Here at the Photographer’s Gallery in London, I recently picked up “The Photobook: A History Volume III” by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. I’d heard about the book before (the previous 2 volumes) but never had the chance to actually sit down, crack one open, and analyze it.
Apparently the first volume was much more chronological in terms of documenting the history book, and Volume II was more focused on lesser-known photography books.
Parr and Badger have (funny enough) been accused of manipulating the photography book market by featuring some photography books (that are obviously in their collection). However I think this is utterly ridiculous to say — they are just trying to bring light to books they think is great (which unfortunately also happens to make these books more demanded). But then again, if they never wrote the photo book history series, nobody would even know about the book anyways.
I’ve been thinking a lot about photography books — and sometimes I feel on the edge in terms of their importance and value.
For me (personally), I think the image is everything. I am a lot less sentimental about photography books in terms of how they are constructed, what paper they use, and the print quality. I find the greatest insight through photography books through how emotionally the photographs feel, the editing, and the sequencing.
For this reason, I have really enjoyed downloading some photography books on the iPad. Carl DeKeyzer’s “Zona” (read my review), Christopher Anderon’s “Capitolio”, Elliott Erwitt’s “Personal Best” are all great books that translate well into the iPad. The photographs are sharp, crisp, backlit, and they are a lot cheaper to download, store, and carry (than a traditional photography book).
But at the same time — I do love the experience of reading a physical photography book. I know that if I am looking at a photography book on an iPad (or some other device) I might get distracted to check Facebook, Twitter, my email, or something else.
There is a great beauty about a physical photography book— because that is all you focus on. There is nothing to get distracted from. Suddenly all the noise of the outside world shuts up (and all those little social media notifications) — and you become fully immersed into a book.
I think experiencing a photography book is very much like being sucked into a film. It is a pretty deep sensory experience too (because you are holding a physical book, smelling the pages, feeling the texture of the paper, and holding a different sized book). Even though I did mention I am not the most sentimental person when it comes to the texture and construction of a book, it is still something that is absolutely lovely to inspect and experience.
Why I’m writing this article
I hope to publish a photography book soon in the future. I wish to publish more photography books that are personal (snapshots of my travels, adventures with Cindy and my family), and more serious “artistic books” (my “Suits” project, and any other random projects).
Before stumbling upon this book, there are very few definitive resources on the philosophy, construction, and meaning of photography books. I started this research journey to better understand the photography book — for both personal reasons (and also to hopefully help you, my dear reader, as well).
I am certainly not an expert of photography books. Far from it. Even though I have made a nice library of photography books that make me happy, I still have huge holes in my knowledge. That is why I am grateful to Martin Parr and Gerry Badger for compiling this book together (apparently Parr has one of the biggest personal photography book collections, if not the biggest, in the world).
Photography books vs. the Internet
I think the Internet is revolutionizing how we publish, share, and distribute photographs. The beauty is the democratic approach— anyone can see the images in beautiful high-definition quality.
The downside though is that I think social media focuses too much on the single image. Projects aren’t as easily viewed online (unless you have them in a Facebook album, or on a website portfolio). We live in the Instagram “instant gratification” generation, where we want to see single images that stimulate our eyeballs, and to just double click them to give them little hearts.
I think many of us (myself included) have limited attention spans (that are only getting worse from the internet). We don’t have the patience to look at multiple photos— and interpret them as a series. We are like crack junkies— we need our next hit of strong single-images via Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, etc.
While it is possible to show series on social media (I actually find Tumblr the best for ‘mini-series’) — I think a strong project or series ranges from 20–50 images), which is best viewed either on an online portfolio or (preferably) a book.
The benefit of photography books
Photography books have many advantages over photography on the internet (or seen on devices). Here are a few:
- Unlimited battery life (paper doesn’t require a constant charge)
- Great smooth and 3D page-flip transitions
- Depth (texture of paper, size of book, materials used)
- Archive-ability (you will be able to read a photography book in 1,000 years — will your Flickr account still be around?)
- Physicality (I think as humans we still have an emotional affinity to physical objects, over the digital)
We are lucky to be photographers in today’s era
There is no other time in history as great as now. There is no better time in history to be a photographer than now.
We have access to phenomenal cameras. We have ISO’s that can shoot up to 12,800 (or even more) — just imagine photographers shooting Kodachrome on ISO 64.
We have access to print-on-demand (services like Blurb). We no longer need to dish out $10,000 of our own money to see a few hundred copies of our photography book being made.
We have access to designers, editors, and collaborators from all around the world (via social media).
We have cheap modes of transportation and travel. Flights keep getting cheaper (I recently flew a one-way from Oakland airport [near San Francisco] to Stockholm for only $250 USD). We can go on road trips quite easily, and people in Europe can travel through the E.U. a lot easier as well.
Don’t fantasize about being a photographer in the 1950’s or 1970’s. Things were much more difficult then— and there is still a lot of unpaved ground in photography. The best time to be a photographer is now.
Why work on a photography book?
I think with today’s access to the Internet, computers, iPads, and social media— publishing a photography book seems a bit old-fashioned and pointless.
However I think there are many benefits to working on a photography book:
- Focus: Working on a photography book gives you a concrete goal with your work.
- Excitement: I think working on a book also is a lot of fun. You can decide how many photos to include, how to edit and sequence it, what kind of paper to use, the format of the book, etc. A lot more fun than just hitting “Upload” on Facebook.
- Challenge: I think working on a long-term project or a series is a lot more challenging (and therefore rewarding) than uploading single-images to social media. I think this challenge pushes us as photographers, and helps us grow and develop.
I also personally like the idea that a photography book is a legacy— something you can pass down to your children, and they will pass down to their children, and so-forth.
