Books, bookcase

Ideas Series: Photobooks vs. Books of Photographs

Francis Hodgson argues that there is now an artificial and not very clear divide between 'photobooks' and well-made books of pictures.

Lots of books depend for their impact on well-made, well-ordered, well-designed photographs properly printed by a publisher who cares about quality. But many of them are not considered to qualify as proper photobooks, and it’s never very overt why. To that extent, photobooks have been separated and placed in a niche beyond comparison with — or competition against — photographically illustrated books. Photobook culture, if I can call it that, starts by excluding a lot of good stuff. To be counted a photobook today a book must self-consciously take a position within the issues of photography itself. Plain, blunt, ‘naïve’ books using photographs — however well — are excluded. That archness, that abandonment of naïveté, can be considered in two ways. It may be the sign of a mature culture. Or it may be beyond that, decadent or overripe. I incline to the latter, even while taking plenty of delight from the exceptions that prove the rule.

Most obviously excluded in this way are those books by people like Eliot Porter, for whom photography, while a wholly life-consuming activity, remained (if you’ll forgive a loaded term) a modest craft. “Photography is a strong tool, a propaganda device, and a weapon for the defense of the environment…and therefore for the fostering of a healthy human race and even very likely for its survival,” Porter wrote in the introduction to the book that set his path for life, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World (1962). We could have put those words on the masthead of the Pictet Prize when we started it. They identify photography as a communication medium in the service something other than itself.

Perhaps the highlight of Porter’s career, and one of the highlights of that kind of work, was his The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972). That one sets the words of Peter Matthiessen to pictures; it’s (mainly) about Tanzania, and it is one of the great photographically illustrated books. Matthiessen, by the way, is a marvellous lilting writer far too little regarded, at least in Europe. We are in that unfortunate period soon after a writer’s death — he died in old age in 2014 ­— when the marketing is over and the appraisal hasn’t taken hold yet, and it feels like oblivion.

In the days just before easy jet travel for the moneyed West, The Tree Where Man Was Born was a revelation both in what the pictures showed, and also in what they argued. Conservation, respect for other ways of life, sensitivity to one’s own footprint, historical modesty, suspicion of the nation-state… Ansel Adams preached somewhat the same sermon, of course, and many others, too, but Porter’s less operatic tone is less seen today. The Tree Where Man Was Born is colour landscape without a hint of irony. Porter was not a naïve man. But The Tree Where Man Was Born is a naïve book: it assumes that readers will see the arguments it powerfully makes, without stopping to consider its own position as a vehicle. It is no exaggeration to say that I have never in the recent fashion for the photobook even seen Eliot Porter mentioned. And he stands for dozens and dozens of others.

The photobook in its new guise seems almost by definition to exclude the mass market. Yet much photography used to be quite specifically a mass activity. I once wrote a serious review of the photography by Jonathan Lovekin in a successful cookbook by the chef Yotam Ottolenghi (Here). My sense was that since photography was one of the major selling points for the book, it should be able to stand the same standard of criticism as applies to the best photographs elsewhere. Yet to apply those standards in the mass market is thought willful, perverse, missing the point.

It works the other way about, too. People who are interested in photography have turned it in on itself. It is as though photography has become effete, enervated, in the eyes of those who practice it most publicly. I have written elsewhere about my dislike of ‘project’ books. The photobook industry is booming, at least among a small self-selecting group of collectors. But I wonder if a high enough proportion of what will have been produced during the boom will later be considered any good. Leaving quite apart the reams of crap self-indulgently packaged as books, there is a serious question as to what the new distribution methods do even to the very best photographs.

The example I would give would be Donovan Wylie. Nothing effete or enervated about himself, but I wonder if the same can be said for his practice. His raw, brilliant, 32 Counties (1989) told a story that was intimately his own: the bumpy peregrination of an Irish person trying to understand the fissured social and cultural geography of his own nation. Made when he was sixteen years old, in manner heavily indebted (as how could it not be?) to predecessors — Koudelka foremost among them — it was a book of somebody trying to understand something complicated and communicate what he found out.

He looked around. Collaboration with a brilliant novelist followed. A series on new age travellers.

Then he made a frankly routine typology. The subject – The Maze prison – was still close to home, but the fire to tell a story had been dampened down, replaced by a more self-conscious positioning of himself within the history and the debates about photography. The various series about watchtowers and surveillance followed (not all of them are yet in books, I think). Still brilliant, these are still less visceral, less hot-headed. It became impossible to talk about Wylie without citing Michel Foucault. Wylie was shifting from photojournalist to documentary photographer to new documentarian to post-documentary to artist-using-photography as the commercial and critical winds blew.

In effect, Wylie has become an academic. Instead of bursting to tell a story, he now coolly plots the next research project. The subjects are strong, the pictures often terrific. But the books don’t keep pace with that. The books aren’t popular, loud, visible. The books won’t change the national consciousness or conscience. The books sell relatively few copies, to a hard core of photobook people. New Wylie in a museum is a heavyweight. New Wylie in a book? Nothing, much. Just the handy reference index for the pictures; titles and dates, sequence, reproductions. It’s citable, a finite ‘piece of research’. It goes in the university library. But it’s not the natural home for those pictures, even when it’s a very good book. Is that what Wylie really wanted when he was so proud, as a youngster, to have got a book out? To be filed?

I went the other day to a party in London for William Klein, that most elegant survivor from the art-world in the days when it was still centred in Paris. There was launched[1] a spiral-bound remake of a book Klein had first conceived in 1952, which is to say long before his more famous ‘City’ books, and long, too, before he had become the radical, sexy, pugilistic fashion photographer he became. Klein’s new-old book is of photographic abstractions, manipulated photograms. It is published today because David Campany pushed and pushed for that to happen and Kate Stevens, who runs Klein’s London gallery, saw the point. Campany has been associated, by the way, with more than one excellent photographically illustrated book : he by no means confines himself to the tighter playing field of the photobook.

This book won’t sell thousands, either. Yet you don’t need to ‘like’ photograms to be blown away by it. On the artist’s side, sheer verve, a passionate hunger to see and be seen to see, high artistry in design and technical mastery, curiosity, experimentation and patience. On the publishing side, courage, and respect and a determination that the best will out. It’s a book from 1952 that hung around Klein’s studio as an unpublished maquette until now. It’s wonderfully exciting to hold and to read. And you know what? I’m not at all sure that it fits into the category that has shrunk to exclude it. It’s a book of pictures, a great one, and it’s cultured and knowing and deliberate. But I’m not sure it’s a photobook. Because the man who made it, although he knew very well about the state of the art, didn’t want to talk about that. He just wanted to twist and shape photography until it could do what he wanted to do. Nothing arch or effete about William Klein. Nothing arch or effete about books full of photographs in his hands, either.

[1] Black & Light. Pictures by William Klein, Text by David Campany, Imprint #2, Published by HackelBury Fine Art, London, January 2015,