Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 31, 2013
Horacio Fernández The Latin American Photobook Exh. cat. New York: Aperture Foundation, 2011. 256 pp.; 250 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9781597111898)
Patrizia Di Bello, Colette Wilson, and Shamoon Zamir, eds. The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond London: I. B. Tauris, 2012. 288 pp.; 45 b/w ills. Paper $31.00 (9781848856165)
Ryuichi Kaneko and Ivan Vartanian Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and '70s New York: Aperture Foundation, 2009. 240 pp.; 400 ills. Cloth $75.00 (9781597110945)

In their introduction to The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond, Patrizia Di Bello and Shamoon Zamir make a refreshingly straightforward proposition about the historical relationship between the photograph and the printed page: “Ever since the publication of Henry Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature (1844–46) . . . the home of the photograph has been the book as much as the gallery wall. It could even be argued that the book is the first and proper home of the photographic image from which it moved out to take up residence in the fine art gallery and the modern museum in the early twentieth century” (1). The photograph, as this argument suggests, is a chemically produced print that naturally finds its place on the mechanically impressed page. Correspondingly, a history of photography cannot be represented by the autonomous and individual print alone, but must include the mass-reproduced image sequence often placed in the company of text. The new critical literature on the photobook—a genre whose very definition this scholarship seeks to explore—takes this assumption as its starting point. In so doing, it opens a vast terrain of unexplored photographs. Given such an expanse, how can the scholar or curator process what David Campany declares in the same volume to be a “barely charted and possibly unchartable chaos that is the history of the photographic page?” (88)

The three books under review meet this challenge: one (The Photobook) presents a survey history built on case studies framed by Talbot on one end and Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk on the other, while the other two published by Aperture (The Latin American Photobook and Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s) focus on geographically defined archives. What ultimately draws these investigations closely together is not the fact that they take the photobook as their subject of study, but rather the methodological groundwork that their editors feel the need to navigate. All three books make some of their strongest contributions by seeking to define the category of the photobook and sketching the cultural work these pictorial tomes can perform. The result is a series of journeys into the photographically illustrated page—journeys that expand across the globe.

Histories of the photographic page have only recently begun to emerge, possibly because of the potential enormity of this subject, which includes both vernacular and fine-artistic forms, or due to its ubiquity in our everyday lives. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger suggested in their two-volume study, The Photobook: A History, for example, that the subject has been ignored or disregarded “perhaps because it was so obvious—right there under our noses, taken for granted” (Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, 2 vols., London: Phaidon, 2004, 2006, vol. 1, 6). Therefore, a good number of the published histories of the photobook were first incubated not in scholarship concerned with photography but in the wider field of periodicals studies. Among other things, this relatively new pursuit has been developing important theories about the interaction of image, text, and graphic design in print, and the everyday experience of modernity these amalgams afforded mass audiences. One of the more significant of these works, Fotografía Pública: Photography in Print 1919–1930 (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 1999), was overseen by the same Spanish historian of photography, Horacio Fernández, who edited The Latin American Photobook and staged an exhibition of this same material in 2012.

But while asking similar questions as periodicals studies, inquiries into the photobook have increasingly forged their own trajectory by focusing on the distinctive innovations that sequentially arranged photographs make in the looser format of the book. Unconstrained by the pressures of news reporting and advertising applied in periodicals, and generally given far more control over their pictures and text, photographers and authors have used the photobook to significantly expand their work beyond the single image print or tightly contained magazine story. In periodicals, as Daido Moriyama reports in Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s, “typically a photo story is centered on one theme, and complete as a story. I didn’t want my work treated in the same manner as journalism. . . . There were many feelings in me that were compounded, and I wanted to reflect that in a book” (26). Studies of photobooks can explore the consequences of this liberty in order to understand how a carefully marshaled image series in the company of edited text conveys knowledge. Carol Armstrong’s important Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in Book, 1843–1875 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998) inaugurated just such an investigation with five Victorian-era case studies showing the operations of photography as it was drawn by science and art into published discourse. Quite significantly, she also demonstrated what happened to the medium itself within this context. For it was specifically during these early years of the photographically illustrated and bound page that scientists, academics, and image makers constructed the notions of objectivity that would go on to define the medium’s use more broadly in twentieth-century publications.

