Towards a Photobook Taxonomy

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There are many studies of photobooks that attempt to describe this particular medium. Many of them concern themselves with producing larger histories, whether general or location specific ones. In the seminal books by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, the study divides into historical parts, geographical ones, and then there are various chapters devoted to particular types of books, such as, for example, “protest books.” There are, in other words, various ways of looking at what photobooks are or do, and studying that can be enormously insightful for anyone interested in the medium.

If you come from the other end, from the position of someone attempting to make a photobook, the utility of these aforementioned studies is great. But it is also limited. Knowing who and what came before you and your book is a necessary ingredient to be able to make one. However, there always is the struggle of having to give the material at hand its proper shape. As I laid out in Understanding Photobooks, that shape ought to be driven by the material: the photographs and, possibly, text. How do you go about that, though? Frequently, photographers pick a book they like or a book that they feel is relevant, to have it serve as a template. This approach works, as long as you’re able to find such a template. But maybe there’s another way?

It might be the former scientist in me that had me think about the need of a photobook taxonomy. Such a taxonomy would divide books into different categories not based on what countries they come from, when they were made, or what subject matter they deal with, but instead on a very basic level, how the books operate, how, in other words, the story is being told (and here I mean the word “story” in the loosest possible sense). The other day, I finally decided to attempt to create such a taxonomy, which I want to present below.

I need to point out that this following taxonomy is very much a work in progress that will require further refinement. In other words, I do not consider it as final. My hope is that looking at photobooks this way, further insight into them might be gained. What is more, I hope that such a taxonomy will especially help aspiring photobook makers. If you find something missing, something to be corrected or refined, please be in touch. I will be more than happy to improve and update the following list.

A catalog is a structured presentation of one or more than one bodies of work for documentation purposes usually at the occasion of an exhibition. Often included is critical and/or academic writing by experts. The catalog is typically underwritten by the exhibition venue.
Example: Thomas Ruff (Whitechapel Gallery)

A monograph is a presentation of a body of work (rarely more than one) to present the photographs in question. Included writing (where present) need not be critical or academic and often serves to enhance (talk up) the photography. The monograph is now commonly at least in part (if not fully) financed by the artist.
Examples: Sze-Tsung Leong – Horizons; Carla van de Puttelaar – Adornments; Gerry Johansson – Deutschland

Often but not always heavily reliant on text, the journalistic photobook is topic based and relies on conventions from the world of journalism, whether strictly or loosely. The books that fall into this larger group of books can be divided into the following subgroups. Here, these subgroups are clearly distinct, in part because of the different approaches used (which includes differences in how strictly journalistic ideas, in particular an adherence to an objective truth, are being followed).

As its name indicates, the photojournalistic book originates in the world of photojournalism. It strictly follows the rules of the profession, and it relies heavily on storytelling devices that were established during what we could call the golden age of the photojournalistic story (LIFE Magazine etc.): text is loosely tied to photographs through a reliance on factual captions, while other, often larger, blocks of text establish context and provide background information that is not accessible through pictures. Concerning both the text and pictures, as much factual information as possible is provided to the reader/viewer, while ambiguity (where present at all) is minimized.
Example: W. Eugene Smith/Aileen M. Smith – Minamata

The documentary book follows the conventions of the larger world of the documentary (which includes photography as much as the world of writing or film making). It relies on many established storytelling devices, but documentary photobook makers often attempt to push the boundaries of how stories can be told. Text plays a major role, but its interaction with the photographs isn’t quite as limited as in the case of the photojournalistic book. Both text and pictures acknowledge the possibility of uncertainty, something unknown or unknowable, something ambiguous. Unlike in the case of the photojournalistic book, the idea of an absolute truth is at least questioned, if not outright (implicitly) denied. Often, the text is written by a separate author.
Examples: Rob Hornstra – Man Next Door; The Sochi Project – An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus

Investigative/Research Based
The investigative/research-based photobook is closely related to the documentary kind, so most of the descriptions above applies here as well. In addition, research and factual background information play a major role. Consequently, at least some of the photography adheres to conventions outside of photography in the documentary mode (this often applies in similar ways for part of the text). Of late, the use of archival materials has become prominent. What is more, some of the photographs might be made to mimic conventions used in scientific or institutional settings.
Example: Laia Abril – On Abortion

The encyclopedic photobook largely relies on academic and/or institutional conventions, with both photography and text (where present) being very matter of fact, while the subject matter might be outside of academic/institutional interests.
Example: Taryn Simon – An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar

In lyrical photobooks, it is photographs that do the work. Text might be present, but it is kept at a minimum (there might be a longer essay by a writer included, but such text is clearly separate from the photography part). Where text is used, the text often functions in the same way as the photographs: adding an element of written mystery. Lyrical photobooks divide into four different types, with some overlap between them. In other words, the distinctions between the types is not overly strict, and a book might be seen as using elements of two types.

The poetic photobook is furthest away from a larger idea of story. There is no story. Instead, there are facets of a story that add up to – pardon the pun – a larger picture. In a sense, the poetic photobook is quite close to the monograph. However, where the monograph truly centers on individual pictures that only in a critical or interpretative sense deal with a larger topic or story, the poetic photobook offers one itself, however fuzzy it might present itself to be. Photographs aren’t poems, and they also don’t operate like ones. But the poetic photobook comes closest to what in the world of written literature the poem would be.
Example: Rinko Kawauichi – Illuminance

Elliptical storytelling involves omitting or withholding part of the events or aspects so that the viewer (or reader) will fill in the gaps. The gaps thus are not gaps in a literal sense (that would make the viewer stumble). Instead, the narrator relies on the viewer being able to provide the content, thus possibly allowing for narrative ambiguity. Due to its very nature, one could argue that photography will always lead to elliptical storytelling. In the case of photobooks, however, there are various models that minimize, if not outright eliminate and/or avoid, gaps in the narration, whether in this or any of the other groups (using, for example, text). In an elliptical photobook, the key is that the overall story does not unfold linearly. Instead, much like when in the presence of fireflies on a late-summer evening, the viewer will be presented with brief flashes at seemingly random locations: the story is fully unfolded only at the end. To make the viewer’s job easier, typically there are interlocking visual symbols that strongly suggest connections between at first seemingly unrelated photographs.
Examples: Kikuji Kawada – The Map; J Carrier – Elementary Calculus; Michael Schmidt – Waffenruhe

The linear lyrical photobook combines elements of the poetic and elliptical photobook. But it’s strongly reliant on the sequence of its photographs. That sequence can be used to tie the whole set of pictures together, or it can exist in distinct chapters (which might exist only in visual form, lacking clear – textual – delineators). This is not to say that sequence plays no role in, say, the elliptical photobook. But there, it only serves to guide the viewer very loosely (preventing the gaps from getting too large to cross). Here, the sequence does a large part of the job: the story is told through the linear sequence of photographs, with one picture clearly leading to the next. The linear photobook can thus be decoded most easily by looking at its sequence.
Examples: Robert Frank – The Americans; Walker Evans – American Photographs; Trent Parke – Minutes to Midnight

Stream of consciousness
A stream-of-consciousness photobook essentially is a linear lyrical photobook with the larger idea of story removed. Another way to describe it would be to say that it’s strictly sequential, with the end result being a lot closer to what one might encounter in the poetic book.
Example: Jason Fulford – Raising Frogs For $$$

Narrative Driven
Narrative-driven photobooks do away with the restrictions used in the lyrical photobook group. Often, text becomes an integral part of telling a story, much like in the case of books in the journalistic group. In some ways, journalistic and narrative photobooks relate to each other like nonfiction and fiction: one is concerned with reality as is (or as perceived), the other one with a reality created without there necessarily being a truthful equivalent being in the world. The use of text in narrative-driven photobooks is not tied to strict conventions as in journalistic photobooks. At the same time, unlike in the case of lyrical photobooks where text (if present) functions like the photographs, here text operates more like a complement to the pictures. Text and pictures are not treated as very distinct entities (a group of strangers sitting on a train) but instead as interlocking and supporting elements (a family sitting around a dinner table).

The photonovel is a very simple and somewhat old-fashioned way of telling stories with pictures. It is related to the photojournalistic essay, except that its content tends to be fictional. There often are recurring characters and locations, and it is often largely the text’s role to carry or contribute to the narration of the story.
Example: Ed van der Elsken – Love on the Left Bank

The linear narrative-driven photobook is related to the linear lyrical one. With the focus being on narration, the sequence serves to tell the story, which more often than not is event based. Lyrical photobooks do not contain event-based photographs or, more precisely, photographs that stand for very specific events in a chain that builds a story. Usually, the opposite is the case here. What is more, it is not uncommon for the sequence to follow a series of events in time and/or space. This does not mean that the sequence cannot be interrupted. But much like a flashback in a movie, the overall logic of the larger sequence of events has to remain in place (unlike in lyrical photobooks, where such a structure is absent).
Examples: Joshua Lutz – Hesitating Beauty; Sophie Calle – Suite Vénitienne

The elliptical narrative-driven photobook is related to the elliptical lyrical one. But just like in the case of the linear narrative-driven book, the focus is on telling a specific story, which more often than not is event based. Using an elliptical approach, one in which parts of the story are being withheld to be filled in by the viewer, is motivated by the same ideas and concerns as in other forms of elliptical storytelling.
Example: Sanne de Wilde – The Island of the Colorblind

Subjective Documentary
The subjective-documentary narrative-driven photobook is a variant of the documentary-journalistic that does not strictly adhere to journalistic conventions, but that doesn’t do away with them completely, either. Where in the journalistic documentary photobook the overall larger truth is the driving force (while subjective considerations are allowed to remain within reason), here it is the author’s (while larger considerations are still being acknowledged). Text plays a major role in telling the story.
Examples: Christian van der Kooy – Anastasiia (She folds her memories like a parachute); Nicholas Muellner – In Most Tides An Island

First-Person Narration
The first-person narration is a variant of the subjective-documentary book, with all considerations of a larger truth removed, to focus solely on the author’s voice, with text playing an large role.
Examples: Michael Schmelling – My Blank Pages; Thomas Krempke – Das Flüstern der Dinge