Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Photobook: A History, Volumes I, II and III

I recently received a Phaedon email ad about Vol. III of this book series, and, realising celebrity Magnum Photographer Martin Parr was one of the authors, it made me take a second look at the attached PDF extract of volume III. The rest is history. Order placed with Amazon and Vol. I and II (Vol. III is currently under production, I reckon), delivered yesterday, on a Saturday, by BPost (good for them).

These are large books, quite heavy and 'pagey' indeed. Not as bad as the Modernist Cuisine and its derivatives of course, but large enough, and heavy nevertheless. Impossible to bring to bed for a casual 'read' before dozing off. You might risk suffocation for sure if you tried and fell asleep under its size and weight!

I haven't leafed them books yet, not even casually. I'm saving this for future savouring during genuine 'quality' moments (if I ever find those), relaxing and ready for 'deep' thinking. However, I spent half hour this morning reading the authors' Introduction to Vol. I. There's two authors, Martin Parr as said, and Gerry Badger, whom, I need to confess - cross my heart, I don't quite know, and if he's equally important as Martin Parr, my apologies for my ignorance. As a matter of fact, until ten years ago I hadn't heard of Parr either. During a visit in London during early 2000's to meet my daughter (a RUG Arts-History college student
then, as an Erasmus exchange student in Nottingham, England), and she brought me to the Barbican to an expo by Mr. Parr that she's been dying to attend to. It was then that I found out about the man. We even bought the catalog, and I remember the place and his photographs like it was yesterday. I even remember the guard shouting at me for using my own camera to shoot Mr. Parr's marvels as a souvenir. I always hate expo spaces, when they won't allow shooting your own pictures for fear of... flashlights damaging artworks, camera click annoying other visitors, stealing the artist's or the museum's IPR, or I don't know what else. However, in the meantime, in some clever places especially in Germany, you buy this 'shooting' right during a visit, but have to carry a badge at all times to avoid remarks by vigilant caretakers. At the least this is a much better solution for bypassing embarrassing guards acting like schoolmasters and treating us shooters worse than grammar school pupils.

Back to Martin Parr, again. Harsh, very saturated colours in frequent photojournalistic shoots, 'cease the decisive moment (Bresson)' kinda thing, Magnum style photography (I had fun with his shot sequence of napping commuter Japanese workers), many rather closeup single household and other object pictures as well, always with conspicuous deeply saturated colours (have I already said that?). He seemed like using dia-positive films, a lot like Kodakchrome and the likes. If I remember well, he is also known for using conspicuous flashlight fill-ins under sunny daylight conditions. Many use that style and it creates a sort-of 'plastic', almost acrylic, touch and feel. He once confessed this in an interview about the intensity of his colours : "I used amateur film, often Fuji 400 Superior for the 6/7 cm camera and Agfa Ultra or Fuji 100 asa film for the ring flash and macro lens. This combined with flash gives very high colour saturation, there is no Photoshop used.". Needless to say, the camera he uses nowadays is simply Canon's marvel 5D Mark III (don't we all?).

In their Introduction the authors describe their rationale and choices made for creating this book series, a monumental epic work indeed. They were quite impressive by the clarity of their argumentation in this part of their narrative. Quite often this section in a book appears to be pompous and useless, instead of a good and comprehensive 'management summary' as it should. I found their analysis of the 'Photobook' concept and it's place in the Arts and History of the World quite remarkable. I'll touch base on a number of points mentioned that I found particularly useful.

1. "Photographs can function as historical documents, as political propaganda, as pornography, as repositories for personal memories, as works of art, as fact, fiction, metaphor, poetry." I bet you, this is one of the most comprehensive, to the point, and complete definitions I've come across about the aim of photography.

2. I loved their definition of a 'photobook' too, being a 'book' whose author(s), photographers or not, convey its message simply through a series of (theme) photographs. It has a specific character, distinct from the photographic print, the latter being either (business related) functional, or as a fine-art exhibition print.

