Given the covid-19 pandemic, it’s going to be difficult to write the introduction of this article without it being out of date by the time it’s published. I started thinking about this article yesterday, to wake up to the news that Germany’s government decided to close all non-essential shops. Where this hasn’t happened, yet, it’s very safe to assume that it’s only a question of time. Other countries, such as Italy and Spain, are already under quarantine.
The best you can do for yourself right now is to follow the advice of actual health experts. Depending on where you live, this might entail engaging in what’s called social distancing. What this means and why this is useful is explained in this article by the Washington Post. If that’s too much text, you can start by looking at those animations. Those will give you a pretty good and quick idea of why social distancing is so important.
Obviously, social distancing comes at a price. In the following, I’m just going to be focusing on everything related to photography. There are a lot of other, more important concerns, and you can read up on them elsewhere (I’m not qualified to write about labour or any other concerns).
If you’re mostly confined to your home, you’ll have to stay busy with whatever it is that you like to do. This is where photography might come in. It’s not essential for your survival — for that you need food etc., but it might help you stimulate or distract your mind.
With galleries and museums closed (or closing), now more than ever is the time of the photobook. If you’re already interested in photobooks and you might even own a small collection, you can now spend more time with them. And if you’ve never paid much attention to them, this is a good time to see what they have to offer (assuming you don’t want to read other books, binge watch some shows, play games, or whatever else).
However, you won’t be able to go to a photobook shop to buy them because in all likelihood if there’s one where you live it’s going to be closed (or closing very soon). To get new books you will have to shop online (obviously, if there are no photobook shops where you live you’ve been doing this already). It’s extremely important that you buy directly from either publishers, dedicated photobook shops, or artists. Here’s why.
Photobook making and selling is an incredibly difficult business. The target audience is very small and fragmented, and there is almost no way to get photobooks in front of a larger audience (there are exceptions). This means that photobook makers — aka the people who pay the money to produce them — rely on earning all the money they can. The reality is that most books don’t even sell the full edition, so sustaining a photobook business over a long period of time is very difficult.
Let’s say you’re interested in a photobook whose list price is $69.95, and you see it on Amazon for $44.61 (actual example, doesn’t matter which one it is; please note I’m talking about new books here, not second-hand ones). That looks like a great deal, doesn’t it? You’ll be able to save $25.34. If you buy the book on Amazon, you’ll thus save that amount of money — but it’s $25.34 not going into the photobook ecosystem.
You might find it odd that I’m talking about an ecosystem here. Isn’t this all just business? Well, sure it is. But someone is not going to get these $25.34. That might be a publisher who if this happens might not be able to publish more books, leaving a few artists stranded. Or it might be a photobook shop who might not be able to pay rent, forcing it to close down.
(Just as an aside, if you’re a photographer who self published a book and you’re selling it online for less than it costs in a photobook shop, you’re also damaging the photobook ecosystem.)
Publishers and photobook shops actually are the unsung heroes of the world of the photobook. You typically don’t see them described this way (it’s more like you’ll hear the completely misguided complaint that publishers are gatekeepers that somehow prevent all these great books from being made — not so!). But without publishers there obviously wouldn’t be all that many photobooks. And without specialty bookshops photobooks wouldn’t nearly get the exposure that they have now. Amazon aren’t going to have a book signing (where would this happen anyway? in a warehouse?), they’re not going to go to a book fair at some festival to show books.
So it’s absolutely essential now that if you want to buy a photobook (or two) to help you deal with social distancing and to bring the richness of all that these kinds of books have to offer into your own home that you do that either directly from a publisher, a photobook shop, or an artist (who will not give you a discount because that undercuts book shops).
(Btw, just now, while writing this article I received an email from a photobook shop that’s going to be closed until the end of the month.)
If you don’t know where to buy, below is a list of photobook shops that will fulfill your mail orders. All of these shops fulfill a vital function for the photobook ecosystem. Some have branched out into publishing, many have regular events (signings or workshops), and they’re all run by incredibly dedicated, knowledgeable, and passionate people. When you’re buying from them, you’re not only helping them sustain their businesses, you’re also helping publishers and artists.
This list isn’t complete and final — I’ll update it over the course of the next few days. Send me an email if a shop is missing, and I’ll add it (as long as the shop is selling online):
Andrew Cahan (Akron; second-hand books)
L’Ascenseur Végétal (Bordeaux)
Kaunas Photography Gallery (Kaunas)
Now is the time that we all look out for one another. When it comes to photobooks, this is how to do it.