Now that the year-end list hubbub has settled, it's time to write once again about photobooks. Although I like to find books through recommendations, for me it's far more enjoyable to discover them in used bookstores. Wherever I travel, whenever I pass a bookstore, I pop inside for a quick scan of the photo section. It's usually a quick procedure. For the store it's no more hassle then a flu shot, although perhaps more painful in the long run.
I never know what I'll find. Usually it's junk. But once in a while I find a nugget and when that happens it's a great thrill. Part of the thrill is the book and part is from the hunt itself, the sense of unpredictability and discovery. It's like the thrill of hunting with a camera for photographs.
The charge of finding a great book lasts a while. For many of my books, the memory of where and when I found the book is integral to reading them. I remember the trip I was on, the type of photos I was interested in then, perhaps the weather. It's almost as if these books have the personal resonance of a journal entry.
In addition to the book, there is the romance of the bookstore. In parallel with the biological world, the bookstore universe is currently undergoing a great wave of extinction. In 20 years who knows how many there will be? So I enjoy visiting and supporting them while they're still around. Here are some book and bookstore discoveries from the past few years.
Garry Winogrand, Grossmont College Catalog
Found: 1998, Unknown Bookstore on Oak St. (now out of business), Ashland, Oregon
Buried in a pile below the art monographs. I barely knew who Winogrand was at this point. Most of the photos in the book looked to me like silly tilted snapshots, but there were a few that caught my eye and at $4 it seemed worth a shot. The print quality is horrible but back then I didn't notice stuff like that. This is probably his worst book but it contains a few photos found nowhere else.
Tony Ray-Jones (eponymous) and A Day Off
Found: 2002, Paper Moon Books, Portland
Paper Moon established itself in 2002 right around the corner from my home in Portland, so I had a chance to hit it during opening week. The photography selection was so-so but they did have two books by this weird Brit named Tony Ray-Jones. I had no idea who he was but the photos looked interesting. I bought A Day Off, took it home and devoured it that night. Then I was a TRJ convert. The next day I went back for the other one. I think they were around $5 each. Still two of my alltime favorite street photography books.
Joel Meyerowitz, Wild Flowers
Found: 2001, Unknown Bookstore (now out of business), Route 201, Madison, Maine
On my first visit to my inlaws in 2001 after they'd resettled near Skowhegan, I made a careful circuit of all the local bookstores to see what was out there. I've found that East Coast bookstores generally have a better stock than West Coast stores. It's not that they're more sophisticated but they have a denser supply of intellectual debris nearby. An estate sale in Maine might turn up all sorts of gems, whereas one in rural Oregon is less likely. So anyway this store in Madison was in the next town over from my inlaws. The shop was a complete mess but they had a small photo section in the back shed and, lo and behold, an old tattered copy of Wild Flowers, which I'd heard about but until then had never seen. Unlike some of my other buys I knew right away that I'd stumbled on a winner.
Mark Steinmetz, South Central
Found: 2007, Longfellow Books, Portland, Maine
I do a quick bookstore scan in Portland whenever I'm flying into or out of Maine. The city has a fairly good photobook stock, far better than any comparably sized city on the West Coast, although at this point the stores are perhaps a bit tapped out. At the time I found this used Mark Steinmetz title in a pile of photobooks I was only vaguely aware of him. But the photos grabbed me right away and I made the purchase even though at $20 it was pushing my used book budget. I've wound up buying all of his books since (except Summertime) although I haven't been able to find used copies.
Burk Uzzle, Landscapes
Found: 1996, Turtle Island Bookshop, Berkeley, CA
This was one of the first photobooks I ever bought. It was in a very polished used store selling classy titles to the Berkeley Hills glitterati. Nevertheless I was able to score this cheap paperback of nice photos. Uzzle showed me a very formal way of putting graphics together that greatly influenced me at the time. I've mostly outgrown it by now but Landscapes still has a place in my heart, and on my bookshelf.
Die Deutschen, Rene Burri
Found: 2003, Powell's Books, Portland
When you scour the photobook aisles over and over you tend to get a sense of which books are common and which aren't. Titles like Arbus' Monograph or Leibovitz's Women or 40 Examples by Adams must circulate in the majority of bookstores out there. My eyes glaze over. By contrast, when I saw Die Deutschen at Powell's it was totally unfamiliar. Not only that but the photos inside were mostly new to me even though I'd looked at a lot of Burri. This was the third edition, a paperback, selling used. I've never seen it in any bookstore since.
Tom Wood, Bus Odyssey
Found: 2003, Powell's Books, Portland
Another Powell's find. I don't know what the story was but one day Powell's had a large selection of remaindered Tom Wood titles for sale. I wasn't familiar with his work at the time but I immediately took a shine to it. But I couldn't decide which book to buy. All Zones Off Peak? Bus Odyssey? Photie Man? There seemed to be some overlap between them. I think they were all around $12 or something. Cheap but I couldn't afford all three. Finally I settled on Bus Odyssey since I was riding the bus a lot back then. On my next trip to Powell's a week later every book had been sold.
Michael Ackerman, End Time City
Found: 2002, Tim Whelan Books, Rockport, Maine
Before it closed in 2010, Whelan ran one of the best photobook stores in New England. It was mostly new stock but there were enough enough discounts and used titles mixed in to keep the treasure hunting interesting. Ackerman's book was marked down as slightly damaged. It immediately appealed to me since I was shooting a lot of Noblex photos at the time and his book was the only one I'd seen that really explored motion blur with a swinglens. Other than a few images scattered in Sylvia Plachy's books, it's still the only one I know of.
Garry Winogrand, Figments from the Real World
Found: 1999, David Morrison Books, Portland
At $80, this is probably my largest outlay for any photobook. The thing was, I was under a heavy Winogrand spell at the time. After Grossmont I'd gone looking for more of his work but it was difficult. This was before any of his books had gone into reprint and before the online photo boom. All of his books were tough to find, especially this one. So Figments was a treasure trove and I probably would've bought it at any price. Morrison Books followed the way of most bookstores and closed their retail space shortly after. But during its short run it was the best photobook store in Portland, the predecessor to Ampersand. I think Morrison still deals online from a converted church in North Portland.
Bill Burke, Portraits
Found: 2005, Wessel & Lieberman Booksellers, Seattle, WA
A damaged book, steeply discounted, matching the distressed full-frame Polaroids shown inside. I didn't know much about Burke before seeing this but he has become one of my favorite portraitists. I've since seen the book here and there in stores but it's fairly uncommon.
Gilles Peress, Telex Iran
Found: 2000, Unknown bookstore, 49 Geary St., San Francisco
The antiquarian bookstores at 49 Geary are almost as much fun as the galleries. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the store I found this in. I just remember it had about 200 square feet of photobook bindings to sift through. I could've spent hours there, but after finding a used Telex Iran I decided to call it a day. I knew whatever else I found probably couldn't top that. I've rarely seen this book in any store since.
Lee Friedlander and Jim Dine, Work From the Same House
Found: 2010, Re-Books, Waterville, Maine
The one book in this post that I didn't buy. I've already written about the discovery here. Last summer I went back to check and the book was still there, and I still didn't buy it. Surpassing my book budget and probably the book budget of most Waterville residents, this will likely sit unsold until the end of the store, which judging by its general condition doesn't seem far off now.
Curious to hear from others if you have your own discoveries to share...