Open the gate...
...be a little less niche
It’s pretty obvious that I love photobooks. More specifically, I love what a series of photographs can do when seen sequentially in a controlled and physical form. But let’s be honest, the majority of photobooks are bought, read, and sold by photographers. The form has become a closed system.
For many months (years?), this reality has bothered me. After publishing my first book, I realized that most of the non-photographer buyers of the book were personal friends, family, or community members. I was both so deeply honored by their support, but also disappointed that my postman would likely never see or care to see my book. If my book was available at the public library, would anyone ever check it out?
I have a Deadbeat Club sticker on my coffee mug at work that says “There’s No Money in Books.” I see that every day. In graduate school, both my cohort and the faculty constantly bemoaned the realities of photobook publishing - small, expensive editions paid for by the artists. Now of course there are publishers that partially or fully fund books, but unless you are an art star (I’m not), the burden of finance is left to the artist. The funding of The 13th Spring was entirely on my shoulders.
So the question arises - why would I raise tens of thousands of dollars to produce 350 books that only other photographers will see? Do chefs find their purpose in only cooking for other chefs? Do filmmakers only make films for other filmmakers? Can you even consider your peers your audience?
So what do we do as photographers focused on the photobook? I think the answer could be more simple than you’d think. It’s not an easy answer, but simple:
We need to make photobooks more accessible and enjoyable to people outside of Photoland.
It wasn’t that long ago that you might visit a friend’s house and find a large coffee table book in their living room. Remember those? You’d thumb through them as you waited on coffee (or ice-cold sweet tea if you are from the south like me). They were a form of hospitality for guests.
Or what about when you’d go to the grocery store and thumb through the magazine rack? My go to was Turbo Magazine in my teenage years. Now I know the internet killed much of periodical culture. In many ways, both the internet and the iPhone killed “coffee table book” culture (is that a thing?). So there’s no going back to that era, but we should consider why a suburban family might have purchased Juke Joint by Birney Imes or any number of Ansel Adams books. Could it be that these people genuinely enjoyed looking at these books?
Much of what I’m saying is a gross over-simplification of our ever evolving culture of media consumption. The real question I want to ask is what are we doing to make our work more accessible to the general public? Do we create and participate in closed system language that those outside of the medium don’t understand? Do we create viewing opportunities for the general public (and not just photographers or traditional gallery attendees)?
One attempt that I’ve been working on is creating nicely printed publications at a reasonable cost (for both the artist and the buyer). Above is a test printing of a book I’m working on from my recent trip to Iceland. It’s softcover, perfect bound with a trim size of 6.69" x 9.61". The current page count is 104, so it has around 50 photographs (it will likely have a few less photos in the end). The book is nicer than a traditional zine, but will likely be sold at about $15. My goal is that you could buy the book and have it shipped (in the USA) for $20. Many concessions must be made in regards to binding, paper choices, trim size, and cover material, but a book like this is affordable for most people.
Another non-photobook attempt was my street gallery space sponsored by our local downtown development organization. The gallery is no longer in operation, but showed contemporary photography to an underserved area of my town for several years. Basically, it used vacant storefront properties (which we had many at the time) with large poster prints of photos hanging in the windows. The work was viewed from the street and needed no power, staffing, or climate control. The only real cost was for the poster prints, which were recycled after the shows. No, the prints weren’t great (not that you could tell from the often dirty windows), but for a couple of hundred bucks I could hang a complete show.
Finally, I’ve started a video series on photobooks that people should buy. Most of us that live in middle America don’t have access to art book or photobook stores. I’ve purchased my fair share of books with little knowledge of their quality to only be disappointed and out $50+. How can we expect someone with no access to photobooks to then go online and spend that much money on a book they have never seen or held? The hope with these videos is to allow people to see a flip-through of some of my favorite currently available books, while recommending work that I think is important. Maybe a video will encourage a first time book buyer to invest in work that they can now live with on their shelf.
These are all small things that I can do with my limited means. But for you, there may be a whole new set of opportunities to share your work with non-photo people. Is there a local non-photo oriented shop that could carry your zines? Could you have a pop-up show/installation in the local library? Do you have copies of your book crammed in a box somewhere that could be donated to the library in a local high school?
If we want the craft to survive, then we must open the gate to the rest of the world. I find that starting local is not only much more feasible, but also rewarding. Of course I wish that I was at The Rencontres d'Arles last week, or leading workshops in some exotic (expensive) places. But I’m not getting calls to go to those places and surely don’t have the income to do it for fun.
Remember, Photoland and/or the art market don’t get to decide how you invest in your art and your audience. If we devote most of our energy to the current system, the intellectual inbreeding will continue to consume itself. You have an opportunity to make new audiences. We truly need to bring more in to enjoy and fund all of the incredible work being made daily.
Thanks for reading,
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