The Art Book: An Interview with Matt Johnston of the Photo Book Club

I was interviewed recently by Sara Potter of ‘The Art Book Group‘ who have published a book on art books. It will be available shortly and I shall post a link to it, but in the meantime here is my conversation with Sara on the future of photobooks for anyone interested.

SP: Where did the idea for The Photo Book Club come from?
MJ: Essentially, the club came out of my own desire to learn more about photobooks, I was discovering old books all the time with the help of bibliophile Wayne Ford and was enthralled by them. I was also surprised that there were very few places to discuss these books, there were a number of great websites discussing the new, indie, or self-published books, but nobody was inviting discourse on the classics. I wanted to spread the availability and discussion of old and rare photo books, to discuss the authority of the photobook in our world, and to share ideas with others. I was also keen that this would not be one person’s voice but a community project.
Recently I have also been hosting Book Club meetups and encouraging others to do so, the idea here is to get a lot of the discussion that currently happens online, to happen in person around a table. Fortunately, it seems that this idea has really resonated with the community and thanks to a group of enthusiastic organizers, there are now a whole host of monthly meetups.

Photo Book Club Barcelona

SP: How influential are photo books for promoting an artist’s work and is social media taking over the book’s function?
MJ: I wouldn’t say the two are competing as books and social media have very different purposes and outcomes. There is no dismissing social media as a powerful tool of promotion (and more importantly for me – discussion and collaboration) but in a very different way to producing a photobook.
One of the things I love about the photobook that we don’t replicate digitaly is that you have a story from start to end, all the narrative is consolidated into one physical object and you need no instructions or playback devices to enjoy it. To produce a good photobook involves a completely different set of tools and skills compared to social media and web galleries. This self contained narrative can be fantastic promotion for a photographer when done well, it can demonstrate the ability to tell stories within the confines of the printed page, and it has a physical quality that someone can treasure (which again digital media currently cannot attain).

SP: Are they an artwork in themselves?
MJ: In short, yes. Viewing a book is sometimes compared to visiting a gallery, as you turn the page (or a corner of a gallery), the impact of the previous image gives you a different context for the next image, you can use space to give a breath to the reader, or to surprise them, and images can be paired in harmony or stark contrast. When careful sequencing, appropriate printing, layout, typography, paper stock, size and design are combined to enhance the content the book holds, then yes, it can absolutely become artwork in itself. But not all photobooks are, Alex Sweetman sums this up when referring to Cartier Bresson’s ‘The Decisive Moment’ and ‘The Europeans’;

“…these elegant presentations of photographs fall short of being bookworks. The art here is the single image, not the expressive action of the whole. And this is true of the bulk of photography books, monographs, and exhibition catalogues which remain merely collections – portfolios between covers.”

SP: Can you see ‘e-photo books’ being popular in the age of iPads and Kindles?
MJ: Yes, but not in the current format they resemble. As with all new technology, the e-book has been shaped by what has proceeded it (the book), and to me, this seems a  wasted opportunity. The constraints of the physical book do not apply in the digital world, so why allow ourselves to be limited by them? I see the future of the digital photobook looking more like an App than a book, and it must be immersive and engaging. It is all to easy to click ‘next’ through a web gallery, the majority of which will offer little context, no option to share and discuss, and will be displayed in a manner dictated by the website, not catered for the project itself.

 There are several promising projects starting to emerge though.

Via PanAm iPad App

SP: Do you think the value placed on quality design and production is increasing within the book market?
MJ: It absolutely is, and it needs to. While there will be some people who will buy a photobook in physical form because they have the money, and that is what they enjoy or are accustomed to, this group of people will get smaller and smaller, and it certainly doesn’t include me. I wouldn’t rush to spend £30-£50 on a photobook if it was available online, or in App form unless it was beautifully produced and offered an experience that it’s digital counterpart could not match.
The same goes for the young generation of consumers (often dismissed as wanting everything online, for free). Many of my students treasure the photobooks they have, they treasure the physical qualities of it, they treasure all that the digital cannot replicate, like the smell of the glue, feel of the paper, or the fact that the photobook demands you sit down with it and carefully turn the pages rather than consuming images quickly, and on the move.
As for how the physical object affects the narrative/content; I don’t believe it should  affect it as such, but should enhance and support it. Every choice in production should support the message it holds rather than dictate the content.

SP: Where do you like to buy your photo books? Are there any particular shops that add to the whole experience of buying a book?
MJ: As much as possible, I try to buy from bricks-and-mortar stores like Claire de Rouen and Koenig books in London , but it would be unfair to say this is the only place I buy books, I also shop online and sometimes venture to the dark side of Amazon. We should support our book shops as much as possible but this cannot be based on sentimentalism alone. Book shops should be doing more for the customer paying an extra 10-25% on their purchase. They cannot compete with price or selection of the online giants such as Amazon, but Amazon cannot hold intimate photobook meetings, or invite publishers or photographers to introduce and sign books (Dashwood books in NY is great for these events).
In the early days of the Photo Book Club we started a map of great bookshops around the world where you could get your photobook fix. I started by adding those that I knew of and as people added more recommendations it grew as a community sourced map and now boasts over 160 stores worldwide. I love that the map has personal comments about helpful staff and favourite purchases, and that it can be added to by anyone, it’s a collaboration of great bookshops around the world.

SP: How do you like to ‘read’ a photo book?
MJ: It depends on how I already know the work. I usually begin by quickly flicking through the book (usually as I walk out the store, or on the train home), getting a feel for it. Then, I’ll make the time to sit down with it. A closed book is a fresh and self-contained object so I don’t believe I should need to research or look at other photobooks prior to my first reading. I will read all text presented before the images, followed by the images (if presented in this manner) and consider any text that follows the images to be the bonus material or extra context if needed.

Ken Shcles' 'Oculus'

SP: What is your favourite photo/art book and why?
MJ: If I had to pick a photobook based predominantly on content then I suppose Alec Soth’s Niagara is my favourite project that lives within a book.
If I were to choose a favourite photobook based on its physical qualities then it would be hard to beat Watabe Yukichi’s ‘A Criminal Investigation’. It’s the perfect marriage of subject and object. It’s set out like a documented police file of a 1958 Tokyo murder investigation and the book has beautiful Japanese folding with incredibly rich, matte black tones. It’s been featured on a few ‘best of’ lists recently and because of this it’s now hard to get hold of. It’s a shame that there is a great number of people who don’t get to see and feel the physical book once it becomes popular or collectible (in many cases, me included).
For me, the best photobooks are the ones that I can’t get out of my head, the ones that I just have to pick up again and look at. I didn’t get Ken Schles’ ‘Oculus’ on the first reading – part photography, part philosophy, but it just called me back to revisit again and again, each time taking something new from my ‘read’. And I always pick up something new in John Gossage’s The Pond. I’ve probably read it over 50 times and I’m sure there is more.

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