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Saturday, 02 March 2019


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I have been an avid consumer and collector of photo books all my adult life. I now live in a small country town with no access to bookshops so my purchases have to be via the Internet unseen which means that I don’t tend to buy anything by photographers who are unknown to me. I look at quite a lot of work online from new interesting photographers but it rarely ends up with a purchase because most of it is work that is it seems is only destined for the net and is ephemeral.

You just drove yet one more nail into my photographic coffin lid.

You are right in observing that the photo culture is changing. Books are no longer the primary way people are learning and sharing information.

The mobile device is the primary learning tool.

My local library is now not filled with people looking to borrow books. They have become places for young to do homework or to meetup or to sip expensive barista coffee.

The lack of two legged homo sapiens now makes it enjoyable to sit, relax and just read something in the library.

I share your appreciation of those definitive volumes that really bring together a photographer's work.

However, I also think that within the current re-shaping of how we communicate, and within the associated re-drawing of the boundaries of what is permanent and what is transitory, I think there emerge fascinating new forms of using the physical print.

I really like the current interest in "zines" and other such half-improvised small print ventures. They strike me as a really good way of putting out your work in a tangible, physical form and letting people engage with it. One guy bundles a small set of postcard-sized prints into a simple "string & washer" envelope, along with a single sheet of front matter, and sends these around.

All of these zine-like outputs offer I think genuinely novel forms of dealing with the tension between permanence and "of-the-moment-ness", making creative use of current print technology. And they are true to the ethos of photography! Straight photography has always had a close connection to newspapers and magazines, and these were never meant for eternity.

Via the newspaper or magazine, the photograph is distributed among a larger or smaller segment of the public, as a physical object. The paper ends up on the kitchen table. For a short while, the picture has a chance to have an impact on the people who see it, perhaps just a second whilst they drink their coffee over breakfast, perhaps for a week whilst the half-read magazine lies on that table next to the fridge. And then, after a fairly short time span, the whole thing disappears. It has played its part. This strikes me as a beautiful way for a photograph to emerge and then go, and I think those zines re-vitalise this mode of distribution, thereby honouring the tradition of the medium.

If it is still allowed to suggest a book I'd like to add Brett Weston Master Photographer from Photography West Graphics: the selected photographs, the print quality and the accompanying texts are just great. Unfortunatly I have not seen the book that has been published in regard of BW´s 100th birthday in 2011... I can quite understand that one likes to live among a good collection of photographic masterpieces, especially at a young age. When I was around 23 I planned to visit the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Tucson in Arizona. I made an appointment with Leslie Calmes, at that time the Assistant Archivist. Unfortunatly I forgot to make a hotel reservation: there was a famous mineral and gems show taking place in Tucson in February of 1991 and that meant absolutly no vacancy in town! So a young man from Old Europe couldn't get an eye to the Masterprints of EW, AA, etc. pp. Grabbed the train to Los Angeles and eventually headed to the Central Coast to discover the Photography West Gallery in Carmel. Someone there told me to go visit Mr. Weston, but of course it never entered my mind... Later I learned about Bob Werling who might have been just started it that way... Boy was I romantic about Westcoast Photography at that young age...

Generation Gap! Photobooks use technology that wasn’t available before net 2.0. Kickstarter, publishishers of photbooks that are sold online only. Photographers who self publish ans sell on their own website. Don’t blink or you will miss the next trend.

I may have recounted this story here, at some other time, and if so, feel free to delete the post.

My wife and I went to the National Gallery to see a Gauguin show a few years back. My wife has a bladder the size of an acorn, so after we got through the Gauguins, she had to run down to the ladies room in the basement. There's a balcony-like deal, a through-floor cut over the basement, whatever you call those things, and I could look down toward the hallway to the ladies room so I could see her coming out.

As it happened, there was a Richard Serra corten steel minimalist sculpture set up on the floor below, so I was looking down at it. My wife took a while in the ladies room, fixing her hair or something. In the five or ten minutes that she was in there, a number of people came and went, walking right past the Serra installation, and not a single one of them gave it a glance. In fact, I don't think most of them even realized it was an art installation -- I think they thought it was a blank wall, because that's how they reacted to it.

