Unboxing Jörg Colberg’s ‘Understanding Photobooks’

Jörg Colberg’s Understanding Photobooks: The Form and Content of the Photographic Book deserves more study and attention than I’ve given it before tapping out this titular review. In short, if you’re expecting a photobook, go somewhere else. But if you’re into photobooks or thinking of making a photobook, pick up a copy: Colberg teaches photobooks in Hartford Art School’s International Limited-Residency Photography MFA Program, and with Understanding Photobooks he distilled his years of experience into a small, rather dense textbook that aims “to help photobook makers to understand the different aspects of photobook making, so they know what to focus on, what to spend time on, and—equally crucial—which pitfalls to avoid.”*

Colberg presents the information in a logical, if surprising way. After a general introduction, in which he discusses what is and isn’t a photobook, he delves into the publishing industry and the photobook market. If you, like me, have some interest in putting your photographs into a book, this section delves into the business of producing and selling photobooks, and gives some points to consider: who is the audience and how do I get the book/zine in front of them? For me, these are valid concerns: I know few people read this blog, and so I’m trying to get involved with social media a bit, trying to interact more, trying to wedge my way into the film community, and it’ll be awhile before I have an audience sufficient to put out a book… I might could make a small run zine or two, but I doubt I could sell more than 5 copies, and probably only know maybe 8 or 10 people that would care to get one in the mail. I’m not depressed or deterred, but I know some of the issues, and InshaAllah I’ll keep them in mind.

With readers sufficiently depressed informed, Colberg next turns to book production itself, with 4 chapters covering some General Considerations, Editing and Sequencing, Photobook Design, and Production, and wraps up the book by walking us through How to Make a Photobook (in 17 Rules). Between each chapter, Colberg takes a deep dive into a particular photobook that illustrates the preceding discussion: these include Laia Abril’s The Epilogue, Awoiska van der Molen’s Sequester,  Mariela Sancari’s Moises, Donald Weber’s Interrogations, and Sjoerd Knibbeler’s Paper Planes. I’ve not read these yet, but the coverage looks impressive and I expect Understanding Photobooks will be very useful to me as I continue working to put together a book or other publication, as I think about content, layout, audience, etc., and if I ever put together a Photography program at a University somewhere, this will serve as a nice textbook for a seminar, methinks.

If you’re thinking about making a photobook, do yourself a favor: pick up (or check out) a copy of Understanding Photobooks and study it: It’ll do some good for you.


*p. 12, in Colberg, Jörg. Understanding Photobooks: The Form and Content of the Photographic Book. New York: Routledge, 2017.

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