Why publish photobooks?

December 08, 2016 0 Comments

Why publish photobooks?

We often hear of photographers, or people who work in photography-related fields, being given a camera as a young child and falling in love with it. Not for me. Photography hit me with a bang when I was about 20 and had just finished my degree in Sociology in Ireland.  It’s been an obsession for the past nine years that has reshaped my life completely.

The photobook played a significant part in photography’s ambush on me. I have always been much more of a reader than someone who goes to a gallery. Looking at images hanging on a gallery wall can be an amazing experience, but I’m after a more intimate experience that a good book can give. Last year, for example, at the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition here in Osaka I spent much more time looking at his books on display rather than the same images hanging on the walls.

I believe that photobooks are the best way to tell a visual story. The format allows the story of the project to be told with sequencing, and the paper and feel of the book all add immensely to the experience. Viewing images on a screen never leaves me feeling satisfied. It is as if I am seeing a preview, but it never feels like the real thing compared to the printed image.

For me, when starting The Velvet Cell and knowing that I wanted to build a platform for photographers who do projects on the built environment, books seemed like the obvious way to do it. I am a book lover, and I really fell in love with the idea of creating books that others would love and appreciate. To be a book maker just seemed like the ultimate dream! The goal remains the same today as it was then: to create beautiful photobooks, in terms of both design and content, that contribute to the discussion on urbanism, environmentalism and architecture that I would want to buy myself.

Photobooks are amazing for a number of reasons. To once again compare it to visiting a gallery, photobooks are much more mobile. The Velvet Cell sells its photobooks to countries all over the world and, thanks to the wonders of the web, are able to reach people almost anywhere. A photobook can be viewed by anyone, anywhere at anytime. It does not expire, and if anything, a good book gets better with age!

Being so mobile means that a photobook can educate people on different themes and situations in different parts of the world. Before coming to live in Asia, for example, photobooks with projects about Asia, were key to how I saw this part of the world. Specifically I speak here on Peter Bialobrzeski’s early work on Asia such as NeonTigers. I loved how photobooks could transport me to another place on the other side of the world and tell me so much about them..

There are some out there who claim there are too many photobooks. This I find hard to accept. Nothing makes me happier than the idea of a world full of amazing photobooks. But I suppose the operative word here is ‘amazing’. I do share the sense now that, because photobooks have become so much easier to make, there is a tendency to makes books without really interrogating the book’s concept or by rushing it through and not making it the best book it can possibly be. I have been guilty of this myself too and it’s something I have learnt to resist over the years. In this we must learn to differentiate between a catalogue of images, and a photobook that tells a visual story.

I think, from publishers to artists, we also need to reconsider the purpose of photobooks in general. As photobook publishing has democratised, being published no longer equates to success like it may have meant in the past. The majority of photobooks today are either funded with aid from the photographer or with the help of an organisation, as the market remains very niche. I think niche is a good thing, but the book can no longer be at end in itself anymore. We must shift our focus to the photobook as a vehicle. The photobook can help share the photographer’s vision - it can help their pracise, raise their reputation, even help them get a job, but only if the book is seen as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Coming back to our original question, why publish a photobook? It should never just be because we can. It should be because there is a story to tell and the photobook is the best way to present that story. At TVC we are specifically interested in coherent, cohesive projects that tell a particular story relating to the built environment. It might be the story of a place at a particular time, like Cairo Diary which is a photographic diary of Cairo in between the revolutions, or In Search of Habitat which looks at the changes taking places on the fringes of Indian cities. Both of these books were interrogated from the beginning regarding their concept. What did they bring to the table that hadn’t been discussed before? In both projects, the photographers added their own voice through both images and writings that make the projects unique.   

Beginning in 2017 we will start a new Journal Series called “Inspirations from the Bookshelf” where we share others’ projects that have inspired our publishing journey. These are books that I have found and exclaimed “I wish I had published this project!”. If any photobooks have inspired your publishing journey, please let us know if the comments below!