It’s the future! Where are the digital photobooks?

Bristol Photobook Festival
Bristol Photobook Festival

I believe that we are gradually moving towards a paperless world of electronic books but as I alluded to in an earlier post the photo-book is refusing to go without a fight. I spent this weekend at the inaugural Bristol Photobook Festival and spent many hours surrounded by fellow book collectors, photographers, students, and publishers and had a great time. In addition to getting to hear from industry leaders the main draws of the show were a chance to get hold of some new and hard to find photography books for my collection and to get some of my older books signed.

One thing that quite a few speakers mentioned during the talks was the lack of good digital photobooks. I found this had to believe and so did a quick search of the 100 best selling e-books from their kindle store under the photography heading. There were over 20,000 results and of the top fifty most popular books 21 were soft porn, 22 were tutorial and the remaining 7 were a random mix of home made photobooks on range of differing subjects (from chocolates to Glastonbury).

Not a good showing and no trace of any of the great works seems to exist in an authorised digital format. Publishers and photographers alike seem to be shying away from the medium. I think there are many reasons for this: the tactical nature of books, the exclusivity of limited editions, and the blurb effect.

Life's a Beach
Life’s a Beach

A well designed book is a delight to behold. The size and shape, the way the pages are bound and novel features like cut-outs, fold out posters and ephemera are all something that a computer screen just can’t replicate.  Martin Parr’s special edition of Life’s a Beach is a good example of giving the book collector ‘more’.  It’s printed like a family album and all of the pictures are separate and can be removed.  The pages are divided by semi-transparent sheets, there is an accompanying text booklet insert and the whole thing is nicely bound and slip cased.  Each of these books is also signed and it was released as a limited edition.

We see images and text every day on our screens and I think this makes us less likely to want to own a digital photography book – we crave something special, something different from a photobook. Most digital photobooks are nothing more than a pdf; regardless of how amazing the pictures are it’s difficult to get excited about owning a hard drive full of pdfs.

This brings me nicely onto the exclusivity factor. Making work available digitally means that the photographer is sacrificing control over distribution and reproduction to ‘the net’. A good digital book is bound to get copied and shared illegally with very little chance of legal repercussions on the transgressors. Printing an edition of a book with only a limited number of copies, say 100, is seen to give the work a price value and thus be attractive to collectors.  I’m a sucker for this trick all the time. Given the choice between a free pdf or a limited, signed slip-cased edition then my credit card is out of my wallet before I’ve even realised. Owning a physical copy of the book gives me a direct connection with the photographer and lets me squirrel away a small piece of art history at a cost far less than a painting or sculpture.

Feedlots - Miskha Henner
Feedlots – Miskha Henner

The tide is slowly changing though. Printing giant Blurb is making self publishing for photographers a viable option.  Through them it is now possible to make printed and ebooks simultaneously and their BookWright software deals with much of the complexities of producing ebooks that will work across multiple tablet and screen formats.  Deutsche Borse and Prix Pictet nominee Miskha Henner initially printed his books using the blurb platform but snobbery within the photographic community meant that he found it difficult to sell many of his ‘print on demand’ books.

Whilst the number of digital books is creeping up it is the digital magazine format that is currently enjoying a boom. ISSUU is an electronic distribution platform that allows users to post their ‘e-magazines’ online ready for a worldwide audience. It currently hosts over 15 MILLION publications!  The magazines aren’t just for photographers but many publishers in the traditional magazine industry also make their works available (often as free and complete versions) on ISSUU.  Magazines worth a look include Doc!, 205DPI, and pretty much anything produced by the GUP team.

Secret History
Secret History

Amongst the magazines in ISSUU there are artist books. The Secret History of Khava Giasanova by Rob Hornstra and Arnold Van Brugge is one of the products of the Sochi Project and has a print run of 1,100 editions. It is also available in it’s near 400-page entirety, for free, on ISSUU.    If you are unfamiliar with the Sochi Project follow the link – their website is, I think, a good example of the way that photographers will have to share and discuss their work in the near future. Another of Hornstra’s books Communism and Cowgirls can also be found on ISSUU.

When digital cameras were first launched there was a massive backlash from the ‘traditional’ film-using community.  The technology was poor and people weren’t really sure how best to employ it but it opened the world of photography to a much wider audience.  I think digital photography books are facing a similar battle – a smart photographer is one who works out the best way to use this electronic platform to break out of the closed photography clique and reach the mass ‘digitally savvy’ market.



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