Who Cares About Books? DARIUS HIMES

Who Cares About Books?
All the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books. —Bishop Richard de Bury, chancellor of England, 14th century
Photography books have never commanded greater interest than they do today. Each year they are published by the hundreds worldwide, collected and hunted down by the obsessed (this writer included), and sold at triple and quadruple their retail value. They provide an artist with a passport to the international photography scene and create occasions for exhibitions, talks, gallery walks, and reviews. Both the supply and the demand seem to be increasing unabated.
The bald statement “I want a book of my photographs” is on the lips of nearly every photographer I speak with, but few have more than a tentative grasp of the component parts of a book or an understanding
of what they want to express in book form—of why this body of work needs to be seen in book form as opposed to on the gallery wall or in a magazine.
In our personal lives, both photography and books are often burdened with sentimental value, becoming loaded symbols of our private histories and complex social relationships.1 My intent in this essay is to take a close look at the significance of books, how photography and books are intertwined, and what that relationship means for contemporary photography. I will also address the newly laid foundation for the study of the history of photography books, surveying the criteria offered for determining what makes a great photography book. Lastly, I will examine two particular titles that serve as examples of a happy marriage between photography and books.

I could not live without books.
— Thomas Jefferson
I’m often asked if I think that books will slowly be replaced or fade into cultural history. “What about t he Internet?” photographers worry out loud. “Don’t you think that printed books will disappear?”
The short answer is, No. How could they? Books are conveyors of ideas, mementos of civilization, and harbingers of change. As the late historian Barbara
W. Tuchman wrote, “Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.”

Books, as physical objects, are indispensable to our collective history—no electricity is required to access them—and they are indelibly printed onto our consciousness from early on. If you can show me just one five-year-old who has, instead of a favorite bedtime book, a favorite PDF, then I’ll believe that books, made of paper and ink, will disappear. What children intuitively and instinctively know is that the very materiality of a book is half of the joy of any reading experience. The story, of course, comprises the other half (while the delivery of that story figures in there as well: my nieces would listen to me read the Phoenix phonebook to them if I did it in my “tickle- monster” voice).
And while the sensual experience of receiving and holding a Mac AirBook borders on the rapturous (I almost feel like I’m dissimulating when I enter the
Apple shrines scattered around the country), it is still not something I want to read a book on—even if it is something I want to use to send an email about a book I just read.
Books are so archetypal for the modern wo/man that we form nearly permanent bonds with them as teenagers and adults. They are the security blankets and teddy bears of the adult world. Most of us cart our books from state to state, from college dorm to rented apartment to newly purchased home, and lovingly set them up on our shelves as reminders of knowledge acquired and courses and degrees completed, and as familiar companions.
There is a long and storied history of scribes and manuscripts, of printing presses and the craft of the book, that is outside the purview of this brief essay. But of all the visual and plastic arts, books hold a special place in the history of photography. Most photographers, curators, and gallerists (and especially those of a certain age and older), learned of, and fell in love with, photography through books.
Ultimately, books are far more accessible than exhibitions of important work. One can return to them repeatedly and absorb the accompanying texts at will; a lap, two hands, a few hours, and some sunlight are all that is required.
Since the dawn of the medium, photography and books have been intimately associated. A ready example is the fact that when William Henry Fox
Talbot discovered that salts of silver were sensitive to light, his initial experiments were published in booklet form. For a small sum, one could subscribe to The Pencil of Nature, receiving through the mail on a quarterly basis an unbound folio with a smattering of new “sun prints.” One was expected to have them bound once the series was complete.
Photography was the perfect invention for a mechanized New World. If the Industrial Revolution produced a new body for humanity—with machines acting like so many limbs and organs, and speed, at an ever-increasing rate, playing its role as the blood of this new corpus4—then photography was its eye.
The invention provided us with a new way to see the world around us, further, deeper, smaller, bigger, faster, and slower than any of our waking experiences could provide. All manner of phenomena were scrutinized under this new panopticon (as were long- held ideas and stereotypes), all of which were printed up and disseminated through books.
We are at a point where the history of the photobook has now entered into the realm of academic study. It is, as Shelley Rice has written, “a secret history embedded within the well-known chronologies of photographic history.”5 Whatever the reason,6 this newly born discipline is being fueled in no small part by a rather tiny cluster of books, all published in the last ten years. The first was Fotografia Publica, Photography in Print from 1919–1939.7 Edited by Horacio Fernandez and published by Museo Nacional de Arte in Spain in 1998, this volume was the first
to look at the years immediately following World War I, during which offset lithography became the predominant method for reproducing photographs
on the printed page. Organized alphabetically by artist, Fotografia Publica presents many of the books that we now consider to be classics of photography: Paris by Night by Brassai, An American Exodus by Dorothea Lange, and Paris by Moi Ver were all published during these two decades.