I doubt we will pass our hard-drives down to our children.
Photography books for yourself (versus others)
I think one of the main lessons I’ve learned from studying the The Photobook: A History Volume III is that first of all, a photography book should be personal (for yourself). I don’t think we should get into making a photography book to become famous, or sell a lot of copies, to become famous— whatever. Most photographers go into massive amounts of debt publishing books (if they are lucky they break-even). They put their lives and souls into making photography books, because it is their life’s passion.
If other photographers happen to also like their books, it is just an added bonus (not a necessity).
Lessons I’ve Learned From The Photobook: A History Volume III
Now moving forward, I would like to share some (additional) lessons I’ve learned from analyzing the text and the books from the history of the photo book:
1. Snobbery against self-publishing
I think there tends to be a snobbery against self-publishing (especially with new print-on-demand services like Blurb). They aren’t seen as “legitimate” (as if you got a traditional publisher to make your photography book).
I think that is bullshit. Many photography books are still “self-published” by printing in cheaper places such as China, without the aid of a traditional publisher. Then the photographer him/herself has to do the designing and marketing of the book (instead of getting a Thames and Hudson to publish and promote the book).
Many of the photography books featured in the photo book history were self-published (many by students).
I think ultimately it doesn’t matter if a photography book is self-published, printed-on-demand. What matters the most in a photography book is the content, the thought, the editing, the sequencing, the emotional, and the significance to the viewer.
Martin Parr and Gerry Badger delve more into “on-demand” printing and the benefits that it offers (mainly that they are a ‘reasonable cost’):
“There’s also an exciting new phenomenon to be considered: the advent of graphic-designed computer programs, of digital and ‘on demand’ printing, has meant that photographers have every means to make their own photo books at a reasonable cost. There was an element of the self-published in many books from previous eras, when some photo book publishers demanded financial input from their potential authors, and this is still the case today.”
The concept of the self-published book isn’t new, it goes back to 1933. And some of the greatest photo books have been self-published:
“Real self-publishing, where the photographer designs, prints, and distributes the book by him or herself, is one of the fastest growing areas in the field. Many of the books in this volume have been self-published in one way or another, going right back to a Palestinian protest book from 1933 featured in Chapter 2, which is the earliest book we include here.”
Parr/Badger also touch upon the only difference between a self-published photography book and one backed by a publisher is a matter of ’gestation and birth’. The most important part of a photography book is content and quality:
“Other than the singular sensibilities of its author, the self-published photo book is distinguished from the ‘regular’ photo book only in the matter of its gestation and birth. Here, we are primarily interested in content and quality, and in this regard many self-published photo books look exactly the same as those produced by publishing firms. Publishing oneself has proliferated, but it is not a genre, nor, as we have said, it is particularly new. Indeed, it may be remembered from Volume 1 that the very first photo book was not only self-published, but essentially handmade by its author.
One of the main critiques of self-published books is that they add a lot more “bad” photo books into the market.
But then again, there has always been “bad” art out there. There has always been “bad” photography out there. Sure it wasn’t as easily visible, but it was still out there (“bad” photography isn’t just a modern-day phenomenon).
One part that Parr/Badger touched upon is the idea that everyone has an “unalienable right” to publish even a “bad” photo book:
“The self-published photo book is certainly a phenomenon that is exponentially increasing the quantity of photographic books in the world, but many believe that the trend has simply increased the number of bad books. Then again, it is everyone’s unalienable right to publish a bad photo book, and this right is certainly not confined to the ‘independent’ sector of photo book publishing.
Don’t feel guilty, bad, or feel that your ego is hurt by self-publishing.
There are certain reasons why you might want to publish a book with a traditional publisher. The reasons include having help designing, printing, and marketing the book. However if you can do these on your own, you don’t need the backing of a traditional publisher.
Furthermore, the cost of self-publishing (especially if you print-on-demand) it is a lot more affordable. If your goal as a photographer is to have your photography book reach the largest amount of hands as possible (given your personal financial means), self-publishing is always a great option.
There are many advantages/disadvantages of self-publishing versus having the backing of a traditional publisher. It is also true (I think) that still— the print quality of a traditional publisher still trumps most self-published books, and Blurb books.
However services like Blurb’s print quality is still getting better as time goes on— and I am sure within the next few years the print quality will be not as easily distinguishable from a traditional publisher.
So ultimately— whether you want to go the self-published or traditional-publisher backed route, it is a personal decision. But there are no excuses. You have no excuses in terms of gatekeepers that prevent you from publishing your own book. Just make the best damn book you can, that touches your heart and soul.
2. What makes a successful photo book?
One of the main questions I had personally for myself was this: what distinguishes a successful photo book from a “bad” photo book?
The photographer John Gossage shares some insights:
“Firstly, it should contain great work. Secondly, it should make that work function as a concise world within the book itself. Thirdly, it should have a design that complements what is being dealt with. And finally, it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest.”
So to break it down, a photography book should include:
- Great work: If the individual photos in the book aren’t interesting or good— no amount of fancy printing, binding, and sequencing is going to help it.
- Book is a world in itself: Meaning, you shouldn’t need any external references (from outside the book itself) to support it.
- Design that complements the content: If you’re doing a project on large-format urban landscapes shot on an 8×10 camera, it probably wouldn’t make sense to print it in a tiny book. You need a physically bigger book for people to appreciate the quality of your large-format images. If your book has primarily horizontal/landscape photographs, it would probably make more sense to publish the book in that format (not vertical/portrait orientation). If a book is more based on a personal diary-mode, perhaps the book itself should feel personal (maybe include a slip-cover made out of cardboard or something).
