'In Praise of the Photobook' by Teju Cole

Where can one find temporary help in this hectic world? People go on retreats, join religions, cushion themselves in headphones, or lose themselves in novels. We counter the rush hour stampede with a walk in the park, and against the public squall of political debate we set the private consolation of poetry. In an age of mayhem, everyone needs ballast and, for most people, I would guess, that ballast is made of several different things. Near the top of my personal list: photobooks. I take a photobook off the shelf and spend twenty or thirty minutes with it, and this relatively brief immersion provisionally repairs the world.

It might be a book I’ve already looked at many times: all the better. I’m not talking about simply looking at photographs. There are photos everywhere, and most of them are like empty calories. A photo, even a good one, tends to simply show you what something looks like. But if you sequence several of them, in a book, say, or in an exhibition, you see not only what something looks like, but how someone looks. A sequence of photographs testifies to a given photographer’s visual thinking, a way of seeing revealed through his or her choices of color, subject, scale, and perspective. The photographs encountered in an exhibition might be beautiful new prints or vintage prints imbued with the aura of “originality.” But there are disadvantages to exhibitions: they can be noisy and crowded, open during inconvenient hours, and bound to have a closing date. With a book, though, both the images and the photographer’s arrangement of them are yours for all time.

The photobook was born, by one account, when Anna Atkins made an album of her cyanotype studies of British algae in 1843. Henry Fox Talbot began to issue The Pencil of Nature, with tipped in calotype images, the following year. It did not take other photographers long to seize on the idea of commercially distributing their photography in book form. The middle of the twentieth century saw the publications of Henri-Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment (1953) and Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958), and those two books, in strikingly different ways, became the looming influence against which almost all subsequent photobooks were measured. Even today, when you ask photographers what set them down their chosen path, one or both of those books is likely to be mentioned as exemplars. The strength of the individual pictures is central to the success of a photobook (The Americans, like The Decisive Moment, is almost nothing but winners), but there are photographers of genius who have never made a truly great photobook: at best, they have made books of their great photos, which is a different matter.

What makes a photobook great is how well it combines a large number of variables: the paper; the print quality; the stitching and binding; the weight and color and texture of the cover; the design and layout of the interior; the size and color balance of the images; the decision to use gatefolds or to print across the gutter; the choice to include or exclude text and, if so, how much of it, where in the book, and in what font; the trim size and heft of the book itself; and even the smell of the ink! Every great photobook is a granary of decisions on which the photobook lover repeatedly feasts. It is an invitation into the realm of the senses. If a poem is great, I’m indifferent to the design choices made for the book that contains it: only the words matter, unless the design is particularly atrocious. But when I pick up a photobook, I can tell whether it has been meticulously made or if it is merely a pile of pictures printed one after another, and the difference between those two makes all the difference. Truth be told, not all photographs in a photobook need to be great, and the real artists of the form know how to aerate their stupendous images with less forceful transitional ones.

What a joy it is when those decisions all seem right, when the print quality is meticulous, when a book crying out for matte paper is made with matte paper, when the color profile favors magenta over yellow, or cyan over magenta, depending on what the pictures need. The experience becomes a multi-dimensional one, and the memory of the work, once encountered, becomes idiosyncratically specific. I think not only of certain photographers’s styles, but of the tactile and sensory trace of their books. The luxuriously uncut double pages of Rinko Kawauchi’s Illuminance are as much a thrill to the hands as her glimmering images are to the eye. Liz Johnston Artur’s self-titled book has a flawless combination of color images with those in black and white images, the better to convey the effervescent generosity of her vision. The stippled deep purple cover of Gueorgui Pinkhassov’s Sightwalk is a braille-like prophecy of the delirious scatter of light within. These things stay with me more lastingly than any consideration about whether a given project is “important” or not. Investigative reports are important, as they should be, but in our intimate moments, it is sensibility that best restores us to our human selves. This is not to downplay the ethical dimension of photography, but to suggest that the ethical fluorishes best when the formal conditions are in place to protect it.

And of all the elements that make a photobook truly special, I think the most important is the specific order of the images. Look at this, the photographer says, then look at this, then look at this one. All books are chronological, but the feeling of being guided, of being simultaneously surprised and satisfied, is particularly intense in photobooks. I think of Masahisa Fukase’s legendary Ravens (1986), which is largely about the titular birds. It is gloomy, making great use of blur and nocturnal shooting, with a black and white palette, and set entirely in Japan. I thought about Ravens a lot when I was preparing Fernweh for publication, though my book is superficially very different: set in the Swiss landscape, shot mostly in clear bright color in summer weather. But I was aided by the way Fukase looked and looked again at the ravens, finding remarkable new ways to think about those unsettling birds. In one magical sequence, an image of a congress of ravens in the snow is followed by one of a single wing against a white field, followed by a photo of numerous corvid footprints on a lightly snowed-on surface, the footprints startlingly like the shapes of the birds themselves. And so, black on white was followed by black on white, which was followed by black on white, a virtuoso display of analogical thinking. This is language without words. Elsewhere, among many pictures of ravens, a sinister-looking cat suddenly appears, and then a nude sex-worker, and later an almost abstract close-up of a plane in flight. The trust in variation is wonderful. I tried to keep that trust in mind in making Fernweh.

In a world of deafening images, the quiet consolations of photobooks doom them to a relatively small, and sometimes tiny, audience. Photobooks are expensive to make, and they rarely recoup their costs. They are in this way a quixotic affront to the calculations of the market. The evidence of a few bestsellers notwithstanding, the most common fate of photobooks is oblivion. But it is precisely this labor-intensive and fiscally-unsound character that allows them to sit patiently on our shelves like oracles. Then one day, someone takes one of them off the shelf and is mesmerized by the silent and unanticipated intensity. (The experience of reading a novel, by contrast, is not so silent, for the reader is accompanied by the unvocalised chatter of the text.)

Time with a photobook is a wander off the beaten path, and hardly a day goes by that I don’t reach for one. This enjoyment cannot be dispatched with a “like” button. The photobook won’t send you ads based on how long you linger on a given page. It doesn’t track you (no one knows, for sure, how many times I have looked at Guido Guidi’s Tomba Brion). It is resistant to gossip and allergic to snark. Sitting with it, you have to sit with yourself: this is a private experience in a time when those are becoming alarmingly rare, an act of analog rebellion in an obnoxiously digital world. Sure, one could look at a sequence of pictures on a digital device, but to do so would be to indulge a poor facsimile like frozen pizza, instant coffee, or artificial flowers.

The book, the actual book, is the thing. From your library or from someone else’s, you might pick up Dayanita Singh’s Museum of Chance or Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces, Rebecca Norris Webb’s My Dakota or Gilles Peress’s Telex: Iran. The book you choose might be by a little-known photographer, it might have been printed by a small press or a large publishing house, it might be a limited edition, an out of print classic, or a surprising newcomer. But now you’re holding it, and what it promises is relief: the outside world falls away, the eye scans the image, you sense the paper on your fingertips, you feel the optical information spreading into your brain, you hear the sound of the turning page, you see the next image, you become aware of your own calm breath.


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