The very title of the book, translated as “public photography,” hints at the availability and, on a certain level and in certain cases, the popularity
that these volumes achieved in the public arena. Fernandez is also keen to present the book as object; by showing us facsimile reproductions of each book’s cover and at least one interior page spread, the reader gets a real sense of their designs and proportions—in short, the materiality of the books.
What Fotografia Publica establishes—complete bibliographic and publication information, facsimile reproductions, capsule reviews about the historical importance of the artist and publication—Andrew Roth’s The Book of 101 Books refines. Roth is a rare-book collector and dealer, as well as a publisher himself (he releases titles under the PPP Editions imprint). As was made clear by the subtitle to his book, Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, Roth set out to celebrate the century that was just ending with a tome that truly glorified the history of photography books with an equal emphasis on the importance of the photographic work and on the craft and uniqueness of the book as object.
To those ends, Roth commissioned essays and reviews by many key figures in contemporary photography: Daido Moriyama, Jeffrey Fraenkel, Shelley Rice,
Vince Aletti, and David Levi Strauss. Roth makes no bones about the list being a personal and therefore highly selective one. After all, it’s a list of only 101 books. In a succinct introduction, he himself outlines the characteristics that he sought in a photography book and which to him characterize a great work:
The basis for my selection was simple. Foremost, a book had to be a thoroughly considered production; the content, the mise-en-page, choice of paper stock, reproduction quality, text, typeface, binding, jacket design, scale—all of these elements had to blend together to fit naturally within the whole. Each publication had to
embody originality and, ultimately, be a thing of beauty, a work of art. Secondary was my concern for the specific photographer or the historical significance and impact of the work. In all but a few instances, I have focused on monographs that the artists had an active role in producing. I was also generally drawn to publications in which the photographs were meant to be seen in book form. In other words, not books that are merely a place to exhibit images but books whose images were destined to be seen printed in ink and bound between covers.8
The effect that Roth’s book had in the worldwide photography community was phenomenal. It was
2    loved, debated, ridiculed, and acclaimed. In short,
it got people talking. His list was both praised and criticized; certain collectors consulted The Book of
101 Books as they would a grocery list, while the rest of us saw the volume as a crash course in the history of twentieth-century photography, with Rice, Aletti, and Levi Strauss as our personal tutors.
It also spurred Martin Parr, the well-known British Magnum photographer and avid photobook collector(9), to contribute to the now-raging dialogue. The Book of 101 Books was published in 2001; Parr immediately began work on what would turn out to be a two-volume set co-edited and written with photo- historian Gerry Badger. The Photobook: A History,
Volumes 1 and 2, were published in 2004 and 2006, respectively. Where Roth had refined the presentation of books over that of Fotografia Publica (and deeply supplemented the project with a wide range of critical and personal texts), Parr and Badger essentially expanded the purview of the subject and placed it on a firmer historical foundation, creating a master list of books based on a strict and well-argued set of criteria that spanned the entire history of the medium.10
Firstly, it 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.
—John Gossage, The Photobook: A History, Volume 1 (Phaidon, 2004)
What Parr and Badger elucidate is the notion of a photography book as something that is above and beyond merely a bound set of pages and a bunch of CMYK-printed pictures. It’s the marriage of the two that matters to them. In the introduction to
Volume 1, they quote Dutch historian Ralph Prins in order to clarify their approach:
A photobook is an autonomous art form, comparable with a piece of sculpture, a play or a film. 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.
At this level, the book becomes something more than the sum of its parts. But those parts are wildly multitudinous: paper, printing, binding, cloth, boards, ink, typefaces and lettering, page layouts, sequencing and editing, trim size and proportion, essays and
interviews, forewords and afterwords, bibliographies, captions, collections and exhibition chronologies, and, last but not least, the photographs themselves and their subject matter.
One is hard-pressed to find a more “dramatic event” in book form than Daido Moriyama’s Sashin yo Sayonara (Bye Bye Photography). This masterpiece, published in paperback in 1972, is arguably the direct offspring of The Americans by Robert Frank and William Klein’s Life is Good and Good For You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, both of which were first published in France in the late fifties. While Frank was immersed in
the emotionally dark undercurrents of high-gloss America at midcentury, Klein was the upbeat, crazy
cousin whose improvisational approach to shooting, editing, sequencing, and layout amounted to so much jazz. Moriyama, their junior by ten years, mirrored Frank’s pessimism and Klein’s frenetic energy, producing a book that throws caution and content
to the wind. Through conscious choices during the design process—a graphic-novel-sized paperback, the book has the heft and feel of a cheap commuter’s copy of second-rate literature—he created a book that perfectly complements his overall project. Through a complete abandonment of established photographic technique and a pacing that is only born of youth, Moriyama drags the viewer through the maze of
Tokyo’s alleys, markets, sex shops, and subways. The images bleed through the gutter and off the page,
simultaneously filling one’s psyche and sending one’s adrenal gland into overdrive. The subject, if any can be identified, is a rootless reaction against materialism and the spiritual bereavement that pervaded post-war Japan. But the feelings of transience and pointless impermanence induced by Moriyama’s sprint-like pace are disconcerting and cynical.
In deep contrast to Bye Bye, and equally mesmerizing and masterful, is A Shimmer of Possibility (Steidl/ Mack, 2007) by Paul Graham. Graham is one of the few modern practitioners who has exploited the deeper, more literary and filmic potential of a book of photographs. The format of A Shimmer and its presentation of photographs are the polar opposite
of Bye Bye. A Shimmer consists of twelve individual, clothbound books totaling 376 pages. Both the photographs and the binding are bright, colorful, and digestible, whereas Moriyama’s work and the presentation of it are rough, obscure, and strictly black-and-white; in A Shimmer, a single image often resides on an entire spread, tucked into a corner
or gently sitting on the page. Graham stays with a 3    subject over an extended period, which his book
personifies, while Moriyama tugs the reader/viewer here and there in constant motion.
In each of his twelve volumes, Graham presents a single, short photographic story. These are not glimpses into the lives of the rich, the famous, or the beautiful; rather, they are “filmic haikus”11 of a singular episode of daily life somewhere in America. Inspired by the obsessive attention to detail found in many of Chekhov’s short stories, Graham traveled
America with an eye for places and people of little social consequence or influence.
In Pittsburgh, 2004—a thirty-two page red, clothbound volume with just fifteen photographs—a bearded black man in a striped blue, white, and pink knit polo shirt, black jeans, and tennis shoes mows a large swath of grass that abuts a parking lot. From a slightly elevated vantage point, he overlooks a nondescript highway interchange, office complex, and Exxon gas station bordered by thick trees and vegetation. The day is slightly overcast, and by the sixth image of the man—his third pass with the mower—a sparse sprinkling of glowing raindrops illuminate the frame of the photograph while the sun burns through the hazy afternoon cloud cover. Interspersed with the eight photographs of the man are six images of store shelves stacked with canned goods, bread, and bars of soap such as one would find in a Quik Mart (or an Exxon gas station), as well as one photograph of a brown nineties-model GMC minivan, in relatively good shape, sitting in the parking lot at the edge of the grass that’s being mowed.
Similar to Stephen Shore’s work for Uncommon Places, the hallmark of which was a quiet, observational mode of picture-making—and the polar opposite of Moriyama’s Provoke-era style— Graham’s tightly bundled groups of photographs transmit a similar quietude coupled with an intense repetition of subject matter, clearly made over a short span of time. The effect of this work is sobering,
and more so for its presentation in book format. By looking at and photographing seemingly mundane moments, events, and people that could easily be called “nameless,” Graham allows his photographs to raise numerous questions on several different levels.
Who is this man? Is that his minivan? Is this his sole vocation? Does he shop for groceries at this store? Would I eat these groceries? Could I work doing what he does? Does he quickly fit a social category based on what I see of him? Why has Graham photographed him? Our heirarchical systems of categorization and labeling, which quickly seem inadequate, arbitrary
and off-base, are all called into question. With both Moriyama and Graham’s books, a stream
of questions immediately begins to circulate— undoubtedly there will be shades of difference for every viewer—that betray a readiness for, and a predilection toward, establishing a narrative in our mind, no matter how tentative or loosely based. It seems that the very act of turning the pages, of physically moving one’s arm and seeing the next image appear before our eyes after the last one, serves to establish connections and relationships that we then want to explain or congeal in some way. A hallmark of greatness, then, in a book of photographs is one where the photographer is highly attuned to these possibilities of connection and exploits them
to his advantage and for the benefit of the overall viewing/reading experience.
In their own ways, both of these volumes—Graham’s elegantly and with understatedness, and Moriyama’s with an urgent distress—embody Lewis Baltz’s assertion that, “The photobook occupies that deep area between the novel and the film.”
