dinsdag 8 mei 2012

To See and To Have The Photobook—A History and the Consequences Christoph Schaden Photobooks Photography

An Impulse of to See and to Have
The Photobook—A History and the Consequences

It is the yearning for the permanent presence of all the wonderful things that make us happy when we see them. That is self-preservation in the mode and in the medium of contemplation.
from Manfred Sommer, Sammeln: Ein philosophischer Versuch (Collecting: A Philosophical Experiment) (Frankfurt am Main, 1999)
When looking back at one’s life, the moment in which passion begins to burgeon often demands being carefully recorded. What day was it when the passion actually became apparent? What was the occasion for the flame being kindled? And what was ultimately the deciding factor for the flame to be able to burn permanently?
Those who have had the pleasure of experiencing Martin Parr within the framework of his tour through half of Europe to promote his two-volume book project The Photobook—A History will presumably recall the story of that decisive moment when his heart began beating for the medium of the photography book. It is not by chance that Parr’s own story is mentioned in the first volume’s foreword. It was in 1971 when the young student at Manchester Polytechnic suddenly had the opportunity to buy the second edition of Robert Frank’s legendary photobook The Americans. “It was the first book I ever bought for myself.” While reading it, the British man says, the photography book for the first time revealed itself to be an inspirational lesson that opened his eyes to the true potential of photography. Although one may tend to interpret the story of the young man’s awakening as a mythical tale, which was presumably the photographer’s studious intent. To this day, it does demonstrate in a symptomatic way the photobook’s special status it continues to have for both photographers, the art market and the image sciences. Because Parr’s story explains the creative impulse of To See and To Have in an almost archetypical sense, an impulse that in the first book purchase celebrates the initiation rites of an entire generation of photographers—and in Martin Parr’s case, it at the same time marks a realization with far-reaching consequences. As Walter Benjamin once noted, collecting is nevertheless a personal and, for the most part, lonely affair. He wrote that “for a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” Every obsessive collector will be familiar with this often fatal psychologism, and with every missionary element it is inseparably bound to. When the prestigious Magnum photographer, curator, and collector introduced his book project, talk was yet again of a story. In a manner typical of the British understatement, Parr announced that in collaboration with his colleague Gerry Badger, he wanted to write his story of photography for once and underscore the enormous impact the photography book had on the image medium. 
Of course this is only half the truth. As light-footed as the photographer’s statement seemed to be, the publisher and the author had presented the Photobook—A History as a phenomenal and ambitious undertaking. With a substantial number of copies—rumor has it that the first edition comprises 35,000 English and another 10,000 French copies—the aim was to appeal to connoisseurs and interested laypeople in a market-oriented way and provide a powerful boost to the flourishing international collector’s market. Even before publication of the second volume, Phaidon put out several versions of the cover, which was a patchwork assembly of various book covers, in the collector’s scene in order to deliberately send the community of photography book collectors into a state of hysteria. What titles were to be included, which ones would be left out? The bibliophile catalogue accompanying the exhibition Fotografía Pública: Photography in Print 1919–1939,which took place at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Spain in 1999, initially sensitized the audience to the photobook. This was followed two years later by The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Centurywhich was commissioned by the Roth Horowitz Gallery in New York. Finally,The Open Book: A History of the Photographic Book from 1878 to the Presenta project by the Hasselblad Center in Goteberg, was published in 2004. Both publications were edited by Andrew Roth. Arranged chronologically, they celebrated the photobook as both an aesthetically as well as artistically autonomous object form and for the very first time put forward a canon that in turn led to substantial price increases on the photography book market. Accordingly, one was eager to learn how Martin Parr’s work would rank. When it was finally published, the reactions were mixed with respect to the approximately 400 works included in the book. It was not without pride that the Dutch Web site “photoq” listed fifteen photobooks by Dutch photographers that had gained entry into Parr’s “bible.” Quite a number of reviewers, however, were disappointed not to read the names of their favorites.
Ken Light of FotoVision, for instance, asked if it is justifiable that Sebastião Salgado’s firstling, The Other Americaswas disregarded. On the other hand, in an article in Rundbrief Fotografie, the Austrian photohistorian Timm Starl regretted the exclusion of Silke Grossmann’s 1992 book Photographien. It was obvious that Martin Parr’s excellent compendium would display a large number of vacancies. He later let the photography book community know that his publication was intended to be more of a “statement work” than a standard work.
