Review: Terribly Awesome Photobooks by Erik Kessels and Paul Kooiker


Book Reviews, Photobooks


There is no shortage of books about photobooks, with new new additions appearing regularly. In a sense, these books have become real-world versions of Tumblr pages, where you can find collections of things under some a sometimes broad, sometimes specific headline. The collector side of me enjoys seeing all these books (I own a fair number of them), but in reality I don’t really look at most of those books all that much. I might pull one out to look something up for teaching. Just to make this clear, I don’t mean to make it sound as if I minded having those books. Quite on the contrary.

That said, I wish there were a bit more playfulness in the approach to these kinds of books. Or maybe a better way to express what I mean would be: I wish there were more books that weren’t so concerned with the survey side, to, instead, collect photobooks based on, yes, the editors’ whims. In an art context, people tend to prefer the term “curating” for “selecting based on criteria that are entirely subjective (while, possibly, pretending to be objective).” But you get my point, even though you might heartily disagree with me.

With Paul Kooiker and Erik KesselsTerribly Awesome Photobooks things have now got a bit more interesting (btw, do yourself a favour and click on Erik Kessels’ website link repeatedly). I don’t know whether the title is in part inspired by what could be Tumblr (Given it’s somewhat juvenile, it might well be). The publication itself is based on actual meet-ups: “For several years, Paul Kooiker and Erik Kessels have organized evenings for friends in which they share the strangest photo books in their collections. The books shown are rarely available in regular shops, but are picked up in thrift stores and from antiquaries. The group’s fascination for these pictorial non-fiction books comes from the need to find images that exist on the fringe of regular commercial photo books.” (quoted from the publisher’s blurb)

The publication itself comes in newsprint form. The central spread contains a visual overview of the featured books, with basic information (authors, titles, etc.) provided. There is no additional information given beyond that. Each book is then featured in the form of one example spread across (and centered on) two pages. To see the full book spread, the viewer has to disassemble Terribly Awesome Photobooks. Alternatively leafing through the publication shows two partial spreads paired up - in itself an interesting way to look at these books, since the combinations are often quite interesting (it’s quite obvious the layout of the publication was carefully planned).

Whether the books in question are terribly awesome or just terrible or awesome, of course, depends on one’s taste. People will probably find it easy to agree on the fact that Kooiker and Kessels managed to unearth quite a few very unusual photobooks (I’m expecting a run on these books now…), some of which are terrible and awesome at the same time. Here’s the thing, though. Regardless what you think of these books here, Terribly Awesome Photobooks makes it obvious that photobooks needn’t be only thought of the ones published by the usual publishers (Steidl, Aperture, Mack, Hatje Cantz, etc.) or by photographers themselves. Photography has been used in books for a long time, and there is a huge world of interesting books out there - often surprisingly simple and easy to find, as long as you’re not just looking for what you already know.

Terribly Awesome Photobooks; edited by Erik Kessels and Paul Kooiker; 64 pages; Art Paper Editions; 2013