The Future of the Photobook: Lesley Martin
When Adams invited me to partake, I’d just finished writing the usual letter prefacing the Spring 2010 Aperture booklist, which I mention only because I begin the piece by marveling over the extent to which photobooks have been a primary topic of conversation everywhere I’ve been over the the past year — from the Netherlands to Madrid, Frankfurt to Paris, Beijing, and other less exotic places in between. It’s not that this is unexpected in my line of work (publishing, photography, etc.), but the fact that I haven’t been the one to force the topic on other people, and that others have been eager to speak to me about it on their own—that I have been invited to more book awards, shows on books than ever before—is proof to me that the conversation on photobooks is reaching a point of super-saturation. To my knowledge, there are at least four major Books about Books in development (Latin American Photobooks, German Photobooks, Dutch Photobooks, among other general interest) and several related exhibitions underway for release sometime in 2010-11. (In fact, I’m a little bit worried about whether or not the backlash is going to set in before too long). Of course, this newfound attention must be viewed conversley within the larger context of the implosion of the publishing industry at large. This is one of those moments of reconsideration that history loves to give us: the book is dead, long live the book!
From this vantage point, it seems pretty apparent that the photobook market is bifurcating and then some, dividing things into at least two identifiable camps—not to be seen simply as a split between the luxury collectible v. the mainstream affordable, or, as it is more commonly interpreted, between analog and digital. My preferred view of this is of a matrix in which along one axis, you have publications in which the transmission of the idea is tantamount to its material form; and along the other, publications in which the objectness and conceptual rightness of the material form are of utmost importance. In the ideal world, a multiplicity of points plotted between these two axes would be acceptable and supportable; the key factor being a commitment to finding the right form for the material—be it traditional offset printing, hand-pulled gravure, Indigo digital printing, halftone on newsprint, eBook, or online presentation. In other words, even if one sticks to the traditional definition of the book as the word and image brought together in a physical form, there is no single future of the photobook—there are multiple futures.
So yes, I would agree that this is not a discussion that ought to devolve into a “tastes great, less filling” debate of ebook v. offset printed volumes.
Darius Himes rightly points out that one major subtext of the discussion about the future of books is really that publishers “are debating the future of the sales of printed books in the quantities they are used to,” and that “it may be more useful to ask, ‘What will book publishing look like in 10 years?’ ” More to that point, I think we should be asking: Who are the producers for these various items and what are the mechanisms for distribution of each going to be? (I see that now Alan Rapp has picked up on this in his post, btw, so more on that here.) Where are we going to be buying them? How is the creation and dissemination of beautiful book objects going to be financially viable — never mind profitable, mind you, but simply viable? Who is going to underwrite innovation and experimentation toward other new, hybrid forms? Who, indeed, is going to spearhead these experimentations? (Don’t hold your breathe, dear reader, the answer is you.)
This brings me, briefly, to address Jörg’s point about «lack of innovation» in publishing. In general, I would agree that the traditional Western «white-box» mold of the photobook has become tediously dominant and have made it a personal mission to make sure that this is not my default approach when puttting a book together. What I have encountered when proposing something outside of the norm, however, is that there are commonly three points of resistance: 1. Sales and marketing concerns, which maintain that a book comes in the guise of a box of cards; or of a 19-foot accordian-fold; or that is enormous beyond all bounds of the traditional bookshelf will not be viable or attractive to the average bookbuyer; 2. Production and cost contraints of non-traditional sizes, bindings, etc.; 3. The photographer who worries that the design of the book will outstage the photographs. (There are two countries, at different points of time, btw, that I think should stand as role models for their willingness to take risks and to allow a truly innovative collaboration between desigers and photographers to take place: Japan in the 60s and 70s; the Netherlands right now.) It has been my experience that there have been great successes, of late in pulling off an innovative form, but no, it’s not easy, and that’s why I continue to look to small, upstart publishers and publishers from abroad when I want to be challenged and shake loose of my complaceancy about the book form.
This doesn’t begin to address the issue of the digital, the print-on-demand, etc. – I’ll give Darius props again for another astute observation: it’s going to be up to those who find a way of pushing against the established parameters of the proscribed forms of print-on-demnd; and those who break out of the «shovelware» mentality of taking the PDF of something designed like a book or magazine spread and figure out a way to truly create a new means for content: images, words, video, audio, and what have you to come together and create emotionally resonant, impactful experiences
I realize, in reading this, that it sounds rather cynical, when in fact, I’m optimistic, overall, that people clearly love the physical photobook as an object. Hopefully they will continue to put money where their mouth is and buy them from publishers and small bookstores whenever possible. It’s also exciting that people are curious about pushing into new territory when it comes to bringing together images and text – in both print and digital forms. There’s a shared sense that things are in transition and we need to find new ways of doing things.
Finally, here are a few random, non-photobook links re: the larger happenings in publishing that I’ve found of interest lately: