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



Matt Johnston on The Future of Photobooks

Below is a talk I gave at University college London as part the London Design Festival 2011.

The panel included Dr Aquiles Alencar-Brayner of the British Library, Teresa Pereira of Blurb Books and Angus Phillips, Director of the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies at Oxford Brookes University.

We were asked the question ‘What is to become of photobooks?’. I attempted to answer in relation to:

  • The Photo Book Club
  • The book as an object
  • Community
  • Experience

– Matt