On introspection, navel-gazing and nitpicking

Colin Pantall has written an interesting post on his blog regarding the many year-end ‘best photobooks of 2011′ lists that have been published of late. In the post he raises questions about this process, the role of “tastemakers” in today’s photobook market and discusses the need for the expansion of the photobook market. I started to respond to his post initially as a comment on his blog, but it got so out of hand that I decided to turn my response into a post of its own.

After having compiled a non-exhaustive meta-list of 52 of the Best Photobooks of 2011 lists, I am interested by the reactions that these lists have generated. It seems to me that many of us have a love/hate relationship with them. We hate the idea that everything seems to get boiled down to a top 10, or even a top 50. But we can’t help but read them, particularly when they are written by people whose opinions we respect or have been on the telly, or just because everyone else is reading them and liking them on Facebook. As I recently posted in a Facebook group, there are myriad and sometimes very good reasons why we make and read lists. Umberto Eco has said it a little better than I can here (and Ken Schles has written a marvellous response to Umberto Eco’s ideas on lists which you can read here).

In his post Colin focused on Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood, the “winner” of my meta-list, as an example of a book that is getting all the plaudits. Colin bought it after it received so many recommendations but it left him cold. I got the feeling from his post that it was a book that he admired but did not enjoy. What I found amazing in the mind-bendingly tedious exercise of compiling all these lists is that Redheaded Peckerwood only got 14 mentions in the 52 lists that I compiled. In total 313 books got mentions. Colin mentioned Martin Parr, Alec Soth and Markus Schaden as three of the ‘tastemakers’ on photobooks, but Redheaded Peckerwood is not actually on Parr or Soth’s lists on Photo-eye (Soth did an expanded Top 20 list on which it does appear) and as far as I know Markus Schaden hasn’t done a 2011 list. What I found particularly interesting about the 2011 lists is that the tastemakers seldom agreed. To use Colin’s example Soth and Parr only agreed on 3 books of the 10 that they each selected. Expand the list of ‘tastemakers’ to 5 (I took Gerry Badger, Martin Parr, John Gossage, Alec Soth and Todd Hido) and there isn’t a single ‘best’ book that they all agreed on. John Gossage, who makes photographs and photobooks, designs and publishes them, and looks at more photobooks than most, said it best in his comment in response to Soth’s Top 20 Photobooks list, “None of us see more than a small part of what is being done in photobooks these days. So many things that touch people. A good time to be alive”… at least, if you like photobooks… it’s probably less good if you invested in sub-prime mortgages. That is the positive side of today’s photobook market. I think the tastemakers are generally a positive force: the more there are of them and the more that their opinions differ, the better. You can take or leave their recommendations, but they are often helpful in drawing your attention to new work.

That is the good side of the current photo-market. But as Colin points out, there are many bad sides too: books that are being bought and kept in shrinkwrap so that they are worth more on some “mythical future date of sale”, books that are bought and never looked at, photographers being stalked at their hotel by overzealous book dealers to sign hundreds of books so that they can be sold at an inflated price (true story)… I was amazed to see this article on the Guardian Money website a little while ago, which seemed to suggest that photobooks have become a good investment vehicle and a reliable way of doubling your investment within a couple of years. That might be true for a handful of books, but what percentage of the books being made are sold for less than their retail price 6 months after they have been published? Go and spend $100,000 on photobooks today and then try to sell them in 2 or 3 years time. Let me know how that goes for you.

I think that the most important and difficult question that Colin raises is the need for the expansion of the photobook market. As an artist it must be incredibly frustrating to spend years making a book only for it to be bought by a maximum of 1,000 people and seen only by a few hundred. The issues with the fragmentation of the photobooks market, the problematic distribution model, the proliferation of tiny independent publishers and self-published books, all made me think of some of the issues that there are with the music industry (although the almost-total digitisation of music has yet to happen to photobooks and is unlikely to). Big record labels are struggling, and people are distributing their music themselves or via small labels through the internet. Like with the photobook, I think this is a time where there is a huge amount of musical experimentation, of trying everything and anything. As a consumer of music, I see this as a golden age: I have never been able to access so much music so easily. Name an obscure musical genre (e.g. post-gangsta neofolkcore) and I will be able to listen to it within minutes and own (or steal) several albums of it within hours. But for those people making the music (let’s not worry about the ones selling the stuff) it is more complicated. I am no expert on the music industry but my understanding is that musicians now have to rely on concerts to make their money since virtually no-one makes anything from selling albums any more. What is the photographer’s equivalent of the tour? Exhibitions? Surely there is even less money in that than in books. Workshops maybe?

While I would love to see the photobook market expand, I can’t help but wonder exactly how big its potential is? The “population at large” never really bought photobooks before all these pictures were available online for free, so I’m just not sure why and how that would happen now. But then stranger things have happened. Allow me to leave you with this beautiful chart of vinyl sales over the last two decades which, if my tenuous musical analogy holds water, suggests there may be hope for photobooks yet.

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