On Thursday night, the book Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs by Weston Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis, from Getty Publications, was named the winner of the 2012 Kraszna-Krausz Best Photography Book Award at the Sony Photo Awards in London. The book presents more than 1,000 photographs by Watkins, a 19th-century landscape photographer of the American West, along with essays and research. Jem Southam, a British photographer and a professor at the School of Art and Media at Plymouth University, sat on the judging panel; he spoke exclusively to LightBox about the process of judging photography books.
Southam says that when the panel met together to narrow the list of books down to five, and then to one, after spending weeks on their own with the nearly 200 contest submissions, the process—meant to take two hours—took five. "Each book that we shortlisted, each of us could have happily stood by it as a winner, and each was an utterly different kind of project," he says. But the Kraszna-Krausz award has a very specific criterion for recipients, that they make a significant contribution to scholarship in the field, and with that standard in mind the Watkins book stood apart from the rest.
"One of the things that this book has done is bring an immense amount of labor to create a catalogue raisonné the likes of which, for a 19th-century photographer, I've never seen," says Southam. He says that many of the judges were of a generation for which the 1975 New Topographics exhibit at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., was an important event, and—at least for European photographic scholars—the first time they were introduced to landscape photographers from Watkins' era, a category that Southam says is still under-examined. This book, Southam says, will be the resource to which future generations of scholars turn when they are writing essays about Watkins and his compatriots—and, as such, the book fulfills the prize's mission.
The book also accomplishes a scholarly task by showing Watkins' work in great volume. "He was solving photographic problems for the first time," says Southam of Watkins' work from the Yosemite Valley, in which the photographer confronted a landscape that had never before been photographed. "You develop an understanding [with a book] of the photographer's process that wouldn't be possible with one print."
Nevertheless, Southam cautions any photographer against making a book that is intended to do well in competitions. "I'm not very keen on judging. Books aren't made to be judged," he says. But it helps when a book is as much of a stand-out as the one in question this time around. "One of the things that one's looking for is an object that's captivating as an object, that has presence, that the hands and the body and the mind get a pleasure from the holding and the turning and the looking at, that the whole has an integrity that comes from the vision of the author. This book, every page you turn to is as engrossing as the next."
The Sony World Photography Awards Exhibitions and World Photo London takes place April 27 – May 20. An exhibition of the winning and shortlisted books from the Kraszna-Krausz book awards 2012 is at Somerset House, London, during that time. More information is available here.