I have a confession to make. I’m losing my interest in photo books, not all photo books but many photo books.
It sometimes feels as if every minute of the day another is published, released into the ether to exist as yet another personal statement by a photographer anxious to show us all how they see the world. Many are generic in subject matter, many are generic in design and tone. Many do not need to be made and have the life expectancy of a puff of smoke; just as they appear, another arrives to take its place.
There is much discussion about the tsunami of images on Instagram and other platforms destroying ‘pure photography’ or ‘serious photography’ but I see and read little comment concerning a similar deluge of photo books. Of course the photo book begins with a serious intent, a desire to create a physical artefact of note, that demonstrates a photographer’s engaged relationship with the medium and as such demands to be taken seriously. Or does it? Is the reality that a rush to create a book of photographs is now fed by a belief that every ‘serious photographer’ must have at least one or two photo books in the portfolio and a few more ‘on-the-go’? A belief I believe fed by a proliferation of photo book competitions, portfolio reviewers, paid for book inclusions and workshops, working on a ‘pay to play’ basis.
Has the photo book become the 21st Century photo must have/do?
A promoted belief as financial practice, the new religion of the photo book, the perfect book as the Holy Grail. In a digital environment the need for physical proof of a photographers intent, talent and ability is strong and the photo book responds to that need.
Amongst the many there are peaks of excellence, books that progress our understanding, that force us to think, to consider, to reflect. They entertain and/or inform. But they are few and far between, as it should be. It should not be easy to make a photo book that excels in its intention, it should be difficult and it is.
So, if you find yourself in the position of wanting to create such an artefact either from scratch or from an existing or ongoing body of work, may I suggest a few questions you may consider asking yourself before you add to the multitude of photo books currently fighting to be heard and seen.
- What is your expectation for the book?
- How much time and effort are you willing to put into making it?
- Who will buy your book. Who is your audience?
- How much you want to spend on producing your book, and how much you are willing not to recoup?
- How will you sell, distribute and market your book?
- Do you have a reason to make the book that others will respond positively to?
- Are you willing to put in the hours required to build an audience for the book online, at events and through networking? Do you have an online profile?
- Do you understand typography, image pagination, narrative pacing, book structure and design? If not do you know someone who does?
- Do you know a printer you can work with choosing paper, binding and an appropriate print process within your budget? Do you know how to find one?
- How many copies do you want to print? And why that many or few?
Having answered these questions if you still want to create a photo book, I wish you great luck and success! However, if you can’t answer them with honesty and accuracy or feel that they are not important enough to consider, I wish you twice as much luck and I fear for your success!
The photo book is not the only physical outcome for a body of work and it maybe that it’s not right for you, if so that’s okay, you can be a ‘serious’ photographer without one and in the words of Public Enemy “Used, abused without clues, I refused to blow a fuse, They even had it on the news. Don’t believe the hype.”
© Grant Scott 2019
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.