A phone snap of one corner of Idiotic Towers
Compared to other, more harmful addictions and compulsions – gambling or shoplifting, say – the obsessive acquisition of photo-books is pretty mild stuff. I suppose if it really got out of control you'd have a problem, but as a threat to health, sanity, and a stable family life it barely nudges the needle. In fact, there may even be significant benefits to be derived from the private contemplation of the best work photography has to offer, presented in the most congenial medium known to humanity. Plus, remarkably, in the longer term there need not even be a financial downside. Very few other affordable pleasures in life keep their value so well or even, joined with a little luck and good judgement, yield a return on investment comparable to the sort of interest rates otherwise only available to the very wealthy. In fact, are there any others?
The main downside is space, lack of. Those of us who share our lives with accumulations of books know that the price we pay is that we will never, ever be able to swing a cat indoors, whether this be understood as the family moggie or a particularly brutal means of chastisement. Whichever, there simply isn't room. For which both pets and very naughty children have reason to be grateful.
Now, people who refer to photo-books as "coffee-table books" are either missing the derogatory implications of that term or, which is worse, failing to acknowledge the effort, ambition and achievement represented by publication. As if somehow the compilation and editing of a sequence of photographs into its final published book form were a cynical exercise in parting fools from their money. Obviously, actual "coffee-table books" – large, illustrated books, intended primarily for ostentatious display rather than for reading or study – do usually contain many photographs, and there are photographic coffee-table books (and I'm not just thinking about Helmut Newton's grotesquely OTT Sumo, which came with its own set of legs). But these are as different from the photo-books that interest me as, say, [insert your own choice of two glamorous airheads] are from Tilda Swinton or Emma Thompson.
Another phone snap, another corner
Probably the very first book I sought out was Josef Koudelka's Gypsies. In 1984 I arrived in Southampton to take up a new job, and there happened to be an exhibition of Koudelka's work hanging in the John Hansard Gallery on the university campus. It is hard to exaggerate the impact those photographs had on me. Although I had taken an interest in photography before, from then on it became an all-consuming passion. I ordered a copy of Gypsies via the campus bookshop – it was still available then new as an inexpensive Aperture paperback – and, without realising it, took the first step towards hopeless addiction. Not long after, a show of Thomas Joshua Cooper's landscape work appeared in the same gallery. Along with it came copies of his book Between Dark and Dark, produced by the Graeme Murray Gallery in Edinburgh, each copy enclosed in a custom-made shipping box, and wrapped in tissue-paper like some up-market trinket. I was hooked.
Fay Godwin's Land, Raymond Moore's Murmurs At Every Turn, Martin Parr's Bad Weather, A Fair Day, and The Last Resort, Jem Southam's Red River and The Raft of Carrots, Chris Killip's Isle of Man and In Flagrante, Paul Graham's A1, Beyond Caring, and Troubled Land, Peter Fraser's Two Blue Buckets, John Blakemore's Inscape and The Stilled Gaze, John Davies' Mist Mountain Water Wind and A Green & Pleasant Land... The 1980s and early 1990s saw the sudden appearance of carefully considered book-length collections from a new generation of British photographers. The important Barbican exhibition catalogue Through the Looking Glass in 1989 acted as a sort of checklist of names to watch out for. You subscribed to the journal Creative Camera, and pounced on each new book as soon as it was announced. Specialist publishers like Travelling Light, Cornerhouse, and Dewi Lewis began to emerge. Books started to be imported from abroad, primarily but not only from America, by specialist shops and galleries. William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, Richard Misrach, John Gossage, Michael Schmidt, Luigi Ghirri... At Zwemmer's and Shipley's in Charing Cross Road in London you could handle undreamed-of treasures, and drool over the production values of German publishers, or the sheer brilliance of Japanese graphic design. To protect the stock from drool, the cover of every item in Zwemmer's was swathed in a clear protective wrapping, sellotaped up like a Christmas present.
Those were good times for British photography and its enthusiasts. Good times never last, however: both Zwemmer's and Shipley's have now gone, and photo-book publishing has changed radically, and not necessarily for the better, in recent years. When it comes to collecting, like any sensible player, you've got to know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em. Now is very much a time to fold, in my opinion. There are simply too many books being produced by too many half-baked photographers with barely enough material to fill a book, and too many of them are gimmicky productions from publishers with more than half an eye on their future status as "collectibles". This may sound odd coming from a collector, but "collectability" has become a major problem, in two ways.
First, too many people have started collecting photo-books for the wrong reasons. The most wrong of these is anticipation of inflated resale values. I mentioned above, half-jokingly, the "return on investment" of buying photo-books. This is best illustrated by examples:
My partner bought me a copy of Peter Bialobrzeski's first book Heimat some years ago for my birthday. She hadn't heard of him (neither had I, come to that) but she saw it in Zwemmer's, and thought I'd like it. It will have cost around £30. It is now out of print, and there are currently nine copies for sale on Abebooks: the cheapest is £117, and the dearest is £420, averaging out around £225.
