I am a big lover of “Photobooks” with a collapsing bookcase to prove it.

As with any quality book, the very best photobooks are beautiful, tactile, and precious things, which seem to make their readers treat them with respect when they pick them up. To a photographer they can be inspiring and frustrating in equal doses; sources for ideas and for understanding, but they are often (expensive) objects of desire.

This week brought an interesting symposium on Photography Publishing and the Future of Photobooks, organised by the North East Photography Network, and held in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Many of the problems surrounding and facing modern photographers in producing photobooks were raised through a series of talks by various lecturers, practitioners, and curators; and I would like to pick out a few of their observations and add some of my own.

John Kippin pointed out how a photographer’s career is judged by their success within the Galleries, and through exhibitions. This system is very exclusive, subjective, and normally operates within certain social and economic contexts; and galleries only show work by a certain type of photographer. There is a strong arguement that they are “excluding” to most practitioners, and also to large sectors of the population, and that they only represent a couple of styles of photography.

Marc Feustel is an independent curator and writer, and specialist on Japanese Photography. He runs the excellent Eye Curious Blog He pointed out how important photobooks and photobook publishers are in changing photographic history, and observed that we view photographers differently as a result of their books, viewed through the lens of time. Having the time to sit and engage with a photographers work in book form can be a very personal way of learning about their work and their outlooks. It is much easier to look at their pictures in the comfort of your own home or in a library, than it is in the alien and sanitised environment of the Gallery space.

Bridget Croaker (Picture Editor for the Guardian and Observer newspapers and Director of Photography for pointed out that photography suffers because it is “not a homogenous whole,” and because of its ubiquity, and its ease of creation. She also thought this was compounded because photojournalists are now seeking the gallery wall, and as a result are blurring the boundaries of what is considered “art”, and also what is considered good or bad. Because of this she felt it was important that photographers understand what type of work they are producing, and the context of that work, and sees this as more important that being exhibited or publishing a book.

In todays market less and less photography is commissioned, book publishing offers are very rare, and are largely reserved to celebrity or “name” photographers. As a result of this some artists and photographers have turned to what is known as “crowd funding” to try and raise the funds for their projects directly from online audiences.

A fascinating example of this was given by Dutch documentary photographer Rob Hornstra who started the fascinating and ambitious Sochi Project in 2009 with the help of online donations. His books have also been crowd funded.

Rob also detailed how expensive and difficult it can be for photographers wanting to produce quality photobooks, and also how small an audience there is for them. The importance he places on every minute detail in his own highly acclaimed and collectable photobooks was very evident, and this approach is common in those at the top of their fields. He also stressed the importance of a photobook telling a story, starting with the cover and continuing with every page. It was refreshing to hear him talk about how the narrative and his story telling was the important thing in any book, and not the self aggrandisement of the photographer.

Bruno Ceshel gave an interesting talk. He is the founder of Self Publish, Be Happy (Warning Adult Content) which was established with the aim of “celebrating, studying and promoting self-published photo books through events…, publications and online exposure”. Bruno sees little difference between “artist’s books” and “self published books”, and said the only difference may be that the numbers produced for the latter is larger.

I have been watching the rise and success of Self Publish, Be Happy for some time now, as I have been working on a project of my own for which I see the natural output as a book. They have some superb books for sale.

Something that was stressed by several of the speakers was the ease with which photographers can now produce their own photobooks, something that is exemplified at Self Publish, Be Happy. The expansion and disposable nature of digital and home printing has meant that small run books are appearing everywhere, as thousands of people decide their work should be seen in book form. This ease of publishing is supported by platforms such as Blurb which offers a print on demand service. Books are often now not seen as precious objects, and are printed in zine form, on newsprint, or even as simply stapled photocopies.

Many of these books seem to follow very similar themes, with young photographers exploring personal situations. This exploration in itself can be important and relevant, but much of the work seems very self absorbed. There also seems to be a glut of naked teenagers running around in the landscape and doing the things young adults do, often in the style of Ryan McGinley – they are everywhere. Many other books feature derelict houses, found objects, and “Dusseldorf” type pictures of the mundane. Maybe there is nothing wrong with this, but are they stopping to consider how many of them are doing exactly the same, and are then releasing them as photobooks? I question whether this is correct in a market that is hugely overloaded with photographers, and backed by a photographic “educational” system that keeps spitting thousands more out every year, seemingly often making the same type of work. And if we go back to the words of Bridget Croaker who felt that photography suffers “because of its ubiquity” and “its ease of creation” this becomes more worrying.

Many aspects of commercial photography including stock, editorial, and photo journalism, are being eroded by this very same ubiquity, and the fact that everyone is now a photographer, or a citizen journalist. So surely there is an inherent danger with the overwhelming amount of photobooks that are out there.

The market for photographs is massive, and it increases all the time, but there are too many pictures in the system, often given away for free. As a result of this the overall standard and peoples understanding over what is good has been lowered. So in some ways, the glut of small photobooks reflects this trend. But what’s problematic is that the market for photobooks is a very small one, so for the vast majority a market does not exist. Unless a photographers name and reputation is already well known, and the content is relevant to a lot of people, then this work is unlikely to sell.

I am not against the freedom of artistic expression that self published photobooks can bring, and indeed in odd cases this can lead to critical and commercial success. I have been lucky enough to see some incredible hand crafted artist’s books over the last year, unique pieces of art in their own right, and they can be an important part of a makers craft and practice. In fact I also aspire to seeing my work in print, so if anyone would like to send me a cheque for around £15000 that would be a big help and might get me started. But I would always question whether that book was the legacy that I wanted to leave to the world, and whether it contributed anything to the rich history of photobooks that already exists. But perhaps that is not important?

Comments are closed.