- Content with on-going interest: Essentially the content of the book should be timeless— the images should be as interesting today as they are 100 years from now. The best books are the ones that generally stick around for a long time.
In addition, Parr/Badger also emphasize that what makes a great photography book is that there is an extra dimension and purpose of the book (rather than just showcasing it):
“Our primary test in the first two volumes for the most successful photo books was that they were always ‘about’ something other than a showcase for the photographer’s work.
What they mean by that is this: A photography book isn’t just something that shows off your photographs. Otherwise you can just upload it to Facebook. A photography book should have an added layer of meaning: through the way you format the images on the pages, through the pairing you create on opposite spreads, through the texture of the paper or material you print it on, and the experience of the photographs.
A photography book isn’t just a gallery of your best photographs. It should be an experience.
Also the problem of a photography book is that once it is published, you can’t change it. You can’t go back and edit it.
So when you publish your photography book, make sure you do it to the best of your ability— and do it well.
3. Photo books serving a social purpose
He who lives his life for himself is truly dead to others. We are social beings, we are made for one another.
When it comes to photography books, I think we should avoid doing books that are self-gratuitous (doing them to just purely please ourselves). I think ultimately if we are the only ones who are going to ever see the photo book— it is a waste. I think you need to show a photography book to at least 1 other person (than yourself).
Making books for others
Parr/Badger talk about the different genres of photography books, and they still privilege documentary photography— as they see it having a much deeper purpose and meaning than conceptual or artsy-fartsy books:
“We are not advocating documentary photography as the only valid photographic genre, but we do privilege it to some extent— and we certainly are taking a stand against the narrowness of ‘photography for its own sake.’
Let us delve more into the concept of photography books having a social purpose. Here is a great passage on the importance of social photography by Lincoln Kirstein:
“The real photographer’s other services, services which take the greatest advantage of his particular medium and invoke its most powerful effect, are social. The fact is our homes and times, shown surgically without the intrusion of the poet’s or the painter’s comment or unnecessary distortion, are the unique contemporary field of the photographer, whether in static print or moving film. It is for him to fix and show the whole aspect of our society, the sober portrait of its stratifications, their backgrounds and embattled contrasts.”
On documenting contemporary life
Some of the books analyzed in this volume have been photo books that document contemporary life. These photographers photograph the world around them— trying to find meaning and understand society through their images. Parr/Badger explain:
“The best photographers have always photographed contemporary life and the world around them. The best will continue to do so. As far back as 1938, Lincoln Kirstein wrote that pictorials and commercialism were ruining photography, and castigated photographers who try to obfuscate or improve the stark realities revealed by the camera.”
Every photograph we take is historical. When you make an image, it instantly becomes a historical document — as you are just capturing a single moment (that will once pass after you click the shutter):
“This is not a question of genre, style, or approach but comes from the realization that this is what photography does best. The camera creates images that are instantly historical, tied to a moment.”
Furthermore, there is a social purpose to photography. Photographs influence our thoughts, emotions, and actions:
“Photography is at the service of many interests and disciplines, from astrology to Zionism, and they all use the camera to record, collect, confirm, indict and persuade. The medium is a vast repository of facts and opinion about society.”
One of my favorite quotes from Robert Hughes in the book emphasizes the importance of having social impact through our photos:
“If art doesn’t say anything about the world we live in, I wonder whether it’s worth having it.”
Documenting society through urban landscapes
I have been quite interested in urban-landscapes recently, especially the “New Topographics” school of photography. These photographers are photographing the human condition through the man-made urban environment we live in.
The benefit of photographing urban landscapes is that they seem less “judgmental” of society (than just photographing poverty or homeless people). But they still pack a lot of emotion, mood, and challenge us to think about our role and spot in society.
“If concern and sentimentality are problems, they can be mitigated by another kind of ‘cool’ — not cool in a knowing, hip sense, but in terms of a calm, intellectual emotional distance. this can be found in the ‘nonjudgmental’ tone of the highly influential New Topographical mode, which remains a widely used tool for exploring society in a reasoned way. […] Landscape and environmental issues, for example, seem to demand the more measured tones and psychological distance of the New Topographical approach.”
A lot of photography books also have been focused on documenting consumerism/globalization. Martin Parr does this very well, in his books, “The Last Resort”, “Small World”, “Common Sense”, “Luxury”, and many others.
“Two other topics, very much interlinked that have been of increasing concern to photo book makers in recent years— consumerism and globalization. As the world becomes more homogenized, a somewhat restricted photographic style seems the ideal way to comment upon it. Following an example like Lars Tunbjork’s ‘Office’, a whole slew of recent books have investigated the soullessness of the modern workplace and shopping mall.
I think one of the best things to photograph is contemporary issues. This includes globalization, Internet addiction, the soullessness of the office environment, our addiction to consumerism and products, and obsession with wealth and fame.
Being transparent when photographing people
I think as street photographers, our primary concern is photographing people. But there are often a lot of ethical questions that loom.
One solution? Photograph in a totally open and transparent way. Collaborate with your subjects more in making images (Alec Soth does this really well).
In ‘Finlandia’ by Jouko Lehtola — he engaged with his subjects, became more of an insider, and was very intimate and transparent with his photography:
“Few photographers attain the intensity of Diane Arbus when making portraits, by Lehtola did. And he did so because he was always engaged. He felt of this subjects, whether outsiders, people with problems, or natural nonconformists. He himself was a nonconformist, a real ‘in yer face’ photographer and unapologetic about it. Whether photographing people, places, or interiors, this attitude was transparent. Finlandia burns with a passion that almost amounts to rage.”
