Photobook Stories

Books, books, books. People may be crying that the printed book is dead but it can be said that the photobook is one way of keeping the medium alive. Home printing has improved to the point that semi-professional books can be created. Companies like Blurb and Photobox are a cheap and easy way to get a book in print but the quality and originality often leaves something to be desired. Where then must the photographer look for inspiration? As always, it seems that the past holds the key.

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Martin Parr and Gerry Badger have compiled three volumes of books that highlight a key selection of photobooks through the ages.

There are many different categories of book. The photobook as a record was one of its earliest uses. One of the very first books was by Anna Atkins and was called British Algae. Published as a wire bound series of cyanotypes it took ‘scientific’ images and presented them as art. In 1874 James Nasmyth and James Carpenter released The Moon. Purporting to be images of the moon the photographs were actually of a papier-mâché model. Technology at that time was not sufficient to allow the moon to be shot in such detail. Faking a story in this way would be the inspiration for Christina de Middel’s hugely successful Afronauts.

Presenting photography as art is one of the most common uses for a photobook. Even something as simple as an alphabet book can be highly effective when tackled by a master. In a similar way books based on music and musical notation show an extra layer of skill and thought by the photographer.

After WW2 books tended to be freer in format and more of a celebration of life. William Klein’s New York 1956 was part of this new movement. Klein wanted to show the grit and claustrophobia of the city and his tight camera angles and grainy images do this. The book itself was created by laying out the pictures on a photocopier and using that to create the pages.

Other cool books to look at include Ed Van Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank 1956, Ken O’Hara’s One 1970 and Pieter Hugo’s There’s a place in hell for me and my friends. A lot of modern books seem to have been heavily influenced by Japanese photobooks from the 1960-80 era.

The book is not dead. Okay so the novel may be fading out as we swing towards a fully digital age but photobooks are refusing to go without a fight. Those that think photography itself has become a clichéd world of instagram feet and kittens need only look towards small publishing houses or artists who are self publishing their works for proof that there is still a passion out there.


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