first editions that will increase in value in and of themselves as objects; we are actively engaging with the content of the photobooks as the background work required to make educated collecting choices. Books in our library (old and new, monographs, exhibition catalogues, greatest hits collections, museum inventories, catalogues raisonne etc.) are not languishing on a coffee table gathering dust; on the contrary, they are constantly being reread, dog-eared, reconsidered and marked with paper slips as we look at new work, as new connections and contexts arise. We hardly ever buy a photograph without first tracking down a monograph (or exhibition catalogue) of the photographer’s work and then spending time looking over the entire project/output; our goal is to winnow down all the available images into a short list of pictures we find most exciting (or not), having spent the effort to actively look at them all. From there, we can then enter the marketplace (at a gallery or at auction) with a much sounder understanding of the work, hopefully making a confident beeline for just those images we have fallen in love with. We also buy books from all kinds of genres and photographers that don’t fit into our particular collecting tastes, as further reference on the trends and important figures in the medium and to keep current on what’s fresh. In short, books are for us the primary vehicle (beyond going to see photography in person) for our photo education.

2.) The purpose of the photobook is the photographs. Period.

We buy books so we can reference the pictures, now and in the future. Detailed image lists and specs are always welcome. If there are well-written, helpful essays (written by the photographers themselves, scholars, or whomever) that provide some understandable back story to the work that will increase our appreciation of what is contained in the images, so much the better. (The indecipherable, artspeak essay is a tragic waste of space.) Of course, we thoroughly enjoy lush paper, superlative reproductions, elegant design, thoughtful sequencing and the like; but top quality production values won’t increase our appreciation of bad photographs. Conversely, great images will make up for lots of deficiencies of publishing, at least for our purposes. Some of the photobooks we come back to again and again have small images or even thumbnails, but this obvious weakness is made up for with additional completeness or increased depth (more work shown). Old photobooks still have plenty of resonance, even if the printing technology or design aesthetic in use at the time wasn’t as effective.

3.) Multiple viewpoints make for a richer discussion.

Once the blocking and tackling of initial immersion in a photographer’s work has been done, the nuanced contrasts of multiple books become important in solidifying our education. The balance point to consider is author control.

A monograph published by or with the cooperation of the photographer is a document to how the artist wants to display the work; the control lies in the hands of the photographer (with the assent and collaboration of the publisher) to present the work as he or she sees fit. As a collector, this vantage point is highly useful to understand: which pictures were selected and sequenced in what order, what size was thought to be the best size, what was left in or taken out etc. Nearly all photobooks about early career artists and photographers come from the artist’s point of view; as artists move along in their careers, more books of this type are published on a project by project basis.

Third party photo books (monographs, exhibition catalogues, group/thematic collections, etc.) put the control in the hands of a scholar or curator, who makes all the display decisions through a slightly different lens. These books provide a collector with a more distanced or distilled view of the work; it’s less raw and more processed, but often provides more historical context or analysis. As photographers progress in their career, more of these kinds of books are produced.

As collectors, we really need (and want) both sets of “eyes” in our library; this gives us a better chance of developing a more nuanced understanding of the work at hand. Our desired outcome is to have more of both, with a weight towards more in-depth scholarship (as it is less broadly available at this point).

4.) For photography collectors, innovation in photobooks isn’t a huge issue.

One part of the thread of this discussion has centered on innovation in photobook publishing or the lack thereof. As a consumer of photobooks, I’m sorry to say that innovation in book design isn’t generally what I’m looking for; I’m nearly entirely focused on the quality of the photography. If the pictures are great, it is my hope that at a minimum, the rest of the package will be good enough not to distract me too much from the images.

Of course, there are the 5% of the books that are so meticulously conceived that the photographs, essays, design, paper, slipcover, etc have all been carefully orchestrated together into a real art object, a collaborative effect that is greater than the sum of its parts. This is truly sublime and wonderful when this occurs, and the impact of the photographs is meaningfully enhanced. No matter what happens in the electronic world in the future, there will always be room for this kind of creative effort (with a small but enthusiastic audience of potential buyers ready and waiting). With costs of self-publishing coming down, creativity will likely be unleashed in ways we can’t yet imagine. That said, I don’t need a library full of these kinds of (often expensive) books - a few treasures from our very favorite photographers here and there will suffice. Perhaps a different way to think of this is that the super special limited edition print run of 500 with an accordion fold and fancy slip case isn’t likely aimed at collectors like us (it’s likely aimed at "photobook as object" collectors, a smaller group of photography/art collectors who have a special interest in the specific artist/project, and potentially other fellow artists); we’re actually in most cases much happier with the run of 3000 that does a high quality job of showing us the work with a minimum of fanfare.

5.) We are likely the last generation of collectors who will rely so heavily on the physical photobook for our photography education.

We are in our 40s, and began our collecting a decade or so ago. So while the Internet has certainly become an integral part of our lives during that time, our collecting has been largely rooted in the traditions of the pre-digital age. We have thus been trained to love the tactile quality of a great book page, and to venerate it above the fleeting image on a computer screen. Even if we are not photo book fetishists, we’re still among the paper based Luddites. This will be impossible to change for us, even if artist websites and online archives/databases become orders of magnitude more compelling, pervasive and useful.

I’m not as certain however about how future collectors who are now in their 20s (or younger) will see photobooks, if their electronic equivalents are ratcheted up in overall quality. Social networking has already begun to transform how we communicate to each other about the art we find of interest. If I was in college today, would I go out and plunk down $100 bucks for a thick, beautiful monograph (much less a lavishly produced artist’s book) if I could see the hi-res images anytime, anywhere on the artist’s website? Wouldn’t I just get my education as a straight feed from the net, bringing in a multitude of voices from the artist, to curators, to the chaos of the blogosphere?

While I have no concrete predictions for the future, I think this brings us back to the underlying question at the core of this whole conversation: what is the purpose of the physical photobook going forward and who is the target audience? An interesting thought to consider is that maybe the photobook will evolve (or some might say return) to having no defined consumer at all, beyond those in small specialized niches/long tails - maybe it will be made by the photographer/curator in a DIY (or self funded) manner solely because the effort of making the physical book is an important part of the overall artistic/scholarly process or is the best venue for the work itself. For us as collectors, the photobook is and always will be a required reference resource; for those of the future who have been weaned on bits, it may be a “nice to have” or an artistic talisman.

3 comments:

Doug said...

Being a 30 year plus independent bookseller in the trenches and a buyer of photography books, here is an old school perpective. Through out the years we have taken in books from a variety of producers, from established houses to one off consignments. As a brick and mortar we are space and budget limited, we also enjoy an on the ground relationship with the buying public. This gives us direct feedback on what sells and why. The experience of viewing and handling books starts for the more discriminating of us in some physical location, a library, bookstore, gallery or studio or in our case the publisher reps or tradeshows. I am certain that the variety of small outlets for books of photography has and will continue to provide an environment that is supportive of the arts. Books are a leveler of the arts, affordable, accessible, sensual. Objects and reference material something to keep and to share. As permanent a visual record that we have yet devised to advance and carry forward our culture.

Miki Johnson said...

Thanks so much for adding this perspective. As primarily a photobook collector myself (although really I'd just call myself a "buyer"), I appreciate the reminder to get back to why we LOOK at these books in the first place.

I've added this to our Collaborating Blogs list: http://blog.livebooks.com/2009/12/want-to-be-part-of-our-new-crowd-sourced-blog-post-tell-us-what-you-think-about-the-future-of-photobooks/

Thanks again.
~Miki

BC said...

I glad you published this refreshing perspective on what you are looking for in photo books. It is very much aligned with my own point of view.