The meaning of the photo book has changed radically in the digital era, sez me.
Some time ago (not sure if anybody was listening, or cared) I made the point that photo books were how photographers communicated. Sure, serious photographers had shows—but despite the "occasion" of a show, the hard filter it placed on editing, the ideal nature of the presentation—the fact is that very few people saw them. A gallery owner puts a great deal of resources into presenting a show for a month. So does the photographer, who often uses the fact of the exhibit as a "crash" motivation to print a set of work and often has to pay for framing, too. The preparation can be a significant investment of all sorts of things: money, time, psychic energy, creative energy.
And then how many people see it? A few dozen to a few hundred, maybe...hopefully the right ones. The right people, I mean. Maybe, if the show is in a museum and the museum is prestigious, the show is seen by a few thousand people. But in that case, a lot of them might be random tourists. And then, the month is over, the show is taken down.
Photo books, on the other hand, endure better through time. They're more widely disseminated, yet they hit their target audience more cleanly. They can be seen by more people. People can experience them without having to buy or own them. They're just as hard a filter for redacting a body of work, for the most part (books are often the record of shows, in the case of show catalogs, for that matter.)
Photo books weren't just a reflection of the culture of photographers...they were the culture. They were how you kept track, how you saw work, how you learned who was doing what, how you "saw" shows you missed.
That's all changed.
The internet has a vastly greater reach. It's far, far more democratic. It's greatly more accessible. You can see more work with it, by several orders of magnitude. The photo book has been supplanted as the way to look at work. Most of the work I see these days is online. (Although I still crave seeing original prints; I just don't get much opportunity.)
So is the photo book dead? Dying?
Not hardly. In fact—against the odds, one might have guessed—it's flourishing as never before. This could possibly be because we're in a sort of renaissance period and we just don't know it because we're in the middle of it; it might also be because the digital era has gotten so many more people interested in photography that the audience has simply grown (well, there are more people on Earth than there were in 1978 or 1953, too).
However, the purpose and usefulness of the photo book has changed. Allow me to state a general problem using a specific example:
Let's say a photographer gets an idea. His idea is that a good place to go photograph might be, oh, let's say, a yard sale. (You could pick anything, I don't care, it's not important to the concept.)
Internet version: So I went to this yard sale for an hour last Saturday. I took forty pictures. Here are the best thirty-six.
Book version: I've been to more than three dozen yard sales over a five-year period and have probably taken more than two thousand exposures. Here's the best one.
The internet is great for sharing photos. It's a revolution in itself. It's convenient, democratic, robust, vibrant. I'm not saying it isn't any of those things, so please hold the complaints! But the problem is that it's a Great Pacific Garbage Patch of pictures. That's its nature. There are billions of photographs on the web. One person cannot look at all the photographs on one big photo-sharing site—I mean cannot, it is not possible, even looking at three pictures per second all day long as a full-time job—and there are thousands of sites.
So what's missing? Editing. Winnowing. Sifting. Curating. The creativity of culling. The imposition of a viewpoint. Redaction. Call it what you will.
The internet is a junk heap. It's every frame that comes back from the drugstore. It's the contact sheet, the raw material, the unsorted mass. The first draft. In that context, what will rise in importance will be the opportunities and the occasions we have for selecting only the best of the best, for making extended visual arguments, for the creativity and inventiveness inherent in limits, for the formalized set of photographs that puts a photographer's best foot forward, no fluff, no excuses.
That's the future of the photo book, in my opinion. The form of the books won't change, because they needn't. Their purpose and meaning within the culture of what we do is what's evolving.
P.S. I originally meant to write a post on this topic to participate in Andy Adams' and Miki Johnson's crowd-sourced blog post about the future of the photo book. Alas, missed my deadline. Some things never change....Featured Comment by Paul: "Okay, it's not important to the concept, but have you seen this?"