Magnum’s ‘Postcards From America’

I should preface the below by saying that this is only my own view on Magnum’s ‘Postcards From America‘, as yet, I have only really heard positive things about the book.

I’m not interested in slating this publication, but, as there are more of these trips planned by Magnum and their all-star cast, I thought I would share my thoughts for anyone pondering a potential purchase, you can hear other points of view on this publication herehere and here.

If you do not know of the project, and product already, check out this video walkthrough from a true photo hero of mine, Mr Alec Soth:

Magnum’s ‘Postcards From America‘ is an interesting exploration into a section of the Southern States of America, the collaborations between photographers and with writer Ginger Strand lead to new and exciting perspectives. I particularly enjoyed Soth and Subotzky’s input. However, I am not producing a view of the content here, but of the product instead:

Instead of a traditional book, Magnum present us instead with a box, and within this box we find all manner of objects along with a sticker detailing our edition number and presenting the 5 signatures of contributing artists. The disparate elements of the box make sense in as much as they echo the fleeting and fluid idea of a roadtrip but fall short of contributing any sort of understanding about the project and it’s themes or ideas. Perhaps this is where the book comes in, as a sort of guide from which we can scoot of to explore the mini-stories contained within the zines?

Unfortunately this is not the case. I love to see progression in what the book can be, it’s exciting and is pushing forward a fantastic medium, but I have to question the ‘book’ included in the Magnum box. It is unbound for starters which I can accept were it not so big and unpractical to be so. And more annoyingly – the sheets are not printed as a book sequence, they are in fact a big stack of posters placed one on top of the other, and then folded in the middle. It requires space, and patience to attempt a ‘reading’ at all, and the (very) cheap-feeling paper combined with (very) average printing do not make this ‘reading’ a pleasant one. it could be my love for the physical object speaking but everything here seems to be very much a throw-away object, especially when you consider the asking price.

And perhaps this is where my relationship with this project and publication came unstuck  – ‘Postcards From America’ was $250 and it was the first time I have ever spent more than $100 on a photobook, so from the beginning I was going to scrutinize what I got for my money. As you can see Soth demonstrate in the video above, you get a lot for your money, at least it seems as though you do.

Actually, there is little substance here in terms of material objects. A smattering of zines, the above mentioned ‘book’, some stickers and a poster which makes up most of the box weight but which I imagine only a handful of people will have the room or interest in assembling. Let’s not forget the postcards received during the trip of course, although to my disappointment, even though I had ordered well before the start, all were sent at the conclusion of the trip (those who payed the $125 for the postcards alone must surely be even more frustrated?).

I understand that I cannot boil this argument down to material costs but there is such a mismatch between cost and price here it is hard to understand what I paid $250 for. I can only assume then, that a portion of my money is helping fund this trip, to make it possible. Great! Except that where many projects are open with those that fund them, Magnum’s seems to take all the credit. I would have been far happier had this been a kickstarter-style ‘reward’; knowing that while the material costs do not add up, the extra money had made it possible in the first place, maybe even a contributors/funders thanks in the book or online.

‘Postcards From America’ is a really interesting project, there is lots to explore here, but I think Magnum has completely missed the mark in relation to the product. If I were to be so bold as to offer pointers for next time, either:

  • Tell people where their money is going, credit those who fund the project, or
  • Make the product beautiful, something worthy of the pricetag, or
  • Make a non-limited, no-signature version available for the $60 it cost

I would love to hear from others who have this publication, unfortunately there are less than 500 and I fear many have bought it to put in a cool, dry place, unopened, waiting for the dust and price to rise. But, if you have opened it, and feel like sharing, do so in the comments section below.

– Matt

 

 

0 Replies to “Magnum’s ‘Postcards From America’”

  1. Thank you very much for this review. I have been collecting photobooks for a while now, this is about the best review i have seen online sofar. Finally, somebody is asking what are we getting for our money. I didn´t buy the book or packet myself because i wasn´t convinced by the explanation of the product…i have had my own share of dissapointment in this regard. I love photobooks as an art form very much. I mean the physical object, i care less for posters and bumper stickers. This is what i got lately for about $ 250:

    Jakob Tuggener: Fabrik
    Viviane sassen : Parasomia
    saul Leiter ; Retrospective
    sergey Chilikov : works from 1978–
    Chauncey Hare : protest photographs
    Joseph Koudelka : Gypsies
    Malick sidibe : Photographs
    I must say i bought them new at discount prices, but this is what i got for my money. They might not be limited to 500 copies, despite that i enjoy them very much.

    1. Thanks for the comment, I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I too was hesitant at the explanation but took the plunge in big part due to the photographers involved, in hindsight I should have listened to my head!
      I much prefer your bounty for the money, If and when I can sell it without loss, I shall be doing something similar.
      M

  2. Thanks for an interesting read. You’ve said exactly what I was thinking but wouldn’t admit to myself. When I first saw the ‘book’ I was very excited especially given the individuals involved. That feeling soon evapourated when i realised that i’d been sent a collection of zines, stickers and a giant poster. It feels very much like Alec Soth’s half of The Auckland Project, interesting photography spoiled by the design.

    I really did want to love this project but they have left me wishing I’d received a beautiful, well thought out, photography book (with maybe some gold to make it feel like $250). The worst part is that it is hard to discuss the photography as it is overwhelmed by the disjointed design. I’m all for experimenting with the art form but for me this didn’t work.

    1. Phil, thanks for the comment and I am sorry you felt the same (although glad it’s not just me!)
      I have yet to see the Auckland project but I will from now on be very careful how I spend money on more expensive books, in fact I will likely go back to bargain bucket explorations which have often turned up little gems.

      You hit the nail on the head with:
      “The worst part is that it is hard to discuss the photography as it is overwhelmed by the disjointed design.”

      Matt

  3. But wasn’t it obviously not a traditional photo book too all prospective buyers? I agree about the postcards but in either case if the point is to support the project, do supporters really need their names in the sun?

    1. Hi Jim,
      Actually, when buying the product it was simply called a photobook and as I mention, the exploration of what the book could be is not my problem, just that in this case it did not gel in any way.
      I agree that supporters do not need their names in the sun, but an acknowledgement of where the money is going would be great and simply courtesy to thank those who made it possible (I should point out that as far as Magnum have said, the $250 is only for the book and postcards).

      Matt

  4. I can appreciate the disappointment when one has expectations of receiving a hardbound book.
    What is presented may seem like a disparate collection of objects text and images but this is a collective from the perspective of 6 individuals, photographers and writers. I love the concept and the design. One may gain a greater appreciation by viewing each work as the experience of the individual contributor rather than the total work of one.
    The postcards are exceptional. I received mine postally used in the mail. They are real photographs illustrated and signed by each photographer. I think they are priceless. One would have no difficulty selling them. List a postcard with real photograph illustrated and signed by one Alec Soth on ebay it would be interesting to watch the auction unfold.
    I too was challenged as one should be and which in the long term may contribute to the objects value as art.

    1. Bill,
      I am glad you had a more positive experience, I shall take on board your advice to spend time with these artifacts as single items from respective contributors.

      Best,

      Matt

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