The single most important characteristic of photography now is not the arrival of any movement or style but the great diversity of work that’s going on. No matter what ones curatorial sensibility is, that’s the principle that has to be engaged. —Peter Galassi12
Paul Graham recently suggested13 that we’ve now entered into a new golden age of photography books. I tend to agree with him. From Blurb to Phaidon, there are innumerable ways to create, publish, and market books, and to place them in the hands of the anonymous masses and hungry collectors.
At the level of the publisher, what we now see are a proliferation of smaller publishing houses run by individuals or small teams—Chris Pichler at Nazraeli Books, Jack Woody at Twin Palms Publishers, Jason Fulford of J&L Books, Eric Kessels of KesselsKramer, Jeffrey Fraenkel and Frish Brandt at Fraenkel Gallery, Gijs Stork of Veenman, Michael Mack and Gerhard Steidl, and Chris Boot and Markus Schaden—as well as individuals working within larger organizations, such as Lesley A. Martin at
Aperture, Denise Wolff at Phaidon, and Alan Rapp at Chronicle. Within this milieu, a decidedly aware and informed type of curatorial process is taking place
4    that has little to do with market forces as the larger
multinational publishing behemoths have traditionally defined them.
At the level of the photographer—and that means everyone with a computer and some sort of image- making device—the print-on-demand phenomenon is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of this new golden age. A gaggle of companies have cropped up14 that put the ability to print and sell books in quantities of one and up into the hands of anyone willing15 to pay for the process—and at a starting price of $15.95, who can’t?
The implications of this power to bypass an entire industry of editors, designers, and booksellers are dimly outlined at present. At the very least, what it means for contemporary photography is an ever- broadening diversity of voices. An entirely new generation of curators, critics, and publishers see the book as a central form of expression within photography and are passionate about engaging in a dialogue with artists and photographers who are exploring that “deep area.” The job of photographers, apart from making relevant work, is to learn the language of a complex art and craft, and to consider the rich possibilities therein, before stating that they want to publish a book of their photographs.
1. Who doesn’t have snapshots and pressed petals and notes from former lovers scattered throughout their own personal collection of books? 2. Barbara W. Tuchman, “The Book,” p. 13, transcript of a lecture given at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC in 1979
3. In a conversation with Bill Jay, the photo-historian, author and recipient of the 2008 Infinity Award in Writing, he told me that up until the early 1990s it was easy to purchase every photography book because there were only a handful that were published in any given year.
4. For a brilliant description of the revolutionary impact of both increased speed and stop-action photography on how humanity physically perceived the world around us, see The River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2003).
5. The Book of 101 Books, p. 3, 2001 6. The are multiple reasons as to why, at this moment in history, there is a sudden interest in photography books, and if anything, it is a culmination of this multitude of reasons. The flourishing of Internet-based commerce coupled with a thrift-store-scouring mentality on the part of nascent collectors is no small driving force. It has only been since the late 1990s that serious e- commerce has been available. The stock of out-of-the-way used bookstores around the country suddenly became as accessible to an international audience as the Strand’s own wares. Editors and authors also took the end of the millennium as an opportunity to publish “Best Of” lists. This was not limited to photography books; I saw books on the best albums, novels, book cover designs, concerts, etc. all hitting the shelves in 2000 through 2002. 7. Fotografia Publica, Museo Nacional de Arte, Spain, 1998 8. The Book of 101 Books, p. 1, 2001 9. Email correspondence from April 19, 2008: “Best from Martin in Beijing where today I bought 20 kilo of books.” 10. In the few years since the Roth and Parr/Badger books were released, various subject-specific and collection-based volumes have been published, including Books of Nudes, The Open Book, and 802 photobooks from the M. + M. Auer collection 11. “These filmic haikus avoid the forceful summation we usually find in photography, shunning any tidy packaging of the world into perfect images.” From the Steidl website. 12. Peter Galassi, 1996, in an interview with Charlie Rose. 13. In personal communication with the author. 14. Blurb.com and Apple’s iPhoto books are the two most prevalent, with several dozen such companies targeting different audiences (think high-end wedding and family albums and vacation memoirs.) 15. The print-on-demand book has quickly entered into contemporary art discourse with the mere fact that Stephen Shore’s Apple-made iPhoto books are now being collected by major institutions. For a synopsis of Shore’s use of print-on- demand technology and his thoughts on its best use, visit http://paulturounetblog.wordpress.com/2007/11/09/the-photo- book-self-publishing-with-on-demand-printing/