Spring 2004

The order of pages

Can graphic design reinvigorate the photographic monograph?

Bingeing on photography books is one of life’s great pleasures. The tactile heft of a big tome devoted to one of the legendary – or less well known – names in world photography is a delight that’s hard to better. It’s not a particularly new pleasure: photography books have been around for a long time. The first ones appeared almost at the same time as the first photographic prints: W. H. Fox Talbot produced the poetically titled

The Pencil of Nature in 1844; it included 24 mounted photographs with accompanying text. From the middle of the nineteenth century onwards the photographic book has been a staple of visual culture.

Art historian Ian Jeffrey has no doubts about the photography book’s importance: ‘There is the question of photography’s basic unit of account, which historians and commentators have commonly understood to be the individual photograph – as though photographic history was the history of painting writ small. Yet not all photographers thought of their work in this way. They took pictures to go alongside texts, or to be set in sequences and groups, where the arranging was done by a picture-editor. Thus “the photographic work” can as easily be a book or a photo-essay as an individual picture.’ (From Photography: A Concise History, Thames & Hudson, 1981.)

Among contemporary photographers, only the exhibition – with its desirable art-world associations – rates as highly as being published in book form. The higher you climb the tree of photographic celebrity, the more prevalent becomes the notion of measuring status by the number of books published: in a recent newspaper interview with superstar-snapper Elliot Erwitt, it was noted that he had published nineteen books to date.

Nevertheless, publishing and selling photographic books is a tough gig. Marc Valli, who runs Magma, a thriving chain of graphic design bookshops in the uk (two in London, one in Manchester), told me recently that he struggles to shift the many photography books he stocks. ‘If you look at publishers’ sales figures,’ observes Valli, ‘you’ll find that it is not easy to sell large quantities of a photography book, unless it touches on a bigger market such as “camp”, as in the case of the numerous Studio 54 books, or Alison Jackson’s recent book Private (Michael Joseph, 2003). Publishers are happy if they manage to shift a few thousand copies of a photography book, whereas with a graphic design book to sell ten thousand copies is no big deal.’ . . .