Where Intimacy Meets Tactility: Artists and Publishers on the Nature of the Photobook

W. Scott Olsen Speaks to Tomasz Trzebiatowski, Joel Meyerowitz, Elysa Voshell, Olga Karlovac, and Phil Penman

For nearly every type of book, the physical book is not the thing we admire. The merit is situated outside the paper and glue. A novel, collection of short stories, memoir, gathering of poems, all create a story—whatever that may mean—in a reader’s head. A cookbook creates a fine meal upon a table. A selection of sheet music creates frustration and then, with luck, some joy at the keyboard.

But book design is important to these volumes. We want the typeface to be appropriate as well as elegant. We want the margins to lessen eye-strain. A lot of good and earnest work goes into the design of every novel and cookbook (to say nothing about the editing, the copy-editing, the fact-checking, the marketing, etc.).

To be honest, what we really want is for the design to become invisible. Reading a short story, for example, I don’t want to be thinking about font selection and gutters. I want to be in the flow, in the willing suspension of disbelief, in the sturm und drang, in the story.

But then we have the photobook. Here the book itself is the thing being admired. The photobook presents a world of problems the other genres rarely consider: size of the image, the fact that they are rarely read beginning to end, What’s more, in no other form of publishing is the author/artist so involved with the design of the final product.

Why is it that so many photobooks are uncomfortable to hold? Destined for the idea if not the reality of a coffee table, many photobooks are really very heavy. Other photobooks are a more user-friendly size, but then the images seem to hold less gravitas. Some photobooks come in boxes and sleeves. They look important but it’s difficult to open them.

Photobooks range from the $22,000 three book edition of the Sistine Chapel art, to the ease of a self-published book. Photographers have been asked to contribute more than $10,000 as a subvention to a press’s taking on their work. It seems like a good time to ask what we’re doing.

I asked a number of photographers and publishers and designers to ruminate about the nature of the photobook in their own worlds. Each one of them has substantial success in every form of presentation.

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W. Scott Olsen: What are the particular merits of the photobook, both in terms of your own career as well as a venue for photography?

Tomasz Trzebiatowski: What catches my eye, what holds my breath, what makes me forget everything else, is the photograph itself. And it usually does not matter what size it is or what paper it is printed on. The most wonderful, highest quality paper will not help if the image itself does not speak to me. But on the opposite side of this spectrum, something else is definitely happening: a good photograph gains even more impact if reproduced on high quality paper and placed in a book of a thoughtful and elegant design.

Joel Meyerowitz: The first photography book I ever saw was Robert Frank’s The Americans. This was 1962, and later that year I bought The Decisive Moment, and then American Photographs by Walker Evans. Those three books were my library and my education, and from them I shaped my sense of what a book of photographs was supposed to do. These books were about the content. The design played a secondary role in the sense that photographs should sit on the page in a way that had no distractions, no cute tricks of graphic layout design to make them more entertaining or palatable to an audience. Just the plain fact of the image, and the articulate current that flowed between them throughout their progression in the book.

Elysa Voshell: I came to the book arts by way of photography and writing, finding first in the photobook and then in the book arts more expansively a magical place where I could bring together my interests in photographic-based imagery and text instead of pursuing these media along two parallel tracks. In my training as a photographer, I was always more interested in working in a series—and in sequencing and playing photographs off of one another that the photobook facilitates—than in the stand-alone image capturing one decisive moment. As an artist, beginning to experiment with the book form sparked a burgeoning and lifelong interest in making work that addresses our need for reading experiences that are embodied, tangible, and encompassing as a counterpoint to cultural circumstances that increasingly favor the digital over the material.

Olga Karlovac: As a self-publisher and someone who is a big fan of photobooks, and books in general, I perceive them as works of art. Something much more than just printing photos on paper and stitching them in the form of a book. I think they are a perfect form of photography presentation in a tactile form. For me, photobooks are a reminder and a memory, symbolic, artistic and at the same time real.

Phil Penman: For me, it was a question of how was a book going to help me in my career, and how to have historical documentation of my work that does not just live on a hard drive or get scrolled past on a phone. I used my book as a way of documenting my previous life, and the stories that go along with being a celebrity photographer hiding behind trash cans. As well as showing my past life, I also wanted to show how my career and work has evolved. My only regret is that a lot of my best work has come after having published the book.

WSO: Putting together a photobook is very much like curating a gallery show. A lot of time and creative thought goes into order of presentation, context and presentation, etc. Yet, very much like a gallery, viewers may actually start in the middle, view the whole thing backwards, or only consider one image. Anthology editors, short story writers and poets have the same issue. How do you approach the arc of a photobook?

JM: These simple values remain with me today. Arrive at the body of work that sums up my efforts. Consider the right size format for expressing the work’s content and scale.

EV: For me, the four primary merits that make the photobook such a strong vessel for exploring photographic work—and for facilitating a unique connection between photographer and audience—are intimacy, pacing, tactility, and depth & scale. Intimacy: the photobook creates an individual experience that connects photographer and audience in a unique way. Pacing: the narrative visual sequence of the book unfolds over time, at a pace determined by the viewer. Tactility: the experience of encountering a photobook is embodied—it requires touch to maneuver. Depth & scale: printed photographic images have a depth that is lacking in screen-based images, and the photographer has control over the scale of images and their relationship to one another.

PP: Obviously none of this comes easy and you have to work day and night to make these things happen. I’m always experimenting with my artistic approach to my work, sometimes it works and sometimes not. I believe my vision of how I view the world and want to depict what I see is always changing. When it does, I set a new goal for myself of what I want to achieve next year and how can I develop my vision and create a new style.

JM: I carefully work and rework the flow of the photographs throughout the sequencing of the book. I make runs of images that will best describe the intentions I began with, and still later, after seeing their deeper relationships, understood in a new way. Surprises are revealed when the runs of images expand and contract and suggest new insights about the work. The greatest pleasure for me is being in the ‘trance state’ when editing, which is when the ‘through-line’ becomes visible and the images speak to each other in ways I might not have known before, and I can then begin to understand the larger, underlying subject. This sense of ‘play’ is the final grace note to the making of all the work in the first place.

OK: I self-published all of my photobooks. At a very start I was not sure if I would even be accepted by any publisher but at the same time I felt this was the best way of doing it, as the whole process was a personal journey and made me do them exactly the way I wanted it. There are so many difficulties being a self-publisher but having a big benefit of controlling the process and doing it exactly the way I want it and designing each step makes it so exciting.

WSO: Is there a dark side to the process?

PP: Do you have a house you can remortgage? Or bare to part with one of your kidneys to sell on the black market? If you answered yes to any of the above, you are a great candidate to publish a photobook! It may sound like an exaggeration, but the reality is not far off.

OK: Of course you are the one who has to finance it all and take responsibility of eventually not selling your books. Also having to do all the commercial/selling stuff by yourself makes you think as you might end up doing everything and anything but not photography and you are required to learn and have so many different skills not related to your photography.

EV: There are, of course, many demerits to photobooks—they can be expensive both to produce and to acquire (though arguably cheaper than individual fine art prints), which decreases the accessibility of the form. There are gatekeepers to production and distribution, though this too is changing as digital printing, design, and self-publishing becomes ever more affordable and accessible. Despite this, for me the photobook form continues to have the same magic as it did when I first encountered and started working with it: an exhibition you can hold in your hands; a bridge between maker and audience; an intimate story you can take with you, share with a friend, and return to again and again.

WSO: So, despite the problems, there is a strong desire for this particular format.

TT: As an editor of FRAMES Magazine I am on an ongoing search for outstanding photographs and my mission is to give those images an environment where they can really shine and come to life in their most impressive incarnations. A well-designed and beautifully printed photobook is the same for excellent images as a masterfully constructed concert hall for a wonderful performance of the most sophisticated musical pieces.

JM: Every image plays a role in the “visual text” we create. Frank’s dark poem about America in the 50’s showed me that it was possible to say things—even while using this “mute” medium—about what I feel about the world around me, and that one’s tone and feelings could be sustained over 60 or 70 images. The publishing world today is a thousand times bigger than it was in the era I began in. The buying audience for serious books back then was thought to be around 3000 people worldwide, thus few risks were taken, and for many of us the work we did for ourselves now are of interest in a time capsule sort of way.

OK: I learned so much along the way. My motivation was to express myself in this form as I simply love books. It happened along the way that I got recognition for it.

TT: We are preparing for the launch of a FRAMES monograph book series. I love the idea of having a strong selection of one photographer’s work in one cohesive book volume. It gives the viewer a chance to immerse in photographer’s thought and visual process even further, to connect with the image author on the deepest available level.

WSO: It’s almost cliché now to point out that we’re inundated with images arriving on our tablets and cell phones. Yet, the backlighting of a tablet makes nearly every image luminous. Wouldn’t that be preferred?

JM: Perhaps the biggest difficulty in publishing today is the explosion of photography through the smartphone which created a new generation who are more visually literate to some degree, while also being easily seduced by the torrent of clichés people make and display on every platform, where, for the most part, they copy whatever visual gets the most likes.

EV: We all spend so much time on screens these days—even more now than before the pandemic—and while I love the potential of the web and social media for learning about new artists and following the development of their work, it can be difficult to garner the same level of attention when looking at work on a screen as one can in the photobook.

OK: For me photo books cannot be compared to digital form of showing photography online or even having them as prints exhibited on the walls of galleries. Photo books are for me more intimate way of expression.

PP: Both are rewarding in that you know that your work is being seen by people all across the world. To have a book, is to have a portfolio that is viewed all around the world in stores and museums, provided you have the right distribution and marketing skills to make this happen.

JM: It’s not that I don’t think a new generation of photographers will emerge from this excitement—because I do—and they will speak in the argot of their time, but that I see that sensationalism and exaggeration seems to be the underlying motif. And will the “Book” still be relevant when people can see works on screen ? This is the question publishers are faced with.

TT: Can photographs exist without photobooks? Sure, they can. But photobooks can’t exist without photographs. When those two meet on the most sensitive possible level, a unique, one-of-a-kind experience is being created. Experience, which—in my opinion—can leave you with some of the most intimate and emotionally powerful moments among your photographic encounters.

PP: We are always chasing the next great picture.

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Joel Meyerowitz is an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in over 350 exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world. Celebrated as a pioneer of color photography, he is a two-time Guggenheim Fellow, a recipient of both National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities awards, and a recipient of The Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal. He has published over 30 books.

UK-born, NY-based photographer Phil Penman has documented the rapid flux of New York City’s streets for over 25 years. With clients ranging from The New York Review of Books to The Guardian, he has photographed celebrated living legends, including Jennifer Lopez and Bill Gates, and captured historical moments such as the September 11th Terrorist Attacks. Penman has won him prestigious awards and exhibitions and distinction as one of the “52 Most Influential Street Photographers” alongside industry legends, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sebastião Salgado. His debut book STREET launched as the Number 1 new release on Amazon for Street Photography, and has since become a best seller and featured at MOMA in New York.

Olga Karlovac is a self-taught abstract and street photographer who exhibits world-wide. She is known for her self-published trilogy of photobooks. Her photography has been featured in many photography magazines, such as black+white photography magazine and frankfurter allgemeine zeitung. Olga has exhibited in group and solo exhibitions around the world, mostly in London, where she exhibited in Saatchi, POSK, ECAD, Project Space and other galleries, as well as in New York, Amsterdam, Paris.

Tomasz Trzebiatowski is a photographer and independent publisher. The founder, publisher and editor of FRAMES Magazine (“because excellent photography belongs on paper”), he is also the editor-in-chief of the FujiLove Magazine for users of the Fujifilm X and GFX camera systems. His photographic interests lie predominantly in fine art, music, and street photography. He is also a classical pianist.

Elysa Voshell is the Executive Director of Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA). She has over two decades of experience working in visual arts organizations, museums, and educational institutions, most recently as the Associate Director and Gallery & Public Programs Director at the Los-Angeles-based media arts organization Venice Arts, where she organized over two dozen photography exhibitions and hundreds of public programs focused on photography and film. She is an artist, curator, and writer whose work encompasses book arts, printmaking, photography, and installation. Voshell holds an MA in Book Arts from University of the Arts London, and an MLA in Visual & Curatorial Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Her artist’s books are held in museum and library collections including the Getty Research Institute and the Tate.

W. Scott Olsen
W. Scott Olsen
W. Scott Olsen is a Professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. The author of 11 books of narrative nonfiction, for 23 years edited the literary magazine Ascent. Also a photographer, his work has appeared widely in galleries and magazines. He writes reviews and hosts the podcast series for Frames Magazine (readframes.com).





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