3. Their mention of the Dutch critic Ralph Prins stating: "...(in a photobook) the photographs lose their own photographic character as things 'in themselves' and become parts, translated into printing ink, of a dramatic event called a 'book'."

4. Book design, typography, binding, accompanying texts, the jacket, the print paper, the technology used. These are all important elements of the book, properly selected and designed to support the book's ultimate purpose.

5. This part I have appreciated a lot, notwithstanding it not being theirs. They expose a set of criteria to be fulfilled by a good Photobook, borrowed from photographer John Gossage: "Firstly, it (the book) should contain great work. Secondly, it should make that work function as a concise world within the book itself. Thirdly, it should have a design that complements what is being dealt with. And finally, it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest." I couldn't have said this better myself. Great photographs, consistent with the theme of the book, with an effective design, and focused upon stuff that matters.

6. They further develop the idea that a photobook should not necessarily only contain photographs of the book's author, or even contain 'great' photographs for that matter. Still, one can get a great book that is curated by a 'photography lover' author, who orchestrated a number of selected photographs by known or unknown photographers into a wonderful 'dramatic event' (the book), properly fulfilling all of Cossage's criteria. I found this quite a remarkable idea. As a consequence, their 'History' epic is not about famous photographer monographs or anthologies, except under certain conditions, like for instance Bresson's Decisive Moment (1952), but more about books that tackle worthwhile themes. Therefore, no Stieglitz, no Weston, no Adams (!) references in their opus magnum. Wow!

7. About the 'theme' of a photobook, they state: It can be as broad as the Universe, or as narrow as closeups of rippled mud. It might be formally precise as the geometry in plants, or casually intuitive. It can be simple or it can be rich as a dictionary. In any case, the theme must be clear, if not immediately obvious!

8. An interesting point made is about the known fact that European musea don't usually expose photographs as artworks, whereas in the US photography has often found it's way into the known musea and their permanent collections. European sceptics might bitterly claim "that's because they haven't got much else to show, them poor Yanks", but the fact of the matter is that it's all about Euro-conservatism and arrogance if you come to think of it.

9. Following (and pursuing) the theme of a Photobook by 'intention, logic, continuity, climax, sense and perfection' has been their criterion of inclusion in their work of any photobook that they considered. It is an excellent criterion and it thoroughly proves true their argument that not merely great photographs are a sine-qua-non condition to create a great Photobook. They admit however that a great book is more than the sum of its parts. And when the parts happen to be great, then the sum is likely to end-up even greater. Presumably, selection of the parts is the hard bit in this process. This is the area where the genius of the author or curator becomes apparent and raises them to the Pantheon of Greatness.

10. Finally, to complete this list of what I considered important points in their Introduction, I welcomed their assertion that a Photobook is a far more reaching, open and broader vehicle for disseminating photographic works than gallery exhibits during finite in time vernisages, enjoyed mainly by the 'cultured' intelligentsia of the large urban centers of the world. The book can reach you everywhere, even in the remotest of places, God bless

A must own - must read. Your choice...

UPDATE: A good friend who read this post sent me a message adding the following info:

Photobook collections appear to be quite a hot item in recent years. Even curators of known musea are picking them up wherever possible. This also includes self published photobooks, not necessarily originating through the 'usual suspect' publishing houses. Also, at the Annual October/November Photography Fair 'Paris Photo' with many participating galleries, photobooks assume an important place among the various exhibits. It's incredible how the photobooks presented in the Parr and Badger three volume history are currently being sought after. For some of them already considerable dollar amounts are being paid. They have a word for it, the Parr/Badger-mania! Incidentally, Badger is an authority in the field of photography, and photobooks in particular. He wrote most of the narratives of this book series. Parr, on top of being a celeb photographer himself, is also a fervent collector: He has 12,000 photobooks at his home.

My pal has about 1500 pieces and I thought that was far too many already. I hardly have 1500 books of any sort in total, maybe a few dozen photobooks alone, and I thought I had a serious library... Dream on! However, I saw that I own one of the Parr/Badger presented books, which incidentally was purchased by my daughter and offered to me long ago! Gosh, I'm rich! (nooot?)

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