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Monday, 06 April 2009


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Why do photography books use the portrait format when landscape should be?

I have lots of "landscape" format photo books. ...In which vertical pictures don't fit very well, of course. It's six to one half a dozen the other, methinks.


I have the Walker Evans and am delighted, as Geoff puts it.
It's nice to be able see what the original book looked like and which pictures where included. And for the modest price that's a good deal in my opinion.
If, however, it's just about the pictures, don't bother, they do not give more than an impression of the original reproduction.
Best, Nick

Thanks to Geoff once again for a great review.

"Errata Editions" makes a lot of sense for some books, where the "art work" at issue -- from the photographer / artist's perspective -- is the book itself (rather than, e.g., any particular image or a particular print of an image). I've long read / heard that Evans's "American Photographs" is precisely such a work -- that the final product, including the precise sequencing of images and placement of text vs. photos, was intended by Evans as THE final "work of art," so it seems a must buy.

(The same would be true for, say, Robert Frank's "The Americans." I think it was A.D. Coleman who said that buying fancy prints of Frank's for thousands of dollars was a bit silly, given that the "work of art" was not any particular image or print, but the book itself.)

The same can't be said for the Atget, though. The original was published posthumously, after all. I gather that it was an important and influential book that disseminated Atget's work to a larger audience. So, it may be of interest from a book collecting perspective, or for those interested in the history of photography. But for those interested in Atget as a photographer / artist, Geoff's suggestion of the Szarkowski volume(s) seems right on.

The Walker Evans retrospective at the Met generated a lovely volume (printed and produced by the Princeton University Press) in 2000, with a re-issue in 2004. The paperback version of that is available at Amazon, and I doubt that either paper or hardback will be out of print for too long. My only reason to purchase the "meta-book" would be to see in detail which pictures (for which I have better reproductions) were actually in American Photographs and how they were sequenced.


I remember you sometimes wrote that "The photographer's eye", by J. Szarkowski, is out of print. I tried to get a copy from italian booksellers, without success. Then I looked for it on www.ebay.de, and finally got two copies. At present there are 32. Someone even new.

"The Photographer's Eye" is currently in print. It's "Looking at Photographs" that is currently not available new.


Thank you for these reviews, Geoff. You've answered questions I had as I recently pondered purchasing one of these.

Although I was already aware of the Errata Editions, until I read this review I had simply assumed that a classic book such as "American Photographs" would be currently available as an inexpensive reprint. But checks on Amazon, AbeBooks, and Alibris revealed nothing currently in print and prices ranging from US$295 to US$2000 for 1938 editions -- with one Amazon seller asking US$529.99 for a 1960 reprint in only "Good" condition.

It seems astonishing that a book that is described on the Errata website as "arguably the most important photobook ever published" is now only available in a facsimile edition that cannot (in Nick Meertens words) "give more than an impression of the original reproduction".

Walker Evans is the photographer I admire above all others. Consequently, I have first edition copies of "American Photographs", "Let us now Praise Famous Men", and "Many Are Called", each of which I was able to purchase relatively inexpensively 25 to 30 years ago. However, I also have a 1975 East River Press edition of "American Photographs" (for which I paid AU$10.15), described on the copyright page as "REPRINTED FROM THE FIRST EDITION, NEW YORK, 1938". I'm in no way an expert but the quality of the reproduction in this reprint so closely matches that of the original edition that it appears the same plates were used.

It is difficult to believe that the original plates were lost or destroyed. Even if this was the case, why is it not possible to make new prints from Evans's negatives in order to produce a reasonably priced reprint of this marvelous book?

This is one reason I'm always badgering people to buy good reprints when they're available. I have the 50th Anniversary edition of "American Photographs," published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1988 and distributed by Little, Brown. It closely follows the original in form and content, with several newer essays added (the slight introduction for the 1962 reprint is included, for example).

But the 50th Anniversary edition is now long out of print, and quite scarce itself.

You would think that these things could be kept in print, but current tax law and the difficult economics of publishing work against it.


The photographs of the original 1938 edition of American Photographs were reproduced via photoengraved half-tone letterpress plates made by at Beck & Co, Philadelphia. This method could produce beautiful results in skilled hands, but was labor-intensive and fraught with problems. As detailed in John T. Hill's essay in the Errata Editions version, a complete set of plates were (very expensively) scrapped prior to printing because of their poor quality. The method was not well suited to mass production due to the great difficulty of getting an even impression. Plates were routinely scrapped and recycled when printing was done, so re-printing from the original plates was rarely possible. After WWII, offset lithography quickly took over for photo reproduction because it was far more practical.

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