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Sunday, February 3, 2013

The question is now: "Photobook or print?"

Ever since Martin Parr and Gerry Badger published the first two volumes of their enormously well-received compendium The Photobook. A History in 2004 and 2006 (a third volume is currently in progress) it can be said that the editor's aim to establish the photobook's medial status within the history of photography has been a successful undertaking. As a result of this, the definition of "originality" seems to be broadened, from the already commonly accepted photographic print to the newly acquired notion that photography published in mass-producible mediums like books, magazines or ephemera can nevertheless also be regarded as similarly important works of art. The considerable prices currently paid by collectors for rare, out-of-print publications by prominent (preferably Japanese) photographers affirm this claim.

But while the printed page owes its recent comeback explicitly to such publications as Andrew Roth's The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century (2001) or the above mentioned The Photobook. A History by Parr and Badger, the appreciation and acceptance of printed matter in Japan, in terms of its integrity and originality, has seemingly never been called into question. One possible explanation for this might be found in the old Japanese tradition of Ehon (high quality "picture books", often containing calligraphic writings, created by a guild of craftsmen with particular attention to paper, ink, color and binding quality). Another more frequently stated reason is the general lack of museums until the 1990s in which photographers could have presented their work. In other words: The printed book was for a long time the only vehicle for Japanese photographers to present their series of works to a wider audience. 

It can even be said that because many photographers (e.g. Moriyama Daidō) still regard the developing of a photographic print to a great extend simply as one of the preliminary steps to producing a printed page, the "original" work of art (to them) is in fact not the photographic print but the finished book. With this in mind, the particular interest by "Western" collectors in Japanese publications is not surprising. Considering the unifying qualities of the medium, the influential editor Yamagishi Shōji (1930-1979) remarked in his since then often-quoted introduction to the 1974 MoMA exhibition New Japanese Photography



"Japanese photographers usually complete a project in book form, joining in series a number of photographs related by a common subject, theme or idea. The full impact of such work cannot be understood if individual pictures are isolated from the series for exhibition on the walls of a museum." (Yamagishi, Shōji: Introduction, in: John Szarkowski and Shōji Yamagishi (ed.), New Japanese Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1974, p. 11.)

It is safe to say that although the book has since early on been widely accepted as a suitable medium for the distribution of photography (consider e.g. William Henry Fox Talbots The Pencil of Nature, 1844-1846), its appreciation as an individual work of art continually faded in the "West" with the advent of large scale printing techniques at the end of the 19th century that replaced the "original" plates with ink. While it took advocates of photography well over one hundred years to establish the status of the print as a work of art, ensuring the photobook a similar esteem presents itself in many ways a less challenging endeavor, considering its unquestioned critical recognition in Japan. For these and more reasons the photobook has not just become a more "affordable" alternative to the photographic print but, as a collection of more than one image, will continue to equally challenge viewers, researchers and curators in their individual efforts to read, understand and exhibit its content.