Marc separates the debate about technology from the rest, which, I think, is the best way to approach the issue. For what I’m after, the question of technology is pretty much irrelevant: You can use Blurb (or any other on-demand site) to create the very same kind of format that major publishers do, and most people seem to be doing just that (in fact, Blurb’s software might even force you to stay within a rather limited design!). Mind you, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I love photo books, and I don’t see why the availability of a body of work in book form should be dictated by the business calculations of photo book publishers. With on-demand, that barrier has come down, and that’s a good thing.
Marc makes a pretty good point about the edge photo book publishers have over on-demand, and that’s quality. Unless you’re willing and able to invest a significant amount of time into the production of your on-demand book, it won’t look very good (and by “not very good” I mean colour casts and all kinds of other, very basic problems, which nobody would accept even for their cheap inkjet printer at home).
That said, I do think, however, that over the past few years the quality aspect of photo books has also been taken an extreme, which sometimes makes it seem as if photo books are some sort of fetish. If I had the choice between Alec Soth’s newpaper and a Karl Lagerfeld book printed by Steidl, it’s obvious I’d pick Alec’s newspaper (just as an aside, Alec had a very good reason for doing the newspaper - so I never understood complaints about the fact that it was done newspaper style). I have the feeling that the printing quality aspect has become almost more important than the quality of the work. This being the internet, I know that this comment will now be taken as “Oh, Joerg, loves cheap and crappy printing”, but that’s not what it is. What I’m saying is 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 (sorry, Gerhard!).
Bad printing can ruin great photography, but great printing doesn’t guarantee a great photo book.
But what I was mostly interested in was (and still is) why most photo books are done in such a conservative way. In a nutshell, photo books are basically gallery exhibitions on paper. You have an intro (you grab your press release from the gallery’s separation barrier) plus a bunch of images, usually one per page, so as you flip the pages you get one photo after the other (when you walk through an exhibition, images are usually lined up right next to each other, and you are supposed to look at them one after the other). That’s it! Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this approach - except that when every book looks like that it gets a bit… well, boring?
As Marc observes, there are books that deviate from this pattern, the most obvious examples being Japanese photo books (as far as I know). As Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 70s explains, in those cases the book is more than just a collection of photographs - the book itself is the body of art. Marc mentions he also wrote a book about Japanese photo books, which, unfortunately, I am not familiar with. But that seems like something that will provide some more pointers.
There is no reason why only Japanese photo books should follow this idea, as is evident by, for example, Capitolio by Christopher Anderson. And there are other ways to break up the standard approach, such as those used in, for example, The Last Days of Shishmaref by Dana Lixenberg or 101 Billionaires by Rob Hornstra - both of which use text (in various forms) to interact with the images.
Of course, there could be countless other ways to move the idea of what a photo book is to something other than a gallery show on paper. I’m sure there are lots of different ideas out there, and I would really like to see more. One idea I mentioned in my earlier post was a “curated book”. Unfortunately, over the past few years the meaning of the word “curated” has been diluted so much that it now essentially means everything and nothing (I’ve seen one-artist shows described as being “curated”).
The way I see this is that curating something is very different from editing something (of course, that’s just how I see things, people might disagree). If a photographer brings a set of photos and someone helps her/him with selecting the ones that go into the book (or magazine) that’s what I take as editing.
Curating a photo book would start out with some person - the curator - thinking about what kind of book to produce. S/he would then assemble photography - maybe by very different photographers - that will fit into whatever frame work s/he thought of. Imagine the curator being a visual artist - maybe a painter - or a journalist or a writer… There’s no reason why photography books need to be done by photographers. Of course, such a book could still look like a curated museum show on paper, so there are more possibilities than just how you assemble the work that goes into a book. Imagine you have a set of people working on a book, say a writer with an idea, plus a graphic artist who will take the images and work with them to create a unique layout… the possibilities are literally endless. But that was what I meant by a “curated photo book”.
Of course, there always is the business aspect, because photo book publishing (the combination of small editions and high quality) is tough. But just because it’s a bit of a risk doesn’t mean it can’t be done. In fact, the publisher who decides to do something very different could end up being tomorrow’s Gerhard Steidl. As the interview with Steidl shows the reason why his publishing company has become such a powerhouse is because he was very interested in realizing his idea, with the focus being on the idea and only to a lesser extent on whether it made the most business sense. I’m sure there were (and probably are) still lots of people who shun(ned) the risk. But as always: no risk - no reward.