A few weeks back I participated in Santa Fe Center’s Portfolio Bootcamp, a workshop they created to help photographers with their portfolio and portfolio presentation. The beauty of this event for me, was the diversity of the instructors: from editorial, to book publishing to curatorial. I always come away with a better understanding of how the other parts of the industry work. There was a great talk on the artist statement given by Katherine Ware Curator of Photography, New Mexico Museum of Art and Joanna Hurley President HurleyMedia, Co-Founder of Radius Books. You can read a summary on Joanna’s blog (here) which I recommend checking out if you need to write an artist statement.
As I was leaving the portfolio review session I overheard Joanna and Maggie Blanchard, Director of Twin Palms Publishers remark to each other how incredible it was that everyone wanted a photo book published. That stuck with me when I got home, so I decided to email Joanna and ask her “why does everyone think they need a photo book” and here’s her answer:
It’s interesting that in this digital age photographers still want a printed book of their work. They believe having a book will give them credibility as artists, and will open the door to opportunities and recognition with museums, curators and the general public.
That desire for recognition and acclaim is not new; what does seem new to me, looking at this from a perspective of 35 years in the publishing business, is that desire often overtakes perspective, and the sense of where one really is in one’s career as an artist, that is, where the work is, and whether or not it is truly ready for a book. While doing a book at the right time and in the right way can jump-start or revive a career, if you do a book too soon or at the wrong time, and without any kind of creative team behind you (such as a publishing company), then it can look like vanity because there has been no one objectively vetting the work and helping you shape its presentation into a coherent, well-designed narrative.
In our age of instant gratification and immediate communication, it is only natural for people to think that recognition of their talent should be accelerated as well, which can lead to the idea that projects may be ready to publish before they are. This rush to market––or bookmaking––can become detrimental to the development of an artist’s voice, and gravitas, and distract from thinking about and making the work itself. By the same token, the ease of communication and the many venues available to artists for sharing their work online can foster a wonderful dialogue that in the end can deepen and strengthen it.
In the end it boils down to the artist’s sense of himself and his creative process and when it is truly complete for a particular body of work. I do believe that a sense of self-awareness and perspective on one’s work are among the qualities that distinguish a truly great photographer or artist of any kind. I am mindful of a quote by Georgia O’Keeffe in talking about her work painting flowers, “to see a flower takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
Photographers are definitely thinking of photo books in a different way than publishers. The large majority of photographers whom I talk with are relatively oblivious to the constraints under which publishers operate; they see it only from the vantage point of wanting a book and thinking they (and the world) are ready for it. They don’t understand that publishing is a business, so publishers are always looking for what will sell. For the large publishers, it’s generally either going to be a retrospective of a major artist, or a book on a well-known and perennially interesting subject.
The larger publishers operate much more like multi-national corporations (which most of them are), and thus have layers and layers of bureaucracy. It’s much harder for a single editor or even the publisher of a particular imprint such as Bulfinch, which is part of a larger company (Hachette), or even Abrams or Rizzoli (which are also owned by large, European conglomerates) to get permission to take a chance on a relatively unknown photographer or unusual project because of one simple fact: sales. Whereas those publishers need to sell upwards of 7,500 or 10,000 copies of a book to make it work financially for them, a smaller press can be quite happy with sales of 2-3,000––and often the decision to publish at a small press is made by one person.
That is definitely a big difference from the way the business operated when I first entered it. Now it’s the smaller presses who can be more nimble, and can take a chance on the work of an exciting, new talent who is presenting material and process in a new and very exciting way. The editors and publishers of these smaller presses basically act like curators. Their buyers are basically collectors of their books, and often so trusting of their taste, that these publishers can make someone’s career by their decision to publish them, in the same way that a curator can catapult someone to prominence by including their work in a show.