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On the rising tide of the art market’s last decade, one fortunately lifted boat has been the high quality photographic book, which has experienced an unprecedented proliferation. Though photo books have always been a popular staple in safer, predictable formats—think anesthetizing surveys of nudes or sock monkey collections—this current boom has particularly energized one that’s traditionally been the most economically problematic and creatively influential: the thoughtfully constructed artist's monograph. As the high mark for the creative potential of the genre, the history of better monographs effectively charts the evolution of photography as both an actor within and an observation beyond the wider culture.

 

Artists and publishers alike are realizing the kind of dream projects that previously would only have been possible once or twice in a photographer’s lifetime, if at all. Young photographers are being given chances to publish their work at increasingly earlier stages (there are in fact several imprints and awards solely dedicated to monographs by emerging artists), while historical projects are not only being revisited in updated editions, but being given the kind of lavishly expanded treatment that the subject of one such lovefest has likened to a “director’s cut”.

 

To be sure, most of these books chiefly function as vanity indulgences, professional stratagems, or shelf decoration. One prominent regional workshop regularly offers classes focusing on “the role of the photographic book in your career”; regular admission is $115, but “full-time students pay only $20!”. This blooming of a thousand flowers may not be a virtue unto itself, but at the least is indicative of a moment in which the rare photographer has the ability to put forth to the public a project that is not merely encapsulated but most wholly fulfilled by its execution in codex. At a time when the fundamental relevancy of any printed book project is in question, the burden of proof is equivalent to the unprecedented opportunity to propose within each publication a sui generis form of photographic art. The lesson to learn here is that like most aspects of this artworld uptick, the flourishing of photographic books places a new premium on connoisseurship.

 

A paradoxical aspect of the current trend has been its enabling by advances in digital technologies, and their direct impact on printing and design. Master printers at the lead of the charge—people like Gerhard Steidl—have the ability to revisit archival projects and vastly  expand upon the color rendering of previously inferior separations. And perhaps most advantageous of all, the cost of producing high quality publications in small runs has dropped significantly. This is particularly important since historically, the greatest challenge to individual photographers has been the remote financial feasibility of getting a book published using the highest print standards, while reaching only the smallest of niche audiences.

 

But the technological advances that are now allowing so many deluxe reissues of important monographs by the likes of Karl Blossfeldt, Moi Ver, Bruce Davidson, and Susan Meiselas tax the presence of those same volumes with critical questions. What does it mean to “improve” the color of a historical document, particularly when the place of that work within a canon has so often been linked to its material self-awareness, as one might think of William Eggleston’s Guide? Moreover, the presence of the internet as an ostensibly universal forum for circulation poses an unavoidable challenge: Why engage in the laborious and capital intensive processes of placing inked images on heavy stock and shipping them across a still-limited network of specialty retailers? The burgeoning tabletop real estate at those same retailers dedicated to the marked-down remainders of just-recently heralded releases is an awkward rejoinder to that question, and a reality that is probably under-discussed at editorial production meetings.

 

A recent and well-intentioned reissue of Walker Evans’ Many Are Called by the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an informative example. The original edition is something of a bibliophilic legend; nearly thirty years in the making, it suffered numerous hurdles to publication, came out in a small and intimate if somewhat compromised version in 1966, and has since become a jealously horded rarity. A debt of at least pedagogical gratitude is owed then to Jeff Rosenheim, curator at the Metropolitan (which serves as custodian of the Evans estate) for bringing this project to fruition and making these images available to a wide audience, at a very reasonable price to boot. It’s an indisputably elegant and finely crafted edition, one that takes great pains to adhere to the original book’s integrity. It consists of the same number of prints, in precisely the same layout format and sequencing. James Agee’s exquisite forward is intact, and so are Evans’ frontispiece quotation and inscriptions. I would not be at all surprised if the type is identical.

 

What Rosenheim calls the few “modestly expanded” features however are pivotal. The pictures are slightly larger. “The absence of a statement by the artist” remains, though presumably owing something to the fact that little more is to be quoted from the deceased. That did not, however, preclude the publisher from adding two additional written pieces, one satisfyingly expository but not altogether necessary essay by Luc Sante, and one by Rosenheim himself, which addresses the occasion of republication itself. There is also a “plate-by-plate concordance including each work’s precise date and museum accession number”, the value of which, beyond the didactic, seems negligible and, to the editor’s stated aim of artistic coherency, questionable. And lastly, there is the fact, simultaneously intriguing and complicating, that only two of the images were reproduced from Evans’ own prints, the rest having been generated by the considerably more subjective and variable practice of digitally scanning the photographer’s original negatives. Given the highly debated discrepancies between vintage and late prints, even when made at the hand of the  photographer himself, the additional intervention of a technology that wasn’t present during the artist’s lifetime brings this edition one more immeasurable step away from the original.

 

What the book now available becomes is a splendid resource rather than a bona fide art work. It is a democratic revisitation. And in that lies what must certainly be the catch not only of this, but of the great majority of such reprints, that they are not reissues, not further iterations of those original book-objects that in and of their physical selves were incarnations of intrinsic artistic worth. They are doppelgangers or facsimilies, indirect and often unintentional documents of their  own histories in the form of very convincing approximations.

 

Which is neither genuine nor dubious, but a rather modern and useful lesson in shedding our preciousness about the aura of authenticity, and gaining a more nuanced understanding of the photo book’s operative potency. A volume like the Evans reissue forces an accounting of what it is about the photographs within it that matters. Is it the image itself—its disembodied implication, the cognitive meaning and emotional resonance it imparts in us—or is it the desired edition it comes in? Naturally the two are codependent, because a photograph is at its most elemental level a physical phenomenon, but just as the struggle to find rightness within any medium means questioning its form, so too does the central burden of such remarkable books remain how precisely we might access the value—or even the necessity—of their creation.

 

Likewise, the books that have stood out most admirably within this flush period are those that have incorporated a keen but unobtrusive awareness of their own presence as multiple objects and mechanically reproduced carriers of human stories. Exceptional examples include Philip-Lorca DiCorcia’s not coincidentally titled A Storybook Life, Tacita Dean’s Floh, Collier Schorr’s Jens F., and Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces. Dicorcia plays the built-in ambiguities of photographic representation and the narrative architecture of books against each other, further adulterating the subtexts of his already theatrical pictures. He builds a hermetic fiction wholly situated within the context of a perfect-bound object. Schorr literally punctures and sutures her edition in a poignant attempt to use it as a portal in and out of time. For Shore’s part, he took sly and subtle steps to prevent this newer version of American Surfaces from falling prey to the mistakes that plague so many similar re-releases (like the Evans book), positioning it as yet another installation of a much vaster cycle that also includes ever newer material and varying exhibitions spread out over numerous decades. The book functions as something much more dynamic and viable than the capstone to a project (as many photographers traditionally position their books), but rather as one more open-ended conduit into a larger phenomenology.

 

Each of these books finds a way of adding another dimension to the meanings of the photographer’s work, while also advancing the potentialities of the medium in general. They don’t operate in exception to their time, but propose with a knowing dexterity unforeseeable paths by which we might find ourselves within it.

 

© Copyright Gil Blank

 

The Blooming of A Thousand Flowers:
The Audience - and Market - for Photographic Books Comes of Age

Originally published in Art on Paper magazine, vol. 11, September/October 2006.