Going his own way, he in part dispensed with the reliable canon of modern photography, represented, for example, by the triad of Steichen, Stieglitz, and Weston. The accent was indeed justified, as four years prior to that, Andrew Roth had after all introduced the controversial ranking system. In contrast, Parr’s selection criteria primarily focus on the (photo)graphic quality of the printed work. It was not the genesis of the photographer’s work that was decisive but the book as an object: “It feels good in your hand.”
In Its Own Right
The British man was nevertheless aware of the fact that if the book wants to convincingly survive on the market for any period of time, a collector’s perspective cannot get along without a curatorial corset and an essayistic superstructure. He engaged the services of Gerry Badger, a knowledgeable critic and appreciator of photography, whose expositions constitute the second pillar of The Photobook.Photohistorians must have actually been delighted that both introductions included an almost incidental definitional and media-specific classification of the photobook. For people with a collector’s streak, one of the most fascinating things anyway is finding out the numerous parameters a convincing photography book is ultimately composed of. As early as 1992, the British publisher Dewi Lewis provided a first clue as to how to separate the wheat from the chaff. “There are many books that use photographs for illustration but very few that attempt to use photography as a medium of visual communication in its own right.” In a letter to Parr, the renowned photographer John Gossage later formulated what is perhaps the most useful catalogue of criteria: “Firstly, it should contain great work. Secondly, it should make that work function as a concise world within the book itself. Thirdly, it should have a design that compliments what is being dealt with. And finally, it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest.” It appears to be the case that those who produced The Photobook I/II took these standards to heart in the realization of their book project and insisted with great emphasis and perseverance on the dictum of singularity. In addition, a bibliography and detailed comments in the appendix ought to ensure the practical scholarly value of both volumes. Alternately, flanking the individual book presentations and providing orientation are nine essays—in volume one, for instance, on the beginnings of the photography book and its pictorial, modernistic, and propagandistic aspects. In The PhotobookA History, entire worlds have been opened up to an international audience. In the best sense of to see and to have, during his promotion tour through Europe, Martin Parr also presented the acquired book treasures with the ironic sensitivity and inner freedom only a passionate collector can possess. Winking, he had his history of the photobook begin even before the publication of Talbot’s epoch-making The Pencil Of Nature, of all things with the pseudonym “AA.” He lets us know that this is Anna Atkins, a student of the British astronomer John Herschel, who as early as 1843 set out to produce a three-volume work including cyanotypes of algae. (!) Was this antedating of the birth of the photography book intended to be an implicit challenge to the reader to rethink the canon and afford oneself the freedom of an individual view? In actual fact, numerous new discoveries prompted those working on the book to consciously abstract from their actual volition to structure it. Book of Bread by Owen Simmons, published in 1903, whose conceptional simplicity seems breathtakingly modern even today, received an individual review. It is precisely Parr’s look at the bizarre aspects of the genre that turned reading The Photobook—A History into an expedition into the uncharted territories of book art.
While the hearts of collectors beat all the more joyously, most of the reviews, however, were critical. It was especially argued that some things fell by the wayside in The Photobook I/II. What was thought to be largely lacking, for instance, is a work-immanent view of the bibliographic works of the most important style-forming photographers. The typographic determinants of the bookmaking have faded into the background, as has the path-breaking performance of the designers. In addition—as Darius Himes of Photoeye remarked—the triage does not include the publisher’s perspective. Last but not least, the categorizations Parr and Badger have developed, which are reflected in the form of individual chapters, are a particular point of criticism. In an article in Photonews, Ulf Erdmann Ziegler found fault with the fact that differing individual photoartistic standpoints—from Fischli/Weiss and Rineke Dijkstra all the way to Heinrich Riebesehl—that can scarcely be compared are summed up under the descriptor “The Düsseldorf Tendency.” The photohistorian Herbert Molderings, who commutes between Cologne and Paris, even arrived at the following devastating verdict: he stated that the classification that was made “owes itself to a fantasy that is freely rambling in photohistorical ‘catchwords’.” He consequently denied that the project had any scholarly value whatsoever.

