The Photo Book Will Rise Again

Well before the release of the iPad, the conventional wisdom was that book publishing is in a state of critical and imminent peril, and within the photography book community, the argument has received special attention in ways that reflect this category’s peculiar challenges: production costs and audience exclusivity.

Because their primary function is to reproduce images, photography books tend to have high production values and are therefore expensive to produce. They are often large-format, which usually necessitates a hard cover, and these “coffee-table” trim sizes require more paper, which is the primary, ever-increasing, production cost of print media.

Meanwhile, their relatively rarefied content implies a small audience with a particular kind of visual literacy, sensibility, and disposable income level. Small book runs result in higher retail prices, reducing the desirable “impulse-buy” factor and further limiting the audience.

 

That said, the core photo book audience is an avid one, and questions concerning its future are repeatedly played out in panels, workshops (I teach one), competitions, and online discussions (more on that below). Heck, there is even an entire book coming soon on the subject coauthored by photography book publisher and evangelist Darius Himes and consultant Mary Virginia Swanson.

This level of discourse seems to indicate a healthy interest in the fluxy state of affairs. The number of photography books from trade and small fine-art houses has arguably declined, at least coincident with the recession of the past few years. Whether they will rebound upon an economic recovery is questionable, and the proliferating tablet platform is a new factor in the medium’s prospects (I think it’s interesting to note that the iPad’s home screen photo is by one of the modern masters of American photography, Richard Misrach).

But arguably the independently published photo book is flourishing. You can see this from the increasing popularity of on-demand printing services such as Blurb, Lulu, and MagCloud , as well as the number of successful and well-published photographers who have launched their own publishing ventures, such as Alec Soth, Richard Renaldi, and Shane Lavalette (a practice which itself has a long pedigree, from Alfred Stieglitz to Ralph Gibson). Yet this kind of kaleidoscopic output creates another issue—who but the most ardent follower can keep abreast of this vast dispersion of small-scale publishing?

Last year two popular photography blogs, Flak Photo and Resolve started a multi-blog discussion about the future of photography books. In my contribution, I posited a scenario where photography book publishing thrives through means analogous to punk’s self-generated, community-driven production/consumption model.

At least two growing developments since that post seem to indicate this model is at least part of the future. First is curator and writer Larissa Leclair’s Indie Photobook Library, which is a Virginia-based physical, non-circulating repository of books that slip through traditional publishing. These include self-published books, Blurb and MagCloud editions, exhibition catalogs, hard-to-find internationally published books, and artist’s books. Leclair has been working on her idea for years, inspired in part by the intensive photography archive created by historian and archivist Peter Palmquist. The aim of the library, Leclair says, is to preserve and showcase  “a collection of books that decades from now people will still be able to see in person. By having a specific collection dedicated to these kinds of books, trends in self-publishing, comparisons, and scholarly research can more easily be conducted in years, decades, centuries to come.” In the scant few weeks that the archive has been announced, it has grown to nearly 200 titles, most of which will be on display this October in Toronto in the first of a planned annual series of exhibitions.

The second resource is a site called the Independent Photo Book, curated by photography bloggers Hester Keijser and Jörg Colberg. This is a portal where anybody can submit information about books that are neither trade-published nor available on Amazon; each listing links back to the site of the creator or gallery where the book is available. The titles have to be in-print, and do not include Blurb and MagCloud because those sites make editions created there available for purchase. Other than that, any photo-based book qualifies; so far there are well over 150 titles listed.

This is good news for people who do not live near the last remaining photography-book-oriented bookstores around, such as Dashwood in New York or photo-eye in Santa Fe, which still cannot carry all of the small-run books that will continue to be published. As the mainstream resources dwindle, it will be projects like these that will sustain a specific consumer for whom the vaunted “death of the book” does not yet apply.

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