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.


The titles of Lynne Cohen’s photographs tell us very little about what the pictures show us. They in fact point to each photograph’s belonging to a type of space that fits into one or another of the series making up the work No Man's Land—a spa, a laboratory, a classroom, among others. While each of these names denotes the function of the photographed site, it tells us nothing else—nothing about the country or the city it is located in, nothing about the date the photograph was taken, and nothing about any specific feature of the site.
This paucity of information in the titles confers de facto another function upon them, inciting the observer (in the Duchampian sense of the participant-spectator) to question the relevance of the titles; that is, the relationships between what is shown in the photograph and what is signified in the title. In other words, what we see may correspond to the idea of have of such-and-such a type of place, with the titles acting as a simple filing system; but if we look at the pictures without paying attention to the titles and then try to find out to which series such-and-such a photograph belongs, we begin to realize that the spaces we are shown have a great many features in common and that they are all somewhat alike. What emerges is a world of formal resemblances, reflecting one another in a sort of infinite play of echoes.