Below are some photos from “Finlandia”:
Exploring “documentary story-telling”
One type of photography style/book concept is “documentary story-telling”, which Jim Goldberg does well. Parr/Badger analyze his book: ‘Open See’ and how he is able to make a much more radical and collaborative method in making a photography book.
Goldberg is interested in making a multi-media story and narrative, and has his subjects interact with him. They write on the images, and he combines other objects and images to complement this story. Parr/Badger expand:
“This important work takes Goldberg’s collaborative methods to a new high, whereby he incorporates text (getting his subjects to write on the images in his unusual manner) and combining his photographs with other ephemera—Polaroids, video stills, found imagery, hand-written texts— in order to allow those he photographed a say both in the making of the work and in the construction of the story. And he himself contextualizes the portraits that form the book’s core with street scenes, interiors, and landscapes.
Furthermore, what makes Goldberg’s books so strong is that his books are very complex— and not only try to find meaning and identity in his subjects, but also himself. He asks a lot of questions, and presents many different views:
“In his familiar style of ‘documentary storytelling’, Goldberg is at the fore of a recent tendency: the desire to make a multi-layered, multi-media narrative that is not only complex and searching but also self-questioning. Indeed, asking questions is perhaps more important than trying to answer them. Goldberg is also concerned, as he freely admits, with making photographs that are radical aesthetically. The result, exemplified beautiful in ‘Open See’, is not just one story but a number of inter-linked stories, not just a monocular point of view but a number of points of view, none of which attempts to cancel the others out.”
You can’t please everybody
Regardless of how good your photography book is, you can never please 100% of people. There will always be people who either don’t appreciate your photography book, don’t understand it, or just hate it.
For example in the book ‘Port Glasgow’ by Mark Neville, he collaborated with the community, invited his subjects to make a collaborative effort in putting together images and the book.
Mark Neville spent a year as an artist-in-residence in Clyde Estuary town— and when the book was published, he gave it directly to 8,000 homes in the town (members of local football team delivered it). It wasn’t intended to be published for the public, he wanted to do it just for the community. However some copies of the book have slipped onto eBay and now go for thousands of dollars.
But anyways getting back to the point— even though that Mark Neville has great intentions with his photography book (getting the community involved)— there were still many members from the community that hated the book, and actively boycotted it:
“Despite Neville’s care, the book still aroused controversy. While most thought it a fair reflection of the community, there were dissenters. There were too many images of pubs and drinking, some complained. In a very West of Scotland reaction, some Protestants burnt their copies at the back of a local Catholic Club citing a perceived pro-Catholic bias in Neville’s representation of the community— a false accusation, as it turned out.”
The takeaway? You cannot please all the people all the time. And also remembering that there is no objective “truth” in photography— reality will always be created by the photographer.:
“All this goes to show that photographers cannot please all of the people all of the time. More importantly, it demonstrates that any photographic survey is partial and tendentious: ultimately, the control is with the person wielding the camera.”
Capturing photos via a ‘diaristic’ mode
Another approach in photographing society has been via the “diaristic mode”— which is a much more personal approach:
“We are about to argue, the so-called ’diaristic mode’ has become an extremely important approach in modern photography, and we have given it much consideration, while at the same time hopefully distinguishing the diaristic photo books that look beyond their authors’ egoistic self-absorption from those tiresome volumes that merely indulge it.”
The difference between the “diaristic mode” of photography from other approaches is that they deal with cultural and personal identity, and is much more intimate:
“This trend, a turning inward of photographic expression, was made obviously manifest in the diaristic mode that became such a feature of the 1970’s photography and has led directly not only to the kind of photographs posted on the internet, but also to the self-publishing movement. It has led to different photographic issues becoming important, such as cultural and personal identity and has intensified the role of photography in evoking both personal and collective memory. […] In some quite unexpected areas, photography has become personal.”
For example some of the best practitioners of the “diaristic mode” include photographers that photograph their own lives, people close to them, places they grew up or currently live, and their life experiences. Some photographers that fall into this camp include Daido Moriyama, Anders Petersen, and JH Engstrom.
Understanding society in a personal way
Many young photographers are also making books for personal means— to understand life and the society around them:
“In the past decade a new generation of documentary photographers has directed the documentary approach towards more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy— almost an affection— for the imperfections and frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as a source of all wonder and fascination and value— no less precious for being irrational.”
Photograph not just for yourself— but also for others. You can better learn more about yourself, your personal identity, and society through a more documentary style.
I think the documentary/personal approach is one of the best ways to make a meaningful photography book— and this can be done through street photography which is much more personal to you.
3. Photographing places
Another main type of photography book that is made is based on place. You can imagine this as photographing your own neighborhood, photographing a place (when you travel), or just any certain area.
Photographing place can be generalized as starting off more as “tourist” photos. Many exotic places were photographed because they transplanted people into new and foreign places. People would live vicariously through National Geographic— experiencing all these exotic places from all around the world. This would give people a sense of wonderment— and excitement about the world around them.
Parr/Badger talk more about how some of the earliest photo books were essentially “travel albums” — and photographed a “sense of place” of different locations. The greatest gift was transporting the viewer to an exotic place, as they explain:
“Photographing place, like photographing people, is fundamental. Many of the first photo books of the mid-nineteenth century were travel albums, essentially replacing or supplementing earlier topographical painting. They consisted of photographic views of faraway and exotic locations, and were made — once photography had progressed from an amateur pastime to a professional business— to be sold to tourists or to those back home unable to travel. Photography transplanted people.
I think photography is a unique medium— because it makes someone feel like they are really somewhere. If you have never been to Istanbul— you can see photos of Istanbul and get a glimpse of what it feels like to be there. Of course you can never get the full-experience of being somewhere (without actually being there)— but photography comes pretty close.
