The other day, in a post about The Americans, a reader named Paul asked:
"Mike, any chance perhaps of giving us your opinion on the 10 or 25 most important and influential photography books in the last fifty or more years? Those books any kid new to photography could use to educate his eye and not with the idea of making a monetary investment."
I did answer his question in the comments to the post. However, as I've mulled it over since then (I love books, I love lists, and I have an essentially schoolteacherish cast of mind, so you can understand how Paul's request would appeal to me), I've come around to realizing just how impossible compiling such a list would be.
I certainly see the appeal of a "teaching set" of books that could serve as a sort of basic encylopædia of the medium's accomplishments. But as I proceed to imagine it in its particulars, the obstacles seem more and more multi-dimensional and profound. The two limitations I mentioned in my answer in the comments were 1) limitations of availability and 2) the limitations of my (or any list-compiler's) taste and critical judgment. In truth the problems extend much further than that.
The Americans happens to be a very neat-and-clean package for the photo book library builder, for many reasons. For one thing, it's one coherent body of work, and book form was its original and entire form. Secondly, it's clearly a major work of the 20th century. Third, it's essentially its author's only major work, or at least his only work that had anywhere near so much impact (that is to say, if your library contains just The Americans and no other Robert Frank, you wouldn't be impoverished by missing large and necessary parts of his contributions). And finally, it's available right now in essentially a "perfected" form (the current Steidl reprint, which I gather is not shipping quite yet despite all the hoopla. Grrr).
Unfortunately, very few photographers or movements can be summed up anywhere near so neatly. Let's take a couple of counterexamples one by one:
Limitations of availability: Just consider Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1952 book The Decisive Moment. Beautifully printed with gorgeous gravure printing that is almost a lost art today, it's never been reprinted. That's "never" as in never. Not only that, but the original book was incredibly fragile: the binding practically falls apart if you look at it wrong, and the dust jacket has a high lignin content and has usually become foxed and browned and gotten dry and brittle with age—some dust jackets you see have such large chunks missing they look like maps of the world. A great many copies are in extremely poor condition—despite which, you'll never find one for less than about $1,200 in anywhere near acceptable condition. A few years ago, for a small commission, I sold one for a reader. It was in middling condition for a TDM, poor condition for a photo book generally, and we got $1,800+ for it.
Constrictions of taste and critical judgment: One of the better book collections I know about belongs to a photographer friend who split his time between the U.S. and Berlin in the '80s and '90s. He amassed a 5,500+ volume collection of leading-edge art photography books, many of them European. In the whole collection, there was not one single volume of Ansel Adams or Joel Meyerowitz, much less any more populist photographer than they. If I were to compile even a much shorter list of books as a recommendation for readers, it would include Meyerowitz's perennial bestseller Cape Light and at least one decent volume of Adams (whose catalogue raisonné 400 Photographs is so far the all-time TOP-linked best-seller). Neither of us is right or wrong: Adams and Meyerowitz are easy to enjoy and have been popular and influential, so they'd be good for any student or generalist to know about. But just as surely, they would never fit in my friend's much more esoteric collection, despite its size.
Photographers with no single coherent body of work: Many photographers who worked partially as professionals, or who were what you might call "aesthetically peripatetic," are difficult to distill into one book. The example of this I used to use was David Douglas Duncan, whose superb book War Without Heroes (Harper and Row, undated—c. 1970) is one of the greatest books of war photography ever made (and a gorgeous example of bookmaking, too—sheet-fed gravure). Duncan, who was lionized in the popular photography magazines of his day, also did a book of color multiple exposures of flowers, and was one of the best documenters of his friend Pablo Picasso.
I suppose, however, that he's not the best example, because you just don't need his Picasso pictures unless Picasso is a particular passion of yours, and no collection needs his "prismatics" (the color multiple exposures). So I suppose a better example would be someone like Philipe Halsman or Andreas Feininger. Important figures of their times, both of them, but all over the place in terms of their work; Feininger is cited in Photographic Artists & Innovators for close-up work, street scenes, nature studies, and architecture—in black-and-white and color! I don't have anything by either of them.
