It’s either ironic or pathetic, (depending upon your POV,) but I didn’t consider myself a photo book expert before I began writing this column last September. Sure, I love photography, and have devoted the last fifteen years of my life to its practice, but I viewed books as a by-product of the process. A result, if you will. Clearly, my thinking has evolved since then.
It seems that every photographer on Earth wants a photo book these days, though many wouldn’t be able to explain why. We did a guest post on the subject by Joanna Hurley of Radius books six months ago, but people are no less obsessed with the subject now. So I thought I’d use this week’s musings to delve deep into the meaning of Why?
Closing my eyes, I can easily recall the first time I pulled a photo book off the shelf in the UNM Fine Arts library back in 1997. Two months into my studies, I was bored, and stalked the aisles of the library with nothing better to do. I stopped, for no good reason, and pulled out “España Oculta,” a book of photographs by Cristina Garcia Rodero. She documented the surreal insanity of Spanish cultural rituals for fifteen years, and the magical book was the result. As good as the pictures were, (and they are brilliant,) the idea of that kind of dedication, over time, was what most impacted me.
Flash forward to the insanity of our present, and many photographers see a photo book as a marketing object. (Drop mad cash with a publisher, never recoup your investment directly, but hope to reap the rewards in the long run.) Recently, I bumped into a photographer, whose book I reviewed, who admitted to spending nearly $30,000 on his project. He felt it was worth it, as the book opened new doors for his business, and enabled him to be taken more seriously. Another photographer, with whom I spoke the same week, also told me he had to raise significant funds with the same publisher, and viewed his book in a similar light.
Alternatively, I have a cousin and an uncle who are passionate amateur photographers. Each time I visit, they corral me to view their vacation exploits, expertly printed and bound, through the wonders of Blurb’s online publishing interface. What would once have been the realm of scotch tape and plastic sheathing is now bound together in a hard-cover book. “Daytona Beach Spring Break 2012” sits on the shelf next to Diane Arbus. (How’s that for Post-Modern?) So forgive me if I was a tad cynical about the publishing process when Rob tapped me to write this column last Summer.
Earlier this month, as you might have guessed from all the hints I dropped, Rob sent me to London to check out the scene. It was beyond fantastic, and I promise to share the visions of splendor before too long. (After I get back from FotoFest, if you can wait a little longer.) Luckily for you bibliophiles, I was able to interview two of the world’s best book publishers on consecutive days.
On a Thursday, late in the day I arrived, I met Aron Mörel of Mörel Books at a street side cafe in West London. I turned up late and flustered, as I couldn’t find the place, despite ascending from the Underground a mere 5 blocks away. Being British, he was gracious about the whole thing, and the interview was blissfully casual.
Though young, and relatively new to the publishing world, Mr. Mörel has worked with some of the best artists and photographers in the business, including Thomas Ruff, Ryan McGinley and Boris Mikhailov. He’s also published books by fashion photographers Craig McDean and Terry Richardson. Big names, yes, but surprisingly small books. Mostly soft cover, from what I’ve seen, and each project is tightly bound together by a concept.
What knowledge bombs did I solicit? Well, according to Mr. Mörel, a great book is a work of art. Not only that, but an affordable one. Who has the ducats to buy a print by Thomas Ruff? Next to no one. But many, if not most of us, can scrounge together $40 or $50 to buy a book. He sees the book itself, not only the images within, is the art object.
Back home now, 5000 miles away from that chilly London sidewalk, I’d have to say I agree. We chatted for a while about how Mr. Mörel got into the business, (a love of photography and poetry,) and my burgeoning theory that boobs sell books. (He agreed.) He also opened up a bit about his DIY style. Once the shipments arrive from his printer in Istanbul, he sometimes puts the books together himself, at home. (He once hand-folded several thousand covers in two days.) As a final thought, he said he looks at every submission that comes in, and encouraged photographers to send him an email, as he loves to see new things.
The next morning, jet-lagged, hung over, and not-yet-showered, (how’s that for TMI?) I had a meeting at MACK books, the new-ish imprint that released Taryn Simon’s huge book, and Gerry Johansson’s “Pontiac.” (With imminent publications by Thomas Demand and Paul Graham.) If you suspect I was a tad intimidated, you’d be correct. Fortunately, after they buzzed me into the building, the stairwell smelled of a strand of funk and mold not found in the United States. (I suppose an old city has old odors.) The stench, added to strewn boxes everywhere, grounded me, and helped me cross the threshold into one of the new bastions of the publishing world.
I stepped into the medium-sized office, flooded with natural light, and interrupted a staff of six, hard at work. I’d arranged for the visit with Poppy, the gracious PR person, who met me at the door and introduced me around. Then she led me in, offered me a “fake” espresso, and sat down for a little chat. Not intimidating in the least. How refreshing.
Shockingly, after I asked my very first question of Poppy, Michael Mack, the man himself, gracefully spun around in his swivel-chair to answer my query. Just like that. Had I intended to get a personal interview? Of course not. It just happened.
To start off, I asked Mr. Mack about Mr. Mörel’s theory, from the previous day, about a book being a work of art. He concurred, without a second thought. (But he hastened to add “I don’t think fashion photographers have the capacity to make a work of art.” Have fun debating that one in the comments below.)
Mr. Mack went on to explain that, to him, a great book has to be a unique, and equally important, expression of an artist’s work. It’s not just one more branded object to be commodified. (Which he likened to a product line: “Screen. Book. Wall. Magazine. Newspaper. Which is absolute crap.”) That’s the wrong way to go about it, he said. To further make the point, he held up a rainbow-colored copy of Paul Graham’s multi-book project, “A Shimmer of Possibility.” This, he said, was “a conceptual art piece in the form of a book.”
As this is the longest column I’ve written yet, (and I haven’t even gotten to a book review yet,) allow me to tie this back to the beginning. A book can be a family album. It can also be a marketing object. But, if you’ve set your aspirations as high as possible, a great photo book becomes the thing itself. It’s the opposite of what I foolishly used to think. The book is not the artifact of the process, the vessel that contains great photographs. It can be the ultimate expression of an artist’s vision, one that is as difficult to nail as a great film. (So much collaboration…)
Taken to the extreme, a great book might not even need to contain great photographs. Even a slightly-less-than-genius vision, if codified perfectly, can make a great book. Like “Haiiro,” a small, beautiful new offering by Karianne Bueno, recently published by Schaden. Yes, there was always a point to this column. Even if you lost faith five paragraphs ago.
“Haiiro” arrived in my book pile recently, and I was immediately drawn to it. It’s a small book, cloth-bound, with an image of the rooftops of a small Japanese village on the cover. The spine is covered by a thin piece of black elastic, like something off of my Mom’s phone book, circa 1986. The book is delicate and alluring, straight away.
Open it up, and it’s a vertical orientation, as the pages spill out accordion style. Green trees, a rice paddy, some girls by the stream, the Tokyo skyline, orange carp battling in a river, some more trees and water and buildings. No words. Then, a photograph of a trove of waterlogged documents, letters and such, depicted above an image of an empty apartment. Boom. The Tsunami reference sneaks up on you like a black-pajama-clad Ninja.
After that, an excellent, short, written narrative closes out the production. It’s inviting, so you read it. The tone and energy match the photographs, providing a glimmer of context for the artist’s travels, and then it’s done. Barely 15 pictures, and a page of words. You open it up again, test out the fold technique, and realize that it does stretch out like a screen. Better yet, it’s unattached. So you carefully, slowly, put it back together, and set it back on the shelf.
This book is as close to the expression of a poem as I’ve seen. It’s neither linear nor literal. It’s beautiful, remarkable, and the type of thing one would definitely pick up from time to time, just to recapture the mood. But the pictures are not terribly unique, and the printing is not the best I’ve seen. I’m not sure I’ll remember the photographer, but I’ll definitely remember the book.
Bottom Line: A perfect little visual poem
Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.
Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.