The Photobook builds upon Armstrong’s project in part by expanding its historical frame. The anthology’s case studies span the medium’s entire history and thereby support the volume’s broader point that photography and the photobook are closely bound. Yet this assertion also makes the apparent task of fixing the genre’s definition within a “possibly unchartable chaos” all the more difficult. Di Bello and Zamir address this prospect in a beautifully written and critically rigorous introduction that denies this prospect within their own anthology while subtly suggesting its possibility in the future. They can therefore state that their “collection does not attempt a history or a theorization of the genre,” but then follow with a tantalizing statement: “Understanding how meanings are shaped by an image’s interactions with another, or its place in a group or sequence, or through its dialectical coexistence with text is the foundation upon which histories as well as aesthetic and cultural conceptualizations of genre must be built up if they are to prove durable, even in their inevitable partiality” (1). They then launch into just this sort of conceptualization, employing Soviet filmmaker Sergei Einsenstein’s 1939 essay on montage to explain that a juxtaposition of two separate elements, such as text and image or image and image, “resembles a creation—rather than a sum of its parts” (2). Di Bello and Zamir seem to be expanding on Parr and Badger’s “The Photobook: Between the Novel and Film,” which opens The Photobook: A History (vol. 1). But rather than concentrating on sequencing and narrative, as Parr and Badger do, Di Bello and Zamir proffer Eisenstein’s “third something” as the photobook’s constitutive essence, although they refrain from stating this outright. The photobook, therefore, finds its specificity in the interaction of two constituent parts that generates a tertiary product.

Making this move allows the editors of The Photobook to depart from Parr and Badger’s definition of the genre as “a book—with or without text—where the work’s primary message is carried by photographs” and propose instead that, “In the photobook . . . photographs certainly move beyond the role of illustrations or transmitters of evidence to claim an active role in generating an independent meaning grounded in the unique ontology of their visual form. But at the same time, they do not transcend the texts that accompany them; rather, image and text work within a dialectical relationship” (4).Some readers inclined toward rigorously historical or discursive understandings of the photobook or photography itself may quibble with this assertion that the genre bears a “unique ontology.” But in making this claim, Di Bello and Zamir perform a highly useful service in establishing the photobook as a discrete object of study. The essays that follow, therefore, offer not a chaotic vision of endless variation, but a range of image, text, and design permutations that outline the photobook’s defining boundaries.

Graham Smith’s essay on Talbot’s Sun Pictures from Scotland (1845) analyzes a case in which one of photography’s inventors and early advocates bound twenty-three plates into a volume with scarcely any text at all. But because each photograph and its caption powerfully suggest a poem or passage from Walter Scott’s oeuvre, the reader is encouraged to conjure the author’s words. In one stroke, Talbot invented the format that would typify the text-meager art photobook of the twentieth century. In this respect, Ian Walker’s chapter on Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix [sic] Gasoline Stations (1962) offers a nice pendent to Talbot’s tome. Here the artist famously offered no captions at all and scarcely anything else that would help fix the meaning of his deadpan photographs of a banal subject. Walker adds to the copious literature on this, the first of Ruscha’s photobooks, by explaining how the volume operates as a subtle framing device, marshaling the pictures into an unfolding typology despite the openness of the sequence’s signification. “The meaning of Twentysix Gasoline Stations still lies as much in its layout and typography, its presence as an object, as it does in the twenty-six photographs it contains” (122).

