A good photobook has visual, sculptural, even performative qualities. When the right combination of editing, design, production, and audience comes together, it can leave the most potent and lasting impression, something unmatched by exhibitions or digital presentations. And, despite the fact that publishing revenues and print runs are smaller than ever before, there are more photobooks being made today than at any point in history. Markus Hartmann, former publishing director at Hatje Cantz Verlag, recently wrote: “We must accept (again) that books (and photobooks) are not made for profit but for educational reasons, for fame, honor, and immortality.”
American Photo spoke to photographer and bookmaker Todd Hido, one of the jurors for the fourth annual PhotoBook Awards, hosted by Aperture Foundation and Paris Photo, who announces the 35 finalists at the New York Art Book Fair tonight at MoMA PS1. The contest is split into three categories: PhotoBook of the Year, First PhotoBook, and for the first time, Photography Catalogue of the Year. Some of the shortlisted titles that caught our eye are in the gallery above, with the full list available via www.aperture.org. Below, we discuss the key elements of a good book, the process behind narrowing down hundreds of submissions, and the state of the photobook in 2014.
What would you, as a photographer and bookmaker, say it takes to produce a successful photobook?
A book is like a permanent record, it doesn’t just go away and you have to make sure that it’s just right. I would say step one is finding a format that works for your photographs—is it the right size, the right shape, is it vertical, do you have your pictures cross over the gutter or not, do you have borders? There are those elements and then I always think that the best photobooks are not about the designer making a statement or anything like that; it’s more about the photographs leading and the design following. Of course, the most important part is what pictures. It’s really important to have a really rounded selection of work and not having too many photographs, and then having the right sequence of photographs in how they’re ordered. There’s no patent way to do anything because everybody’s work is so different. It’s a combination of juggling all this together that makes a good photobook.
The PhotoBookMuseum which opened recently in Cologne calls the book “the central form of expression within photography.” How do you respond to that statement?
I would say that the photobook is the perfect form for photographs in a way. In fact, it’s even better than seeing pictures on a wall. There’s something about photographs on the printed page that just works. There’s a simplicity of expression that happens in a photobook, it’s kind of an immediate, encapsulated thing. The other thing that’s important about photobooks is when you have a book or you make a book and it’s something that we as an audience that approaches a book we expect that it makes some kind of sense in some way. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it’s kind of hard to take narrative out of it, but of course not all photobooks are narrative. Some are collections, others are archives. But I would agree that a photo book is one of the most interesting ways to present photographs. Not only is it an intimate and personal experience, it’s an extended viewing of work. When we walk into a gallery to look at pictures, how long are we really there for? A book, you can take it, digest it, you can flip back and forth, you can leave it sitting out on your table and kind of peripherally view it in a way. And of course people want to take the work home with them.
What is the judging process like for the PhotoBook Awards? Is there a lot of consensus among the jurors?
I believe across all the categories about 800 books were sent in and because of the massive amount of time it would take, there’s a little bit of pre-jurying that happens; the staff at Aperture sets aside things that they have a sense won’t get in. But they’re also very careful to leave out the books they pull aside so that we [the jurors] always have the option of looking at them. Then, I think that narrowed it down to almost 200 books. Basically there are five different people, jurors looking and everyone just moves around marking things that they like, pulling stuff that they think is most interesting. That gives you a sense of what people are liking. It’s a curious process where a lot of the times the cream rises to the top and it’s interesting how diverse the jury is and how we’re all coming at it from different aspects. I’m on the jury being an artist, as a maker of pictures, and the other people are either publishers or curators or exhibition organizers and things like that. We all look at the books and we have a goal of five or 10 or 15 in the different categories. The ones we ultimately tagged arrive on the table of the shortlist. And then, we actually have a debate about the rest of the books. We go around the room and pool together what book or two would we each add to the table. It’s very democratic the way that it works. It’s interesting that we don’t lean towards anything specifically. It’s actually incredibly diverse what we pick. There’s books of all categories, all different kinds—large art books, small paperback books, softbound, exhaustive catalogues, or books that have 30 pictures in them. What’s really incredible to me is that it is incredibly international. There’s no one dominant trend of the French, or the Americans. And it’s not something that’s diverse because we tried to tweak it that way. It just happened like that, it sort of all just falls into place.
Are you looking for different qualities when you’re judging First PhotoBook as opposed to PhotoBook of the Year?
PhotoBook of the Year, that book has to be amazing, it has to have a ‘wow’ factor, you have to be blown away by it. And I’m not talking about big and bold and beautiful, and all that. What makes your favorite book? It’s a combination of excellent photography, excellent design, and sequencing, and using materials that fit the subject. I don’t know that there is a big difference in the approach to First PhotoBook, because it still has to ‘wow.’ It still has to have all that stuff I just mentioned. Personally, my standard when I’m judging something like that, no matter what category, it still has to have that ‘wow’ factor, it has to pull you in whether it’s their first book or their tenth.
Self-publishing is more prevalent and accessible than ever before. With many barriers of entry into the publishing world now gone, how has the quality of the output changed?
There are more books than ever, I agree, and it’s easier than ever for somebody to make a book and there are lots of amazing self-published books. There are some books you wouldn’t even know were self-published because they’re so well-made. The barriers of entry being gone, I think, in an odd way the quality of all books has gone up because people are able to be incredibly inventive and there are just so many ways to make a book. One book on the shortlist, they had printed the color images on very thin paper, they were all printed on one large sheet, then cut down, and then hand-taped to the pages. That was a very economical method of making a book, but the results were actually quite nice. The level of quality in the shortlist is very high and there’s a range of diversity that is really impressive.
The winners in each category of the PhotoBook Awards will be announced at the Paris Photo fair on November 14, 2014.