I'm sure people *saw* that show where you were watching for reaction, but they might not have had time to look at it, or they might not be interested in photography, but I think that probably *saw* it. With the Serra sculpture, they didn't even see it, even as they walked by within inches of it.

If a big shot like Richard Serra can't get his stuff looked at, **even in an art museum where presumably people are there to look at art,** I don't think anybody should be embarrassed if not many people react to photographs hung on a wall.

Well to give you a digital book that I think is fantastic check out STORMS by Mitch Dobrowner, uses canon 5d11 quite an interesting journey he has had, don’t know how many times I have reread:

"Division of the Library of Congress saw me leaving yet again, after spending hours looking at original portfolios of historic photographs, and he blurted out, "Jesus Christ, do you live here?" "

When I was a full time student at RIT and had special permission to go through the flat files at the George Eastman House, was also kidded about spending more time there than at RIT.

One reason you might have received less than hoped for in book suggestions might have been due to many following your request for ONE book to recommend.
Regarding current classics, maybe not enough time has passed to deem something a classic? As to digital, I can think of a few that may not get the classic status but are digital.
Joel Sternfeld - iDubai
Robert Herman - The Phone Book
I think it is much harder if not impossible in today’s world to stand out from the noise. Time will tell.

Mike, I've been a follower for years and really enjoyed your blog. I have a copy of "Henri Cartier Bresson Photographer" that I will mail to you if you give me an address. No charge. A gift of appreciation.

I bought the book from a used bookshop on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena in 1988. I have been looking for a place to donate it locally, but I can think of no more fitting a recipient than you.

The book is in decent shape. It has a clear plastic "library" style cover. Blank pages front and back are a bit brown with age, as are the edges of the photo-pages themselves, but the pictures look fine. The only marking is my own name, date and place that I wrote on the inside front (blank) page.

This is not for posting. This is also not a joke.

Hi Mike,

This struck quite a chord with me and I ended up feeling a little depressed for a while. The arc of my photographic life has paralleled what you describe to some degree and I would never say that I have been successful in the accepted sense of the word. I have a few pieces in homes in the US, Japan, Australia and elsewhwere from sales in local galleries and I have had three exhibitions over the last 30 years, the last two solo, and have each time basically covered costs plus a few sales after the show closed. I even had the the “local rag write up” in 1993 which was remarkably positive but it never led to anything and I vowed after the last one in 2005 that I would never do it again.

In an attempt to differentiate myself as the tsunami of digital photography was overwhelming everyone, I decided to utilise some of my other skills and hand make my own photo books which of course doesn’t get books into stores or create that “shared experience” you mention, but at least, having sold a few of each one so far (they’re not exactly cheap) they are, as you say, seen over and over again by those few people who own them and maybe show others on occasion.

I have never had the ambitious nature to compete in the art world where it’s not what you can do but who you know that brings success - I can relate to the gallerist attitude directly too, and I have no stomach for the whole social media world these days either. I still have a static website that’s more for my own amusement than for “exposure” or to make money. Now in the process of designing my fourth book, I have shown the material to a few people and already have got the response “you should have an exhibition!” which is well meaning but not something that tempts me in the slightest (unless someone else volunteers to do all the work and pay for the framing - which I do myself anyway).

I too often wonder how a young me in the current world would be going about photogaphy but young people’s outlooks are different today I think, and I doubt I would have embraced Instagram as my younger self today, even if it does seem to be one of the primary forms of communication for photographers. As to the final question you pose I am probably too old to answer it, but the world is changing too rapidly and people in general are too fickle for modern classics to even exist anymore in my opinion. Gotta move on to the next greatest thing . . .

The TC Lin article summed it up perfectly for me. In the end I just have to be content with my own photography.

I more or less have given up on the idea of submitting my work to galleries or photo magazines (except occasionally LensWork). I just do my work which pleases me and it gets featured on a few social media platforms. Perhaps one day if I ever win the lottery I will rent gallery space somewhere in a nice part of a larger city, print my very favourite work on the very best print paper available, mounted in museum quality frames. It might not ever happen, but its fun to think about. BTW A lot of great books mentioned here.

I like Geoff Dyer's summary of his placements, since they have resulted only from being asked from being asked to take people's pictures in the national parks, in the pre-selfie era. "My works are in numerous private collections, mostly in the Far East."

Hi Mike,
We've got a small collection of books, about 75-80, and acquisition has radically slowed since we have had kids (they're still very young at 7 and 4). There are a few cornerstones - stuff I've learned about from TOP and bought via links - thank you!! A pretty heavy 'Czech bias' as I lived in the Czech Republic for 18 years (Drtikol, Sudek, Koudelka, Streit) and some standards: Eggleston's Guide, The Americans, the great Sander Anthology, the Becher's 'Hochofen', etc.
What we also do, related to our consumption of photography, is buy catalogs from the exhibitions we attend, buy small magazines from out of the way publishers and the tiny shows we see (it helps having a friend who runs a gallery).
When I have time I also browse the good photo library here in Hamburg (where we now live) and also read a few other blogs, namely Andrew Molitor's http://photothunk.blogspot.com/ where he links quite a bit.
I know only one photographer personally: she did fashion and found it ultimately pointless and now does wildlife stuff instead http://www.isaphotography.com.

There's no mystery: as society progresses, fewer and fewer folks have the time, money or interest to indulge themselves in photographic art, which itself is often intrinsically suspect.

Back in the 50s photography was just a hobby for some or a job for others. As art? In Britain? Are you serious? As a job, few knew anything about it, how to get into it or what the prospects might be. That was the period when I was trying to become such a creature: a pro photographer. Other than of those guys on the High Street, a photography I detested and still do, working photographers were almost as mythical as the unicorn and their world a secret. How did you become a Vogue or Harper's Bazaar shooter? How did you get to travel the world shooting calendars full of lovely women? Mostly, you didn't.

Today, everybody knows everything, and nobody really understands anything. The era of the three-minute-mind has been crushed by that of the three seconds and you're out one. Photography is ubiquitous and mostly held pretty worthless. And no wonder: some of the contemporary heroes are worthless, and the more one is exposed to their product the more clear that becomes.

I love photographic monographs; they are terribly expensive and often disappoint. Magazines are going online because of the diminishing returns on print, and even by the mid-80s calendar production was becoming top-heavy with paper prices. As all of this impacts on the sales of expensive cameras, it becomes clear that the means of final display is turning into being the key. Online publishing does not often demand great equipment. And as the returns shrink so does the attraction and the desire to produce the best work that one can. Professionally acceptable becomes the mantra rather than any desire to impress one's competitors with new ideas and flashes of personal inspiration.

Take the money and run.

Dystopìa Now.

I’m not surprised you didn’t get many replies to your question on recommending a good book. I for one didn’t see the question! Only now I went back to see and indeed on line 18 you did pose a question.
If you want to ask something, ask on the first or at latest second line. That way you get answers.
Since you asked, I would recommend Ansel Adams Examples. Good concise compendium of 40 of his best images and first hand comments on making them from a true master.

My interest in photography has spanned almost 6 decades and unfortunately remained gear centric. Most sites I bookmarked featured trite reviews on the latest and best equipment to satisfy addicted consumers.

Fortunately I find myself returning to TOP for more philosophical themes. For example, Changin’ Times led me to the fabulous Burn My Eye photography collective and thence to Georg Simmel’s essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life.”

Thank you for providing inspiration for these pleasurable meditations.

Yes I can understand that the mega-explosion of the Internet communication plates-formes has been a game changer for the instant information. But at the end this is purely ephemeral. One flash picture is almost replaced by the time it has been presented. In my very modest opinion the full process of producing a photography is really completed by printed it and presented it (can be in a frame, a book, etc.). My big concern is the lost of most of our present photo prestations. I think we have the task to valorize again the importance of photo printing.

To add a bit more, we can summarize by saying that consumaring has replaced contemplating ...

Your comments about art shows resonated so strongly with me that I printed them out and hung them next to my monitor. A few years ago I did not heed the sage advice of a fellow photographer, who herself had participated in many shows, that "art shows are a money hole for egomaniacs and masochists" (her exact words). After 3 shows, I was so put off from photography that I put my camera away for over year.

There is a (French) website, https://loeildelaphotographie.com/en/
which presents a daily collection of four portfolios of (mostly) contemporary photography. But it rarely presents classical ("straight") photography. Its main content are highly manipulated or symbolic images -- which may or may not count as contemporary "art" but defeat the representational added value of the art of photography.

Margins of Excess by Max Pinckers is one rather recent photo book whose premise is fascinating, to say the very least...


Maybe books are still an important way for photographers to diseminate their work but self-publishing has made it so easy to create your book that I doubt an unknown name can sell large numbers of his in the middle of such a big competition.

Besides Blurb books and other big companies, very small companies can now produce little wonders in small editions such as this one I bought a few months ago:


As far as I know, it's nearly sold out

Mike, your references to Harbutt and Ruscha brought to mind a very fine essay by Jeff Wall, "'Marks of Indifference':Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art." (Its reprinted in Wall's book, "Selected Essays and Interviews".) To quote Wall, (I hope this long quote is workable here): "Ruscha's books ruin the genre of the 'book of photographs,' that classical form in which art photography declares its independence. 'Twentysix Gasoline Stations' (1965) may depict the service stations along Ruscha's route between Los Angeles and his family home in Oklahoma, but it derives its artistic significance from the fact that at a moment when 'the road' and roadside life had already become an auteurist cliche in the hands of Robert Frank's epigones, it resolutely denies any representation of its theme, seeing the road as a system and an economy mirrored in the structure of both the pictures he took and the publication in which they appear. Only an idiot would take pictures of nothing but the filling stations, and the existence of a book of just those pictures is a kind of proof of the existence of such a person. But the person ... is an abstraction, a phantom conjured up the construction" (p. 166) that is Ruscha's book. Wall also points to Ruscha's apparent indifference to photographic conventions of composition, focus and exposure along with the way in which Ruscha reduces the accompanying text to a parody of what one usually finds in "books of photographs." Wall argues that Ruscha and Harbutt were engaged in Conceptual Photography's reductivist project of stripping away what it took to be 'inessential' to photography. What was left at the end of the reduction was an assumption of the photographer's intentionality (in contrast to Ruscha's 'idiot who took these pictures.')

As for Winogrand, there is always that wonderful aphorism in reply to the question, 'Why do you take photographs?': to see how things look when they are photographed. And, as we know, Winogrand took a lot of photographs.

Art Photographer - I've given up any ambition to be an Art Photographer, going through the shenanigans you list, and now I'm happy to call myself a market trader. I show and sell at open-air art/craft/artisan markets. I take the pictures I want to take, print and frame them myself at low cost, and sell them at low cost. A typical market day sees hundreds (thousands? - I've never counted) of people seeing my work, a good fraction of that many stopping to look, and a good fraction of those giving me direct and admiring compliments. This is easy to explain - the ones that don't like them don't stop to look. So instead of the work and frustration you describe of putting on shows, I find it a lot of fun and very uplifting. Still doesn't make me much money but at least I'm doing what I want and I don't need to impress snooty museum curators.

From my perspective as a consumer of photo books, there are two obvious problems -- cost, of course, adds up. But so does the physical space required to keep photo books, which tend to be of an odd size requiring expensive storage options. So the bar goes up based on those two problems. And the "space" bar rises geometrically. Each one I buy makes the decision to buy another even more difficult. I need to shed books, not buy more. As for the way photographers now communicate, it's hateful platforms like Instagram.

Mike, absolutely right: vanity publishing doesn't count.

Yes, it gives you a book to the level of your spending power, but the buzz is in the invitation, as with all commercial photography when you want to accept the gig. It's about that sense of having arrived at another signpost, and in life, few of us make signposts - we need them rather than create them.