On the other side of this coin, in terms of time and format, is Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of a City (2005). As opposed to Sun Pictures and Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the text of this Nobel-prize winning author fills the pages while small and poorly printed images, snapped by photographers only listed at the book’s end, appear intermittently. This initially seems to be a case of photographs receding to a secondary role as illustrations of text. Yet Gabriel Koureas intelligently picks apart the volume and its history to show how the photographs actually sparked the book’s constitution, soliciting and activating the memories that Pamuk then recorded in text. The resulting amalgam, despite the seemingly secondary role of the pictures, is the “third something” that Di Bello and Zamir outline in their introduction.

Kourea’s account of Istanbul also discusses another feature of the anthology that surfaces in Walker’s chapter and, in fact, most of the others: the photobook’s status as an object. As Kourea notes, it is through the holding of the book in one’s hands, the flipping of pages, and the capacity of the photographs to interrupt, transform, or energize the reading of the text that a reader experiences the solicitation of memory images that brought Pamuk to compose his book in the first place. In her own chapter, Di Bello expands on this point even more dramatically by showing how The Sculptures of Picasso (1949) affords an embodied sensation of viewing the artist’s works in three dimensions. But this is an experience unlike an actual physical encounter. Because photography can scatter a sense of scale, large and small sculptures suddenly seem to offer the same tactile experience of surface and navigation of space. Similarly, the sequence of photographs and their placement on the page stage an encounter heavily determined by the physical engagement that photographer George Brassaï made with these works of art in Pablo Picasso’s studio while snapping from different sides and in a certain order, perhaps determined in part by how the artist physically arranged his sculptures. Meanwhile, when viewing the images, “the tactility of the sculpture is replaced by that of the photograph” (97) and, in turn, that of the book itself, a transformation Di Bello explains can teach a new experience of modern sculpture. This is an encounter more about the shaping of space through various materials and textures rather than the presentation of surface, as sculpture was traditionally understood before modernism.

In Zamir’s chapter, the tasks and outlines of the photobook morph once again as Edward Curtis’s famous The North American Indian (1907–30) presents images on two horizons: the bound volumes offering an anthropological-like text alongside photographs, and the loose-leaf portfolio reserved for the most exceptional of the rich pictorialist photographs. Given these two platforms and their discourses of science and art respectively, the full work “requires us to attend to the claims of aesthetic experience upon our understanding, in a project ostensibly riven by the ends of instrumentalist knowledge” (35). Zamir names the resulting “third something” as “Art Science.” In a brilliant analysis, he goes on to outline how this blend of semi-anthropology and highly affective pictorialist portraits structures the consumption of Curtis’s study:

Because the prints [in the portfolio] are available to the touch, their delicacy is also experienced as . . . a tangible fragility which brings with it the attitude of pace and care. The vigor and clarity of the prose [in the volume] in both its descriptive and narrative modes keeps us moving along at a lively pace while the images stop us in our tracks. Our eyes and thoughts are brought to a stilled reflection. As we turn from text to image we very often go from the abstractions of kinship systems and clan organizations, or the minutiae of ritual practices and religious beliefs, to a more embodied and sensual perception. (38)

This is photobook studies at its best, a quality paired with other strong contributions in The Photobook on the cultural work of the bound and illustrated page. These include David Evans’s extraordinary comparison of Heiner Müller and Sibylle Bergemann’s A Specter Is Leaving Europe (1990) with Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel (War Primer, 1955). Between the two he explores the vagaries of photographic signification in the quickly shifting historical terrains of post-World War II Germany and the more recent “post-communism” in which A Specter appeared. In the anthology, moreover, David Campany proposes that Walker Evans devised a new sort of deadpan photography for his photo essays in Fortune magazine, and Annabella Pollen explores the trails of vernacular photography when solicited for a prearranged narrative arc in the British bestseller One Day for Life (1987). Co-editor Colette Wilson further unfolds the relationship between word and image when both are activated by the tension drawn between public and private memory in Carlos Freire and Robert Solé’s Alexandrie L’Égyptienne (1998), and Paul Melo e Castro seeks a tighter definition of the photobook as “spatial phrasing via elimination and connection” (205); he reaches this distillation by reading Eduardo Gagiero’s Lisboa no Cais da Memória (2003) through Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (trans. Steven F. Rendall, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

