From 'I Was Here' Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing ISBN: 9781907893582
From 'I Was Here' by Ambroise Tézenas. Book published by Dewi Lewis. Ambroise Tézenas

Why This Is Not the Golden Age for Photobooks

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If photographers were to believe the hype, they would all launch their own photobook publishing venture tomorrow or, at the very least, self-release an opus of personal work.

Compendiums of the genre abound, from Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s three-tome The Photobook: A History to region specific anthologies. Events and prizes dedicated to photobooks are springing up worldwide. At the last Paris Photo, fairs honoring the medium took place at the École des Beaux-Arts, on a boat, in a former printing factory and in a dance hall-turned gallery. Collectors speculate on new titles as they would for prints. Critics are quick to hail these times as the new golden age of the photobook. But the fuss might just be all smoke and mirrors, at least according to two publishers.

“From the outside, it certainly looks like a thriving industry,” recognizes Dewi Lewis, founder of the eponymous publishing house. “Though it might be true in terms of the production, it isn’t if you look at the financial model.”

Since starting his business over 20 years ago, the British entrepreneur has seen the surrounding ecosystem change considerably. Back then publishers had the leeway to gamble with authors. “In the earlier days, I never had to look for money,” recalls his German counterpart, Maarten Schilt who produced his first photobook – Kadir Van Lohuizen’s “www.tibet-chon.com” – in 1999. “Since I knew what to expect in terms of return, I could take risks. Now, I can’t afford to make a book without being certain that I can pay all the bills.”

Today, both Schilt and Lewis rely on a combination of grants, subsidies and money raised by the photographers themselves.

“Many artists are ready to self-fund their first opus because they believe that they need a release early on in their career rather than after having developed a 30 or 40 years practice,” says Lewis. “That’s fine if it changes their life. But if it doesn’t make a difference, I wonder if they’ll be in a position to spend another 20 or 25,000 dollars the next time around. In a way, it has become about whether or not you have access to money, rather than the value of your work. It isn’t as democratic as we like to think.”

However naïve and quixotic they may be, new blood has also heralded a certain renewal in terms of the look and feel of the photobook. To set themselves apart, photographers are resorting to elaborate design meant to complement the message their images convey, with varying degrees of success. “There’s an astounding level of imagination and creativity,” says Lewis. “But, it could backfire. When one designer creates something extraordinary, the next one wants to do something even more memorable. If we’re not careful this leapfrogging will continue to drive the production cost upwards.” His strategy to weather the challenging times ahead is to exert more control on his spending while looking for new outlets.

And while the number of photobooks produced has increased, the number of people buying them has seldom shifted. Already a niche trade, it seems to be heading even further in that direction. Large bookstore chains are ordering fewer art publications to fill their inventory and the share of sales through Amazon has dropped between five to 10% in one year, according to Schilt and Lewis. “The market is fragmenting. This means that we have to deal with lots and lots of smaller outlets, such as the independent and heavily curated shops or be present at fairs," says Lewis. "Though these are great opportunities, they are also more time-consuming and add another layer of strain to our work.”


From "Gardening at Night" by Cig Harvey. Book released by Schilt Publishing. Cig Harvey 

Less shelves space, more books and the same amount of readers means that the print runs have had to adapt. “It’s simple math: when there’s the same amount of money being spent on photobooks, the more choice there is, the less copies per title are being sold,” says Schilt.

In 2002, when Lewis release Martin Parr’s “Common Sense” they printed over 10,000 copies. “There was a lot going on for him at the time and I was confident that the book would move quickly. It did. Now, even though he’s just as popular, I wouldn’t print more than four thousands,” claims his publisher. A big number for our times, since print runs now average around one thousand.

“If we're working in the car industry, we’d say that there’s overproduction,” adds Lewis. “So we need to shift gears. Take our time. Avoid rushing into bookmaking. Think everything through. If that were to happen, we’d have fewer books and better books. Then, we can start talking about a golden age.”

Laurence Butet-Roch is a freelance writer, photo editor and photographer based in Toronto, Canada. She is a member of the Boreal Collective.

