Materiality and freedom

I’ve not been able to find many articles about photobook culture in academic journals. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more scholarship about the current scene, so I think it’s worth a closer look at a couple of interesting articles I did manage to find. These are ‘Ofer Wolberger’s Visitor and the Larger Context of Self-Published Photobooks’ by Larissa Leclair and ‘Self-Publishing as Emancipation’ by Agata Szydłowska.

Szydłowska discusses A Beginner’s Guide For The Independent Publisher, a Polish DIY manifesto, on ‘creating books without the help of professional editors, graphic designers, and printers.’ Leclair’s article takes Wolberger’s book, Visitor (2011) as an exemplar of independent photobook publication.

The boom in self-published photobooks seems to have been sparked by the publication of The Photobook: A History Volumes 1 (2004) and 2 (2006) by Martin Parr and Garry Badger, encouraged by the growing availability of affordable print technologies and sustained by the use of the internet, especially social media, to create a globally-distributed community and marketplace. As Leclair says, it has now become impossible to keep track of the number of self-published books as ‘self-publishing and collaborative imprints are mainstream for a new generation of photographers.’

Of course, being ‘mainstream’ among photographers is nothing like achieving popularity in the wider culture. Production of self-published photobooks has exploded, but the number of buyers in the market doesn’t seem to have kept pace. It’s still largely photographers showing each other their work.

László Moholy Nagy ‘believed that the book form was the ideal format for photography’ and self-publishing can be an affordable way of making work accessible, if only to a limited audience. Leclair characterises the ‘photobook as a self-contained exhibition able to be revisited’ as opposed to ‘the ephemeral existence of exhibitions’. Of course, the web also offers many opportunities to put photographs on permanent display, but the physical, tactile nature of a printed book allows the photographer different creative possibilities as well as more problems to solve.

Szydłowska sees the photobook boom as an outcome of ’the desire to maintain a sense of materiality, tangibility (and) the direct and lasting interaction it provides with a piece of art in a given time and place… a way to put your art in the hands of the viewing public’.
In a book, ‘photography regains a haptic quality, materiality… its objectivity, through its existence in the private sphere.’ Rather than being seen in a gallery, you can take photographs home in a book and rather than looking at a screen you can hold it in your hands and turn the pages. So for collectors ‘self-publishing can be seen as an intimate phenomenon’ that also maintains ‘even the sensuality of a given piece of art’.

In Szydłowska’s view ‘art zines rarely aspire to become collectors items’, but photobooks often do just that with signed and numbered limited editions in low numbers. She suggests that (big, expensive) art books (as opposed to zines) are ‘attempting to maintain the Benjaminian aura’ but I think zines do this better than those books because they’re produced in much smaller numbers (even if they’re not editioned) and can usually only be obtained via the author or a specialist bookshop. Only cognoscenti buy zines or independent photobooks. Few other people even know they exist.

Leclair goes on to declare that ‘the distinction between traditional monographs and self-published books is no longer meaningful’, but I have books on my shelves published by Steidl which are traditional monographs by Edward Burtynsky and Saul Leiter, for example, that feel very different in presentation and substance from self-published books. I think those distinctions are still useful and an amateur approach bears different kinds of fruit. Leclair lists alternative formats for self-publishing, such as zines and newsprint, print-on-demand and handmade artist’s books.

She also makes use of ‘the analogy of established versus “underground” that parallels the traditional publishing paradigm and the uprising of the self-publishing movement.’ While I would not agree that there’s a revolution going on, in the sense of anyone actually being threatened by self-published photobooks; traditional publishers are not at risk of being overthrown by any uprising. ‘Underground’ carries connotations of a dissident political movement, of samizdat publication and distribution, but photobooks are not really subversive, not even of established art publishing. There are, perhaps, elements of the philosophy and aesthetic of punk zines and certainly the DIY impulse has carried through, although this is not necessarily or essentially punk. Fanzines long pre-date that period and scene, having originated in the American science fiction fan culture after the Second World War.

Szydłowska sees self publishing as a means to free the
photographer ‘from the art market and mainstream media, but also from galleries
and curators… the entire artistic establishment’. It has an ‘emancipatory
potential, which places its work beyond the boundaries of the art world, and
the market for that matter’. What lies beyond those boundaries? The photobook
scene has created its own parallel world, somewhat self-enclosed, with a small
crowded market in which it’s hard to make any money. I’m not convinced many
photographers really want to be released from the art world. Indeed, I expect
many of them regard self-publishing as a means of gaining entry to it.

To Szydłowska curators, institutions, gallerists and others are ‘intermediaries… between the artist and the viewer’, but surely their role is to enable a connection with audiences that are harder to reach without them.

Self publishing can, however, act ‘as a surrogate or alternative to institutions… not so much an active opposition to the establishment, but rather an attempt to get by without it’. As Szydłowska points out, photobooks are ‘a relatively inexpensive way to distribute photography, particularly in the light of the difficulties of selling photographs’. She is right to say that ‘creating and publishing art books at one’s own expense offers authors a unique opportunity to freely select texts without outside editorial pressure.’ This, however, assumes that the editor is an authority figure imposed on the project, an influence to be resisted at all costs. Of course, a commercial publisher won’t want to fund a publication likely to lose money and the project may be better realised as an expensive artist’s book or a cheap zine.

Szydłowska’s independent publisher ‘chooses his own photographs, writes his own text, and in the end promotes shows, and distributes his own work using his own money.’ It’s good to be able to do that, of course, but it sounds like a lonely and expensive way to go.

For Leclair the process of publishing insists that the photographer engage with a much wider range of knowledge and skills, to cultivate what Leclair calls ‘the sensibility of the artist as bookmaker, book designer and book editor’. Self-publishers need to know how designers and printers work, if only to enable them to have more useful conversations with the professionals they’re working with.
Self-marketing and self-distribution also require skills of networking and selling that might be new to a photographer. It’s also difficult to acquire all these abilities to a sufficiently high standard, which is why collaboration is vital.


Using Format