Photobooks: The Sound of One Hand Clapping

I have for personal reasons been away from these pages for quite a while.  Since the timing was not of my choice, the last post, on the Jonathan Lovekin pictures that make up Ottolenghi’s Plenty, has remained the ‘front’ page for too long.  Yet I would like to stay in the same general area and to broaden out that piece, because some of what it touches on is more important than one not very well illustrated cookery book.

The photobook market is booming, but it operates a curious double standard.  To get a book of photographs published – to achieve publication – did at one time mean that somebody had made a favourable judgment as to the quality of the pictures.  To get a book past a discerning editor was a validation, even a compliment.  It is still treated as such, but it is no longer so.

We are in the era of self-publishing.  If the criterion for publication shall be only that you can pay your contracted sum to Blurb, then clearly we need to rethink validation.  Publishers are in a dreadful mess, too. Most of them patently have no idea of the relative merits of their own books, and will only invest a marketing budget after they already have a measure of guarantee in the proven sales figures.  So publishers take fewer risks, they copy each other again and again, and when they don’t, everything they publish is in the nature of a test-marketing exercise.  Again, validation is hardly the word.

There probably aren’t ten really inspired and inspiring editors of photographic books in this country, and they are up against a publishing orthodoxy that says what they do is too expensive and too ‘niche’ to command the necessary budgets. Photographers are expected to cover or at least contribute to their own costs, often.  If they can’t, the galleries, which show them, must do it. Not much validation there, except in terms of self-esteem or self-promotion.

And then there is the question of numbers.  It is normal today for a photographic monograph to sell fewer than a thousand copies.  A howling success might sell five thousand.  Such numbers don’t equate to a mass medium. This used to be called vanity publishing. It is on a par with the old-fashioned ‘respectable but barely commercial’ tranches of the publishing business.  Like poetry, the offline publishing of which is dying on its feet at the hands of apathy and anthologies.  Yet the industry (and many of the photographers, if they cared but to admit it) rather despises as superficial or worse anything which far outsells that.

The new excitement about the photobook confines itself to self-defined products of artist-makers and the narrow lines of breeding from which they claim descent. In photobooks, it’s all happening, all go.  There are new photobook fairs and websites and the auction houses are quick to claim a new level of activity. The whole apparatus of a sub-section of the art-market is cranking into gear.  It’s become a collectable field.  You know what that means?  A field in which prices can be ramped up because two suckers can be found where there used only to be one.  But the field isn’t photographs-well-presented-in-books.  It’s photobooks.

The whole point is there.  It is far from clear that photobooks can sensibly be confined to a specifically photographic sector.  All sorts of books principally contain photographs.  See my last post on the Ottolenghi cookboook for that. Yet, as a mirror of what happens in the wider photographic world, the sheer breadth of the possible frightens the participants.  Photography touches everything, even if photographic artists don’t.  There are photographic books which deserve serious consideration across far wider ranges of type, of subject and of market than it suits a few ‘connoisseurs’ to pretend. I would offer the landscape work of Joe Cornish as an example : thoroughly successful and clearly doing a lot right, but somehow snubbed by the photo-gentry.

I don’t think books should be criticized or collected according to how near or how far they fall on a spurious scale between self-consciousness artistry and illustration. It doesn’t matter whether a book is about golf or gardening –  it doesn’t matter, in other words, whether a book is principally a display of photographic skill, or whether the photographs are incidental to some other theme.  If it uses photographs, it should use the highest standards in making or choosing and displaying those pictures. Plenty of books which are not marketed as photobooks depend for their entire sale on photography.  Why should they be passed over in silence?

And the converse is also true: that books which purport to be displays only of photography are often not fit to be published as books.  Most usually, these fall into a category I think of as ‘project books’.  A photographer has an idea for a formula which can generate some pictures.  He makes enough of them to fill a book.  He gets a book. He is proud to be the author of something which nobody else cared about in the first place, which nobody much gets to see, and of which second-hand book dealers will struggle to sell even the paltry number of copies in existence for the next fifteen years.   We all know – we all own ! – books like this.  But photography is a way of communicating.  It deals in facts, and it deals in ideas.  If your facts are banal and you’re bereft of ideas, you may well not have a photograph at all.  You certainly won’t have a book of them.

This boils down to something very simple.  As photography has spread into every corner of human activity, we have lost the ability to keep track of our responses to it.  A culture of name-checking has grown up to replace judgment.  Never heard of X or Y ?  But he’s published by Hatje Cantz, or Twelvetrees, or whoever….it must be OK.  This allows for stupid snobbery: treating pictures as somehow ‘different’ just because they don’t come from the precious world of photography but maybe smell of commerce or hobbies or even journalism or fashion.

That makes for sloppy work, and sloppy communication.  It undersells photography, even while selling a number of collections of photographs.

At the top of this page, two brilliant books of photographs are illustrated.  Hugo van Wadenoyen’s Wayside Snapshots was a wise and quietly influential essay on seeing photographically, on taking the strengths of the medium and working with them.  Published in 1947, it was an attempt to bring European thinking gently into Britain, a kind of not-too-modern Modernism. It was published by the Focal Press and therefore edited by Andor Kraszna-Krausz.  It has perfect pedigree as a serious study of photography, photographically illustrated.

Picturesque Great Britain is a very different kettle of fish.  It has a suggestive imprint at Bouverie House, indicating its close connection with that high propaganda world of Lords Northcliffe and Beaverbrook. And indeed: the text is a piece of nationalistic boosting by the First World War Liberal British minister of propaganda, Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman (an important figure in the development of deliberate Government provision of information).  It was wonderfully illustrated by Emil Otto Hoppé in a lush idiom of mild melancholy at the necessity of industrial progress.  The photographs are servants of the whole: Hoppé was a great star by the time it was published, in 1926, and his name appears above the title on the title page.  All the same, it is in no way a book about photography.  These are different uses of pictures and intended to reach different audiences.  Yet would it not be absurd to try and make sense of them by separate standards, only one of which would be reserved for ‘photobooks” ?