Reviewed by Rod Purcell
Martin Parr, Garry Badger, The Photobook: A History, vol. 2
Phaidon Press, 336 pages. $75 ($47.25 on Amazon)
The authors suggest that the history and diversity of photography can best be understood through a review of photobooks, and, across the two volumes, some 400 selected books are reviewed. The basic premise here is that individual prints are limited in their distribution, exhibitions are local and transient, commercial works are particular to a market, so what is left as the preferred medium for the presentation and analysis of photography is the photobook.
One of the authors' central concepts is that the format of photobooks sits between that of the novel and film. In one sense this is obvious as novels generally do not contain images, whereas films have moving images, so still photography lies in between the two. However, this idea also implies that like novels and films, photobooks contain a narrative. In some cases this is true. On the other hand, to find a narrative, for example, in Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations requires considerable mental agility and imagination.
More generally the two volumes provide an interesting and welcome analysis, which succeeds in moving us away from the tyranny of the individual "photographer as genius" approach, to locating and exploring bodies of work in wider contexts. The authors have created 18 categories that relate in various ways to the chronology and geography of photography, but also to a selection of themes. These categorizations provide a useful frame of analysis. For example categories include:
From Volume 1
Topography and Travel—The First Photoboks
Photo Eye—The Modernist Photobook
Medium and Message—Photobook as Propaganda
The Indecisive Moment—The "Stream–of-Consciousness" Photobook
From Volume 2
Mirrors and Windows—The American Photobook since the 1970’s
Point of Sale—The Company Photobook
Looking at Photographs—The Picture Editor as Author
The Düsseldorf Tendency—The New Objective Photobook
These volumes include works that have been hard to access in the both in the UK where I live and many other countries. So one of the effects of reading these volumes is to realize what it is you have been missing. I now know about a range of excellent Dutch photographers about whom I had been previously unaware. Most importantly the chapters on Japanese photography (Moriyama, Araki, etc.) present essential material that is almost invisible here.
Each section has an overview written by Gary Badger. Some of the writing provides an informative background to the photobooks in question, but in places this can slip into to being rather generalized and superficial commentary. However the final chapters on the "Dusseldorf Tendency" (the Bechers, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky), and "Home and Away" (Bruce Gilden and Richard Billingham, but, surprisingly, not Nan Goldin, who is less appropriately placed in the "American Photos since 1970s" section) are for me the best, being very clearly written and informative.
But all is not perfect. The authors' definition of a photobook excludes monographs. I’m not convinced that this was due to any other reason than making the project manageable, or perhaps further monograph based volumes are to come. By default any photographer that did not produce a photobook is excluded. Other photographers are also excluded because a copy of their photobook was not available for review or that Parr and Badger didn’t rate it. This means that major photographers are missing form this collection. For example both Edward Weston and Sebastiao Salgado, who would surely be central in any review of 20th century photography, are absent. Perhaps out of modesty Martin Parr is also excluded. As an attempt therefore to provide an alternative history and overview of photography this project must be seriously flawed.
The project also falls down through the method of presentation, and this is the most frustrating thing about these volumes. Most of the selected photobooks have only a few (sometimes just one) illustrations and often they are reproduced very small. This is particularly true for early photobooks. For example John Thompson’s Illustration of China and its People has a single photograph less than one inch square. Man Ray’s La Photographie n’est par l’art also has one photograph, reproduced even smaller. Things improve with more recent works. Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces has two double page spreads illustrating eight prints at 2.75” x 2”. But this is about the best it gets. As the original of American Surfaces has 313 photographs, the abstract of eight prints cannot really convey what Shore was trying to do and how well he succeeded.
So we are told how important the books are, but we cannot see sufficient content to work this through for ourselves. As the two volumes run to over 600 pages it is unreasonable to expect fuller reproductions. But maybe this suggests that the future of photography is not, as the authors claim, with the photobook and print based publishing at all, but on the internet. What we need is the selected photobooks digitized and put on line in something like Mark Harden's Masters of Photography site. That really would be a resource to be valued.
Nevertheless, these are stimulating books—you can’t help but think that some of the categories are misconceived and photographers within them misplaced, but this pushes you to reconceptualize your understanding of photography, and that has to be a good thing. Recommended.
Rod Purcell was born in London, England. Over the past twenty years he has traveled and photographed widely in Europe, Asia and North Africa. Rod currently lives in Scotland where he works at the University of Glasgow, writing, teaching and photographing on social action and cultural change.