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Disco Night September 11 by Peter van Agtmael, published by Redhook Editions, selected by Paul Moakley, deputy director of photography, TIME.Red Hook Editions
Red Hook Editions
A gardener of a small health clinic. American Marines were visiting to check if medical supplies were needed. The Captain and a doctor had a conversation about okra. The Marine praised the Afghan way of preparing the vegetable in a stew with tomatoes and caramelized onions. He told the doctor that at home in South Carolina he just deep-fried it. Garmsir, Helmand. Afghanistan. 2009
Night Walk by Ken Schles, published by Steidl, selected by Jason Eskenazi, photographer, author of By the Glow of the Jukebox: The Americans List.
"Ken Schles’ Invisible City captured the zeitgeist of New York just as Weegee and Klein did before him. His newest book, Night Walk, culled from work in his archive, transports us along the same streets during the same bygone era as Invisible City, but bring us to a new visceral destination. Night Walk, and a newly issued reprint of Invisible City―both capture the sensuous photo-gravure of the original Invisible City―and are published by Steidl."<br><br>-Jason Eskenazi, photographer, author of By the Glow of the Jukebox: The Americans List
Tiergarten byJohannes Schwartz, Published by Roma, Amsterdam, selected by David Strettell, founder and owner of Dashwood Books.
"Tiergarten was my favorite book of the year (so far).  Published from Roma the Dutch publisher which is run by designer Roger Willems and artist, Mark Manders.  Johannes Schwartz took photographs of meals fed to “wild” animals at the Moscow Zoo and printed them oversized on a Risograph press.  Risograph is usually reserved for zines and small scale books as the reproduction is very difficult to remain consistent. The colors tend to run unevenly and registration can shift from page to page leading to strange and unpredictable textures.  This effect is used to enhance the animals “slop” (slabs of fish, hunks of raw meat, heaps of vegetables and chunks of bread) into shifting abstractions of food, sometimes beautiful, sometimes repellent."<br><br>-David Strettell, founder and owner of Dashwood Books
Bronx Boys byStephen Shames, published byUniversity of Texas Press, selected by Vince Aletti, photography critic, The New Yorker.
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Car poolers byAlejandro Cartagena, self-published, selected by Martin Parr, Photographer at Magnum Photos.
"Although we have seen this work before, what a pleasure to see how this self published project, so cleverly combines the photos of the passing open plan trucks with their passengers laid out flat, but also the skies and scenes that can be viewed from the truck itself."<br><br>-Martin Parr, Photographer at Magnum Photos
Red String byYoshikatsu Fujii, self-published, selected by Larissa LeClair.
"The split binding allows the reader to page through one side and then the other, but the powerfulness comes from pairing both halves together. In this delicate and personal family album, Yoshikatsu Fujii ties the memory of his family back together with the cultural metaphor of red string."- Larissa LeClair
Congo byPaolo Pellegrin and Alex Majoli, published by Aperture, selected by Alice Gabriner, International Photo Editor, TIME.
""-<br><br>-Alice Gabriner, International Photo Editor, TIME
Taxonomy of a Landscape byVictoria Sambunaris,published byRadius,selected by Phil Bicker, Senior Photo Editor TIME.
"Even when it comes to photo books I prefer small books— like note books and paperback novels, pocket sized—portable and unostentatious. This year there were several books —Thomas Roma and Giancarlo T. Roma - Waters of Our Time, Christoph Bangert - War Porn and Paul Graham - Does Yellow Run Forever?—that I responded to, not only for their photographic content, but through their carefully considered design, and their intimate size. But after much consideration I chose a book on a larger scale—one I wouldn’t mind if it were even bigger—that presents its content in an appropriately clean and modern manner.Victoria Sambunaris - Taxonomy of a Landscape is a dedicated exploration of, and response to the American Landscape. A fifteen year journey traversing the country —often for months at a time— that channels the intellectual and journalistic spirit of John McPhee’s writings, the inquisition and discovery of Robert Frank’s Americans and the great American photographic traditions of the U.S. Geological Survey in the late 1800s, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) of the 1940s. and the New Topographics movement. The photographic study includes national parks, industrial parks and a 2,000 mile stretch along the US, Mexican border—each documented from Sambunaris’ unique and impeccable perspective. In the age of drones and digital photography, one woman traveling the country alone by car with a 5x7 wooden film camera, has delivered a book for the ages."-Phil Bicker, Senior Photo Editor TIME.
