By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Photographic love is a promiscuous business. A great painting will catch you and hold you, demanding a certain exclusivity. Whatever the size of your appetite walking into a museum, you aren’t likely to really absorb more than a handful of great paintings at a time, if that. But great photographs stimulate more often than they satiate, perhaps because the eye recognizes, in a photograph, one piece of a larger picture: one face in a crowd, one moment in a day, one shot on a roll. Instinctively driven to make sense of what it’s looking at, to grasp as much of the larger picture as possible, the mind stays hungry. The consumption of photographs being virtually effortless, it quickly escalates to compulsion, which is one reason a book of photos can be so much more satisfying than an exhibition. If one photograph is good, more is usually better. A whole stack of them drawn together in one neatly bound package you can hold on your lap, make a cup of tea and get lost in is just about ideal.
The pleasure of this compulsive consumption reaches an almost dizzying pitch in Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s two-volume survey The Photobook: A History, the second volume of which came out this month. Think of the satisfaction to be found in a big, heavy, beautifully printed book of photos. Now imagine a big, heavy, beautifully printed book filled with tantalizing fragments from hundreds of other such books — many more than you’re likely to ever get your hands on — and then multiply the total effect of all this satisfaction by two, for a total of 656 broad, glossy pages. It’s enough to make any photo lover’s head spin — and to suck up entire hours of a potentially productive workday, as I can say from experience.
A book about books would seem, at a glance, a dry sort of enterprise. Indeed, with roughly 450 individual entries, each involving a handful of reproductions (usually the cover of the given book and one or two layouts) and a few paragraphs of explanatory text, arranged in a series of thematic chapters, it would be easy to mistake either volume for one of those expensive, tedious indexes designed primarily for the shelves of dealers, hardcore collectors and reference librarians. What distinguishes the project from that lot is first and foremost the infectious passion of its creators. “For many years,” Parr begins his preface to the first volume, “I’ve been obsessed with the photo book. This two-volume publication is a manifestation of that obsession.”
It is a history generated, in other words, by the enthusiasm of the collector, who in this case also happens to be a photographer, and geared toward exciting a similar enthusiasm in the hearts of not only academics but anyone who happens to be listening. The selection, though thorough, is appealingly idiosyncratic, the design respectfully unobtrusive, and the writing (which is mostly Badger’s) exemplary: clear, personable and — a rarity in art publishing today — actually a pleasure to read. Three to four intelligent paragraphs on 450 different subjects is no small feat, particularly combined with two dozen substantive chapter overviews, but Badger (also a photographer, though better known as a curator and critic) pulls it off without the least sign of strain, striking a consistently easy balance between description, historical context and artistic evaluation. As a result, the book feels less like a history lesson than a pleasant afternoon in a very friendly used-book store.
That said, it is a history, and as such both ambitious and sound. (The only comparable study — The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, edited by Andrew Roth and released in 2001 — was, as the title implies, considerably narrower in scope.) The selection spans the entire life of the medium, from William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, published in installments from 1844 to 1846, to volumes on 9/11 and the Iraq war, and makes a convincing case for the book, rather than the gallery or museum, as “photography’s ‘natural’ home.” In the 19th century, “photography was basically book related,” Badger points out in his introduction. “The proper place of photography was deemed to be the library or the archive, though populated with original prints rather than printed reproductions.”
In the early 20th century, the pursuit of artistic legitimacy compelled photographers to loosen these prints from their pages and present them as objects in their own right, fit for the walls of the exhibition hall. The book remained, however, an essential venue and continued to evolve in sophistication, particularly in Europe, where the impact of World War I created a space for revolutionary aesthetics in all media and where Alfred Stieglitz’ comparatively reactionary obsession with the virtues of the fine-art print didn’t hold the sway it did in the U.S. Indeed, judging from the sample represented here, this era may have been a high watermark: the European and the Soviet books of the 1920s and ’30s are astonishingly innovative — far more radical, at least in formal terms, than most of what’s been released in the West in the past few decades.
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