Still, many laymen would no doubt think I have way too many photography books and spend far too much money acquiring them. True, I do write about photography sometimes, so the books are a kind of reference library, though I started collecting long before I started writing. And much as I like the material nature of books, and appreciate books as objects, I would say (and I don’t think I’m deceiving myself) that it’s the contents that are important, not the form. Having said that, I do think that the best photography books are works of art in themselves.
I’d also argue that books are the very best way of looking at a photographer’s work, preferable to seeing them on a gallery wall, for instance. Of course the gallery print is likely to be more “authentic,” closer to the source, closer to the photographer’s intentions, and often signed and therefore touched by the artist’s hand. But equally, in a gallery the print is going to be behind glass, there’s going to be some twerp standing in front of it, blocking your view, perhaps expressing loud, dreary insights. And there are real limits to how long anybody can stand in a gallery looking at photographs, how many images you can really look at in a session without getting sated, without losing your concentration and judgment.
Looking at a book is a private rather than public experience. You have the book in your hands, in your home. You can look at it while sitting in a chair, at a table, in bed, in the bathroom. You can view a certain number of photographs, put the book aside, then later pick it up again, as and when you please. You live with the images, develop a personal and sustained relationship with them.
I know you could say that there’s something inauthentic about the book as opposed to a print, but the fact is that one way or another, most of the photographs we see are reproductions. We see them printed or scanned, and in an age of digital reproduction, it’s hard even to know what an original is. Increasingly we also see photographs, and find photographers for the first time, online, where you’re sacrificing quality for quantity: low res JPEGs really don’t tell the whole story, but I’m not dissing them. The first Eggleston images I ever saw — the fire in the barbecue grill, the glowing cocktail on the airplane tray table — were on postcards, and I snapped them up, and I wouldn’t say the experience was entirely ersatz.
As my experience at Paris Photo Los Angeles demonstrates, I’m not an Eggleston completist. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible to be a completist with any very well known photographer. Books published before they were famous tend to be rare, desirable, and expensive, and contemporary editions are often published with the collector market in mind: numbered, signed, limited editions, slipcases, sometimes with an extra print and what not. Neither of these categories is usually for me. Still, I do tend to have clusters of books by certain photographers I especially like, some of whose books come within my budget.
The main names are Eggleston, Martin Parr, and Garry Winogrand; a bit of a boy’s club to be sure, but quite a diverse bunch of boys: Eggleston the master of subversively Zen imagery; Parr the covert class warrior who began photographing the misery of the English seaside and now photographs the vacuity of the super rich; Winogrand the boy from the Bronx, the man of the street, the obsessive who took photographs even when there was apparently nothing to photograph. It’s Winogrand who offers the fewest books to collectors. He died in 1984, missing out on the international photography boom, and he published just four books within his lifetime. Martin Parr’s bibliography, by my reckoning, now stands at 58 volumes.
The most obvious thing to notice in my, or any, collection of photography books is that they’re not what they used to be: they’re generally much better and certainly bigger. Not very long ago 100 or so images was considered more than enough to make a book.
Two of the first books I ever actively “collected,” as opposed to just bought, were by Martin Parr (I realized these purchases were in a different league when I very politely and no doubt very pushily — I was young and shameless — arranged a meeting with Parr at the ICA in London and got him to sign them for me): Bad Weather published in 1982 (pictures of English folk battling through rain and snow) and A Fair Day: Photographs from the West of Ireland from 1984 (Irish folk in pubs and ballrooms, and at horse fairs). They’re books I couldn’t possibly afford at their current prices. Each of them has just over 50 plates.
Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958), broadly considered the Ur-document of 20th century photography, has just 83 images: Frank supposedly shot 28,000. A later 2009 version of the book, accompanying a travelling exhibition and titled, rather clumsily if you ask me, Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, Expanded Edition added a great deal of critical and historical apparatus, but the images, with a few minor tweaks, remained unchanged. This book led Anthony Lane to write in The New Yorker, “Inside every fat volume, of course, a thin one is signaling quietly to get out.”
Back in the day, faced with these slim volumes, some of us certainly complained that they weren’t exactly great value. We wouldn’t have objected to getting a few more images for our money, but we accepted, grudgingly or otherwise, that we were in thrall to the economic realities of publishing. I don’t think many of us were crying out for (or even imagining) books like Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Thousand — 1000 color plates, 2008 pages, or the Helmut Newton Sumo, 464 pages, 20 x 27.5 inches, and weighing 66 pounds — but we’re certainly glad they exist, even if we can scarcely afford them, or in the latter case, even lift it.
There has been a considerable trickle down effect; photography books with a couple 100 images are common, and they’ve become more affordable, if not exactly cheap. Mere mortals can actually afford to buy them, and if they still seem pricey, try buying a photographic print. Unless you have pockets of scarcely imaginable depth, you won’t be owning an original William Eggleston. A print of Memphis (Tricycle), the iconic image from the cover of William Eggleston’s Guide, a child’s trike photographed from bug’s eye level so that it towers over the ranch house and car behind it, sold at Christie’s in March 2012 for $578,500. A true first edition of Guide will set you back 1000 bucks or so, though a brand new copy of the currently available reprint can be had for less than 25.