III byRobin Maddock, published by Trolley Books, selected by Jason Fulford, Photographer and Publisher of J&amp;L Books.
-Jason Fulford, Photographer and Publisher of J&amp;L Books
- Michael Mack, founder of MACK books and MAPP digital editions
- Michael Mack, founder of MACK books and MAPP digital editions
L.A., 1971, byAnthony Hernandezpublished bySilas Finch Foundation, 2014, selected by Jeffery Ladd, photographer, writer and publisher of Errata Editions.
"How can a book comprised of twelve images of something so ordinary as people exiting a door in Los Angeles (that looks oddly at first like a bank vault) captivate interest and validate itself as a book? Anthony HernandezÕs LA, 1971 is a prime example. Is this an early work by the artist inspired and based in conceptualism or simply a string of images that share common elements and form? L.A. 1971 is a surprising and beautiful find from The Silas Finch Foundation."<br><br>-Jeffery Ladd, photographer, writer and publisher of Errata Editions
Red Ball of the Sun Slipping Down byEugene Richards, published byMany Voices Press,selected by Olivier Laurent, Editor, TIME LightBox.
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Bedrooms of the Fallen
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Illustrated People byThomas Mailaender, published byRVB books, selected by Erik Kessles, curator and editor, co-founder of the advertising agency KesselsKramer.
"Thomas MailaenderÕs new book was made incollaboration with the Archive Of Modern Conflict in London, a gigantic imagecollection and occasional playground for photographers. MailaenderÕs hunt throughthe archive took him to the strangest places Ð photos that caught his eye forthe unusual. ÒIllustrated PeopleÓ collects these strikingpictures and intersperses them with imagery of MailaenderÕs own creation. Theseoriginal photos comprise body parts on display, the skin burned with a sun lampin such a way that it makes an image. Mailaender achieved this effect by takingnegatives from the archive and applying them with Vaseline to his subjectÕsbodiesÉ then turning up the heat. The resulting burns reveal naked men on hairylegs, a pensive portrait on a chest, and an odd landscape etched into ashoulder blade. Often, the images and bodies work together: the expansive backof an obese man is covered with pictures, and a defiant fist carries an equallydefiant soldier. Mailaender creates a rhythm by interspersinghis original images with the found pieces. The edit is fantastic and the finalbook leaves you truly disturbed and puzzled Ñ my criteria for a great photobook. ÒIllustrated PeopleÓ has burned its way into my brain."-Erik Kessles, curator and editor, co-founder of the advertising agency KesselsKramer
Invisible City byKen Schles, published bySteidl,selected by Michelle Molloy, International Photo Editor, TIME.
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This Equals That by Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin, published byAperture, selected by Aaron Schuman, photographer, writer, curator, and the editor of SeeSaw Magazine (seesawmagazine.com).
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Pier Paolo Pasolini - La lunga strada di sabbia, published by Contrasto, selected by Yolanda Cuomo, Book Designer.
"The Memory of a book I left in ParisI spent days pouring through books at Paris Photo looking for my favorite book.Many photo books caught my eye; clever design, interesting origami folding books, tactile covers in multi colored fabrics, cool modern images.It was this book that I found that struck a cord; Pier Paolo Pasolini, La lunga strada di sabbia, published by Contrasto.Photographer Philippe Séclier follows a road trip taken by Pasolini 50 years ago along the Italian coastline. Séclier rediscovers the places along Pasolini's journey.I think of cinema and memory and how photographs are all traces of the past engrained in your mind.Séclier's photos are interwoven with ephemera by Pasolini; a letter he wrote in Ishchia, a page from his original manuscript.I recall a trip I took with my 16 year old son, Luca, along the California coast Route 1. He had found photos of specific sites, large boulders along the sea.It was our job to find the places in the photos and photograph them. It was an exciting journey based on photos and the adventure of rediscovering them.I love the idea of this book, La lunga strada di sabbia, writing, memories and journies taken in a timeless world."-Yolanda Cuomo, Book Designer.
Disco Night September 11 by Peter van Agtmael, published by Redhook Editions, selected by Paul Moakley, deputy director of photography, TIME.
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