On Photo Books
Inspiration is a primordial aspect of my photographic journey. One of my favorite activities is to look at photographs, both from contemporary photographers and from masters from the past. It has never been easier to access the works of photographers around the world: Social media, magazines, photo books, exhibitions; the possibilities feel endless!
But nowadays, most people engage with art through social media (Instagram still being the number 1 platform when it comes to photography) and in the age of data, our relationship with photographs (or even works of art in general) has become mostly a one-sided binge that we consume mindlessly. Like everything in this mildly-dystopian era, more binge doesn't mean a better experience.
I follow 2626 people on Instagram. That's thousands of new pictures available at my fingertips every day. And that's just on one social media platform. The onslaught of pictures can feel extremely overwhelming. There is so much out there! How can we see it all?
It got me thinking: How do we take back control of our viewing experience? Social media is neither curated by the artist nor under the control of the viewer and thus doesn't feel like the right place to engage with art. Exhibitions are few and far between, especially in places that are not considered historic art scenes.
The answer that made the most sense to me was to go back to the physical realm: the photo book.
My love of photo books is almost as old as my love for photography. I still remember when I got my first book (The Suffering of Light by Alex Webb). I felt that I was holding a sacred object. I smelled the book, felt its heaviness, and ran my fingers across the pages. All my senses were involved in the experience. Time stood still while I got lost in the colorful pictures that graced the pages.
Unlike a platform like Instagram that nudges you to scroll from one picture to the next as quickly as possible, a photo book is meant to slow you down. The mere physical act of turning a page takes longer than a swiping movement of the thumb. And as you slow down, you start to pay attention. You look at the pictures from one corner to the other, you ask questions: why did the photographer take the shot when they did? Why did they include it in the book? Why was it placed next to this other image? Is there a link between the pictures?
A photo book is a dialog (albeit a one-sided one, taking place in your head) between the photographer and you, the viewer. The photographer opens the door to another world, a confluence between their inner psyche and the subject matter that they decided to cover. The viewer, in response, observes, asks questions, and interacts with the images.
Pictures from Trent Parke (Minutes to Midnight), Sage Sohier (Peacable Kingdom), Christopher Anderson (Son), Carl de Keyzer (Homo Sovieticus)
A photo book is a way for the author to shape what we will see and how we will see it. The pictures, the sequencing (i.e. the content) as well as the book format, the printing, the binding, etc. (i.e. the form) are all choices that the photographer makes that will impact how we will perceive their message. Browsing through the final product becomes a deeper and more wholesome experience. (A set of photographs on a website also enhances the viewing experience compared to social media but the lack of physicality makes it a poor cousin to the book).
Pictures from Trent Parke (Cue the Sun), Lars Tunbjork (Retrospective), Dougie Wallace (Road Wallah), Luc Choquer (Ruskaia)
In my opinion, you, my fellow photographer, should be on both sides of this dialog; as viewers of other people's work and as authors of your own.
You ought to become the masters of your own art instead of giving up your agency to social media platforms. You may reach fewer people - only those who buy your book or click on your website will see your work - but those who see it will get a truer picture of what you wanted to convey.
So start printing your pictures! Put them up on a whiteboard or on the floor. Play around with them, sequence them, rearrange them, remove them and add them back. Make a small book mock-up. Print a handful of copies for your close friends and family. Gift it to them. Show it to people you trust and get a critique. Flood the world with your photography, not the way our online overlords want it displayed, but the way you want your art to be seen.
And hopefully, when you get a publishing gig or self-publish a few hundred copies, I'll be able to add your book to my collection and have a beautiful dialog with you over my morning coffee.
Thanks for reading and see you soon!