Validating recognition had to be external, or it's meaningless, which is why you don't ask your wife or mother for honest opinions about your snaps if you want truth.


[Reminds me of a line from a song: "Never look for the truth in your mother's eyes," from one of the great rock songs of the 2000s, "Arriving Somewhere But Not Here" by Porcupine Tree (Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth guests on guitar). --Mike]

Tom Hassler is correct in that things are evolving so fast as to make "classics" that much more difficult to perceive in real time, especially when there are now so many different outlets with smaller, more fractured audiences.

As for Blurb books, I just finished another this weekend: great for making the dummy of the book you really want, great for assessing how a project holds up in print, but nowhere even close to having an actual book out in public. Blurb costs are superb for making the individual book for yourself, but its public outreach is severely prohibitive- who's gonna pay $40-60 for a small book by an unknown photographer printed to questionable standards, when the same amount can provide a quality name with quality reproduction?

Black and white prints, real prints, digital or chemical, may be a very very small part of photography in the future.

On the other hand, the number of people with the skills to produce them will also shrink.

Personally, I’ll keep making them for my own satisfaction. If anybody else wants a copy, that’s nice too.

Apologies... Forgot to mention, Blurb once promoted their photo books, actually held competitions and granted awards. Even if you didn't win a thing, at least it allowed a photographer's work the possibility of being publicized and seen in a very public way- instead of being automatically condemned to the backwater catalog that exists today.

I remember seeing some exceptional work there- no doubt it was all done to promote the actual service at its inception. Still, don't see why they couldn't continue to promote member books, without monetary awards...

I’m not surprised you had relatively few responses to your suggestion for a single photographic book title. I believe for anyone serious about photographic books, being asked to select just one is essentially impossible. Especially if asked to justify the choice.

The area is just too wide and fecund to be meaningfully or usefully boiled down to single example.

At a pinch, I might be able to suggest and justify ten titles, though I suspect that repeating the exercise six months later would produce a substantially different selection.

When I finish a book, before I submit it, I have my son format it for me so that when I print it out, it'll look exactly like a real book. (He's sort of a print freak, fonts and all that.) When you sit in your reading chair, and read it as a "real book," bound between hard covers from Office Depot, all kinds of mistakes and weaknesses jump out at you, which you can then fix. I find myself slapping my forehead and asking, "How could you have written that sentence?" I think the same might be true of a good quality self-published photo book. The weak photos might jump out at you. etc. If you're a longtime enthusiast, even if you really don't think of yourself as a "publishable" photographer, if you make three or four books like that, honing down the selection, eliminating the weaknesses, clarifying your theme, you might find in the end that you do have a publishable book. I'd never discourage someone from doing that.

I would, and have, bought a book self-published by someone whose work I know already, but apart from that, I almost never buy sight unseen. Also, I have stopped buying anything that's not a hard back. Apart from that, I can't stand tiny books: I want coffee table capable, and mine (table) is substantial, bought in headier times.

Books are inevitably expensive, and putting a hunk of pension into something that might leave me fuming isn't clever for folks with dodgy hearts!


Hi again, Mike. A note or two in response to your reply:

I don't disagree with your points about mass published books and exhibits being satisfying in the sense of getting greater exposure for one's work. But the fact is there is an extremely small likelihood that most photographers will ever become connected enough to be invited to mount a significant exhibit, let alone have a traditional photo book published.

I was speaking about everyone who toils as hard but isn't as fortunate. Even if so-called vanity books don't serve the purpose of increasing (or confirming) one's renown, they do give a sense of personal satisfaction that, say, throwing the work up on Instagram does not. There is a tactile pleasure in books that resonates with anyone who remembers when the dominant way of viewing photographs wasn't via digital sharing. Why should only the best-known photographers get to enjoy that?

I have long felt that the primal point of creating art is not to gain recognition (although that always feels good) but rather that the act of creating is itself the end as well as the means.

This was an excellent and poignant article.

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