In a recent issue of Source magazine Daniel Jewesbury, in speaking about a gatefold in Eamonn Doyle’s book ‘i’, states: “I’ve never really understood the attraction of these printerly eccentricities, except that they make part of the book a bit different from the rest; is this somehow a good thing, in and of itself? So many photobooks now feature some kind of peculiarity in the binding, the folding or the printing that it would seem almost churlish to publish a book with all the pages the same size, published on the same paper stock, and all bound in the same way.”
This really raises some interesting points for discussion in regards to the contemporary use of these “eccentricities”. In fact in a quite antithetical attitude to Daniel Jewesbury I have found that I am quite attracted to books that feature some kind of physical intervention, something that makes it more than a “straightforward” book. In considering why this is however, I have begun feeling dubious to the motivations for both the attraction to implement and purchase a book implementing such features.
A large amount of the success of such “eccentric” books is attributable to the largely insular audience photobooks have. The more subtle features like printing on black paper, using different page sizes, hand-tipping in images, etc. are more appreciated by those who have tried to implement them themselves or who just have a basic idea of the considerations around doing so. Rafal Milach’s recent and highly acclaimed photobook The Winners features 53 hand tipped-in images with captions hidden underneath. The project is wonderful, but it is no doubt the inherently laborious physical construction of the book contributes hugely to its popularity among designers, photographers and collectors alike. What worries me in considering why I bought a copy is the hierarchy of considerations I went through in making my decision. The physicality of the book and the collectability this loaned to it came first, the fact that the project was interesting and the photography strong almost like the icing on the cake. It’s an uncomfortable fact to admit, but I doubt I am alone in this.
It is important to delineate that this so-called “printerly eccentricity” was not simply something implemented for the sake of boosting value and popularity. Milach instead quite expertly uses this technique to re-present an essence of the notebook, rather than relying on typeface and overall physical form. In fact I find that the quite antithetical use of thin, refined fonts like Helvetica Neue and the slick, leather wrapped hardback, when paired with the constant lifting of stuck-in images, lends itself to this “feeling” or “essence” of the notebook more than a blunt facsimile of a moleskine with scanned handwriting or typewriter font does. Further to this I feel that essence, being far more acutely linked to experience, is more valuable than aesthetic appearance.
This said I must circle back to being relentlessly honest as to my intentions. I purchased the book online, without ever seeing physical copy. Therefore I had no way of knowing this experiential quality of the book existed before I had already made my purchase, a purchase catalysed by quirk and collectability. This is what really begins to concern me – if I’m not alone in this thought pattern, and I doubt I am, their will be an increasing necessity for strange little quirks to be featured in books that may not have needed them to begin with.
I have plenty of photobooks that caught me with their promise of a one-off polaroid, a small gicleé or silver gelatin print, a postcard or poster, etc. that have ended up being pretty bland books. Others have undeservedly rewarded me for my shallowness and turned out being fantastic, but very few of which I would own today if I hadn’t been sucked in by secondary considerations intended for collectors.
This is why I find touring the photography exhibitions at the Free Range graduate shows each year so interesting. Many 3rd year BA students, if making a book, will be making it for the first time and so are usually so involved in learning about laying out a ‘standard’ book that they rarely occupy themselves with any other distractions.
I doubt I will ‘get over’ my appreciation for these eccentricities, my attraction to them linked to my yearning for physical confirmation of something’s existence. This is the same reason (or catalyst, at least) many photobook collectors also collect vinyl records (and therefore why a quarter of Offprint London was vinyl records). The ability to touch something as ephemeral as a piece of art and for it to occupy a space is deeply refreshing and, I find, calming. But I worry that this desire may begin leading rather than following the work it reifies, overpowering its subject and existing as a self-referential object/commodity good for nothing more than buying and selling.
Ollie Gapper graduated from UCA Rochester in 2014 with a degree in Photography (Contemporary Practice). He is currently studying an MA in Photography with a long-term focus on photobooks and the American landscape.