Tuesday, January 10, 2017


Source Photographic Review's Best Photobooks list is worth a look. I know, I know. You've got to take these things with a grain of salt, especially when they promise grandiose material like GREATEST PHOTOBOOK OF ALL TIME. Trying to pick the greatest photobook of all time is like voting for greatest color of all time or greatest house pet of all time. It's a very personal choice. 

In my ideal world, each person's list would have no overlap with any other person's. Maybe your bike was a certain color back in fourth grade, so you'd pick ten colors based on that. I'd pick another ten based on that time we spraypainted the family dog. It would be based on the whims of personal experience.

That's the world I'm pushing for. But of course we don't live in that world. For the moment we're living in the world sketched out to the right. These are the 17 GREATEST PHOTOBOOKS OF ALL TIME according to Source.

The methodology was simple. The editors at Source polled over a hundred people via email, a range of photographers, publishers, designers, booksellers, librarians, critics, and curators. Each person was asked to submit a list of ten "greatest photobooks of all time". Note that this is a slightly different request than "ten favorites" or "ten most influential" or "ten more important". They asked for ten "greatest", and it was up to each respondent to decide what that meant. In the interest of full disclosure, I was polled and submitted ten.

The emails went out in October. By December the results had been compiled and averaged to arrive at a very long list of GREATEST photobooks. The list turned up some of the usual suspects: The Americans, Evidence, Arbus Monograph, and so on. But as one plumbs the list's nether regions (see the site for a the full report), the titles scatter into an unpredictable mass. Coexistence? Park City? The End Of The Game? 

I can't take lists like this too seriously but I'm still a sucker for them. I've always had a thing for lists going all the way back to fourth grade when The Book Of Lists came out. For myself and a small group of bored classmates, this book became our bible. We memorized large chunks of it, and then Volume 2 a few years later.  Ten famous people who died during sex. Ten most defeated nations in history. What ten-year old could resist? 

I developed into a compulsive listmaker, which I still am to this day. In
List Found Last Week
high school I sat glued to my radio each week listening to Kasey Kasem's top 40. I wasn't interested in the songs, but in the sheer listing of them. I plotted their evolving patterns on cross-referenced charts. Some went quickly up and down over a few weeks. Some stayed in a holding pattern. The rhythms of crowd-sourced opinion intrigued me, but also the personal. For the past twenty years I've kept running lists of all my cultural experiences: books, films, albums, climbs, etc, complete with rankings, favorite these or favorite those. Why just last week I tossed out four more dumb lists, mostly out of annual habit. A few weeks before that it was a list of street photo books. I can't help myself. But it's even worse than that. I collect lists by others too. If you pay attention, and especially if you dig through recycling buckets and along alleys, you'll find plenty of discarded lists written on scraps

Although it's not always expressed, the list-loving gene is probably carried by most of us, and especially photographers. That's why click-bait headlines are often written in list-form. 10 lessons that X taught me. 8 happy hair products. 63 secrets to love that lasts. 1,000 albums you must hear before you die. 17 Greatest Photobooks Of All Time. And so on. These headlines are targeted at our inner fourth grader, and thus usually written at a fourth grade level. 
My nominations for the Source GREATEST photobooks list

One of the things my inner fourth grader finds fascinating is how these lists change over time. They are often presented as immutable judgements. But really they're more like notes sketched in quickly eroding sand. Things change. William Mortensen, anyone? 

I remember an issue of Rolling Stone which came out in the mid-1980s which listed the GREATEST rock albums of all time. I was surprised to see a strange album called Never Mind The Bullocks at the top of the list. What the heck? My hillbilly teen brain had never heard of it. Turns out I needn't have worried. Fast forward thirty years to the present and Rolling Stone's current list of greatest all time albums doesn't contain Bullocks in the top forty. Nothing is forever. Well, except maybe the White Album.

Several greatest photobook lists have surfaced in recent years, but they've leaned toward the personal rather than the broad sample. Andrew Roth polled a small sampling of experts to compile his Book of 101 Books. For a compulsive listmaker like myself such a book is irresistible. But in the end I realize it largely reflects Roth's private opinion. The Parr/Badger Photobooks, Vol 1-3 are sometimes cast as general reference manuals for photobooks. And they are great guides. But a better title for the series might be "Personal favorites from the libraries of Parr and Badger". Nothing wrong with that. In fact I find the whims of individual selection more entertaining than hivemind.

In terms of widespread photobook polling, the last major mark in the sand was 2001, when Building A Photographic Library was published by D. Clark Evans and Jean Caslin. Their methodology was similar to Source's. They approached 138 respondents (photographers, curators, and other so-called "experts") with the request to name "six favorite photobooks". The top results: 

A direct comparison of this list and Source list is problematic. Evans and Clarke polled a different sample of respondents (a generally higher photographer/curator ratio than Source), asked a slightly different question, and included longer explanatory notes (Source respondents were asked to keep the full length of their response under 150 words). There is also the added twist of historical timing. The Evans and Clarke poll occurred not only before the recent photobook renaissance but before social media had assumed informational dominance. Preferences tended to be stunted, balkanized, and internally driven. Also, many in the pre-social media period were capable of rhetoric which exceeded 140 characters. So in some ways it was a completely different era. 

Nevertheless, I'm going to compare the lists anyway, starting at the the top. The Americans came out number one on both lists. The more interesting comparisons occur after The Americans. Only four books —The Americans, Arbus, The Decisive Moment, and American Photographs— cracked both lists. This wasn't due simply to the glut of photobooks published in the past fifteen years. With one exception (Redheaded Peckerwood), all the top books on both lists were published before 2001. The contrast between the lists seems more a function of shifting aesthetics. For example, the 2001 list included no Japanese photographers. In 2016, the list includes five. Perhaps social media —or maybe Parr/Badger?— has fostered international cross-pollination? 

In the long tail of the Source list, the choices become more time sensitive. As the chart at right shows, the selections slant heavily toward recent publications. According to at least a few respondents —Larissa Leclair, John Fleetwood, Heidi Romano, Melissa Catanese, The Eriskay Collection— every one of the greatest photobooks of all time have been published this millennium. Hmm. If you say so. I paid particular attention to the dating pitfall in creating my own list, deliberately spanning them across a few decades. Still, looking at my top ten I realize I cannot escape the 1970s. And I'm not sure I want to. 

One explanation for date-sensitive lists is that personal favorites tend to reflect time as much as than aesthetics. Ask someone for a list of favorite albums and chances are they will name albums released when that person was between ages 15 and 25. Ask a forty year old and they'll name albums from the 90s. A fifty year old will love the 80s no matter how synthetic they were. It doesn't mean those albums are the GREATEST. It means that opinions about music are in a formative stage during a specific time period. The same may be true of photobooks. The Source poll attempted to circumvent this possibility by asking not for favorite but greatest. But hey, what can you do? 

Here are the favorite albums of Kurt Cobain. I don't have a date for this list but I'm guessing it was made circa 1990. Most of the albums are from a narrow time period, roughly 1975 - 1985. If he'd been born ten years earlier, the list would be completely different. If he'd been born ten years later, it might be written on a computer. If he'd had another color bike in fourth grade, different still. Whatever. The list is what it is. What I like most about it is that it's his. No GREATEST album poll would ever return a top 50 as idiosyncratic as this one.

I suppose Cobain's list points out the difference between the personal and the aggregate. If it's doing its job an individual list is likely to be quirky. But when many such lists are compiled and averaged, patterns emerge. Quirkiness dissipates. Perhaps the key to good taste is not to let those patterns dictate the personal. In other words, ignore Evans/Caslin, Parr/Badger, Roth, and Source. Ignore your inner fourth grader. Ignore the average, since this is by definition mediocre. 

Getting back to the 2001 list, it's noteworthy that two classics, Evidence and Eggleston's Guide, did not make the top ten. Contemporary readers might be forgiven for assuming they'd always been in the canon, but it's only fairly recently that they've gained serious traction. I think their inclusion now may be a sign of shifting mores toward 1. appropriated photo projects, and 2. Eggleston's ascendency as the dominant straight photographer of his generation. As for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency's recent listing, perhaps the reason it went unrecognized in 2001 is that the pre-internet generation could discern the difference between a slide show and a book, a distinction which has become rather blurred online. 

