The Photobook Ghetto – Surely an Ironic Post?

Yesterday Colin Pantall, on the Photobook Bristol blog, posted a sort of response to criticism that the photobook world is a ghetto, that it is a closed world, one which is hard to break into. It is an interesting position certainly and one which many may feel was a) not taken seriously (‘Next in the Photobook Repeated Circular Arguments’ followed this post) and b) only confirmed and solidified in Pantall’s response.

There is little need to deconstruct the argument, and a few commenters have already pointed out the flaws, but here is the gist of the piece which fails to consider that perhaps inclusion is not only about the (tiny percentage of) books making these lists. Fails to consider the irony in declaring openness prior to listing self-made criteria for ‘entry’. Fails to think even about the selection of practitioners to speak at the event this year – which is mostly made up of book list ‘success’ stories and established voices in the ghetto or village or whatever the self elected guardians of the photobook world are calling it.

Full post here

But the Photobook World is nether closed nor difficult to get out of. Look at the list of Best Books for 2015 and while there are old-er-hands in there like Alec Soth, or Boris Mikhailov, the top places are taken by photographers like Mariela Sancari, Dragana Jurisic, Daniel Mayrit, Laura El-Tantawy, Thomas Sauvin and Ivars Gravlejs…

So it’s not a closed world. If you want to be part of it, make a nice photobook that says something different. If it looks the same as every other photobook, if it doesn’t have an opinion or attitude, if it’s bland and tasteless, it won’t cut the mixed-metaphor mustard. It really is that simple – if you ignore all the other complicated things that we won’t talk about here.

So the photobook world is not closed to anybody. And if you don’t want to be part of it, then you can just walk away and not come in. Or if you’re a little bit interested or curious you can just drop in and stay for a little visit. You can leave any time. It’s really quite open,

Of course a lot of people wouldn’t want to be a part of this world anyway – maybe the fourth failure is in not recognizing that we can walk away and still be a part of the photobook and its significance.

Update: some additional and insightful comments on Colin’s post found here by Lewis Bush

4 Replies to “The Photobook Ghetto – Surely an Ironic Post?”

  1. ”Fails to think even about the selection of practitioners to speak at the event this year – which is mostly made up of book list ‘success’ stories and established voices in the ghetto or village or whatever the self elected guardians of the photobook world are calling it.”

    Really? I think it’s always very difficult to please everybody but it’s not fair to overlook the PBB programme that quickly.

    We have people that rarely give talks but they still part of the photobook world (Krass Clement or James Barnor might not be trendy, but still relevant ). We have people that came last year to do book signing and now they are doing a talk like Laura & Mariela (luckily enough they have been very successful with the lists but we were already aware of them last year). We have Sonia Berger and Yumi Goto, active agents of the photobook movements in Spain and Japan respectively. Also Ivars Gravlejs, Dragana Jurisic, Amak Mahmoodian, Ania Nelecka… And yeah we also have few established names including Martin Parr,a local photographer. People from Poland, Japan, Spain, Iran, UK, Argentina, Ghana, US, Denmark, Wales, Latvia, even from Yugoslavia… And I could go on and on… I think it’s wider that other events I have attended but I might be wrong.

    This is a festival which was born from a very small activity called PBLabs (similar to the Photobook Club Meetings but with a different name). A group of people interested in photobooks with an interest of reaching a wider audience.
    You can see some of the events here and here


    1. note: the above has also been posted in the Flakphoto Book group thingy –

      It sure is difficult to please everyone but that is often used as an excuse to not attempt to diversify voices – I am not just talking about geographically (though also important). Certainly the line up is more diverse than many, but that is not really saying a great deal.

      The above point was in reference to Colin’s use of last years ‘darlings’ of the lists as a way to highlight the diversity of the lineup – which in fact I believe does the opposite. How about as well as a celebration of those books on lists we try to learn from books that have failed – or people with alternative views of the photobook and purpose. Perhaps we question why the photobook must be ‘different’ in order to be accepted by PBB and co?

      It is of course unfair to highlight only PBB – most are, as you suggest, considerably far worse in looking to give voice to the non-dominant.

      ICVL and pb-labs I am not familiar with, and have not attended to wouldn’t comment other than that from afar they look great initiatives that engage with a wide audience.


  2. I think “the photo book world” is rather a small group of people and events. You don’t have to spend much time with it to see that. I am very grateful for what they do and the type of work they like to promote. The hubris comes from thinking they are it. They are not.

    Fortunately, this “world” is not a barrier. The medium of the photo book is not defined nor limited by them. Photographers and artists will be able to pursue their vision and are doing just that without this group.

    I think the problem this group is finding with a small audience is simply their particular taste in books is limited. And that is fine. The work they promote is worth promoting. But likewise, when you have a narrow view of the book and photography, the audience is also going to be narrow. Beckett had limited appeal, great writer, but a narrow audience. I think one problem is we have two worlds, one of obscure works like Beckett, and another of popular works like Lloyd Weber. There are photographers trying to work in the middle, like Shakespeare. Works that can work with broad audiences. Something that is enjoyable, but also is about some important things. And between collections of HCB or kittens and obscure personal journeys with grimy hotels rooms and random individuals on the fringes of society, surely there is a large area where photographers can work (although will not please “the photo book world”).

    I think the Photobook Club is broader in its outlook. I also like Conscientious Photography Magazine–I think Colberg’s background in science makes him a very keen observer. But much of what is passing in “the photo book world” is just warmed up mid-twentieth century photography and art criticism. Post Modernism and Deconstructionism ran its course. Outside academic circles, neither were very effective in addressing art. Research in the last 30 years in neuroscience and psychology are giving a much more exciting insight into art.

    Personally, I am glad to be work on my work. Nothing that happens outside that is important. I will do what artists have always had to do–find their own audience.

    1. ” The hubris comes from thinking they are it. They are not.” – wonderful!

      And yes the medium itself is no barrier but perhaps there are barriers to parts of it – in the same way that there are few barriers to writing but still a relative few who deem things worthy/not worthy. I often think here of the hobbyist who produces work with little thought of recuperating costs or impressing the reformatted gatekeepers – they are unfettered, producing work that speaks to very particular audiences.

      The spectrum between HCB and kittens you mention is indeed a place where photographs and surely photobook can work – perhaps this is what we should look to discuss at events like PBB – why? What is the ‘work’?


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