A few years ago, I wrote an article for one of this website’s earlier incarnations, lamenting the often overly conservative and thus unimaginative layout and design of most photobooks. How times have changed! Old habits die hard, of course. Some publishers still publish books that were put together in such a mind-numbingly boring way that they suck all the life out of the photographs. But the pendulum has also swung into the opposite direction, with other publishers either adding design to otherwise utterly forgettable books as essentially sales gimmicks, or by giving their designers ten cups of coffee to drink and the freedom to do whatever the hell they want. That’s really not what I was asking for back then, either. Regardless of whether you ignore what design can do for your book or you add design as an afterthought, you’re essentially doing your book a severe disservice. And this is becoming more and more obvious, given how many smart and well-designed photobooks are being produced these days.
One of the publishers that has been consistently sitting in the sweet spot of photobook design is Fw:Photography. It would be tempting to say that of course that’s the case, given it is run by a photobook designer, Hans Gremmen (find an interview I did with him in 2011 here). But that would be too simple. Fw:‘s book succeed not because of the willingness to apply cutting-edge design, but because of an awareness of what role design has to play in the process. And that’s a pretty big difference (which, typically, separates good photobooks from over- or underdesigned ones).
My feeling is that many people would not consider Marie-José Jongerius‘ Edges of the Experiment as a photobook. A two-volume set with multiple authors, the books feature copious amounts of text, and for many people, there appears to be some threshold where “too much text” turns a photobook into… Who knows? I personally don’t have that problem at all. You could conceivably make a photobook with just one picture and hundreds of pages of text, and I’d consider it a photobook, provided the weight would be pulled by that one image. That is, after all, what makes a photobook a photobook: the pictures do most, but not necessarily all of the heavy lifting.
And there really is no recipe how to approach this, either. Just like in the case of design, you will have to figure it out for your photographs in question. That said, though, there often are different solutions available, different ways to make a photobook from a set of photographs, where one might not be better than the other. So things might then boil down to a question of taste. In other words, if you don’t like text in your photobook, that’s fine, but you can’t make that the definition of what a photobook is, because other people see this differently. That is, after all, what makes the world of photobooks so interesting (which kind of brings me back to my lament from a few years ago: how utterly dreadful to live in a world where the only accepted model for a photobook is what I called “a gallery show on paper”: blank page, picture, blank page, picture, etc., with all talk then about whether there should be — gasp! — captions or page numbers).
Given I got that out of the way, the reader could approach Edges of the Experiment like a gallery show on paper by simply just ignoring the second volume plus all the text in the first one. That first volume features a large number of photographs taken by Jongerius in the American West (mostly California, with a few other states also being represented). Of course, anyone familiar with the history of photography and photobooks knows that the American West has been and still is fertile and well-trodden territory. This is not to say that there isn’t a story to be told any longer. But the challenge also becomes how to tell whatever story it is you got.
Yet another photobook with pictures of the American West might have been, well, just another one for the pile. How do you make this more interesting? I have no way of knowing whether this is the kind of consideration behind the form behind Edges of the Experiment. But here, its makers expanded the idea of approaching the West by adding a plethora of information around Jongerius’ photographs. An expanded index runs through the first volume, in which you get additional information, written by Raymond Frenken, about whatever is depicted in the photographs (much of it centering on water, of course). In fact, if you were so inclined you could simply ignore the photographs and just read the text — it’s not only very informative, but also incredibly well written.
Volume 2 expands the general approach even further, with a variety of artists/writers looking at the land in question, the American West, using a plethora of different approaches, essentially making the final product an experiment itself: how far can you take the idea of a photobook? How far can you expand your ways of looking at a piece of land and trying to derive meaning from what you find? Quite far, as it turns out.
Given the preceding, the reader who has made it this far is probably more likely to have developed an interest in Edges of the Experiment than all those who stopped reading earlier. Maybe this set is your cup of tea, maybe not. To bring this all back to where I started from, here’s the thing about good design, though. Good design will make your engagement with a photobook a lot more pleasurable. It won’t succeed in convincing you of the exact opposite of what you believe in. But it will allow the viewer to have more of an open mind about what is being offered. And that, ultimately, really is (or at least should be) the way photobooks can be thought about: they have something to offer, a proposition for how to see something in — ideally — a slightly different light. Edges of the Experiment succeeds brilliantly doing just that.
Edges of the Experiment; photographs by Marie-José Jongerius and other artists; essays by Raymond Frenken and other writers; 2 volumes, 340 pages; Fw:Photography; 2015
Rating: Photography 3 (Jongerius’), Book Concept 5, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.8
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Ratings explained here.