So know that the power of doing a photography book based on a place can transplant your viewer to a different location mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
I think one of the most underrated types of photography is photographing your home. I can personally attest to this— that it is very difficult to photograph a place that is very familiar to you. We get accustomed to routine, and when our homes and neighborhoods look routine— we have no excitement or interest in photographing it.
But at the same time, the great benefit of photographing your own home or neighborhood is that you know it better than anybody else. A great example of a photographer who was able to document his own city well is William Eggleston.
If you live in a “boring” neighborhood or environment— you actually have an added benefit— that what you are photographing is much more unique.
For example, if you try to do a street photography book on New York City, you have to compete against all the great street photographers who have done work on NYC such as William Klein, Bruce Gilden, Garry Winogrand, and many other master street photographers.
But if you photograph your own neighborhood, it is far less likely that anybody else has photographed it. This instantly makes your projects more unique.
Furthermore, although it may feel restrictive to photograph your home— I think it is that restrictions which breed creativity.
Even Parr/Badger say that the best photographers are the ones that can photograph their own home and environment well:
“Photography at home, although seemingly restrictive, tends to bring out the best in photographers (in the best photographers, that is) since they have such personal and profound connections to their subject.”
You can’t fake emotion and connection. If you have a personal connection to your home and environment— the photographs with ooze with emotion and soul.
Make it personal. Photograph home as an idea for a project and book.
One interesting projects in terms of photographing “home” is from Todd Hido in his book ‘House Hunting’. Parr/Badger describe the project:
“House hunting is the first activity faced by any young people, but Hido is also referring to the photographic process. In ‘House Hunting’, he is stalking suburbia, scouting around for house images that, in their menacing aspects, are the antithesis of the suburban dream peddled by glossy magazines and the property industry.”
I know a lot of street photographers who live in suburban environments— and complain that there is nothing interesting to photograph.
Perhaps we can take a piece of inspiration from Todd Hido— who would just drive around suburban neighborhoods and photograph homes in a very beautiful way. In a sense they feel cold and alienating (with lots of cold-toned shots with fog)— but there is always a sense of warmth inside (warm colors inside the windows).
I definitely recommend you to check out more of Todd Hido’s work online and in books, he also has some very introspective interviews on YouTube.
Photographing a place “neutrally”
When we photograph a place, we can do it in a more “neutral” style— as was done in the “New Topographical style”. Most of the shots in this school of thought were on tripods, shot with 8×10 large-format or medium-format cameras.
These photographs tend to have tons of detail of the urban environment, nice color combinations (Steven Shore’s “Uncommon Places” are lovely), or have a starker feel:
“The cool rhetoric of the New Topographical style, feigning neutrality, can be effective both for questioning and for framing indictments. It remains the most widespread approach for photographers documenting place. The full title of the seminal 1975 exhibition was “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape”. Not only was the show influential aesthetically; it also set the agenda for what photographers photographed. Following ‘New Topographics’, it became de rigger to photograph the landscape as acted upon by humankind rather than as an unspoiled wilderness.”
The most interesting point about the urban landscape is that the environment of a place changes dramatically how we live, think, feel, and interact with one another.
If you are interested in urban landscapes, definitely check out the photographers in the book: “New Topographics”.
One of the interesting things through photographing places is that photographers can express their sense of concern (either with an individual neighborhood, or the planet at large):
“But the photography of place has become much more complex and critical in the hands of many contemporary photographers. Whether they are examining their own lives and exploring their neighborhoods and homes, or whether they are concerned in the broader sense with the problems of urban development or the well-being of the planet itself, landscape photography and the photography of place remains a vital area of concern for many of today’s leading photographers.”
I think people often think of landscapes as being unattached and cold— but the best ones are the ones that challenge us in terms of social responsibility.
One of the most ambitious projects to-date (in my opinion) has been Sebastian Salgado’s “Genesis” — in which he is literally photographing the whole world. I think it was a little too ambitious (it was a bit too broad in terms of subject matter)— but he really shows his love, empathy, and concern for the planet and the future of human civilization.
Make photographs that show that you are concerned— that you care about a certain place. Make it emotional— and have a personal connection.
4. Looking at Ourselves: The photo book and identity
One of the strongest types of photography books are the ones that explore ourselves— our own identity. These photography books show a sense of yearning— a sense of searching for who these photographers are. They try to find a sense of personal meaning through their photography.
We will explore some more of these concepts of identity (and photo books) below:
The “Diaristic Mode” vs. “Individual and Collective Identity”
In analyzing the trends when it comes to personal photography— Parr and Badger explore two approaches: “Diaristic Mode” vs. “Individual and Collective Identity” — which is further explained below:
“Two distinct trends emerged in photography. Firstly, there was the diaristic mode— photographers using the medium to make a ‘diary’ of their lives and experiences, not simply to make autobiographical images but utilizing personal photography to reflect society’s experiences through their own. Secondly, the question of identity—both individual and collective—became an important subject for photographers and the photo book.”
The Diaristic Mode
This is a mode where photographers make a “diary” of their life and experiences. This is a very personal way to make photos, as the subject matter, which is often the most relevant to us (is our own lives).
Identity: Individual and Collective
We also make our photographs personal by searching for our individual identity (who are we, where do we belong in society) and searching for collective identity (what does it mean to be an American, and what are our cultural values).
Both the individual and collective identity synthesize to give us a deeper meaning of “self”.
The “Snapshot” aesthetic in capturing identity
The benefit of shooting with compact cameras is that they are always with us (easy to put in our pocket), and also they allow us to quickly capture moments (we can just point-and-click, without worrying about technical settings).
Therefore a lot of these personal photographs tend to look like “snapshots”— because they are.