A Vast Field
As problematical, diffuse, and faulty The Photobook may in part be, in a countermove it is necessary to matter-of-factly attest to the fact that until now, the book medium has been criminally neglected by art history and the history of photography. Because a collector’s market can also only ultimately operate on the basis of a reliable image science that makes detailed knowledge available. While there is extensive material on photography books by artists such as Albert Renger-Patzsch, Man Ray, or Lázló Moholy-Nagy, well-founded work and genre analyses that carefully reflect on the genesis and impact of the publications are few and far between. A methodologically-sound analysis instrument—for instance, of the kind used for analyzing film—has yet to be developed. In retrospect, The Photobook can therefore be regarded as a legitimate call for scholarship to in future focus more on the thematic fields, genres, and work biographies touched on in the book. One example for how necessary it is to carefully classify individual photobooks in their historical context is the harrowing photodocumentation Facies Dolorosa by the German physician Hans Kilian from 1934. It was not until The Photobook was published that the public became aware of Kilian’s involvement in the Nazi dictatorship’s totalitarian system.
There is still so much to do. Parr and Badger’s two-volume work programmatically ends with an epilogue entitled “The Ultimate Photobook, which  presents the photography book The Lost Pictures by Alexander Honory, of which only few copies were published in 1998, it does not, notably enough, contain a single photographic illustration. Instead, it combines sixty-five short descriptions of pictures that stand for the innumerable lost photographs of this era. For the two authors, this approach at the same time also signifies “a tribute to the photobooks that might have been, and which are still to come.”
It remains open to what extent the claim to an increased awareness that Martin Parr and Gerry Badger wanted to redeem with their two-volume Opus Magnum will be adopted by photohistorical research, on the book collector’s market, or by photographers. At least the phase of canonization and ennoblement in no way appears to be over. Last year, Stephen Daiters’s Chicago gallery published a catalogue of 218 books, From Fair To Fine: 20th Century Photography Books That Matterwhich in addition to a register included well-founded contributions by Jess Matt and John Gossage. Michèle and Michael Auer took a simpler path when they recently published parts of their 20,000-volume collection under the title photo books. In this volume, which was conceived as a reference book, the Swiss collectors left it at the mere naming and photographing of a small part of their collection, which incidentally doubles the canon furnished by Parr and Badger to a total of 802! Scores of errors with respect to both content and orthography as well as a Spartan reduction of the illustrations of the photobooks to the size of a vignette are all too clear evidence of the fact that in this case, the pursued strategy was merely one of adding value. In view of The Photobook—A History, however, it is more than questionable whether this concept will add up. Because nearly all of the those who reviewed Parr and Badger’s two-volume work attested to an extraordinarily aesthetic quality with respect to printing and design, which combines visual and reading pleasure with an appreciation of the medium. As Peter Kunitzky wrote in Eikon, this is perhaps the most important insight The Photobookholds, because when leafing through the book, one’s collective awareness is consciously directed toward “the fantastic photographs (always of the cover and at least a double-page spread) and the wonderfully appropriate layout. Which makes The Photobook what it is—it is itself an amazing photography book.”
During his promotion tour through Europe, by the way, Martin Parr began to rhapsodize when he was asked about his journey to China, where he was suddenly confronted with a national photography book culture, he said, which we are utterly unfamiliar with here. The collector’s eyes lit up. But that is another story.

© Christoph Schaden, 2007

text published in: Foam Album 07, Amsterdam 2007, o.p.

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