As a whole, these essays successfully take stock of, and contribute to, the study of the photobook. But though they uncover large swaths of the hidden archives available on innumerable printed pages, they generally keep their focus trained on North America and Europe, with the partial exception of Wilson’s chapter on Egypt. In this respect and others, the additional volumes under review break exciting new ground. The Latin American Photobook explicitly operates as a recovery mission meant to find volumes that were even unknown to local photography and photographer fans. To this end, an advisory committee formed in São Paulo in 2007 and “sought to compensate [for] these silences through the systematic recovery of the Latin American photobooks of greatest value, which will significantly expand our knowledge of the history of photography in Latin America” (7).

This project, of course, required a working definition of the photobook. In his introduction, Fernández states that such a publication is essentially “a group of photographs arranged (and reproduced) by an author in a particular sequence, with the aim of producing an understandable, visual whole.” He adds that it should inspire open reading on a subject and, citing photographer Paolo Gasparini, should be at best “a cultural product that awakens interest in and awareness of issues” (14). A photobook, in short, should be aesthetically, socially, and/or politically contentious. This is a definition formed specifically with an eye toward the genre’s development in Latin America, which can in turn broaden an understanding of what constitutes a photobook. It also spurred Fernández and his advisory panel to amass a trove of volumes that offers new knowledge about many photographers and images and a great deal about the cultural context in which they operated.

Following Fernández’s introduction is a welcome assault of photobook covers and selected pages where text, image, and extraordinary designs meld into stirring—even troubling—reflections on the conditions of Latin American countries over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Paranóia (Paranoia, 1963), for example, features São Paulo native Wesley Duke Lee’s closely framed grainy shots that, à la Surrealism, show the world in hallucinatory rupture. Next to these, Roberto Piva’s texts mediate on the “delirious world” that presumably led to the images’ creation. Germán Marín’s Chile o muerte (Chile or Death, 1974) offers a hectic array of photographs culled from the archives of Chilean graphic art editor Armindo Cardoso which, in the company of large-type protest chants, suggest the pain, resentment, and coming revenge of those defeated by Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup. Diego Levy’s Sangre (Blood, 2006) offers page after page of the photographer/author’s dramatically framed images showing dead or near-dead victims of violence. The very range of book types included in The Latin American Photobook expands this excitement over political orientation and format with, for example, a sophisticated government propaganda book lauding Eva Perón and a photocopied collection of vernacular photographs sold on the streets of Santiago, Chile. None of the volume’s collected books offer quiet and static images or narrative arcs that are anything less than frenetic. What one senses from the form and sequencing of these photographs is a world in dramatic transformation and a pictorial medium successfully pressed to reflect this metamorphosis in stunningly affective ways. Fernández writes that this character reflects the largely urban and modernist concern of these books, which mirrors the social trajectory of most Latin American countries in the last century. Flipping from page to page of his volume and, hence, from one featured book to another, an expansive constellation of photographers emerges, many of whom are unknown to English-language readers. Horacio Coppola, Alicia d’Amico, Fernell Franco, Martín J. Chambi, and Gorka Dorronsoro are some of the names worth mentioning here. Equally significant are the graphic and typographic designers of these many eye-catching books, a handful of whom are featured in an appendix of short monographs at the end.

A printed collection such as this can never duplicate the experience of perusing the actual photobooks under discussion. But Fernández and his advisors compensate by reproducing many of the pages from each book and, in a particularly nice design decision, allow the shadows cast by the less-than-flattened books to remain clearly visible on the white surface of the copy stand. This highlights each book’s three-dimensionality and physicality. Similar decisions made the exhibition of a wide selection of these books at New York’s Aperture Gallery particularly exciting. Strategies included showing multiple copies of individual books opened to different pages, video monitors running through whole books, two large walls featuring a completely reproduced book each, and full-size prints of images featured in accompanying volumes on display. The Latin American Photobook does not just recover a wealth of photographers overlooked outside their own countries and, sometimes, even within them; it also reveals the richness of the social, political, and aesthetic work to which these images were put. Between the pages of each book, these same pressures give the images and their narratives a remarkable shape.

