Unboxing ‘Photobook Phenomenon’

I got hip to Photobook Phenomenon many months ago, thanks to Jorg Colberg and Conscientious. It’s less a photobook than a collection of zines, featuring theoretical and historical essays, a survey of great book(cover)s from Martin Parr’s collection, and a poster, all held together in a sealed slipcase with a pull-tab that you need “Remove only in case of reading –>”

…which I did almost immediately after unboxing the book.

It’s a nice touch that I expect will fetch collectors smart enough to buy a spare to keep unopened a premium one day, maybe, though if the current photobook trend is anything like the baseball card fad of the late 1980s and early 1990s, or the comic book fad of the early and mid 1990s, it’s likely that the photobooks made in the last few years will likely hold something like their cover price, maybe, for most of the rest of the 21st Century.

The individual, pamphlets include:

  • ‘Photobook Phenomenon’ with two essays, “by the Book” by Moritz Neumüller and “Invitation to a Taxonomy of the Contemporary Photobook” by Lesley A. Martin. Neumüller gives us a history of books about photobooks, and Martin identifies three tracks in contemporary photobookmaking: Thematic: the Archive, Narrative: Photobook as Puzzle, and Production: the Baroque Form.
  • ‘Reading New York: a Photobookstudy on William Klein’s Life is Good & Good For You in New York‘ by Markus Schaden and Frederic Lezmi, a rollicking textual description of Klein’s excellent book.
  • ‘The Collector’s Vision: Martin Parr’s Best Photobooks,’ with shots of the covers one 57 photobooks from 1903-2015. (I have a couple in reproduction, but the survey shows, mostly, to my cynical mind, that I hopped on the photobook bandwagon a bit late, arriving in photobookland about the same time, relative to it’s explosion/implosion, that I arrived in baseballcardland and comicbookland, that is, about the time the publishers started pumping out huge editions and competition for books got fierce. Oh well, I had fun with baseball cards when I was 9-11, and with comic books from 10-14 or so, and I do have a couple of comics worth $100 or so, that were old already when I acquired them, sorta like some of the books I acquired early on, that have swelled in value dramatically, and are likely to stay there thanks to great design and relative scarcity.)
  • ‘The Library is the Museum’ by Horacio Fernandez, who explores the libraries of Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Gabriel Cualladó.
  • ‘Five Aspects of Japanese Photobooks’ by Ryuichi Kaneko, an exploration of the photobook culture in Japan, in which Kaneko identifies five currents: 1) Photobook Printing, the ways various print processes are employed to serve the work; 2) Photographers and Designers working together to produce something greater than one could produce alone, with a special study of Hosoe’s Barakei, which underwent 4 completely different designs in 4 different eras; 3) Photomagazines that Produced Photobooks, in which the one gives rise to the other; 4) Compendium, in which a bunch of little books make up a larger book (much like Photobook Phenomenon); and 5) Self-Publishing, where all the fun stuff happens.
  • ‘Propaganda vs. Protest Books’, by Gerry Badger, a sort of taxonomy of the two different forms, which all seemed a little bit obvious to me, but then I had an early education in propaganda (after comic books, I turned to punk rock, or, its 1990s, half-hearted, suburban/commodified reemergence).
  • ‘Fascinations and Failures,’ by Erik Kessels, who contributed a collection of vernacular photobooks (manuals and guides, evidentiary things) to the exhibition, of which Photobook Phenomenon serves as a catalog.
  • ‘Contemporary Practices’ by Irene De Mendoza and Moritz Neumüller, in which 7 artists talk about their photobookprojects: Julian Barón, Memorial, 2016; Alejandro Cartagena, Santa Barbara Return Jobs back to US, 2015-16; Laia Abril, Lobismuller, 2016; Jana Romanova, Shvilishvili, 2015; Viviane Sassen, Umbra (Shadow), 2015; Thomas Sauvin, Xian, 2016; and Katja Stuke & Oliver Sieber, Japanese Lesson A Future Book, 2016.

Some of the booklets are more useful/interesting than others, some may be of historical interest in the future, and some probably could’ve been left out and we wouldn’t be any the wiser.


Overall, I’d give it 4.2 stars.

If you’re someone who reads CPHmag and follows the photobookmarket, Photobook Phenomenon the book/catalogue is probably of more historical curiosity/personal validation than anything else, and, as noted by Colberg, the set is probably more useful to someone who is only mildly acquainted with photobooks. I think it’s a cool thing, and it makes a nice addition to my collection, but it’s not a must-have.

Copies remain available, and a new copy isn’t too expensive, so maybe pick one up if any of the above sounds interesting to you. It’s probably worth it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *