Article main image

Last week, I wrote that I don’t look at photobooks to see photographs. I look at photobooks to encounter life. Of course, that’s not the entire story, because I also look at photobooks for the simple reason that I love books in general.

If I had to summarize what exactly I’m looking for, I would probably say that I’m am looking for photobooks with character. In the past, I used Tupperware containers as a metaphor for photobooks without character.

It would be a grave mistake to confuse a photobook’s character with its production value. There are a lot of publishers who produce high-production value photobooks that have no character whatsoever. Every book looks and feels like every other of their books, using the same drab design, the same production etc.

It would be a different mistake to equate character with flashiness. If in real life you walk around with a red nose and a bunch of bells and whistles, you’ll be taken for a clown. You could apply similar thinking to photobooks: character arises not from how many bells and whistles you add to your book. It arises from all choices made being solely in service of the book itself (the book, not the photographs: unless it’s a catalogue, a photobook is more than merely a collection of photographs).

The best photobook publishers manage to produce books with a lot of character, and that character is both a reflection of the publisher and the work that is contained in the books. This makes for a tricky balance because a publisher’s contribution should not drown out the work, while the production of the work needs to neatly fit in with the publisher’s catalogue.

Of course, character can mean many different things. But at its core sits the publisher’s dedication to their medium, combined with their willingness to push boundaries where they can and need to be pushed.

If you look at Nicola Nunziata — Ando, you’ll encounter a combination of all of the above. To begin with, the book doesn’t even look like a real book. It would be easy to mistaken it for a file folder (there are five different colours for the cover available).

Once you open the folder, you’ll encounter the “file”: a collection of six folded sheets of paper. There are five that have been folded twice and that are made to look as if they were the sheets you’d get from a printing press: they are stacked, there are crop marks, and at the top you can see CMYK patterns that might be used to ensure proper print quality.

Of course, the sheets could have arisen from larger sheets that were cut down to this smaller size. Whether or not that was the case does not matter. What does matter is that as a viewer, you’re made to feel as if you were encountering printed materials that have not gone through all steps of book production, yet.

If you look carefully, you’ll see page numbers on the sheets. If you open the first sheet, you’ll notice that due to the folding, there are two pages hidden inside. You’ll be going from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4, as you might expect. But the following sheet continues with 9.

As it turns out, the missing page numbers can be found on that first sheet. They continue there, meaning that if you insisted on looking at the book following the order dictated by page numbers — maybe because you’re a good German and you’ve been taught to always follow orders, you’d have to disassemble the stack of folded paper.

Lest you worry too much, there are small notes on the sheets that will help you re-assemble to object back to its original state.

On the various pages, you encounter what you could best describe as a visual inventory of places, objects, and printed materials that center on Ando Gilardi, an Italian photographer and photography researcher.

Nicola Nunziata — Ando follows a tradition established be artists such as, for example, Christian Boltanski. In the 1970s, Boltanski exhibited all possessions of a number of people, and there are books as well — visual catalogues. Boltanski is one of the underappreciated artists in the world of photography, especially given that his insight into what photography can and cannot do still is very relevant today (read The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski to find out more!).

But the book also follows its publisher’s own tradition. In 2009, Hans Gremmen (the mastermind behind FW:Books) and Jaap Scheren got together to produce a book called Fake Flowers In Full Colour. In a very playful and smart fashion, the book centers on how colour photographs are printed today, using colour separations, with CMYK serving as the baseline (you can add all kinds of extra colours if you want).

Bring together any one of Boltanski’s inventories (stripped of its idea of completeness), throw in some of the ideas used in Fake Flowers, and you have Ando. It certainly does not matter whether you know Boltanski’s work or the Gremmen/Scheren book.

That’s key to making a good photobook as well: even if ideas are related to earlier ones, you want to avoid making books for your clever in-crowd (that’s not only tedious, it also severely limits the size of your potential audience).

Thus, the publication will appeal to photobook geeks who will appreciate the production value and sheer cleverness of its concept, and it will appeal to anyone who is looking for an engaging and visually delightful publication.

And everybody gets challenged in an equal fashion, because, after all, what’s the deal with all those unbound pages? How do you even look at this? Is there a right way? Or is that for you to figure out?

All of that can be had for € 18,35 (however much that might be in your local currency, should your country not use Euros). Which only proves that it is possible to produce incredibly engaging and smart photobooks without asking your audience to fork over a lot of money.


Ando; photographs by Nicola Nunziata; essays by Francesco Zanot and Elena and Patrizia Piccini; 44 pages; FW:Books; 2024

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!


Article main image

Sometimes, I wonder why I’m supposed to meddle in the lives of strangers. OK, I understand that I’m not really meddling when I’m looking at an art book in which a total stranger exposes their own private life. Still, it does feel like meddling. Or rather, it’s not the looking that feels like meddling, it’s the writing about it.

More often than not I’m thinking that the only people who really care about these photobook reviews are the books’ makers — the photographers, the publishers. I’m not really meddling, then, more like writing an extended set of words from which they can pick a blurb for the websites (if, that is, I’m complimentary enough).

I also know that when photographers ask you “what do you think?” after they’ve shown you their pictures, they’re not really asking for what I am in fact thinking. Instead, they want reassurance more than praise. Praise is cheap and can be had accordingly. Reassurance, though, is hard to come by in this cold, neoliberal world.

Sometimes, I wonder how or why I ended up in this position as a person who is supposed to provide that — reassurance, especially if the work in question is very personal.

I suppose especially with very personal work that’s the biggest challenge: to publish very personal work that will be meaningful in the fullest sense only to yourself.

Then again, we could probably say that about any piece of art made. Who other than the maker will see everything that went into it?

But that’s precisely where art will be art, namely in all of those infinite situations in which a complete stranger sees something in what you’ve made that resonates deeply, even if the people in the pictures are complete strangers.

Obviously, there’s also the sisterhood or brotherhood aspect of art, in which a group of people, whoever they might be, can relate because theirs were the exact same experiences even if their pictures or words would have been completely different.

Which leads to the very valid question of how you would even assess the “success” of a photobook (or any piece of art) other than by insisting that it succeeds on its own terms?

But that can’t be quite it, because it sounds so detached, especially in cases where a book centers on the possibly the most personal experiences a person can have — a mother dying, two young daughters coming into this world.

If the emotions come across that’s everything you can ask for. Everything else is a bonus. What does it matter what a total stranger, sitting far away in his own home, has to say about it?

I suppose if I had been involved in the making of Lydia Goldblatt‘s Fugue… Which already is a ridiculous way to talk about the book, given that I have not been involved. Still, if I had been involved I would have pushed for the book to be simpler, because its underlying emotions are simple.

It’s the simplest emotions, though, that are hardest to deal with. Grief is such a simple emotion, and yet it can be so overwhelming. Love is simple as well, at least in its most basic form.

What makes emotions not simple is the fact that we’re not well equipped to allow ourselves to exist in their simplicity. We tend to make things too complicated, or we are being pulled by conflicting emotions into different directions, or those around us are so concerned about us that things will become much too complicated, because everybody is trying too hard to avoid hurting feelings where there are so many raw emotions already.

I don’t have any children, so I have no way of knowing what that feels like. It’s mostly second-hand knowledge — and not actual experience — that’s driving this writing.

In my life, I have experienced being pulled into different directions. But I have not experienced it in the context of a parent dying while there are young children in the house. And it’s not just a parent dying in the book, it’s the photographer’s mother, and it’s not just children in the house, it’s her young daughters.

I’m imagining that under these circumstances, beyond the grief and the love there is another emotion that here and there comes across in some of the writing in the text. Or maybe I’m imagining it. And I don’t even know how to put it into words in a fashion that will get at what I think might have been present (because ultimately, only the photographer will know).

But there is this chain of women that’s continuing through the generations, and every woman in that chain is merely a link, a link that, yes, is incredibly important, but that is also being used by those coming after her.

This connects to what many women have told me about being mothers and trying to be something else (a photographer, an artist, …) at the same time. Usually, you can only fill one of those roles. So there’s a decision to be made: in any given moment, do you want to be a mother or do you want to be a photographer?

Having a moment with one of the daughters, Goldblatt describes this basic conundrum: “Turning to the window, I meet our reflection in the glass […] I like seeing us together, the embrace…” But then comes this: “I think that I should photograph it, but it’s too dark, and I don’t want to exchange child for tripod, the embrace giving me as much as it does her.”

The embrace giving her as much as it does the child — except for a picture: “An unmade image to add to the archive.”

There it is, one of the many complications that sits on top of the simple emotions. I’m imagining the wrestling in the photographer’s head (even though obviously I have no way of knowing): should I do the picture or be in this moment and enjoy what it gives me?

Assuming that there was even that choice. After all, especially with very young children, there is too much work to do, while there is only so much time left, only so much mental energy left. How would you explain this to your photographer colleagues that you’re a photographer but you are unable to take pictures? Maybe ask them to read, say, Rebecca Solnit’s writing about it?

So much pulling from so many directions.

As I already noted, there are photographs in the book alongside Goldblatt’s own writing. It’s the writing that mostly pulls out the mother’s death and its aftermath. And a reader will have to pay attention because the writing will not reveal things too easily.

Once again, I’m thinking that this should have been simpler. But life itself isn’t simple, and dealing with simple emotions isn’t simple. After all, as someone who comes to the book, I’m hoping to connect to my own emotions by way of a stranger’s. In the end, though, it’s not my own mother that has died, it’s this stranger’s.

How could I possibly ask for this to be told more forcefully when I possibly couldn’t do the same — were the roles reversed?

Because that’s the thing, we always ask too much of artists. We always want them to be better and more perfect people than we are. We want them to be making all the right and perfect choices, simply because we are incapable of doing that in our own lives.

There are those pictures in the book where the two conflicting strands I spoke about come together. Maybe the light was right, maybe there was no tripod to be produced — it doesn’t really matter.

For example, early on in the book, there’s a spread that shows two photographs of the daughters nestled against their mother’s body. The tight framing forcefully pushes their girls to the fore.

In the picture on the left,  the daughter’s eyes are closed as she lies in her mother’s armpit. In the picture on the right, the other daughter appears to be licking her mother’s collarbone. Through the layout, the two girls are made to face each other, and in the center, in their center, there is their mother, the photographer.

Even as what we see of her merely is some skin and a few locks of her hair, she is the complete opposite of what is on view in those invisible-mother photographs that routinely make the rounds in photoland. She’s very much the visible mother. She is the center of their world. There is incredible tenderness in this spread, and so much love.

Through the hectic edit and the desire to include too many pictures, some of that tenderness and love gets lost a little bit. And obviously, it’s not just those emotions, because there also is the grief, and there are all those other emotions.

But for me, the book succeeds the most in those moments where a picture, however reduced it might be, reveals the whole world and where a picture (or two) is (are) given the chance to do that.

There is no shortage of photobooks about children made by photographer mothers. In fact, there is no shortage of photobooks about family. For the most part, I have never been particularly interested in them. It has taken me a long time to understand why: in almost all of the cases, the mother (or father) made the decision to be a photographer first and then (maybe) a mother (or father).

I mean that’s fine, who am I to tell people what to do? If you want to be a photographer first and then a feeling human being, I have no problem with that.

But I’m not looking at photobooks to see photographs. I look at photobooks to encounter life.

That’s why all those books filled with sticks and stones, made by (mostly) male photographers who have feelings (or think they do), leave me cold. In the end, it’s not the feelings that shine through, it’s their avoidance of dealing with those feelings by taking pictures that you can frame and hang on a wall: it’s just stick and stones.

What makes Fugue so special is that it appears to have arisen from a situation where the opposite happened. It’s a book filled with photographs that are infused with emotions, with being gentle — even where two of the protagonists often enough were not gentle at all (young children tend to explore the full range of feelings and experiences around them).

In the end, the two people for whom this book was made are the daughters. I don’t know whether the photographer feels that way. I’m just going to make the claim anyway. I have the feeling that once they’re old enough to be able to see and understand, they will treasure the book forever.

For the rest of us… We can only partake in small parts of what they will see — and connect those small parts with the larger emotions in ourselves. It’s very much worth it.

Fugue; photographs and writing by Lydia Goldblatt; 192 pages; GOST; 2024

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!

27 Drafts

Article main image

Even as there are some fluctuations between the statistics available online, the reality of sexual assault is that it’s very common. “Every 68 seconds another American is sexually assaulted,” the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) writes that “nationwide, 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.”

These numbers are US based, and they might differ in other countries. What seems clear, though, is that given the sheer scale of the problem, it’s incredibly unlikely that the US are a strange outlier. Comparisons with other countries can be difficult, though, given the differences in what exactly is treated as sexual assault and what is not (for example, see Why country-to-country comparisons of rape statistics are so difficult).

Given the sheer scale of the problem, you would imagine that more of an effort would be made to combat what easily could be seen as one of the most pressing issues facing contemporary societies. And yet, what we witness instead is a combination of mostly silence and denial.

The lurch to the right/far-right that we’re witnessing for sure is going to make the problem much worse, given that far-right politics has an explicit focus on misogyny and violence (for example: “A jury found Donald Trump liable Tuesday for sexually abusing advice columnist E. Jean Carroll in 1996”).

Furthermore, victims of sexual assault usually have to fight an uphill battle when they step forward. Often, it is them who have the burden of proof; and just as often, in many countries societies will gather around accused perpetrators to effectively shield them from accusations.

The Germans even have a word for that. Strictly speaking, it’s a word that applies to anyone accused of a crime who has not been convicted by a court of law, yet. But funnily enough, Unschuldsvermutung — the presumption of innocence until proven guilty — pops up mostly in discussions around sexual assault. Even if for sure a democratic society should insist on the courts being the ones determining guilt, in cases that almost inevitably start out with someone’s words against someone else’s words, the word Unschuld (innocence) for sure plays a crucial psychological role that creates a systemic disadvantage for those who want to report sexual assault.

As a consequence, a lot of sexual assault goes unreported. The barriers of having to report something very violent and intimate to a group of strangers is already high. The fact that those same strangers then often at least implicitly side with the perpetrators, making the lives of victims incredibly difficult, is of no help. And unfortunately, public opinion is of no help, either. As far as I can tell, most societies will favour siding with those in power over those who have less (or none); and the power always resides with perpetrators of sexual assault.

Consequently, it requires enormous acts of bravery and confidence for victims of sexual assault to come forward and to speak about what happened to them. And then… how do you speak about the unspeakable? How do you convey what has happened to you? How can you express what you need to express?

The cover of Simone Engelen‘s 27 Drafts shows a jumble of handwritten lines of text superimposed on top of each other. There is more text at the top than at the bottom, as if someone had started to write something, to then abandon the writing at different points in their endeavour. The cover of the book simply consists of an untreated card stock; the text has been printed in deep black on top. Even though you can literally feel the ink sitting on the paper with your fingertips, I can’t help but think that the words have been burned into the cover.

Crucially, as a viewer you are unable to read the text. The same text reappears later. Strictly speaking, I don’t know whether it’s the exact same text or some other text written by the same person. It’s the same handwriting. And common sense would tell you it’s in fact the same text. The writer and avid reader that I am, I tried reading it. Most of it is illegible, some of it appears to be in Dutch, some in English.

But the idea behind the inclusion of the text, of this text (there’s another piece of text literally inserted into the book in the form of a folded sheet of paper), at least that’s what I came away with, is that you cannot read most of it. What you can read does not add up to much. I think that that’s a wonderful device, even as I can imagine some members of photoland balk at the idea. But bookmaking, good bookmaking, relies on trusting most of your desired audience to get the idea.

I like that idea of trust because in some distant fashion it connects with the trust that needs to exist between the survivors of sexual assault and those who want to be there for them in as supportive a fashion as they can: even where the words might fail to provide the clarity that the latter would prefer (especially given the Greek chorus of Unschuldsvermutung around them), there will have to be the trust that something that might be uncommunicable is in fact being relayed.

With that in mind 27 Drafts is a visual book that conveys its story through the photographs. And that story is simple and clear: to understand it you do not have to have studied photobook making for years.

I could tell you the story, or rather I could tell you how I read the story as it is presented in the book. But I feel that that’s not something I want to do.

To begin with, it’s not a critic’s job to do the reader/viewer’s work. But certainly nobody should feel compelled, for whatever reason, to re-tell the story told by a survivor of sexual assault. The task is to listen. Here: to look. That’s my task as much as anyone else’s.

That looking itself if not neutral. This is the second aspect of the book. It centers on sexual assault, but it also centers on what came before and after; and it centers on the conditions under which the assault occurred. It centers on femininity, or rather a type of femininity, and it centers on how that type of femininity can mean very different things for different people — for victims and for perpetrators: rape culture.

When helping photographers to make their books, I always tell them that the most important person they’re making the book for is themselves. Whatever an audience will make of that is outside of their control. If there’s any book where this dictum applies very strongly, it’s 27 Drafts. We have no way of knowing to what extent the making of the book resolved something; and frankly, it’s none of our business.

What is our business as an audience is to find ourselves in the book, meaning: we have to see our position vis-à-viz what is shown here. Again, you don’t want to take this idea too literally (unless you happen to be embedded in some US high-school/college football context in which case: look around, and pick up on all those signs!).

Instead, traces of what can is presented in the book can be found everywhere. It can be found in people’s attitudes towards the way women dress, towards “boys being boys”, towards listening to statements of sexual assault…

It can also be found in the general acceptance of the kind of low-level violence that is par for course in US (and many other countries’) cultures. Just think about how so much entertainment is produced around nerds versus jocks or “popular” versus “unpopular” people.

Seen that way, 27 Drafts is akin to a stone that’s being tossed into a lake: the concentric waves caused by its impact move further and further out — until, however faintly, they have touched every part of the water’s surface.

27 Drafts; photographs by Simone Engelen; short text by Anouk Spruit; 108 pages; FW:Books; 2024

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!