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Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Stop Coveting the Old and Unaffordable.

I re-entered the digital world today after a short break and posted this Parr and Badger Q and A from Phaidon. My favourite bit was this story from Gerry Badger. It exemplifies the smoke and mirrors nature of market forces, both for prints.

Harry Lunn, the US dealer who created the photographic market, once addressed a symposium back in the seventies. He had two photographs. He said, ‘Here I have a print by Robert Frank from the Americans which I retail for $10,000. Here I have another print by Robert Frank from the Americans, the same picture, which I also retail for $10,000.’ Then he tore one in half and said, ‘Now I have this print by Robert Frank from the Americans which I retail for $30,000.’ As Harry always used to say ‘We’re in the business of creating rarity value.’ That’s the art market.

Of course the same kind of smoke and mirrors exists for photobooks. The photobook world is very small and is hugely influenced by hype, market-cornering and absurd valuation claims and counter claims.

I interviewed Martin Parr for the BJP a few months back and he raised the issue of increased prices in the photobook markets in out talk and how he has been accused of cranking up prices. Of course, he says this is not his fault but he would say that, wouldn't he.

But I do think he is fair in rebutting these accusations. I think the one thing that Volume 3 of the Photobook Histories does show is how vibrant the photobook market is, how the history is no longer about the past, but is developing as we speak. I wrote about this a few years back in Doing it by the Book, another article for the BJP, but if anything, the photobook world is even more interesting and exciting now; there is better design, more invention and a wider range of voices (though the ones that are most worth listening to are not always the loudest).

On the Facebook page, I got a complaint about Parr and Badger and the idea that they have put photobooks out of reach of the ordinary buyer. Fukase's Ravens was mentioned as a case in point. You want a copy of Ravens and it will cost you £1,000 give or take.

I have sympathy with this sentiment, but at the same time, where did people hear about Ravens from. From the Photobook History Volume 1 perhaps. And a reprint of the book was made shortly after the first Photobook Histories were made - which was available for around £40 I think - as were reprints of numerous other books. And then you get  Errata Editions reprinting books left right and centre. Look there's Drum, there's Ballet, there's The Stage. Fabulous! Shame I don't have any money because that's a few hundred quid gone straight away.

But at the same time, what Volume 3 demonstrates is how many great new books are around. I'm looking at the mess of my desk and I've got Eamonn Doyle, Quan Shen, Ken Grant, Anthony Cairns, Christopher Anderson and Christina Riley sitting on my desk all waiting to be looked at (again) and written about.

So why buy something old and beyond your budget when you can get something new. Especially when it's by Christina Riley and it's called Back to Me. And it's a book about mental illness and depression, which is pretty much what Ravens was about in its roundabout kind of way. Back to Me is more direct. That's why it's published by Straylight, a publisher which makes direct books with direct themes. Straylight is kind of rough and ready but it hits the spot and is much more than a decorative publisher. It makes books about things that matter. And it publishes people who don't get published elsewhere. And Christina Riley is one of those people.

Her book, Back to Me, is about depression, about suicide, insomnia, loneliness, and love. There's a text at the back. This is how it starts;

I rememember driving down hwy 1 south feeling almost certain I wouldn't return. The bottle of wine I planned to drink before jumping was sitting in the cupholder alongside a bottle of ativan and my camera. I cried the whole way to the bridge feeling guilt already for what I hadn't yet done. I stepped out of my car to a cold, foggy blowing skyd. But through all that, stars. I stood there in the darkness and they spoke to me. They were just for me and their message was clear. 

It would kill him. 

The pictures mirror the text. They are proper rough, old digital rough, filled with grain and noise and printed insignificantly on the page. The book starts with a doorway; we are entering the interior of Riley's mind, and then we are on to a double page spread of her partner and a picture of Riley (I think) holding her wrist up.

We go outside to smudgy winter dawns and pictures in which time stretches out into the preceding hours of a sleep that never came. This a book about dead time, about doing nothing and the slow, dripping torture of doing it. Riley stands in her knickers in a doorway, she looks out from a balcony at the lights of a city and she lies back on her sofa; lying and waiting, the thoughts rolling round in her head in an unending, inescapable cycle.

There's the bridge mentioned above, there's the balcony and there's the wrist. Delusion, death and the otherworld of street lights and noisy interiors mix with tears, sadness and a loss of self.

Thematically Back to Me overlaps with Ravens. They overlap with A Black Dog Came Calling by John Darwell, the work of Lauren Simonutti (who sadly killed herself two years ago) and numerous others.

So if you're looking at books from the past that are overpriced and unavailable, and you covet them, the solution is simple. Stop coveting, stop wanting. Buy something affordable instead. Buy something new. Buy Back to Me.


Charlie Hey said...

Hi Colin, appreciate your reply and suggestions over on FB, but I do feel there is a much bigger issue here to be addressed around the circulation of photography in print.

This notion of 'rarity value' quoted in the Phaidon piece has been manifesting right through from the top picks of Parr and Badger's historical volumes to much more recent works. It is not exclusive to older projects, musty old volumes and long-established photographers.

There should be more options for the average devotee or advocate of photography to acquire photobooks than simply staying 'ahead of the game.' I am entirely against any notion of 'buying into' new photobooks as an investment, this is the most toxic seduction available to any new photographer who comes across an early glimmer of success or exposure or special mention. Ultimately it's their choice in the selection of a publisher and a print run. But as a result, the conversations increasingly surrounding their books, outside of blogs such as your own or Conscientious for example, are an obscure friction of constructive discussion alongside projected resale value. The end result is to keep the books (preferably wrapped) on the shelf, out of reach. By buying into this investment scheme for the photobook, photographs are being made invisible.

Yet you can't simply say ignore the big-hitters and appreciate the young bloods, the example in point highlighted here with Cristina Riley's 'Back to Me,' because then we are cutting ourselves off from the wider picture; the ongoing narrative and development of the photograph as project and sentimental statement. Many of the current crop of 'SOLD OUT' photobooks are far from 'musty old volumes' some are barely a year old, their work is fresh, their ideas are new, their subject matter is interesting. But now they're out of print- or available for triple digit resale on eBay or amazon- we should just give up and move on? Is that a healthy market for photographic publication in your opinion?

As you say, Riley has clearly taken inspiration, or traversed similar emotional/visual constructs to Fukase's 'Ravens' and as such this is a book, regardless of being musty and old, that must also be appreciated and readily available. For many it signifies a narrative meridian from which new work and young photographers have traversed and expanded upon. So for me, no, you need not covet the old, but by all means they should exist and by all means they should be affordable and available. To lose, or even worse; ignore that link is to ignore a vital chapter in photography's progression and expression as personal project, printed publication and visual experience.

I am not saying kill off the limited edition, or the fine art print, I am just perplexed at why it is increasingly difficult to find a cheaper produced, standard quality, non-collectible photo book of the same project in full, with larger print runs at a cheaper price. Even more so when there is clearly demand for them!

There should be affordable art for an easily reproduced art form. We are not dealing with individual paintings we are looking at printed photographs, we are no longer in the age of the tintype, we have digital printing presses capable of mass production. To print a photobook is not difficult, but to limit a run and force the price is even easier. So I have to disagree, while the reputable historical volumes sometimes featured in Parr and Badger's 'The Photobook' books are difficult to get hold of, there are many from the more recent crop of 'new' photographers who are guilty of turning their exposure into exclusivity.

Tony Fouhse said...

Hello Charlie.

You make some good points here in your comment. I can't speak for others, but as the publisher of Back to me. (and other fine books and 'zines available at STRAYLIGHT Press) I'd like to talk to your point of being "perplexed at why it is increasingly difficult to find a cheaper produced, standard quality, non-collectable photo book . . ."

It costs money to print books, and I don't have much of that. So we (STRAYLIGHT Press) print the number of copies that we can afford and sell them for as reasonable a price as possible. We sell them (almost exclusively) through our webstore because once you add (or is that subtract) the discount retailers require, you either have to charge more for the books or make less money (as if that's even possible). In fact, only by offering Special Editions that come with prints can we make ends meet. (Truth be told, it's the Special Edition sales that allow us to offer the regular editions at a reasonable cost.)

We printed 100 copies of Back to me. because that's what we could afford. Yes, it's true that if we printed 1000 the cost per book would decrease. But despite this being the "golden age" of the photo book, they are still difficult to sell. Especially if you are dealing with subject matter that doesn't fit in with what is popular and/or publishing work by photographers who don't have 10k Twitter followers or 100k Instagram fans.

Regarding some of the books in the Parr/Badger The Photobook, my experience tells me that many of the more obscure books mentioned there were probably produced by people and/or publishers like myself. They (the books) are the result of passion and desire with not much thought given to the aftermarket. And it will, despite (or even because of) new technologies, probably remain ever so.