Whereas Fernández and his cohort seek to recover a print and photobook history that even citizens of these same countries have slowly forgotten, no such challenge faces Ivan Vartanian and Ryuichi Kaneko in assembling their Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s. A good majority of the photographers in this collection have long been well known both in Japan and around the world, while their images have generally been associated with the photobooks in which they first appeared. This association is so strong that Parr and Badger devoted the last of the nine chapters in volume 1 of their photobook history to Japan’s production of the genre.

What Vartanian and Kaneko seek to establish in their volume is that the photobook is Japanese photography, at least at midcentury. As Vartanian, founding director of Goliga Books in Tokyo, explains in his introduction, “Japanese photography is best understood via the photobook. . . . Japanese photographers of this era treated photobooks as an entirely different creature from exhibit prints. Through cropping, sequencing, organization of material into chapters or sections, choice of printing techniques, and the introduction of text elements, the photobook became the defining form for . . . photography” (12; emphasis in original). As he goes on to admit, this close association of photography with the book is not distinct to Japan. But because of a postwar lack of exhibition venues and the emphasis photographers of the era generally placed on their images, not their prints, the photobook came to structure the production, form, and reception of the country’s photography. Pictures were designed to be seen as part of a series and in the company of text. In their mass-printing, image makers and designers attended to the tactility of the ink, the feel of the page, the bleeding of a picture to the page’s edge, or, in the 1970s, its isolation on a single white-framed sheet. With these considerations in mind and the liberty otherwise afforded by one’s own book and a sympathetic publisher, Japanese photographers experimented wildly.

The result was a rapid transformation of the medium in the early 1960s in Japan from a largely Western documentary tradition, which observed postwar society from a remove, to a highly personal and often frenetic form of viewing, which bound the photographer and subject matter closely together. Ryuichi Kaneko, whose collection forms the volume’s content, explains that the photobook was also the way that photographers saw each other’s work both from within the country and from abroad. William Klein’s New York (1955) and Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959) hit with particular force and helped push a shift already underway. In fact, a recent exhibition at London’s Tate Modern charted this line of influence by comparing the midcentury work of Klein and Moriyama.

The three investigations under review provide remarkable insights into the depth and complexity of the photobook while also inquiring fruitfully into its identity as a distinct genre. They further demonstrate how the academic anthology (in this case derived from a conference workshop) and the geographically focused collection can open expansive image worlds that have long failed to attract sustained investigation. In all cases, their concentration on such things as picture sequencing and the amalgamation of picture with text and design provides critical signposts that should help future studies navigate this vast and perhaps not so chaotic field.

They also show what remains to be done in this new area of photobook studies. It would be useful, for instance, to see a specific investigation of material that could help chart the historical distinction of the photobook and the magazine. What sorts of pressures and opportunities did these two different genres apply to or afford photography? How did they each contribute to larger trends in histories of the medium? Campany’s chapter in The Photobook tantalizingly points to such questions. Given that photobooks have appeared around the world, what can they reveal about regional and national histories of photography that art historians’ traditional concentration on Western media and the individual print has been unable to discover? How too can investigations of books that are utterly mobile and internationally sought contribute to and track global developments in photography? Do they demonstrate the shifting and transnational quality of photography’s use and development? With Aperture’s recent foundation of a journal devoted to the photobook (The Photobook Review) and scholarship forthcoming on the photobook’s history both within and outside the West, we can look forward to the field’s engagement with these and other questions in decades to come.

Andres Mario Zervigon
Associate Professor, Art History Department, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey