Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Photo Book

The Resolve blog, alongside Andy Adams from Flak have teamed up to coordinate a cross-blog conversation on the future of the photo book so here are my two cents:

I’d just like to say that JUST AS MUCH as a bad quality photo (where the photographer pays little attention to the technical or is inept) can easily ruin a concept for me, so too can a bad quality photo book, a la Blurb. (In case you missed my earlier post, you should make sure to read Jonathan Sounders’ Blurb horror story.)

Joerg over at Conscientious says “…that print quality is one parameter of what makes a good photo book, and I don't think it should be taken as the only one that separates good photo books from bad ones…” Well, I disagree slightly in that I think it is either the most important parameter or at least one of the most. I judge the quality of the printing in the book much in the same way I judge the quality of prints.

The art is in the printing. We’re making photographs here, not JPEG’s. You can take a photo that looks great on a computer screen but can you print the thing and well? Have you shot it “correctly” or is it full of digital artifacts and noise because you haven’t mastered the technical? Did you print it too large for its own good? I mean, you can print a medium format shot at 2m wide but not a 35mm. Sure, I guess you could, but you shouldn’t. I can’t count how much work I like that when I finally see it printed, am disappointed by (and I won’t name names but a certain local and well-known female photographer is the most egregious example I’ve seen as of late).

What I’m saying is that while print on demand is great for some people, as a serious artist, there is no way based on what I’ve seen, that I would be willing to present my work that way. I’m looking to impress so why accept poor quality printing?  I want the value of a book I produce and which people collect to go up, just like my prints.

This, of course, is from a photographer’s perspective who is thinking of publishing his own work for the purposes of promotion (it worked for Ryan McGinley, right?). I’d have to go with hand bound or with a small and affordable, yet quality printer to produce my book and I don’t see this changing anytime soon unless one of these quality publishers starts a print on demand business (which they should!). Yes, I’ll have to print 250 or 500 copies upfront but, hey, you get what you pay for.

If I ever get recognition, though, there is no question I’d go with Steidl. The quality is unparalleled and I don’t foresee this changing anytime soon. One can dream, right?

Joerg next says, “Bad printing can ruin great photography, but great printing doesn't guarantee a great photo book.”

I agree with this but are we really to get into a discussion about things other than quality, price, and distribution? It just seems to me to be way too nuanced of a topic. There are a million different ways of arranging a photo book, deciding upon content, design, text etc. that I don’t see how to possibly cover all the possibilities in a general discussion.

If what he means (and I think he does) is that we should think of doing something other than just presenting photo after photo in a basic design, then I agree – we definitely should.

So I guess to finish my thoughts, I’d say that to me, the future of photography books looks just about the same to me as the last decade has - not much change when you are talking about producing something of quality.

But then, I didn’t see the financial crisis coming… In fact, I’d love to be proved dead wrong by the emergence of a quality on-demand printer with unlimited design options.

Read everyone else's views over at Resolve.


Dalton said...

Yeah, I wouldn't consider doing a Blurb book. There's just too much that is out of your hands. Most of the Blurb books I have seen do not meet my quality standards. And they're really expensive!

I have heard good things about this place, which has a much more hands-on process on and is tighter with the QC.
And the prices are very good, especially once you start looking at 10+ copies.

J. Wesley Brown said...

Dalton - I think I've got a good and cheaper option than that. Emailing you about it now.

Michael Howard said...

I'm at the point of making my first photo book of my underwater work and I'd love to know of some great printers as well!

Jimmy Jeong said...

What happened to all the Master printers? A photographer could just work on her images an then trust the printer to do their craft. Nowadays, you have underpaid teens working for these mass printing companies. It should be a craft not an assembly line.

J. Wesley Brown said...

@Michael - This is the one R.J. Shaughnessy used and the book is of great quality in B&W. I'd have to see color samples but they are VERY affordable:

J. Wesley Brown said...

@Jimmy - I'm sure there are some out there. Like I said, I'd go with Steidel if I could but when starting out and self-financing, you've got to do what you can with what you've got. It's akin to my using a $3,000 camera vs. a $40,000 medium format digital back, which I would if I could but I can't (yet) so I don't.

I'm sure there are master printers out there at small houses that are more affordable. Anyone have any experience with any they can share for the benefit of the rest of us?

Mike Henry said...

I have seen "The Icon" here in LA, do some magic with retouching and printing digital images...Not cheap, but neither were the master printers back in the day.

Anonymous said...

More information on the future of photo books from Senior Product Manager at online publisher Tim Wright: