Review: Johan van der Keuken’s Paris Mortel retouché

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There is considerable interest in the photobook right now, at least amongst photographers. For those interested in learning more about them there exists a fairly extensive library of books about photobooks, for example the Parr/Badger ones. A third one appears to be coming, but it’s not quite clear to me what exactly that will add to the series (other than creating a collecting frenzy in some areas that have not been touched by that, yet). There are various other books covering the photobook, many of them region specific.

Most of these books about photobooks are very useful as research tools, at least up to a point. If you’re interested in finding out about, say, the history of Dutch photobooks, there’s something for you; if you’re interested in seeing the evolution of the modernist photobook, you can look that up. However, if you’re interested in getting a lot of details about particular photobooks, these survey books – by construction – are of more limited utility. Filling that gap, Errata Editions have been re-publishing mostly out-of-print photobooks as facsimiles (more accurately: photographs of the individual spreads). With in-depth essays for each book added, these books provide quite  a bit more insight into individual photobooks.

All of these books are great teaching tools: If you’re a photographer who wants to make a photobook (and who doesn’t these days?) the best way to approach doing that is by getting educated about the medium, to see what people have done before and how. In all likelihood, you will discover a wide variety of approaches plus, possibly, things you haven’t even thought of before. Of course, you want to make your own photobook; but I’ve found that most photographers tend to look at a very narrow range of books themselves, and they end up being genuinely surprised and thrilled when other books are pointed out to them.

The possibly best way to learn about photobook making is trying to reverse engineer a book that has already been made: How does it work? How does it operate? How exactly does it convey its message? What does it do well, and what isn’t working? This is often a very tough task if all you’ve got is the book itself, and if you don’t know much about photobook making (yet). Approached from that angle none of the books above really gets you into the guts of the individual books, as much as they will provide you with very useful pointers.

This then is where books like Looking For Love On The Left Bank enter. This books dissects Ed van der Elsken’s highly influential Love on the Left Bank. It’s quite unlikely you’ll be interesting in Looking for Love unless you want to get a much better idea of the original book itself. It’s a book for specialists, not the broader public. But any photographer who wants to make a photobook is such a specialist (or at least should be; if you just plop images into a template and call it a day, you’re obviously not). Another example is now being provided by Paris Mortel retouché, a book looking at Johan van der Keuken’s Paris Mortel, created and published by Willem van Zoetendaal (the fact that both Van der Elsken and Van der Keuken were Dutch tells us something, and you can look up what it does either in the Parr/Badger books or in The Dutch Photobook: A Thematic Selection from 1945 Onwards).

In a nutshell, Paris Mortel retouché combines the Errata approach with what Looking for Love has to offer. You get to see the book itself (photographed just like in the Errata model). On top of that, there also is a reproduction of Van der Elsken’s third dummy. Plus there are many unpublished photographs. This is about as good as it can get for a photobook, if (and let’s remember this: only if) you want to really dive into a particular book and see how it works. To compare the dummy and the published book is highly instructive, for example. The differences in edit and layout are telling.

For what it’s worth, I personally think the dummy version is much better than the final book, despite the fact that it would gain from a more rigourous edit. Your assessment might differ, of course. Paris Mortel retouché gives you the chance to look at this aspect of photobook making – exactly the kinds of problems so many photographers struggle with when making books (how do you edit this thing?).

Thus, while Paris Mortel retouché is unlikely to appeal to people who simply want to look at and enjoy photobooks, anyone interested in making a photobook, in learning how photobooks work and how they are made, might want to have a look at this book. It’s about as good as it gets; and it’s produced with restraint. You’re not being flooded with too much material. You don’t have to pick your way through a lot of contact sheets etc.

Highly recommended.

Paris Mortel retouché; photographs, dummy, and book by Johan van der Keuken; essay by Willem van Zoetendaal; 188 pages; Van Zoetendaal Publishers

Ratings explained here.