Generally a “snapshot” tends to be looked down upon. It is seen as not as “serious” as a more traditional photograph that is framed meticulously.
But a photographer trying to make a personal diary isn’t so interested in composition, and fancy technical settings. They are more interested in capturing raw emotion— moments, and their life experiences. And by making their photographs just look like snapshots, they feel much more intimate and personal.
Parr/Badger briefly touches upon the “snapshot aesthetic” below:
“We wrote about Nan Goldin’s ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ in Volume II, but one of its salient features was the use of an exalted snapshot aesthetic, a popular mode for books dealing with personal identity.”
Questions of identity
“Know thyself” is what the ancient Romans taught us.
One of the things that we search for as human beings is understanding our human condition— the search for meaning, purpose, and love in our lives.
So many of these photography books are concerning identity— primarily self-identity. We want to better understand who we are, where we belong in society, and our life’s purpose.
Parr and Badger expand below:
“Whether diary or confession, all this is bound up with questions of identity. Who am I? What am I? And how does this affect my life, and the lives of those I care about? For every photo book dealing with the broader issues affecting society, there are possibly two exploring identity and the channeling of the political through the personal— especially in the era of the Internet and social media.”
Asking a lot of questions about ourselves through photography gives us a deeper sense of meaning.
Photography often gives us structure to our lives as well— and the photography book can also give us a structure in our life’s experiences.
Photographing the identity of others
Another concept that I found fascinating in Parr/Badger’s book is that concept that in photographing others— we are essentially photographing ourselves.
Photographing the identity of others can often be a way of understanding our own identity.
Parr and Badger elaborate:
“It could be argued that photographers exploring the identity of others are also concerned with their own identity— the idea of the portraitist frequently being also a self-portraitist. Patrick Bachmann’s interest in the Chinese, and especially in the North African immigrant community in France, stems from his own identity as a Jew with a mother of North African origin.”
Another example I can think of is Richard Avedon. Towards the end of his life, he started to photograph a lot of death— either through photographing skulls, photographing the elderly, or photographing those with terminal illnesses (like his father).
Avedon was able to deal with and explore his own identity and mortality through photographing others. In this sense, he made his photography very personal— exploring himself through others.
Also realize that the photographs you shoot in the street are often less about the people in the street— and more about yourself.
For example, the days that I am in a shitty and depressed mood— I tend to see more depressed and lonely looking people in the streets. It is a way for me to empathize with other human beings— but also deal with my own emotions.
The days that I am feeling more upbeat and energetic, I tend to photograph more happy-looking people in the street, joy, and love. I interact more with my subjects. I am more personal.
So know that your mental state, your identity is explored by photographing others.
The Road Trip and Identity
I think many of us dream of doing a photography-based road trip. Personally for me, taking road trips has been an amazing way to discover who I am— by having lots of time to think to myself (driving across America takes a long time), being away from home (contemplating how I feel about home), and also this idea of going on a journey of self-exploration.
Parr/Badger shares how many photographers use a road trip as a strategy to explore personal/cultural identity:
“[In Federic Lezmi’s ‘Beyond Borders’ (2009)] his book is a vibrant road trip, a popular strategy for a book about identity, where the search along the highway can become not only a search for cultural, but also personal identity, a journey of self-analysis as well as documentary analysis.”
I often think this is the main benefit of travel: it puts you in a totally unfamiliar environment, in which you are challenged to think about who you are, your position to others in society, and have time to reflect.
So know that if you are going to work on a photography book, going on a road trip is often a great strategy. Some famous photography books on the road trip include Stephen Shore’s “Uncommon places”, Joel Sternfeld’s “American Prospects”, and Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” There is also a great book that has recently been published on road trips (highly recommended): “The Open Road: Photography and the American Roadtrip”.
5. The Photographic Book and Memory
One of the last main type of photography books include memory. This can include personal memories (past life experiences), cultural memories (what Czechoslovakia used to look like before World War II), and documenting any sort of memories.
A lot of street photographers tend to be nostalgic. Whenever I look at the romantic black and white photos of Paris, I kind of wish I was there— and explored the streets when everything “seemed” to be much more interesting back then.
Personally the main reason I started to take photographs was because I had a fear of forgetting. I have always had a horrible memory as a child (just ask my mom how many thermoses and jackets I lost at school).
I got my first digital camera (Canon point-and-shoot) when I was 18 years old, just about to enter college. The first month was incredible: I took nearly 1,000 photos a day— because I marveled at the ability to capture slices of my everyday experiences, and make them eternal.
Of course when I entered college I also started to document my memories extensively. I knew I was only going to experience college once in my life— and I didn’t want to have any regrets not taking more photographs.
But at the same time, why are we so obsessed about memories? They have come and past — and there is no way we can literally hold onto them. Sure we can reminisce on the past, but we can’t make the past come back again.
I think ultimately the reason we are so interested in documenting memory is that it is a way for us to escape the anxiety and depression we may experience in our current lives (we look at nostalgia in the past, when things used to be “better”).
It can also be the fact that we fear our mortality. We know that we are going to die one day, but perhaps the act of photographing our world and our experiences can make those moments, emotions, and experiences immortal.
Regardless the “why” of photographing memories— we do it. And to expand below— this is how some photographers have captured memories through photography books:
A lot of photography is documenting the present moment. But the irony is once we click the shutter (and 1/125th of a second has passed), the moment has already become history. Susan Sontag explains this concept below in her book, ‘On Photography’:
“As soon as the camera shutter is clicked, a photograph is already history, a memory of some kind. The photographic medium can be about the present, sometimes the future but mostly is about the past. ‘All photographs are moments mori’”
Therefore remember: photography is mostly about the past.