A few years ago, American photographer Alec Soth started to publish books under his own imprint, Little Brown Mushroom, selling them directly via his LBM website. One of the first titles in 2010 was a little book of 40 pages, in the style of a child's reader, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, by Australian Trent Parke. I can't remember exactly how much it cost, but it was cheap, and I think the postage from the States was more than the book. Fifteen dollars, perhaps? There were 1000 numbered copies, and it sold out pretty fast. There are five "as new" copies for sale currently, at an average price of £250.
One of the most sought-after, most highly-rated photo-books is the Japanese masterpiece Karasu, by Masahisa Fukase, originally published in Tokyo in 1986, and published in English as The Solitude of Ravens in paperback in the USA in 1991. In 2008, this book was beautifully reprinted by the Rat Hole Press in Tokyo, in hardback, in a robust slipcase, in a limited edition of 1000 copies. It cost £50: expensive, but rather less than the £400 or so you'd pay for the American paperback in uncertain condition, or the £4,000 generally asked for the Japanese first edition. Right now, copies of that 2008 reprint are being offered for around £600.These are just three random examples from my own shelves, but very typical. In fact, it would be hard to find an out-of-print monograph of any significance that is selling second-hand for less than twice its original cover price. Obviously, like painters, neither the authors nor the publishers see any of this "aftermarket" value, and neither do the specialist booksellers dealing in new stock. But neither do collectors. If I were to take my copies of these three items to a second-hand
bookseller I'd be offered something like £50, at most. I could sell them myself via Amazon or Ebay, of course, and let greed and acquisitiveness take their natural course. But something has gone wrong when such inflated prices are so quickly asked for what are, after all, mass-produced objects. Who is paying this sort of money for something they could have bought at a reasonable price, had they been paying attention, not so very long before? Why do they want it so badly now? Needless to say, it should be a matter of principle never to pay such silly, exploitative amounts for any book.
Second, some publishers are now chasing the high-end collector's market from the get-go. I have no problem with limited edition runs, and moderate-to-high prices. It makes sense. Imagine if CDs were prohibitively expensive to produce, package and distribute to a high-enough standard, but had only a modest audience, so that a reasonable return could only be ensured by limiting production to 500 or 1000 copies, priced around £30-£50. You would both feel differently about the value of your music collection, and yet happily pay the price if you love music and wanted to support musicians and the infrastructure that makes recorded music possible. But certain publishers – the name Nazraeli comes to mind – routinely go one step further, by publishing two (or even three) editions simultaneously. A "regular edition" of, say 1000 copies, plus a "deluxe edition" of 50 or fewer copies, generally comprising a signed, numbered book and an original print, presented in a box or slipcase. This commercial logic also makes sense – those 50 copies may make the difference between breaking even and making a profit – but it introduces an unwelcome air of preciousness to the enterprise. I suppose you can't blame publishers for wanting a piece of the scarcity action up front. But, for me, the whole point of a photo-book is that it costs £30, not £1000, and that it is a robustly-made object to be read and enjoyed, not handled with white gloves and kept in a vault for fear of damaging its ultimate resale value. And fashions change. Hint: I suspect you won't be able to give away a Michael Kenna deluxe edition in twenty years' time. I trust it will have truly given its fifty
A further complicating factor is self-publication and publishing-on-demand. Before the advent of web-based on-demand services like Blurb, Lulu, Pikto, Magcloud and the rest, producing a book was a major enterprise. It was (and still is) incredibly difficult to persuade a "proper" publisher to undertake a photo-book. I know, I've tried! If you've never seen it, it is well worth watching the video How to Make a Book with Steidl (fun trailer here – "Fuck ze mid-tones!"). Gatekeeper-publishers like Gerhard Steidl act like bouncers, controlling access to an exclusive club. It may seem unfair, and a little arbitrary – no trainers! – but it does make getting in all the more desirable.
Self-publication, too, used to be very hard. First, it cost a lot of money to produce even a small run of a decent-quality photo-book – we're talking thousands of pounds – and second, distributing and selling copies was next to impossible for a self-publisher. Again, I know this from personal experience. But the web has changed all that. Setting aside on-demand books (like, ahem, the Blurb books you can see at the My Blurb Bookstore link over on the right), a significant proportion of the items you'll see in the newly-published lists on, say, Photo-Eye are self-published by relative or complete unknowns. Presumably Photo-Eye themselves are acting as gatekeepers, filtering the Good Stuff from the flood-tide of photo-dreck, but it's still pretty overwhelming, and so much of it is, to my taste, dull stuff spread too thinly, with more emphasis on attitude than art. Or indeed craft: as with all desktop publishing, excruciatingly bad layout and typography choices are frequently made by amateurs, and these are too often passed off as "innovation". Well, I ain't buying it!
In the end, the golden rule is the same as it always has been for any form of collecting: develop a strong personal taste, and only buy books because you like them, or because you think they're important (but cheap!) early "straws in the wind" of some new trend you like the look of; never buy them just because you think they're going to be valuable, and never pay inflated prices for the ones that got away. They're just books.