Photographers whose work was not originally in book form: Look no further than Eugene Atget for an example. Wonderful photographer with an extensive body of work of one great subject, rescued at the very last minute from oblivion by Berenice Abbot, later championed as a major figure by a major curator. In Atget's case we do at least have a definitive retrospective: John Szarkowski and Maria Morris Hambourg's four-volume The Work of Atget (Museum of Modern Art, 1981–85). Except for those with a special interest in France, French photographers, or street scenes, however, four volumes might be a bit too much Atget. Even then there's a good choice: Szarkowski, whose curatorial attention elevated Atget to the highest rank, published a single volume, called simply Atget (Museum of Modern Art, 2004) which has superb reproductions and essays to go with every picture—definitely the book to have for the generalist, given that Szarkowski is such an outstanding writer and was so closely connected to the history of the work. That's my opinion; there are of course numerous other choices and other collectors might feel differently.
Photographers who have more than one major work: Lee Friedlander (who, like Robert Adams, might be said to work with books as virtually his medium) has two books available right now that illustrate this point. One's a reprint of the early (1970) Self-Portrait, an important period-piece of iconoclastic 1960s introspection and self-revelation, and the beautifully-made Lee Friedlander Photographs Frederick Law Olmstead Landscapes—entirely different subject matter made with a very different kind of camera, and his most recent title. Both solid, well-made books. So if you would like one title of his in your collection, which should you choose? And if you buy both, how to do you reconcile not having his factory workers, his musicians, his public monuments, his nudes? You could buy a retrospective, but the one currently available is in my opinion not a good way to see Friedlander: the reproductions are poor and the layout much too busy. Some of the pictures are so small you can't even really "see" them. Much better is the 1989 retrospective Like a One-Eyed Cat (Harry N. Abrams), which is one of my personal all-time favorite photobooks. But it's not available any more.
-(Continued below the break)
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Or consider Emmet Gowin. I treasure Gowin's early work of his wife and her family, collected in his 1976 Knopf book Photographs (Sally Mann named her son Emmet in honor of Gowin), but his later work, consisting of Frederick-Sommer- esque landscapes, leaves me, if not cold, then unconcerned. I know where I come down on such a decision: get the 1976 book and pass on the later ones. But that's just me. Is that decision really defensible overall? A pure landscape photographer could well decide to do just the opposite.
Photographers whose work isn't major: One of my particular treasures is a signed copy of Charles Harbutt's Travelog (1973, MIT Press). A couple of other titles I have that I wouldn't want to be without: Heinrich Zille Photographien Berlin 1890–1910 (1975, Schirmer-Mosel), and Leonard Freed: Photographs 1954–1990 (W. W. Norton, 1992). (I have a particular interest in Magnum photographers.) Another book that comes to mind is of the work of Paul Martin, an early English printmaker-turned-snapshooter (I'd tell you more about it but I, um, can't find it at the moment. It's in the "it's around here someplace" collection, which in my house is a large repository). Harbutt, Zille, Freed, Martin: probably not household names, and probably wouldn't make the short list of the greatest or most significant figures in photography's history. But the books are gems, and in my case will be pried, as they say, from my cold, dead hands.
A question of balance
As a matter of balance, I've always felt that the really major names deserve inclusion in my collection, whether or not I really like them or not, but, as I go deeper into history's list of more minor figures, I'm justified in indulging my own particular tastes more and more. That in itself is a personal "principle of collection" that anyone else is free to agree or disagree with, adopt or ignore.
But there's more to it even than that. In constructing a coherent collection covering all of photography, a sense of balance is crucial. Do you draw the line at individual artists? That might be foolish. My collection, for example, contains numerous volumes of Daguerreotypes and also of snapshots. How important are those two genres of photographs to a broader understanding? And if you wanted only one volume of each, what title is good enough to serve as an overview while also being a beautiful, cohesive, and well-made book in and of itself?
Do you include histories? I have many, perhaps understandably given my activities as a teacher and a writer on the subject. A general library, however, might reasonably include only one or two. But which?
And what about photography from other countries? As I was researching this post, I came across a list of the 53 greatest books of Japanese photography. As I was mulling over the implications of a list of 53 Japanese titles to Paul's proposed "10 or 25 most important and influential photography books in the last fifty or more years," I was amused to note that the blogger who had posted the list then added several more titles which he considered essential but that had been left off the main list by the original compiler. You can see how dicey this gets, and how quickly.
What about biographies of photographers? I wouldn't want to be without Jim Hughes' W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance, to name just one.
We haven't even broached the subject of technical books and criticism.