Photography as false memory
We make a lot of photographs to record our “memories”. But the question is: How authentic are these “memories”?
A lot of current research into the scientific mechanisms of memory show that our memory is fallible. There have been many studies in which experimenters fool test subjects into having fake memories.
For example, there was a study in which a person who was a witness to a car crash was asked “How violently quickly was the car moving when it hit the tree?” vs. “How slowly was the car moving when it hit the tree?” Just phrasing these two questions differently caused the witnesses to report around 20 mile/per-hour differences. This is just the phrasing.
So this study supports the concept that our memories are fallible and not 100% accurate.
So bringing this concept to photography— how reliable are our memories of past events, simply from photographs?
Parr/Badger explore this conundrum:
“Roland Barthes, argued that a photograph is not a memory but rather a false memory, or a somewhat unreliable mnemonic by which memory is evoked: ‘Not only is the Photograph never, in essence a memory, but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter memory.’”
For example, let’s say you have a photo album of your family. The only photographs in the album are happy photos— of your family smiling and having a good time.
But that is in sense, a “false” memory. Because not all of your experiences with your family are happy. You have moments of despair, you have fights, you have conflicts. But your memories are simply filtered through the camera— by selecting certain moments (and curating those).
So realize that although photography does capture memories of the past— they are more glimpses, and fragments. They are never the 100% “truth”. Know this is a weakness of photography— and should also be considered when making a photography book.
Capturing “collective” memories
Photography books that deal with cultural memories (of the past) deal with “collective memories”. Meaning, individuals who look at photographs from the past might have a sense of how it was to be in the past— but they will never have a direct memory of it. Their memories are augmented from the memories of others. Parr/Badger explain:
“So anyone living through World War II will have personal and highly subjective memories of that conflict but will share a more generalized, collective memory with all those who are also experienced the period. Those born after the war obviously cannot have direct memories of it, but they have knowledge of it, a memorialized knowledge emanating from society’s collective memory of the period, enshrined in historical record and in cultural mythology.”
The purpose of making a photography book is for it to be seen by others. Nobody makes a photography book in a total vacuum— never intending anyone else to see it. Of course there may be a few exceptions, but I can confidently say that the vast majority of photographers make photography books with the intention of them being seen.
Therefore know that a purpose your photography book can make is to augment the memory of a place (culturally and historically) to younger generations.
For example, I hope one day when I have children of my own— I can share them photographs I made in the past. I can help them get a sense of a memory through the past— which is mediated through my own experiences.
A viewer will never get the full breadth of emotions and memories you have through the photos you make. However they can get glimpses of it.
To be self-indulgent is to do something only for yourself. Purely for yourself— with no intention of helping others.
I personally feel that this is extremely selfish, and is against the point of being a human being— which is to be social and political and engage with others.
Parr/Badger also make a strong point: that the best photo books are the ones that combine personal memories with cultural memories. This means that a photographer’s individual memories combine with the memories of a certain time and place— and therefore have a broader cultural significance:
“In the best memorializing photo books, personal memories tend to coalesce with cultural memories. This is what good photographers do. Otherwise, a book is in danger of being self-indulgent. The tendency that we have noted through this volume, the personalizing of photography, perhaps reaches its apogee in books dealing with memory, because memory is so bound up with who we are to ourselves, and ourselves alone. Even the idea of shared memories is often associated with the self-indulgent, the confessional, the complaining and the sentimental. The details of peoples’ lives are potentially subjects of endless fascination, but so much work of this type— the Facebook confessional mode, we might term it—fails to look beyond itself, and is therefore of limited interest.”
So know that ultimately photography books are meant to be seen and experienced by others. While you want your photography books to be personal, don’t make it in a vacuum— only about your experiences. Involve others, make it a collaborative process. Make sure that your personal memories can be relatable by others as well.
One great insight I had in terms of making a photography book is going back to the place where you grew up, and documenting the place.
In ‘From Back Home’ (2009) by photographers JH Engstrom and Anders Petersen, both photographers went back to Farmland (their hometown in the far west of Sweden). Both left this remote area at an early age and found themselves in Stockholm. Through this project, they were able to deal with memories from the past and present— using their personal lens as a filter:
“In this collaborative project, they made a number of journeys back there to document their homeland as it is today. Inevitably, the book became suffused with their youthful memories, so the whole work switches between past and present. Essentially, it documents Farmland today, dealing with pressing contemporary problems like rural depopulation and economic neglect. But this is filtered through the personal consciousness of both photographers, which throws in issues like regret, nostalgia, even a certain guilt at leaving.”
The reason I think ‘From Back Home’ works so well is the fact that it is jam-packed with emotion. There are certainly feelings of loneliness, longing, and nostalgia from the past— and you can see the dance that both photographers make in terms of resolving their personal feelings about their hometown.
So as a photography project idea: go back to your hometown, and document it. Visit the house you grew up in, the places you used to visit, and the people you knew. Give a sense of place of your hometown (currently), but also tie that in with your sense of nostalgia for the past.
Photographing memories as self-therapy
I have heard a lot of street photographers who shoot in the street because it is the best form of “self-therapy”. When everyday life is stressful and shitty— there is nothing more therapeutic than just going on a walk, bringing along your camera, and documenting whatever you see and find.
You get lost in the moment, you go into “the flow” — and all of your life’s problems tend to disappear.
Working on a photography book can also be a similar thing— it can be a way to resolve the past, feelings of regret, nostalgia, and internal issues.