The big publishers and corporations can cover the costs of mass producing photo books, and cover their losses, by printing popular titles that sell a lot. That is a totally different model from small publishers like STRAYLIGHT Press, which operate on a shoestring and just hope to survive to fight another day.

You have your theory and you have your practice. They are not always the same.

Unknown said...

Hi Tony

I realise that for many smaller publishers the manufacturing costs are inhibitive, however there are many other options for photographers. It was announced recently that Blurb have signed a partnership with Amazon. I realise that many people would look down on this as a compromise of quality, however I would argue that to stick with using smaller publishers is to accept the compromise of limiting your audience. Somewhere a decision has to be made about whether the purpose of publishing your work is to make money or to share your art.

I would also add that for many emerging photographers, the allure of the prestigious photobook may cloud their judgement when deciding on the appropriate medium for distributing their work. I would argue that for many, cheaper digital alternatives may be far more suitable.

colin pantall said...

Very, very few people make any money publishing books, Dan. And by channelling things through Blurb and Amazon, things will end up more expensive,they will limit creativity and drive conformity. I do look down on Amazon because they are scum-sucking, destructive leeches.

Unknown said...

That may be true but my point still stands that there are cheaper alternatives to traditional photo book publishing. Tony's argument was that for small publishers such as STRAYLIGHT, the associated costs of printing larger editions is restrictive. They are forced to survive by producing limited edition, and as a result the work can only reach a limited audience.

Of course there will always be a place for limited edition work, but I would suggest that for many emerging photographers, this may not be the most suitable path to follow.

The photo book has established itself as the 'go-to' method for disseminating work, and as a result many photographers choose this medium with little consideration of why.

It is a decision that each individual photographer has to make - a decision that is made harder when the likes of Parr and Badger continue to blow hot air into the speculative bubble that is the photo book industry.

colin pantall said...

Straylight produce small digitally produced editions - they have choice over paper, printing, binding and all the rest. They are modest. You see a book you like, buy it. It's not a money making industry, people have a little project then move on to the next one. That's part of its energy and charm. It's really simple. You see a book, buy it. I think one of the problems is people see a book, don't buy it and then, on the rare occasions the price rises, get all hot under the collar because they didn't buy it and the price has gone up. There are masses and masses of great unsold books out there, many are in Parr and Badger 3. You want a great book in PB3, go get Billy Monk, yours for £30 http://www.dewilewis.com/collections/back-list/products/billy-monk

I think Billy Monk will sell out one day and then you won't be able to get one, but why should you. Publishing is a pain in the arse to do - it's hard work with little financial reward for anyone.

And the reason people make photobooks despite the godforsaken nature of the business, is because it is individual and it is a way of creating a unique work out of what is otherwise a digital morass of consumption - of which Blurb and Amazon are large parts.

Go on - what SOLD OUT books do you really regret not having? And if you can't have them, why do you crave them so much. Kill your desire. Go Buddhist! There are loads of good books out there - get something new. That's what photobooks are all about - the new. That's why they are so good.

But serious question - what SOLD OUT books do you really regret not having?

Tony Fouhse said...

What Colin said.

And, really, if you print, say, a thousand copies of your book, unless it totally hits (A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, Sleeping by the Mississippi, etc.), you will be left warehousing (probably) 950 or so unsold copies. Photographers seem to have unrealistic expectations about how many people will turn Facebook “likes” into actually reaching for their wallets. For instance, STRAYLIGHT printed 500 copies of LIVE THROGH THIS, which got tons of notice and excellent reviews and there are still, 2 years later, about 75 of those left.

Then there’s Kickstarter (et al), where you get your money upfront, make the books and send ‘em to the folks who bought in. But what happens after that? Sure, now Amazon will provide a mechanism for sales, but who’s gonna buy them? And do you really want to get into bed with Amazon?

As well, my experience with digital publishing has shown me that what a specific book looks like when you first order it may not be what it looks like when you order subsequent copies. I’ve seen craaaazy swings in quality from one printing to the next. Do you really want to send your book out direct from Blurb, or any of the other digital printing factories, sight unseen? That’s why STRAYLIGHT orders in bulk and ships from my office. . . . quality control. Problem with that is there is a larger initial financial outlay. And now, except for the ‘zines we produce, all of our books are printed locally, not only for quality control, but also because we believe in supporting small, local businesses, not international conglomerates. That’s where we stand.

Like I said before, there’s theory and there’s practice.

(And feel free to drop by the STRAYLIGHT webstore and pick up a book or two before they’re sold out.)

Microcord said...

Look, there's a star system at work here. And photography is part of Art, and the Art market is nuts. We know this.

How did I first encounter Karasu (Ravens)? Via a pile of copies (at the fixed retail price of 5000 yen a pop) in a regular bookstore. But back in those days 5000 was a lot of money for me, and I didn't buy a copy.

Much later I bought a copy of the third (Rat Hole) edition -- for 10 thou; not cheap but in reality less, what with inflation (not to mention my increased earnings) -- and I no longer wished I'd bought a copy of the first.

|| That's what photobooks are all
|| about - the new. That's why they
|| are so good.

Er, yes, right -- until you start to think about all the insipid new photobooks and all the good old ones that don't happen to be trendy or blessed by Parr 'n' Badger.

British examples: I long wanted Mark Power's The Shipping Forecast. Of course this is celebrated, but there's no hysteria surrounding it and though it cost me more than one new book from (say) Mack it cost me less than two; and I got it from the bookstore of a charity shop so the money went to a good cause. I enjoy it and I'm glad I got it. And I wanted The Big Ditch: The Manchester Ship Canal Seen through the Camera of John Darwell, so I just now ordered a copy for one (1) quid; there are more similarly priced copies where that came from.

That left me with enough money to order Flock too.

colin pantall said...

Fantastic Microcord - it is all about the new then (Flock and the Darwell and the Power) and about getting what's affordable.

Oh God, you're right that there is loads of dross out there - but therer is also loads of interesting stuff too. And if you can't afford old, out-of-print, then go there, why not.

What are the books that you would really like that you can't get?

Charlie Hey said...

They key point that is being missed/avoided here- and what I see as the most damning issue to what is essentially an unhealthy and unbalanced era for photography in print- is not the coveting of the old, but the coveting of the new. This is the most self-destructive aspect of contemporary photobooks, it is the publications from well-regarded, emerging photographers that are embracing exclusivity and reducing their potential for dissemination. Richard Mosse, Cristina Middel, Soth, Winship etc etc are not in the category of historical or old, they are photographers at the peak of their visual production. What's more, they are photographers who everyone is talking about, whether in the slew of awards or articles month after month in the BJP, Aperture, Hotshoe. They have exhibitions touring in line with their books, and clearly they are doing something that is a benchmark in the progression of the medium. When so many agree that this work is important, or setting a benchmark or worth knowing about then clearly there is something going for it. Anything being perpetually discussed in this sphere should by all means be available as an affordable document for research, for dissemination, for as many to learn from, gain inspiration and enjoy.

If this work should simply be considered as 'trendy' or 'blessed,' then you are consigning yourself, exclusively, to a niche market of the new and independently published photobook, ignoring the bigger picture. And as this independent publishing is born out of aversion to the mainstream, a by-product of the 'big name' and 'trendy' photographers, then by it's very nature it has consigned itself to a severely limited readership. The result is exactly the same as a blockbuster, coveted, sell-out photobook, in both cases work that wants to be seen and should be disseminated as such is nullified by its own exclusivity.

In the same way, old books can't be ignored if their impact is still discussed in relation to the medium today- these books are a benchmark in their own way and choosing to ignore them or simply accept their unavailability is choosing to ignore a vital piece of the puzzle in the development of the photobook.

There is no other market within the arts reflective of this inherent problem surrounding the photobook. A good, important, powerful piece of cinema is remastered, redistributed: affordably. A strong, lyrical expressive work of literature is reprinted and readily available. Music is everywhere all the time from all ages. Each of these tell their own stories, just as a photographers project in a photobook does, but they are not built on exclusivity or collectibility; their power is in dissemination.

When it comes to photobooks, it's not as simple as going where the hype is not.

Parr and Bager; the 'trend-setters' of the photobook, shine their light of publicity and raise the price exponentially. Their business, and I do mean 'business,' is not to call for an increase in availability, but to accelerate and exponent the nature of the exclusive, the unattainable.

Colin, you have positive words to say about PB3; a new crop of photobooks are highlighted for their artistic merit, powerful projects. Moreso, these books are readily available. But when the printed publications eventually run dry as a result, and I strongly expect them to do so- then we are back to the beginning of the argument: the coveted photobook, the ridiculously priced re-sale, and most damaging of all, a collection of powerful printed projects that are not being made scrofulous, stained, dog eared and loved for their content, but immaculately stored, plastic-wrapped and hidden away for their collectible value.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Charlie. I sympathise. I've had some really odd comments about the post, but I pretty much agree in a way, up to a point, sort of...

