On Developing Photobooks

MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 3, Surfaces and Strategies, Week 7

My first step towards crafting my own photobook was to read and absorb the first section of the book Understanding Photobooks by Jörg Colberg Routledge New York 2017.  Colberg writes in a simple style and is frank and observational about the definitions used in making and marketing photobooks.  Hew writes about monographs, thus excludes catalogues and ‘albums’.  He opines that ‘albums have become outdated’ (pp1).  He defines a monograph as being a compositional whole, as each image has a specific relationship with the next, the connective tissue being the overall layout including any narrative.  He describes the holistic approach as being ‘a medium of visual communication in its own right’ (pp2).

It is perhaps obvious, the distinction between an exhibition and a photobook, but Colberg regards it as being worthy of a paragraph.  Exhibitions operate and occupy a specific space, thus the physicality is important; the light, walls, proximity and so on.  Although the digital world can blur the distinction by deliberately emulating walls and spaces and thus veer into the territory of the ‘page’ layout found in a book.  An exhibition in its rational sense has a limited life span, whereas a book has an almost indeterminate length of life.  The ‘terms of engagement’ are determined by the viewer when taking hold of a photobook; she may flick, dwell, reverse the read and so on.  We can assume that this experience is a solo occupation and thus there is a personal response to the work. Colberg cites Richard Benson in the afterword to Lee Friedlander’s In the Picture; self portraits, 1958-2011 the differences between books and exhibitions thus ‘the book became the ultimate venue…not the transitory one of he gallery show’…instead ‘a visual structure that lasted and could repeatedly reacquaint us with what we thought we already knew’…’we can look long and hard, without distraction, and return to it again and again’ (pp9).

Colberg derives the physicality of the book, the texture, touch, turning of the pages, the beginning, the end, the overall balance and proportion, the perception of value or cheapness.  The quality of print, the risk of colour casting, the font, the title, the binding.  Is the making an act of love or a short cut to ordinariness?

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figure 1

The market place is reviewed and the world of publishing with the wider options available now to work with established houses or self -publishing.  Colberg advises aspiring photobook composers, i.e. photographers, to assess with a basic business mentality the impact of working with a publisher who will be experienced in the costs and processes and thus the investment required before any sale is achieved, alongside the lengthy and detailed process of going down the self publishing step by step route.  Colberg co-founded the website http://selfpublishbehappy.com/ (fig 1) which is a welcome and useful resource with many examples the page turn through.  Colberg draws the important dissection between the regular book sale, the independent market and the collector’s market.  Regular books are in quantity and sold via channels such as Amazon.  The independent market embraces small and self-publishers; he notes that working in this area the ‘bookseller discount’ (pp21) applies and must be sufficient to allow the ‘retailer’ to function.  Websites such as http://www.25books.com/ (fig 2) reflect the simplicity of a specialist independent seller.

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figure 2

A market has developed whereby the ‘regular’ version of a photobook by be parallel produced with collector’s editions.  The print run will be on higher quality materials, including the paper and binding. and a specific number for sale.

Colberg’s advice reaches to the production process whereby a set of images is transformed into a coherent photobook, these are;

  • Defining the core concept of the book
  • Editing the source photographs
  • Sequencing the edit
  • Production of the text components
  • Design of the book: layout of photographs, design of text components
  • Decision-making: materials, printing, and binding
  • Preprinting file preparation
  • Printing (including ideally press checks)
  • Binding

In conclusion, this book has provided me with a greater and deeper understanding and appreciation of definitions, methods and marketing of photobooks.  I recommend it for its straightforward approach to the whole subject.

Links and references

Colberg J. Understanding photobooks. Routledge. New York 2017