In a book ‘Ved Doden’ — a photographer named Krass Clement photographs the death of his mother. Parr/Badger analyze the book:
“‘Ved Doden’ is about the death of Krass Clement’s mother, and is remarkable for its frankness and lack of sentimentality. The images of her post mortem, and in particular the final picture, of her cadaver being consumed in the crematorium chamber, are unforgettable. We cannot help but wonder about the photographer’s emotions when he made the pictures, but there are reasons why we need to make such pictures. Nostalgia, remembrance, closure, are some of them. A lot of them are necessary—the act of photographing as therapy and the exploration of important internal issues.”
I think that the best photographs are the most sentimental ones— the ones that speak to a photographer’s life experiences, his/her soul, and his/her emotions.
Photographing a project and a book on personal experiences, editing and sequencing it, is often a framework to better deconstruct one’s internal issues and problems. It can often act as a form of self-therapy, and closure.
6. On editing and sequencing a photo book
Unfortunately I did not find a lot of information regarding editing and sequencing photography books. But I did get this little gem from John Gossage regarding editing and sequencing:
“You can do exactly what you like. It’s all fiction anyways.”
This advice is not particularly “helpful” in a practical sense— but it does remind ourselves the nature of photography: it is all fiction.
I think there is little subjectivity in photography (if any at all). You decide how to frame a scene, how to meter it, whether to use a flash or not, when to take the photograph — you are the creator of a “false” reality.
I have also heard that the best way to sequence a book is that it is like poetry. There are no “rules” behind poetry— it goes more with your gut, your emotions, and your feeling.
Another method to edit and sequence a photography book is like a film. You can start a film with an opening shot (landscape establishing shot), then focus on close-ups, action-shots, the climax, and then the resolution.
With a photography book, you can also start off with strong images (to captivate a viewer’s attention— kind of how a good action film starts), and then disperse moments of extreme action and intensity with more quiet photos. You can see sequencing a photography book as having a flow and a certain cadence. Alternating between “strong” images and “quiet” images.
You can also make a photography book more “typographical” — meaning photographing certain subject matter. You can photograph only trees, only cars, only urban landscapes, only street portraits, and keep it consistent (only shooting in black and white and color).
You can make it more extreme— you can mix photographs of people with commonly found objects, you can mix in text, you can mix in textures. You can switch around all the colors with black and whites, and alternate sizes and orientations of the images. You can purposefully try to disorient the viewers by making it more random and complex in this way.
You can edit and sequence a book based on a fictional narrative. In Jason Eskenazi’s “Wonderland” — his narrative is seeing his journey in the former USSR as a fairytale. And you see the “princess” of the story being put into different situations, trials, and tribulations along the journey of the photography book.
You can pair certain images together. On the left and right side of the page, you can have photographs that are stylistically or subjectively similar. Or you can totally make them juxtaposed— to make them polar opposites.
Ultimately I think editing and sequencing a photography book isn’t a science. It is a personal choice and decision. Just like you can’t use grammar to explain a person’s poetry (to get to the essence of it), you can’t use structure and editing to explain a person’s photography project (or you risk missing the point).
If there is a certain photography book that you don’t “get” or appreciate— that is totally cool. Just know why you don’t like a certain photography project or book. Taste is ultimately subjective— and know what your tastes are, and cultivate them. No need to bash photography books you don’t like— just focus on the books you like.
For some of my personal recommendations, check out my list of my favorite street photography books.
Photography books are here to stay. Digital isn’t killing the photography book— the technology of self-publishing and social media is reviving it. Now anyone has the ability to publish his/her own photography book.
Of course the question is: How good do you want it to be? Who is your target audience? How much do you want your book to satisfy yourself, versus satisfy others?
What themes do your book deal with? Do they deal with a sense of place? Do they deal with your personal identity and life experiences? Do you want to photograph it in a very emotional, connected, and “diaristic” way— or do you want to be more detached in a “New Topographics” style?
How many pages do you want in your book? How do you want it edited and sequenced? What kind of paper do you want it? What orientation do you want it (square, portrait, landscape)? Do you want to keep it consistent (all black and white or color), or mix it up?
I think the ultimate form of expression of a photographer is the photo book. It is a document that will last for hundreds (if not thousands of years), which will not be outdated by PDF’s, iPads, etc. It is something you can pass down to your future children (and their children). It will be a relic that is a part of your life’s experiences. Your photo book will outlive you, and be immortal.
I encourage everyone to therefore start his or her own photography book— no matter how simple or ambitious. First of all, do it for yourself— do it to make yourself happy. Then aim to please others, and try to do it for a purpose larger than yourself.
The Photobook: A History
If you want to learn more about the history of the photobook, make sure to pick up a copy of each of the volumes of “The Photobook: A History”:
- The Photobook: A History Volume III
- The Photobook: A History Volume II
- The Photobook: A History Volume I
Articles on photography books
Below are some recommended reading related to photography books:
- 100+ Inspirational Street Photography Books You Gotta Own
- Buy Books, Not Gear
- On The Importance of Street Photography Books
Documentary on Photography Books
If you are going to look at the behind-the-scenes of making a photography book, don’t miss out “How to Make a Book with Steidl”
My Top 10 Favorite Street Photography Books
If you currently don’t own any photography books and want to start your own library, below are my top-10 favorite street photography books. These are the books I would take if my house were burning down (and I could only keep 10 books):
- Magnum Contact Sheets (read my review)
- Dan Winters: Road to Seeing (read my review)
- Bruce Davidson: Subway
- Alex Webb: The Suffering Of Light
- Josef Koudelka: Gypsies (read my review)
- William Eggleston: Chromes
- Robert Frank: The Americans (read my review)
- Martin Parr: The Last Resort (read my review)
- Jason Eskenazi: Wonderland (read the interview)
- Trent Parke: Minutes to Midnight (read my review)