Thursday, December 21, 2017

Winter Launches

The rush is on. We're well into December and the year-end photo book lists have been amassing online for a few weeks now. I've been trying to compile my own list. As happens every year I stumbled across a shitload of photo books this year. The problem is that most of them were secondhand titles published before 2017. So it's tough for me to make a 2017-specific list. I like to tell myself that photo books get better with age like fine wine or vintage autos or old blog pages. Maybe that's true. Who knows. But even if they're getting better, and even if bought them this year, it's hard to justify putting old things on a new list.

Maybe one way around this problem is to stick a 2017 date on an old book. This was the case for my 2017 favorites. Most were reprints. Pictures From Home, The Solitude of Ravens, Sleeping By The Mississippi, Iowa, The American Monument, Bystander... It seemed very time I turned around some old classic was being republished. (I've reviewed most of these reprints here).  

Technically these titles could be included on a 2017 list, since they were republished this year. But it feels kinda wrong. And unfair too. These old books are critical darlings. I mean, they're reprinted for a reason. How's a new young thing supposed to compete?

Larry Sultan's Pictures From Home (Mack, 2017)

There've been so many reprints I'm tempted to call 2017 the year of the reprint. But in fact this trend has been building for a while. In the past few years we've seen new editions of Streetwise, Exiles, In Flagrante, Valparaiso, Nicaragua, and many other old classics. Shimmer of Possibility, She Dances On Jackson, and Waffenruhe are on tap for early 2018, and I see no signs of the wave slowing down. Mack in particular seems drawn to this path, with several reprints this year and also in the pipeline. And as Mack goes, so often goes the photo book world.

For publishers like Mack, investing in a reprint makes good financial sense. Printing a new unproven photo book is an inherently risky venture. Sure, a few sell like hotcakes (Souza's Obama has made the NY Times bestseller list five weeks and running). But most are harder to move. And you can't often tell which will be which until after publication. In fact it's worse than that. A book's sales prospects seem largely divorced from its contents. Every time I visit Powell's I see must-have books sitting unsold on the shelf at bargain prices, while silly books I can't fathom sell-out in days. The publishers must notice the same phenomenon and it must drive them crazy. They're tossing darts in the ocean hoping for a kill. But hey, welcome to photography. (Jörg recently brushed on this topic here.)

With a classic reprint, the risk to the publisher is smaller. There's a built-in demand for many out-of-print books. A publisher is filling a market void, with virtually guaranteed sales. Better yet, the material has already been developed. It's been shot, edited, proofed, and laid out. Paste on a supplementary text, update graphics, and it's good to go. Of course some publishers take things a few steps further. 

For poor slobs like myself reprints are very welcome. A door into history is opened, a door which had previously been locked. Information wants to be free, or so I've heard. Maybe photos do too.

Feng Li's White Night (Jiazazhi, 2017)

These reprints are such a joy I want the feeling to last forever. I'd love for every photo book to remain in print indefinitely. Unfortunately that's far from the actual situation. And the year end lists tend to exacerbate the problem. Up until last week Feng Li's White Night was widely available. Martin Parr put it on his 2017 favorites list. Then it immediately sold out. I was lucky to see it at a friend's house last week. It's a very good book. It would be nice if others could see it too. But that won't happen now, at least until if/when it's reprinted. Until this year, books like Iowa and Pictures From Home were in the same boat: mostly inaccessible and unseen. 

Because book access is controlled by the market, photo history itself is subject to same forces. To a varying extent this is true of all the arts (except music, where almost every important recording is now at your fingertips). But it's especially true in photography, because photo books play such a central role. Books are the vehicle of choice. Books are how photographers share ideas. When important books are inaccessible, the stream of ideas is dammed up. 

Imagine if you were a young photographer in the 1960s who had no chance to see The Americans or The Decisive Moment or American Photographs? We might be looking at a very different photo landscape today if those books were invisible to an earlier generation. Well that's essentially the world we live in today. Unless they are lucky, wealthy, or have access to a strong library, few photographers will ever see White Night. Or Golden Palms. Or Tokyo. Or Teenage Lust. Or a thousand other out-of-print books. Sigh. They're essentially pulled from circulation and broad influence. Who knows what their impact might've been?  

Josef Chladek's Virtual Bookshelf

I don't think the entire photo world has quite come to grips with the situation. But some have. Inaccessibility was the driving motivation behind Errata Editions, the publisher "dedicated to making rare and out-of-print photography books accessible".  Their books may be kinda smallish and dinky for my taste, but they're generally well crafted. More importantly they fill in a few major holes in photo history. 

It would be great to see an Errata reprint of every classic, but that's not gonna happen. The next best thing might be digitized books. Josef Chladek has made serious inroads here. His site reproduces thousands of photo books —including many out-of-print classics— page for page. Who knows where he finds them all, or if it's even legal. Not my department. But I'm happy he's doing it. At some point his site might develop into something like the Spotify of photography. Pick any page in any photo book to stream immediately. That's a ways off still, but I think it's coming. 

In the meantime we're stuck with the present situation, which ain't bad. After all, this is still the golden age of photo books. There are plenty of great ones around at quite reasonable prices. Stick to the used shelves, estate sales, Bookfinder, and your local library, and you'll do just fine. Keep your eyes peeled for the occasional reprinted classic. And above all, trust your gut over any year-end list. 


DripShots by: Danny Arenas said...

thanks for sharing---the josef caladek site is great.
i will spend hours and hours on it.

-danny arenas

Peter said...

Blake, White Night is still (just about) available from the publisher's own store; and not for a silly price, either. But NB there are "very few" copies (or so it says).

As for everything else you say, yes! I surfed along and found myself reading your review of Got to Go for the first time: excellent book, excellent review.