Finally, there are areas of specialty. The critic A. D. Coleman is greatly preoccupied with surreal and constructed photographs, extending to works of art made with photographic components. As more of a "purist," this is not a big concern of mine, and the whole category is reduced, on my shelves, to a mere single title: Joshua Smith and Merry Foresta's The Photography of Invention (1989, MIT Press), which, incredibly, is still in print, despite being a show catalog from a show I saw nearly two decades ago.
I'm sure you can name other areas of specialization, extending into the distance: color photography; portraiture; architectural photography; large format; 19th century; Czech photographers; show catalogs; the list could go on and on and on.
Principles of collection
Finally, there's the matter of personal "principles of collection," which every book collector should set for him- or herself. The term refers to your own self-defined parameters and guiding principles you decide to follow as you build up your library. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool generalist, but many collectors love to specialize narrowly, sometimes extremely narrowly. It would be possible to build a collection just of books from one publisher; just of books from one decade; just the photography of one nation; just of a particular kind of book (self-published and POD titles would be one good idea right now). You might limit yourself to just one photographer—I'm sure some collectors do.
Any highly specialized collection doesn't speak to Paul's original question, but it's an important aspect of collecting.
I'm also not a "completist." I seldom want every book by any one photographer, and I never look for the best way to get all of a photographer's pictures, or the most I can get. I'd rather have a well-chosen sampling of their best and most characteristic work. To take just two examples, the evergreen Aperture Arbus monograph and Patricia Bosworth's biography of Arbus are together enough to "cover" Arbus in my library, since her work isn't particularly important to me personally. (A bigger fan of Arbus will have a rich lode to mine.) I have much more Walker Evans, but, similarly, for someone to whom Evans wasn't all that important, the beautiful 50th Anniversary edition of American Photographs, the ubiquitous MoMA retrospective catalog, and James Mellows' biography would "cover" him.
Strike while the iron...
Still, the absolute key point that overrides all others is availability. It's all well and good for a major survey like Andrew Roth's The Book of 101 Books to name, say, Edward Curtis's 1907 masterpiece The North American Indian as one of the greatest photographic books ever; but original copies of that book are now museum pieces, and will elude all but the richest or luckiest collector. I don't happen to know if that particular book has ever been reprinted entire, but the work of Curtis has been endlessly reprised in collection after collection, ranging in quality from reverent and excellent to opportunistic and deplorable. The problem then becomes—assuming you want some—how do you get some Curtis into your own library in a sensible and efficient way? As is the case when collecting work by a great many photographers, my biggest concern is reproduction quality. For this reason, my choice with Curtis is the excellent Native Nations: First Americans as Seen by Edward Curtis (Bulfinch, 1993). It's a very well-made book, with an essay by the leading Curtis scholar, Christopher Cardozo, and a leading Plains Indians scholar, George P. Horse Capture. And the reproductions, if a trifle goosed-up in contrast and gloss compared to Curtis's sedate originals, are glorious. Native Nations is not in itself a particularly valuable or rare book, and it's certainly not the only way to represent Curtis in a book collection. It's just where I happened to land when I was coping with that particular problem.
A similar case I haven't yet been able to solve is August Sander. There's a 7-volume complete set out, but I haven't seen it and I haven't heard good things about the repro quality. No general photography book collection should leave Sander unrepresented, but unfortunately I've seen his original prints, which are absolutely wonderful: very long-scaled in the shadows with deep, charcoal blacks. Most book reproductions, unfortunately, even those that aren't half bad, look like they were printed on newsprint by comparison. So the place-holder in my collection is the little pocket book from Schirmer's Visuelle Bibliothek. Why? Adequate reproductions. Not like the originals, but pleasing to look at.
These days, it's more important than ever to buy what you want when you can get it. Good luck finding the 50th Anniversary edition of American Photographs I just mentioned now—it's out of print and scarce. It's far from guaranteed to happen, but many times a book will go out of print and then shoot up in value so fast that it quickly gets out of reach. I can't emphasize it enough: if you want to collect a decent library, buy reprints of the great books when they come out. If I can get around to it, I'll try to put together a short list of obvious buys that are readily available right now.
Otherwise, your opportunities just pass by, and evaporate. An ironic case in point is Andrew Roth's magnificent The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago (and which I am lugubriously sad to say I don't own). It's a book about great photobooks, published in 2001. Not only did his listing instantly raise the value of all the books it mentions, but just take a look at this page, which lists a few copies of the now-out-of-print tome for sale. See what I mean?
Copyright 2008 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved