Saturday, March 10, 2012

Photobooks: folly, finance, and a few favorites for your coffee table

Paris used book store. Marc Olivier.
 Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.  ~P.J. O'Rourke

Books tend to fall into types: the ones you take to the beach or the airport, the ones you proudly display in your bookcase, the ones you hide, the ones you put on your coffee table, etc. For the art snob, "coffee table book" is a pejorative term reserved for pretty "art" books with broad appeal but no real cultural value or depth (I did a post about the "snob" question not long ago). I disagree. Although tastes vary and we could argue about whether a National Geographic book about the beauty of nature is better than Yale's latest tomes on Robert Adams, either way, the coffee table book occupies a privileged place in your home and therefore merits some thought. That's why I'm going to give you some reasons (both good and bad) why you might want to update your coffee table book.
  1. It's fun to watch photo books go up in value (while your stocks tank). Money is not a good reason to collect photobooks, but I'm not going to lie to you and say it's not fun to watch how fast the prices change.  I have a document where I record all of my book purchases, including the value—a practice that I started in reaction to having seen our basement flood a couple of years ago. Then it turned into a sort of game to look at my list once in a while and track the ups and downs of the prices on Amazon. Let me give you a few examples:
 I bought this beautiful monograph of Edouard Boubat's photography a year ago for $25.94. Today it costs $172.

Less than a year ago, I bought Lee Friedlander's America by Car for $32. Today, a new copy is at least $107.

Paul Graham's A Shimmer of Possibility (the all in one paperback version) was $56 when I bought it just two months ago. Now, it seems to go up in price every time I look. Currently, $219.

Crazy, right? Not that I buy them because I'm a collector. I like to use my books. I like to read them, and I have no intention of selling them. And even if I did, it's not like cashing in stocks. You have to wait for a buyer, so those elevated prices are essentially theoretical until someone demonstrates they're willing to pay. So, even though you don't want to be the collector that Blake Andrews satirizes in his faux year-end book list post, you can still have fun watching the prices go up (of course, it's not so fun when you don't own the book and wish you did). Two final points on the ridiculous price inflation: 1. you're less likely to feel buyer's remorse  and 2. you need to hone your scarcity radar so that you get books you really want before they're all sold out.

  2. A good photo book is a true object of beauty, inside and out.
I wish I owned this gorgeous oversized Lartigue Album of a Century book. A new, pristine copy now costs $577. In this case, I'm on the outside looking in. 
Another oversized beauty ( 23.1 x 15.6 x 10.6 inches)  that you can still buy for a good price:
Todd Hido's A Road Divided. I absolutely love this book of dreamy, haunting images taken through the (often sleet-covered) windshield of his car.  Sometimes, the cover and the idea of a book end up being more exciting than what's inside:
I'll admit that I have to be in a zen mood (which rarely happens) to enjoy photo after large photo of the water on the Thames in Roni Horn's Dictionary of Water. I don't care how superficial it sounds—I like how the orange cover ties in with the orange accents of the room. Trite, but true.

As for inside of the books, it all depends on your taste. But it's hard for me to imagine people not liking Trine Søndergaard & Nicolai Howalt's How to Hunt. I love it and I don't even particularly like nature or hunting. Just look at this one: 
Vivian Maier's work is brilliant, understated, and charming and Vivian Maier: Street Photographer is only $25.

   3. Good photobooks will make you more visually literate, and they will train your eye to see the world in a different way. Have you ever tried to sit down and read a photobook with the same time and attention you might give to a great work of literature? We are so used to fast-food style image consumption that true visual literacy requires extra effort.

If you don't know where to start in getting visually literate, try Stephen Shore's classic The Nature of Photographs.  The paperback version is only $13. It's not exactly a gorgeous book, but it's a great primer on understanding the visual and physical properties of photos.

 Robert Frank's The Americans is the perfect book to study sequencing and to begin to appreciate the art of editing a photobook. The still affordable Looking In is kind the equivalent of a dvd with bonus features (no, there's no actually dvd, but it's full of "extras" like excellent essays, contact sheets, etc.) to make you an expert on one of the most important photobooks of all time.

Those are just 3 reasons to consider updating your coffee table book. I did a post in 2010 listing some of my favorites. Since I love photobooks so much, I'll share some of my favorites in future posts.


Thiruppathy Raja said...
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