First You Need a Shelf, Then a Bookcase, Then a Room: The Photo Book Dilemma

Buying photo books can easily lead to an addiction. Small print runs, limited edition prints, and high demand are temptations that it can be hard to ignore. I have in my lifetime given in to those temptations with gusto resulting in two major sales of my collections of books running into the 1000s. It was when I found myself looking to buy a house with an extra room just for my photo books that an intervention was called for. Fortunately, I was able to enact this intervention on myself with the realisation that I did not need so many books even though I had persuaded myself that I did.

I made a decision to only keep those that had been signed to me or which I returned to again and again for inspiration or solace. These tended to be books that I had an emotional connection with and therefore a relationship beyond their value or rarity.

It is their value and rarity that takes the casual purchaser into the stock market reality of photo book collecting. A keen eye and insider knowledge can easily result in a purchase that can rapidly rise in price the moment that it is no longer available. I never buy on the basis of speculative investment, but I have purchased books since, and before my intervention for £40, and less that are now valued at £200 and above.

Photo books can be good investments but only if you want to sell them, and that is the dilemma.

My current collection is contained within four sets of bookshelves, and around the house in various rooms. I have little room for anymore and that is a good thing. I am limited to only buying what I truly need and want. The books I do have are essential to my understanding of photography, and a constant reminder of what can be achieved, through different approaches to visual storytelling. I can look at images on screen, but it is the physical turning of the page, feel of the paper and appreciation of the ink that provides context.

It has never been easier to buy photo books or so much choice, but I increasingly find myself drawn to books of the past. Picking up forgotten or little known treasures from online selling sites or charity stores allows me to not only control my spending, but also find work and inspiration in unexpected places rather than by looking at images that are part of a current zeitgeist.

My love of photo books is the foundation of my love of photography, and is my principle engagement with the medium. Of course my love of design is also fulfilled by the photo book as is occasionally my interest in photographers writing about the work they have made.

A successful book in my mind achieves the perfect synthesis of these elements. I probably still own more than I need but I don’t buy as many as I once did and I’ll count that as an achievement! What I do know is that anyone who claims to be taking photography seriously must own at least a few photo books that mean something to them. If that few develops into a library, that’s your call, just be aware how quickly a collection can become an addiction.

Here are a few of my favourite publishers you might want to check out:
www.caferoyalbooks.com
www.anotherplacepress.com
www.mack.com
www.steidl.com

And here are a few sellers worth supporting and checking out:
www.photobookjunkies.com
https://photobookstore.co.uk
www.dominicwinter.co.uk

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com

© Grant Scott 2022

2 comments

  1. I enjoyed this post a lot, thinking back to my own experience. First I had no books, now I have many, not all of them I really want to keep. For me they are mostly to absorb and learn, to understand what photography means. By some photographers I feel elated, some deeply disappoint me, some are just milestones marking historical moments of photography, some I feel are clearly overrated. But I always enjoy my learning process.

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