Photobooks

In-depth by Matt Dunne

By April 30, 2021August 13th, 2021Book Review
Featured image: Jordan Madge, Banana Spider Bite

With the explosion of photography books and photobook publishing it can seem, at times, that photobooks are ubiquitous, or maybe even a bit played out. Yet, as a form and as a process, the photobook still offers artists the ability to create something that’s a unique expression of a body of work or photographic approach. In a lot of ways, in the present moment it seems that photobooks are the dominant end point for photography.

On one hand, this rise in popularity may be surprising. After all, websites and social media show off photographs really well for not much money while also being platforms with huge audiences and global reach. So why have books had a decade-long increase in popularity?

With many people looking at photography on a screen, a book becomes an attractive next step as it is cheap enough to be accessible (especially compared to the astronomically expensive print) and tangible enough to justify its existence. Screens aren’t really something that engages physicality or touch, books do. Equally, from an artists’ point of view, books offer substantial creative expression: making a book is an artistic act. When the artistic interests of makers and the purchasing habits of fans align, there is a rich space for production and development: it’s actually a really good thing. I’d argue this confluence is underpinning the increase in photobook production and interest.

Importantly, for both artists and fans, photobooks offer fantastic access. While cultural commentators in London, New York or Paris are often quite grandiose and assured in sweeping dismissive statements (‘too many books’!), I feel that they forget there’s the rest of the world out there. Photobooks, especially for people who live in places like Australia, are incredibly relevant as they often offer us the best chance we have of actually seeing work. Without books a lot of interesting and amazing art just would not make it here (or many places) at all. For us, then, photobooks become a connection to a wider community of art and artists, expanding the scope of what can be seen for people far away from the art centres of the world. I cannot see Laia Abril’s show in Arles, but I can buy the book. They aren’t the same, but it’s a lot better than going without great art.

Vincent Delbrouck, Dzongchen

However, photobooks are often a misunderstood medium or, at least, often an over-simplified medium. I think the most frustrating overlooked truth about photography books is that the book is not the work. ‘The work’ encompasses all the material within a project: the photographs, the writing, the planning, the thinking, the ephemera. Many artists, when speaking about books, seem to gloss over this point. What a project is and what a book becomes can often be quite different. The work exhibited and the work published may be clearly drawing from the same well, but end up not quite the same. This is a point I’m going to come back to again, because it’s vital when thinking about making books and looking at them: a photobook should allow for the unique expression of a project, not simply be the grand total sum at the end.

This also becomes a tremendous opportunity for artists. An exhibition and a book can co-exist and, in fact, I am seeing an increasing number of exhibitions where there’s a one-off artist book accompanying the hang. I reached out to local photobook printers Momento Pro to ask for a different perspective about the interaction between exhibition and book forms:

“While COVID put a halt to many photography exhibitions last year, we saw a rise in photo book publications, as artists tried to engage with their audience through non-digital, socially-distanced means. It also gave artists space to consider other benefits of the book form in presenting a photographic series. A book run can cost significantly less than producing and framing exhibition prints, a book’s audience can be geographically broader, the viewer can have repeat encounters with it, and its lifespan is longer than any exhibition and even the life of its creator. The theory of haptics also implies that our emotional response to, and memory of, images in a book, will be much greater than viewing the same images on a wall.”

– Libby Jeffery, Momento Pro

By engaging the viewer in looking at the work in two different edits and presentation formats there is substantially greater chance for viewer engagement. Instead of thinking about the work as one finished complete selection and rigorously sticking to that parameter, methods like these expand what the art work/project is and how it can be related to. Simply put: how we look at a photo on the wall and an object in the hand are always going to be different, by utilising this difference artists can tactfully expand how people respond TO and enjoy the work.

Jordan Madge, Banana Spider Bite

Personally, I don’t think that photobooks are necessarily the final say, the only edit, the absolute iron-clad straight jacket perfectionism that insists a book is where the work is finished. Instead, I think books offer artists a chance to create from their work something new. When looking at a new photobook, the question I always ask is ‘what does making this book do for the work?’. Or, in other words, how does all the effort that’s gone into this make it better than just looking at it on a website?

I think, therefore, that the best way to think about a book, whether you’re making one or looking at one, is as a vehicle to do something new with the photographs in the project.  ‘What makes this book a unique expression of the work?’ is maybe more interesting or helpful than an oft repeated question ‘why does this work need to be a book?’ (it doesn’t, nothing does, there is no need).

Jordan Madge, Banana Spider Bite

A recent example of this that comes to mind is Jordan Madge’s Banana Spider Bite. This is a small book printed on black paper. The vibrant colour and incredibly dark tones really immerse me as a viewer and underscore the conflict and difficulty at the heart of the story he’s telling. This volume, then, has an undeniable gravity that would be impossible to replicate in other mediums – the intimacy and darkness are the point of the work and the book enables both to sing.

Jordan Madge, Banana Spider Bite

Books also have a pull because they are felt. Unlike nearly any other medium, books are inherently tactile. It’s pretty rare to touch a print hanging on a wall, or to associate the sweep of a finger on the screen with the art you are looking at. For any book made this is a huge boon. Books should, in my view, always feel good in the hand. The paper should be luscious to touch and encourage the reader to stay with the work. In a lot of ways this makes a book the most intimate expression of an artistic work: viewers will necessarily have to be touching, manipulating and holding the work to see it at all. When it comes down to it, it’s worth remembering that enjoyment has a lot to do with feeling. 

This makes one particular trend quite disappointing: books that don’t want to be books. To me, this happens when the final object looks like a website. You turn the page, there’s an image on the right, white paper on the left, you turn over again and it’s the same, and again, and again. Similar to clicking the arrow ‘next’ on a website, the experience is tightly repetitive: one image per page. Often, the paper choice is the same for each book (mid gloss, heavy weight, bright white), the size is almost identical and the design is barely there, if at all. I think making a photobook (which is neither easy, cheap nor quick) that doesn’t sit well in the hand and is predictable to the point of being disengaged from its own medium is a tremendously missed opportunity.

Vincent Delbrouck, Dzongchen

Another way to think about these books is that they seek to replicate the white cube gallery experience: typified by a lot of white space between photographs, minimal (or no) text and rarely any design. Does this approach suit the project and form? Does replicating the austerity and distance created in white cube galleries work well within a more intimate and personal experience of holding a book? For me it so rarely does, it feels like driving at two speeds. These books are almost exclusively concerned with photographs, but a book isn’t photographs: it’s a book. So to focus on the photographs and not the book is like driving while focusing on the traffic but not the road, or to walk focusing on the destination but not the path. It’s an oddly ignorant way to operate.

Ultimately, the pictures stop exclusively speaking for themselves the second they are bound. There’s a title, a cover, weight, binding, paper, etc – all of these things add to the book, there are never only pictures. Books should offer viewers something more than just seeing the work printed.

Vincent Delbrouck, Dzongchen

The good news is that with so much available technology and business underpinning self-publishing and printing, there’s no limitations that necessitate a dull book. From software that’s increasingly intuitive and accessible, to businesses that are increasingly offering artists accessible printing for their projects, to now make a book is easier than it ever was, to make a unique book is easier than it ever was. These technologies mean that there’s a fantastic middle ground between ‘soulless mass-produced object’ and ‘completely hand made art’ – and I think that middle ground is where the most exciting stuff happens. Books that seem like they could be handmade, or self-published works that are totally their own thing. Last year I picked up Vincent Delbrouck’s Dzongchen which is just an unruly celebration of colour, collage, photography and brazenly garish in a way that just kills. This is a self-published, print-on-demand made book that has all the polish of something made by the best printers with all the creativity of someone unbound by technological constraints.

This has meant that book making has consistently become a huge part of artistic processes for many artists. So many of us make zines to feel out work or use scrap books as a way to show our more expressive side. Max Doyle’s scrapbooks are an amazing example of a creative alternative to his commercial work, for example. By using the book form as a place for play the images taken are given a new light and audiences can see another side to his thinking and expression.

As an artist I’ve been told countless times to ponder the question ‘why does your work need to be a book?’, a line of questioning that necessitates doubt. I’ve started changing that question to ‘how would putting the work in a book make the work better than just sharing it online?’ What I find freeing or encouraging about this discussion and distinction is that the question can be answered by thinking about how the work may feel, or may allow me to do something I wouldn’t normally. No one is going to exhibit the countless photos I make of trees, but a lot of people love seeing them arranged in small zines I make once or twice a year. 

Talking with Momento Pro, again, they offered some words of wisdom regarding how thinking about books can prompt interesting artistic and creative opportunities:

“It’s also worth thinking outside the box when it comes to launching and promoting a photo book. We look forward to seeing more exhibitions where the book receives the same prominence as the prints, or even takes the starring role. For those working on a tight budget, consider hosting a one-night exhibition that’s more like a celebration, where you can bring the photo book community together, explain your book and the process of its creation, and every visitor can afford to take home your images in book form. The added bonus is that a launch or exhibition is where most photo books are sold, and you can also save precious time and money by not having to pack and deliver every copy.”

– Libby Jeffery, Momento Pro

Creativity often thrives under constraints and I would really encourage people reading this to consider finding the middle ground between creativity, cost and experimentation. Taking advantage of all the great things about books (artistic relevance, products that work for audiences and work that’s engaged with its own medium). I don’t think we have too many books, I don’t think self publishing is vanity and I don’t think that books need to be serious to be seriously good, but I do think predictable, myopic books that ignore the medium they actually exist within are a missed opportunity and I am, frankly, a bit bored by them. I’d like to encourage our community to push for a little more as this medium continues to become more solidified. One risk we run in the arts is as something becomes more accepted it becomes staid, I think we could strive to avoid that.

Matthew Dunne

Matthew Dunne

Matthew is a photographic artist living and working in Melbourne, Australia. Drawing on his background in History, his work focuses on the relationship between humanity and nature, specifically how the natural world is altered, changed and forced to adapt to the unexamined decisions of billions. Matthew uses the camera to look at the present as a way of reconsidering our past and bears witness to how we have created a world so uniformly out of balance.