I don't think that as many photobooks as you think are unavailable. And if you wanted a Mosse or a Winship or a Soth, you can get them easily enough.

And if you start saying that such and such are the important books because they are sold out, then you are kind of falling victim to the hype of the sold out. It's sold out so it must be important.

There are many good books worth buying, many at reasonable prices despite being out of print. Look here




There are lots of people who are obsessed by the hype (and I do quite like it sometimes. Makes it all exciting. But at the same time, how many people have really paid a squillion quid for the Afronauts. The photobook world is a small world, and one in which most people mostly buy books which they like, which they can afford, which are available. Like you, I've sometimes had a problem with a book being sold out, I've more often had a problem with it being too expensive, but I've never had a problem finding something really good to buy - be it old or be it new.

Ooh, I like that. I think I'll end my blog post tomorrow with that.

Charlie Hey said...

Yo Colin, it's cool- nothing of what I argue above is meant to come across as an individual frustration to the Sold Out super limited run, I'm not trying to paint in some personal affront I have experienced as a photographer and photography admirer. I'm more interested in the bigger picture; it's repercussions on the reader and the photobook as an ongoing narrative that should ideally be appreciated and available past to present, trendy photographer to Indy underdog. Emphasis on 'ideally' of course, in a perfect printed world. On that we'll have to agree to disagree.

I'm not tempted to go into a simply simplistic list of the current crop of contemporary culprits who produce far too few publications at total odds with their fans and demands. I do believe there is a negative streak in the curation and dissemination of SOME photobooks, one that is focused on collectibility value rather than visual value.

I do believe there is inflated prices and profits being made by the wrong people with the wrong ethics. These people are not necessarily or specifically photographers and/or publishers.

I do believe independent publishers are a positive force in the photobook publishing industry, and contrary to what the above sounds from me, I have been following independent publishers like STRAYLIGHT, and Mack and Trolley and Die Nacht for years and have purchased books from them. I interviewed the late great Gigi Gianuzzi of Trolley when I was a photography student and this photo book collectibility argument did come up. I am no stranger to any of those links you sent me.

I do believe Parr and Badger are a pair who love and understand good publishing but also love and understand good profits when it comes to print.

If we're going to start putting links on it, there are many that could be pulled from the culture sections of newspaper websites and arts mags, but they all sing the same souless tune of collecting books to boost cash flow, and 'investing' in young photographers.


As you know, Gerry Badger who champions the exposure of the photobook with Parr, also has his own book 'Collecting Photography,' the synopsis of which includes, 'things collectors need to know about how and where to buy and invest.'

I think the most important issue that has arisen from this discussion is not a 'coveting' of photobooks but a 'collecting' that entails the book is put into some sort of invested incubation, away from looking and touching. This is the ultimate injustice any photobook can be subjected to, it discredits its core function as a tactile visual object and all the efforts behind its conception are simply ignored. I would hope none of us involved in this conversation are components of that process, and I'd like to believe we can at least all agree photobooks are for looking at!

Finally, as much of this discussion was based on championing the new, I would like to point you in the direction of a funding campaign underway here at Falmouth University. The graduate year of Press & Editorial Photography (taught by David White of duckrabbit) are raising support for a proper printed book run showcasing their final projects in place of a standard degree show- a great idea.

They need £10K to get their run of books out into the public sphere, a £20 donation will get you one of their books as a 'perk' should they reach their goal. Taking into account all of the above arguments, this should be right in line with each of your individual ethics- supporting new, passionate photographers, and giving them a chance to disseminate their work in a meaningful way.


If you could share their campaign on FB or better, put up a small post to support 30 graduate photographers, they will be most stoked :)

slidelines said...

unfortunately the photo world is going down the same middle class elitist attitude as the wider art world. And the defining criteria for access to certain work is money. I recently pr ordered christina de middels new book at around £30 it is now available for £125 utter nonsense. The wider effect of this is work is getting judged as being good or important based on its monetry value rather than standing on its own merits. there is some very average work commanding stupid prices based on nothing more than the fact that its no longer available, feeding the fetishistic need for exclusivity.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Charlie - I'll post something on FB but ten grand is an awful lot for a group publication. An awful lot.

The same problem does exist in other creative spheres.

I read about Record Day and the problems of people making vinyl editions and having them bought up - far worse than the photography market. And the Carsten Jensen book I mention is the only one of his available in translation, despite him being huge in Scandinavia.

Sidelines. You have a copy of Middel's book. Why worry about what some dufus has priced it up as on ebay? Nobody's missing out that much by not having that book (or any other book)...