I don’t know what it is that makes the world of photography so neurotic. Try to wrap your mind around it: here we have arguably the most popular — and important — medium there is, and everybody is intensely worried about something. A few years ago, an actual museum held a two-day symposium entitled Is Photography Over? And that was just the possibly most absurd tip of the massive iceberg of silliness.
There now is “post-photography,” whatever that’s supposed to be (don’t tell me, I don’t want to know). In parallel, the world of photojournalism is chasing its own tail like a rabid dog, trying to figure out how to possibly do a decent job in this new era (I have an article about manipulation forthcoming!), cultural theorists and/or commentators are writing long think pieces about how the selfie really amounts to the end of all civilization, etc. etc. etc.
Not to be outdone, the part of photoland dealing with photobooks is caught in spasms of being neurotic that make any of Woody Allen’s characters from when he still made good movies look positively well adjusted. I’m sure you are aware of all the “problems”: there are too many photobooks, and the market is too small, and collectors make everything too expensive, and there are too many prizes/awards, and it’s all too expensive, and it’s just a niche, and there are too many “best of” lists…
For crying out loud!
The sad reality is that people will complain about the (supposedly) select-few “gate keepers” and about there being “too many” “best of” lists at the end of each year. Well, which one is it now?
Is this really how we want to engage with what to me looks like an incredibly active and exciting way to use photographs, telling stories and then fairly easily and relatively cheaply sharing them with other people (who might live a continent away)? Where is all this neurotic anxiety coming from? I just don’t get it any longer.
I seriously think we would be a lot better off if we ditched large parts of all that bitching, moaning, and whining that’s so prevalent in the world of photobooks (or photography in general, but let’s stick with books for now), especially online.
Sure, photobooks come only in small editions, and they don’t sell to very large audiences. Have you ever talked to someone who, let’s say, self-published a book of poetry, though?
In much the same fashion, many of the supposed problems of photobooks just disappear once you put them into a perspective that’s not just created in that tiny bubble of photography. After all, here we are in a day and age where it’s relatively simple and easy for any photographer to publish their own photobook, and regardless of whether you see the fact that there are many books out there as a problem or not, I don’t think that’s something we should be eager to give up.
Almost two weeks ago, I gave a talk about photobooks in Warsaw (Poland). During the Q&A part, someone asked whether all photographers should make a photobook. The — for me — obvious answer was and still is: no. This question really is just a variant of what people would ask me around 2007/2008: do photographers need to have a blog? (Remember those days?)
What this all comes down to is the following. For a start, I personally don’t think that anyone should feel there is any sort of obligation to do what a lot of other people are doing (unless you think of yourself as a sheep, in which case just go ahead). The first reason for the existence of a photobook should be that it make sense for its maker.
There are many very well-known photographers who don’t seem to worry about photobooks at all. Their work lives in what essentially are catalogues, often published at the occasion of an exhibition. Sure, that’s a type of photobook, but it’s a very different beast (that you rarely see in any of the many shortlists of photobook awards). And I could easily make a case for the catalogue being a useful tool for a lot of photographers who don’t want to (or need to ) create other types of books. It really isn’t just a case of “good” vs. “bad.” We have to start moving on from those simplistic and infantilizing discussions concerning photobooks.
So: If it somehow doesn’t make sense for you to publish a photobook, for whatever reason, just don’t do it. It’s that easy. Problem solved.
I could further go through the list of supposed problems with photobooks one by one and offer alternative solutions. But I really want to approach the whole topic differently.
If you start thinking about it — forgetting about all those oh-so serious problems for a while, photobooks really are incredibly versatile and flexible beasts. They come in many shapes, sizes, editions, … Now, given that nobody is legally required to make a photobook, and given that if you wanted to publish a photobook you could literally do anything you want (as long as it fits the work), isn’t that the best possible situation to be in? Shouldn’t that trigger exactly that creative urge that photographers usually profess to be interested in?
In other words, if you have a problem with how things are being done by other people, find you own way! Show them! Do a better job! Solve the problems, instead of complaining about them! Problems, after all, are the very best thing that can happen to any creative person: problems require solutions, and finding solutions usually requires a fair amount of creativity and ingenuity.
Any of the books that received a lot of attention over the past few years in one way or another was created working against a set of limitations and problems. That’s actually why they were all so successful (artistically, I’m not talking about money here). In a recent article, Colin Pantall spoke about just that: “Photographers, designers, publishers, booksellers, everybody’s pushing the book form in a different way, and those ways are not always in the same direction. There’s a lot going on. What it all means is, as always, another question that neither I nor anybody else seems to have an answer to.” You’ll have to find the answers — that is a large part of the enjoyment coming out of making a photobook. It’s not about merely sticking pictures into some simple Indesign template.
So problems exist not to be bitched about, but to be solved, whatever your particular solutions might be. That’s what people actually are looking for. That’s why and how good photobooks stick out.
Thing is if you can’t muster the creativity and ingenuity required to solve the problems, I’m tempted to think you also don’t have it in your work. And really, maybe that’s the real problem?