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What’s in a Name? By David Campany

This article originally appeared in The PhotoBook Review 007.  

The term “photobook” is very recent. It hardly appears in writings and discussions before the twenty-first century. This is surprising, given that some of the various kinds of objects it purports to designate have been around since the 1840s. It seems that makers and audiences of photographic books did not require the term to exist; indeed, they might have benefitted from its absence. Perhaps photographic bookmaking was so rich and varied precisely because it was not conceptualized as a practice with a unified name. So does the advent of the term “photobook” mark some kind of change?

There was little serious writing on the subject of photographically illustrated books throughout what was arguably the most important period for the form: 1920 to 1970. In that half century, when so many remarkable and important books were published, barely a single intelligent essay was written about them. For example, August Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit (The Face of Our Time, 1929) and Atget: Photographe de Paris (1930) received almost no critical attention, beyond a few lines from Walter Benjamin and Walker Evans. Today they are among the most discussed. Even Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958/9) attracted little serious commentary when it first appeared (although there were plenty of ranting column inches, for and against).

For all the sophistication of the photographs, design, editing, and printing techniques, and for all the nuanced grasp of how a book of photographs might contribute to its cultural moment or become a complex document, something seemed to elude critics and commentators. It seems as if it was only once photographically illustrated printed matter had begun to be eclipsed by television, video, and, later, the Internet that it could come under close scrutiny. In 1998 the American scholar Carol Armstrong published Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843–1875. It is a remarkable reflection on the very early interplay of photography, writing, and the printed page. Armstrong’s discussion of books by Anna Atkins, William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, and others is very illuminating, and her way of seeing that distant but vital moment through the prism of more recent critical theory is ambitious. Upon reading it, I felt convinced it was going to be the book to open a new field of study—but it didn’t. Maybe it was still too early. It never got out of its expensive hardcover and has now slipped out of print.

By contrast, the dominant form for books about photographic books follows the template set in 2001 by Andrew Roth’s The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, and consolidated by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s three volumes of The Photobook: A History (2004–14). These densely illustrated anthologies introduce a range of titles, establish some kind of canon, and function as guides for collectors, connoisseurs, and curators. There have been more than a dozen published in this vein, most often taking a national or regional theme: Dutch books, Japanese books, Latin American, German, and so on. These anthologies are invaluable because the area of study is still so new and there’s still much to discover, but they also frustrate because the writing on each entry is usually short. Swiss Photobooks from 1927 to the Present (2011) is a welcome exception, with more sustained essays about the context, production, and reception of each book included.

Generally the more serious scholarship is scattered and a little harder to spot, but it is there. The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond (edited by Patrizia Di Bello, Colette Wilson, and Shamoon Zamir, 2012) emerged from the regular meetings of a bunch of UK academics, myself included. The meetings didn’t really cohere and neither does this collection of papers, but maybe that doesn’t matter—if the writing of one of the various thinkers is of interest to you, it’s not difficult to track down more of what they’ve been up to. For example, Caroline Blinder writes extensively on the intersection of photography and literature in the U.S.; Ian Walker’s books on Surrealism are attentive to image/text interplay; and the reliably provocative David Evans writes on everything from photomontage and Situationism to Jean-Luc Godard and Wolfgang Tillmans, always with an interest in photo editing. I look forward to his forthcoming book 1+1, a primer on the history of editing.

This brings me to what I think has been the real stumbling block for sustained discussion of photographic books: a critical framework for thinking about editing has never really taken hold. How do we articulate the endlessly varied ways in which one image affects another, and another? In the 1920s, filmmakers and film theorists worked up sophisticated, even revolutionary, theories of cinematic editing. Think of the Soviet situation, with the intensity of the ideas of Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov. Given the expansion of the popular press and the extraordinary experiments with the book form around that time, one might have expected an equally sophisticated discourse around the editing of photographs. But beyond pockets of debate about photomontage and collage, there really wasn’t any. Even the great image editors of the last century, from Stefan Lorant and André Malraux to Franz Roh and Robert Delpire, have spoken little and written less about how they actually operated.

Nevertheless, editing is ubiquitous. For over a century nearly all photographic culture—from mainstream magazine photo-essays to independent books and website presentations—has involved the ordering of bodies of images. “Composition” is not confined to the rectangle of the viewfinder; it is also a matter of the composition of the set, series, suite, typology, archive, album, sequence, slideshow, story, and so forth. So are we to presume editing and its effects upon us are simply ineffable, beyond language, pursued entirely intuitively? Is editing a poetic practice that is not to be thought about too hard? Do we not discuss editing because it’s a painful truth that the majority of photographers are lousy editors of their own work? Many a landmark photographic book has resulted from collaboration between photographer and editor. This complicates the presumption of the singular authorial voice that still dominates discussion of photographic books.

In this light, Blake Stimson’s The Pivot of the World: Photography and its Nation (2006) is a significant study, with its sustained chapters on Frank’s The Americans, The Family of Man book and exhibition (1955), and the serial studies of industrial architecture made by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Stimson’s central contention is, “The photographic essay was born of the promise of another kind of truth from that given by the individual photograph or image on its own, a truth available only in the interstices between pictures, in the movement from one picture to the next.” From this, he develops a nuanced argument in which photographic meaning is as much about gaps and the unrepresentable as it is about what can be revealed or expressed visually. It is refreshing to see this idea articulated and thought through. At its core it’s not a wildly original insight—anyone who has ever sequenced photographs will at least intuit what Stimson is getting at—but this might be precisely why his book is starting to have an influence. Sarah E. James’s Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures across the Iron Curtain (2013), which emerged from her doctoral research, is a good example of this; her debt to Stimson is clear in her close attention to ways in which poetics and politics are inseparable in the making and reading of image sequences.

It might still be early days for the discipline, but is discipline what is needed? I know you can’t unring a bell but I rather miss those days before the dubious term “photobook” became so widespread. It’s not an innocent word. It has been welcomed and taken up in order to impose some kind of unity where there simply was none and perhaps should be none. A few years ago I wrote this in the British magazine Source: “The compound noun ‘photobook’ is a nifty little invention, designed to turn an infinite field (books with photographs in them) into something much more definable. What chancer would dare try to coin the term ‘wordbook’ to make something coherent of all books with words in them? But here we are. A field needs a name and until we find a better one we’re stuck with ‘photobook.’”

The emergence of the term and the institutionalization of a field of study does signal a change, and nobody who has witnessed the boom in interest in the last decade could fail to ask themselves, “Why ‘photobooks’ now?” I don’t think the term signals an end. New media don’t replace old ones but they do redefine them. The take-up of the term “photobook” is a consequence of the Internet, and so is the field it marks. Compared to the wild hall of mirrors that is the photograph online, the photobook—for all its various forms—is at least a fixed and relatively tame object of study.


David Campany is one of the best-known and most accessible writers on photography. His books include Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (2013), Jeff Wall: Picture for Women (2011), Photography and Cinema (2008), and Art and Photography (2003). He is also the author of The Open Road (Aperture, 2014).

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