Compared to Source, the Evans and Clarke list has a decidedly academic bent. Camera Lucida, Looking At Photographs, The Daybooks, and Adams' zone system manuals are the types of material one might have been assigned as an undergraduate 15 years ago, and maybe still. But in the midst of the recent photobook boom, that no longer equates to "greatest" book. Perhaps the most noteworthy inclusion in 2001 is Michael Kenna's 20 Year Retrospective. Michael Kenna? Not only is Kenna no longer recognized as a significant bookmaker, his general influence on photography has fallen off the radar. Sex Pistols, anyone? Alas, things change. Lists change. The only certainty about these lists is that most of them will eventually seem antiquated.

A close cousin of the GREATEST photobook poll is Jason Eskenazi's By The Glow of The Jukebox. I wrote about the first edition a few years back, and a second expanded version has just been published. Eskenazi asked 276 people to name their favorite photo in The Americans. For what it's worth, the photo shown above came out on top in the first edition. I'm not sure about the second edition. For a photojunkie and listmaker like me, a book like Eskenazi's is listmaking catnip. I wish a similar project could be done for other famous books. But of course it's a ton of work. By the end of it, I'm guessing Eskenazi felt as tired as Frank's family looks in this photo. I wasn't asked to pick a favorite, but if I had it'd probably be the photo of the small striped frog in a bow. Pretty sure no one else picked that one. 

Eskenazi's book and the Source list were both published at possibly the worst time of year, during the photobook listmania which takes place annually between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I love to skim the photobook lists as much as the next listmaking junkie, but there's a critical gravity to them. They suck up a lot of attention in the online photo world. Other lists produced at the same time of year might not achieve orbit —unless they're written on scraps of paper and left strategically in the right alleys.


Anonymous said...

There are indeed some oddities in that top twenty list. Copies of Kawada's Map and Araki's Journey wouldn't be easy to find in libraries, and are fantastically expensive. Even the list price of a recent facsimile of Map was fantastically expensive, as facsimiles go. (It cost considerably more than I've ever paid for any book.) The various later editions of Journey have been very different from and less than the original, aside from the very latest edition, which I'm told is faithful to the original, is affordable, but has only just come out. So I do wonder how many of the people who nominated these two books have actually seen them. I'd guess that they're not alone in price/elusiveness, either. Are these what the pundits thought were the greatest, or are they merely what Parr, Badger and the book chatterati led them to think were the greatest? Whatevs, the list of 20 contains several that I enjoy reexamining, several I've never even seen, and several that do nothing for me.

Blake Andrews said...

Good points. Of course it's impossible to know who has seen what or why what was nominated not to mention how or where. To be honest I nominated one book (Ruscha) that I've never seen in person. But I've studied it page for page online and read enough about it to feel good about my choice. But for all I know it might not even exist. Maybe the book is a complete Parr/Badger fiction?

I've never seen Solitude of Ravens either but I hear that's it's about to be reprinted. So maybe I'll have a chance.

In any case I'd be curious to see your top ten, Microcord.

Peter said...

My own top ten, hmm. First, my own totting up of the votes for Japanese content within that source.ie extravaganza

13 votes for each of Moriyama Daidō, Farewell Photography; Fukase Masahisa, Ravens
10 votes for each of Kawada Kikuji, The Map; Araki Nobuyoshi, Sentimental Journey (various editions)
9 votes for Nakahira Takuma, For a Language to Come
4 votes for each of Takanashi Yutaka, Toward a City; Shiga Lieko, Rasen Kaigan Album; Hosoe Eikoh, Ordeal by Roses (various editions)
3 votes for each of Kawauchi Rinko, Utatane; Kawauchi Rinko, Illuminance; Homma Takashi, Tokyo Suburbia; Fujii Yoshikatsu, Red String

I suspect that the votes are very much influenced by the recent travelling show (and fat catalogue) Provoke: Between Protest and Performance.

I don't know Red String. (It was advertised to me so insistently as to annoy me, and I dismissed it.) I suppose I've seen all the others. They fit neatly into histories of photobooks, but there are few that I want to look at again, and indeed few that have any individual photos over which I'd much want to linger. Come to think of it, I wonder if even their fans spend much time looking at any of the photos therein (as opposed to praising their sequencing or the "tactility" or whatever of the packaging).

EZ said...

I am deeply humbled that my slim tome, At the Beach, made your 39 at 39 list ( http://blakeandrews.blogspot.com/2007/12/obligatory-year-end-list.html?m=1 ), Blake. Your commentary on all things photographic are insightful and precise. Thank you for keeping an intelligent dialog ongoing!