How do you go about reading a photobook? What exactly do you do to understand a book that operates purely on a visual level? In the following, I want to focus on books that either have no text whatsoever or very minor supportive text. These are books that either show the titles of the pictures somewhere near them — whether right underneath or maybe on the opposite page, provide them in a list in the back, or simply do without titles. In these books, a viewer you only have the pictures to understand what’s going on (because the titles mostly don’t help). How do you understand such books?
I wanted to write this article for all those people who aren’t necessarily deeply invested in the photobook already. Maybe you are starting out in photography and are discovering the medium’s many different possibilities. Maybe you have been looking at photographs for along time, but books aren’t really your thing (yet). In a somewhat regular fashion, someone will tell me (typically in an email) that they have trouble approaching photobooks. As someone who is part of the world of the photobook, I will admit that we don’t necessarily make it easy for newcomers to embrace the very books for which we desperately want (and need!) to find a larger audience. While there isn’t any single reason for this (it’s too conveniently populist to claim that the world of the photobook consists of snobs), I think we can (and should!) do a lot better. My hope is that the following might help all those who are interested in photobooks but who don’t quite know how to go about them.
To begin with, it’s important to disregard a few very common but completely misguided ideas. First, while there are a number of books that have come to occupy important spots in the world of the photobook, you’re actually under no obligation to like any of them. I just dismissed snobbery as a convenient talking point. But there is a fair amount of snobbery when it comes to well-known books. If you don’t believe me, try telling someone that you really don’t like William Eggleston’s Guide, say, or that you think Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens is overrated. The cult created around these types of books is off putting (to say the least). That’s too bad. But you’re still not obliged to like any of the famous books. Or you can like some and dislike others. That’s all good.
Especially if you’re starting out with photobooks, you want to first find books that you respond to — for whatever reason. If one of those books happens to be a famous one, that’s nice. But it doesn’t mean quite as much as you might imagine. It’s true that some of the famous books can teach you a lot about photography. But the same is true for many non-famous ones. Consequently, as someone starting out with photobooks, the key is to engage with the books you respond to, regardless of what they are and regardless of who made them.
When you discover books that resonate with you, you’ve made your first step into the medium. Even if you couldn’t tell why you respond to them, you have started to pick up on how and what they communicate. That’s very important. This gives you a good basis to continue looking. After all, looking at photobooks should be mostly a source of enjoyment, regardless of what form that enjoyment takes. Remember that enjoyment is always personal: mine might be very different than yours. But mine is not any more relevant than yours. I think this is a very important lesson for someone trying to look into photobooks: in the end, it’s always going to be about your personal enjoyment. In all likelihood you are the only person who can gauge what that means.
If you’re new to the photobook you need to realise that there is no prescribed way to look at one, and there is no prescribed outcome of that looking, either. However you want to look at the book is fine, as long as it feels right for you. You can go about it very slowly, looking at each photograph for along time. You can go about it rather quickly, going back and forth between pages (that’s what I typically do). Anything works that allows you to discover something in the book. The reason why I am writing this is because looking at photobooks is not necessarily something that you either know how to do or not. Instead, it’s a way of engagement that expands and changes with time. You will want to give yourself the mental space to find your own engagement with these books. This will take some time, and you will have to be fine with that.
In the very beginning, you obviously will pick up on less than someone who has spent many years with books. But instead of focusing on what you’re supposed to pick up (which doesn’t exist), focus on what you’re picking up. What are those pictures doing that come one after another? What emotions do they create in you, what ideas do they launch? Be aware of what’s happening inside you, and take that — and only that — as the basis from which to expand your engagement with photobooks. While you might start out with some wrong ideas or conclusions, as you continue your exploration, you will learn more, which help you to correct misinterpretations.
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