The collector of photography books might, in any case, think that the Gagosian catalogue was less desirable than the “real” book, published by Scalo in 2003, 175 pages, a similar number of plates, also titled Los Alamos. In both cases the images are a selection of photographs from the mid 1960s to mid 1970s, mostly taken on cross-country road trips: curator Walter Hopps drove, Eggleston took photographs.
The Scalo book works very well as a group of photographs, but it represents only a fragment of Eggleston’s original conception, which was to create a 20 volume work containing 2000 pictures — a massively ambitious, and perhaps deliberately unrealistic, enterprise that was duly abandoned. Test prints and unprinted negatives remained in various boxes and archives until 2000 or so, when editor Mark Holborn and Eggleston’s son, William III, made a concerted effort to collect, view, and edit the work, and finally make it available.
The art, photography, and publishing worlds, and indeed Eggleston’s reputation, have moved on so much and so rapidly that Steidl recently published a three-volume edition titled Los Alamos Revisited, which runs to a total of nearly 600 pages. Steidl has also announced publication of an expanded six-volume version of Eggleston’s 1989 book The Democratic Forest, originally just 176 pages, with about 150 images. Jackie Kennedy was the editor at Dutton who bought it and ordered a 20,000 print run for the first edition, which makes it one of Eggleston’s much less collectible books, by which we mean less rare and therefore more affordable, for which I’m very grateful. I picked up a remaindered copy for just $6.95: it still has the sticker on it.
Even the six-volume set will only be a sampling. Holborn, who has been involved with Eggleston’s work since the mid 1980s, wrote in the Financial Times magazine that when he first saw it, “The actual extent of The Democratic Forest was then uncertain, but [Eggleston] estimated there were more than 10,000 photographs so far. In fact, it never had a finale. It was truly endless and there was nothing it could not accommodate, hence the title.”
Well, this is fair enough in one way, and some series are indeed open-ended, but it’s not exactly what books are about, is it? A photography book is in itself a collection of images, similar in some respects to the way that a book of poetry or short stories is a collection, and the best of them share the same qualities. The contents have an internal coherence; the grouping has some parameters. A miscellaneous sampling, set within arbitrary or porous boundaries, is likely to leave us unsatisfied. We need the sense that certain things belong in it, that some things belong elsewhere.
For instance, one small Eggleston gem I own, not much spoken of and still cheaply available, is Horses and Dogs, published by the Smithsonian in 1995, and the images it contains are exactly what the title suggests, photographs featuring hoof and hound, just 26 of them. If the book isn’t considered a highpoint of Eggleston’s career, the images are very fine and unmistakably his, and the collection has a quirky consistency and unity. I’m sure that over the years Eggleston must have taken further photographs of dogs and horses, may have found some old ones in his files, and an expanded edition might well be possible, but nobody seems to be working on that, and those of us who care about these things are perfectly happy with the book as it is: it’s not in need of modification or expansion.
This is not a trivial matter, I think. Supposing you suddenly discovered that James Joyce had written a couple of dozen short stories for Dubliners, ones that hadn’t made their way in, or supposing a stash of 100 Sylvia Plath poems had been found that she’d intended to include in Ariel but for some reason or other hadn’t; well of course you’d want to read those stories and poems, but you wouldn’t exactly be reading Dubliners or Ariel. The original version has an authority that later, amended or amplified versions lack.
The analogy, I know, is imperfect. All photographers shoot far more frames than they can ever realistically show. In the age of digital photography any damn fool can, and evidently does, shoot a couple 100 frames in a day, many of which they may scarcely even look at. This is hardly an option for writers. While it’s common enough for writers to reclaim or reevaluate works they’ve abandoned or even forgotten, no writer looks through his or her files and suddenly finds a couple 100 great unpublished works. Photographers apparently do it all the time, and you can see why that’s possible.
Historically, a photograph, taken in a fraction of a second, has always been essentially complete in itself. It may have been in need of a bit of cropping or retouching, but there was no sense in which a photograph was ever a rough draft or half-finished. Develop it and print it and, for better of worse, the job was done. Of course there have always been exceptions: William Mortensen’s pictures were worked on until they looked more like drawings than photographs. And today when “anything” can be done with Photoshop, the situation has changed out of all recognition: a David LaChapelle digital file when it comes from camera to computer, bears little relation to the finalized, extravagantly worked on image.
Which inevitably brings us back to Garry Winogrand. There’s currently a huge traveling retrospective of his work (it closed this month at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and will appear in Washington, New York, Paris, and Madrid in due course), displaying 300 of his photographs, a third of which have not been on public display till now. The catalogue delivers even more: 401 plates, 152 of them previously unseen. Exhibition and catalogue describe this latter category of images as “posthumous digital reproductions.” There are good reasons for this curious terminology.