So, what exactly is a photobook? I’ll be honest and say that missing the final week of year 1 of university has handicapped me somewhat in defining exactly what is expected of me and my summer photobook assignment.

A quick internet search just showed me that the ultimate font of wisdom so many of us have come to rely on, Google, also struggles with the definition as it tries to tell me that a photobook is one of those albums you put your family snaps in to be filed away in on a bookshelf somewhere never to be looked at again. These, to me, aren’t photobooks and are, instead, photo albums. I’ll take this opportunity to say that it’s this kind of label-giving to things that gets on my nerves a bit when it comes to art and photography. People are so keen to give the nichest of niches yet another label so that they can scoff at those that don’t know the label or understand it. Anyway, that’s not relevant right now, but I do feel a bit better for hiding my opinion of it here in this text, wondering whether anyone will ever read it.

Some more digging into the subject of what a photobook actually is, in terms of art, brought me to an article by Marcelo Garcia of Medium.com and finally confirmed what I’d been thinking these things were anyway. The quotes below (to be found in Garcia’s article) best explained it to me. The first is by historian and photography critic Gerry Badger:

A photobook is a book — with or without text — where the work’s primary message is carried by photographs. It is a book authored by a photographer or by someone editing or sequencing the work of a photographer, or even a number of photographers. It has a specific character, distinct from the photographic print…

He goes on to say:

Photobook is a particular kind of photography book, in which images prevail over text, and the joint work of the photographer, editor and graphic designer helps build a visual narrative.

Dutch visual artist Ralph Prins says of a photobook:

A photobook is an autonomous art form, comparable with a piece of sculpture, a play or a film. The photographs lose their own photographic character as things ‘in themselves’ and become parts, translated into printing ink, of a dramatic event called a book.

So, I don’t know about you but I’m getting the impression that a photobook is a printed book dominated by photographs taken, usually, by the same photographer that, when put together, have a theme/narrative through those images. Text is ok in a photobook but the actual imagery should be strong enough to give the narrative of it. The text may just be to give the name, location, age etc. of the subject if it would help the viewer in some way.

With that in mind, it’s time to crack on with looking at four examples of photobooks, as per the assignment instructions.

“Empty New York” by Duane Michals

Duane Michals is a photographer/artist that I studied during the first year of my photography degree after being prompted to do so during the process of creating my masterpiece “Mind Blown” for Creative Apps. I particularly like his “The Bogeyman” piece as it’s both brilliant and chilling at the same time.

During my research into artists/photographers during the summer break following my first year of uni. I came across a landscape photographers work called Berenice Abbott. A lot of her work consists of images of New York, USA, where she lived. Her images are of different areas of the famous city and taken from different angles, but they all capture the wonderful architecture of the place with also a degree of street photography capturing the people going about their business in and around those buildings.

The photobook of Michals that I like is also set in the city of New York (not surprising given the title) but with a difference. One of the things that makes a photobook a photobook is a narrative running through it that links the images together to make them one body of work.

With “Empty New York”, Michals had the idea of photographing areas of the city that are usually busy with people going about their daily routines but doing so at times of the day when those areas are empty.

The images were usually taken in the early hours of a Sunday morning and the series consists of thirty images shot during the 1960s.

Now, whether this actually qualifies as a photobook or not, I’m not really sure. I’m not sure there were such classifications as photobooks back in the ’60s but, were this work to be done today, could it be put in one rather than just being done for an exhibition? I think it could. Of the example photobooks I’ve seen in my studies for this assignment, most seem to be about people of a certain area and that area in which they live and go about their daily routines. Empty New York is of that idea but in reverse.

The above are just a handful of the images from this body of work but are some of the ones I like. Empty New York is published in a book with the images doing the work of setting out and continuing a narrative supported by small pieces of text by Michals so, yes, this is indeed a photobook form my understanding of the term.

With the fact that I enjoyed this body of work and the work of Berenice Abbott and Alexey Titarenko’s “New York”, I detect a recurring theme and think I need to get myself and my camera to New York City as I obviously find it to be a place that photographs well. Maybe I should start small and think about a photobook using my home city of Leicester, UK, first?

“Sleeping by the Mississippi” by Alec Soth

When I saw this assignment, I immediately thought about Alec Soth and his “Sleeping by the Mississippi” piece of work. This is because we’d been given a list of suggested reading before we started the degree course and a book on that list was “Image Makers Image Takers”. I read this book whilst on holiday just before the commencement of the course and the Alec Soth interview stuck with me. I’ve just read it again and I appreciate it even more now that I’ve completed one year of the course as his answers fill me with renewed confidence that even someone like me who isn’t really comfortable photographing people, no matter how much I want to and realise I’ll have to if I want to make a living from the medium, can learn to do so and get more confident at it just like Soth has. Even down to the fact that he sweats when he gets nervous and is renowned throughout the world of photography assistants for sweating whilst working on a shoot.

Soth’s way of doing photography fits perfectly with the creation of photobooks due to the fact that he feels he does better work with a series of images rather than a single image here and there. The best description I’ve seen for this photobook is on printedmatter.org:

Evolving from a series of road trips along the Mississippi River, Sleeping by the Mississippi captures America’s iconic yet oft-neglected ‘third coast’. Soth’s richly descriptive, large-format color photographs present an eclectic mix of individuals, landscapes, and interiors. Sensuous in detail and raw in subject, Sleeping by the Mississippi elicits a consistent mood of loneliness, longing, and reverie. ‘In the book’s 46 ruthlessly edited pictures’, writes Anne Wilkes Tucker in the original essay published in the book, ‘Soth alludes to illness, procreation, race, crime, learning, art, music, death, religion, redemption, politics, and cheap sex.’

In Duane Michals’ work on Empty New York, I think that not only do the pictures have a narrative about a normally bustling place but they are also nice images to look at. Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi doesn’t have the same ‘nice image’ format to it but I feel that the images are stronger in what they are saying due to that raw, real documentary-style they portray when viewed as a series of images. To me, middle-America is seen as a place where the people aren’t well educated or affluent and I feel that Soth gets that across in this photobook.

Although we live in a world today of images that have been photoshopped to within an inch of their lives so that we go “WOW!” when we see them, I must say that, as my education continues into the world of photography, I do rather enjoy looking through a series of real documentary-style images such as the ones in this photobook. In the past, I would have looked at a couple of images from this series and said something like, “Well, they ain’t very good pictures”, but now I’m beginning to understand that it’s as much about (if not more so) the narrative of the image as it is the wow factor of pretty colours and fantastic compositions. I found myself fascinated by the subjects of this photobook and it was a real ‘page-turner’ for me.

Having said all that, a lot of the images are well composed with good use of subjects and colours etc. but it’s definitely about the voyeuristic feel of looking into the lives of some middle-American folks.

“Hide That Can” by Deidre O’Callaghan

 Deidre O’Callaghan’s Hide that Can is another example of the photobook style being used to show a series of photographs that document a certain group of people in a certain environment (I’m finding that a lot of photography is about this type of thing).

This particular photo book documents the lives of men in their 50s and 60s living in Arlington House, Camden, London. Arlington House was built by a wealthy gent many years earlier to house those of the area that didn’t have anything and struggled to look after themselves. It is still used for the same purpose today as it is populated by these men that society has forgotten. It is said to be that about 75% of the men in there are Irish men who came over to England when they were much younger looking for work. For one reason or another they have ended up in Arlington House and many of them are alcoholics with no way of supporting themselves.

One of the things that get mentioned a lot about this piece of work is the way in which the images portray the inhabitants. In today’s world, people seem to go for the shock and awe approach to their imagery as that seems to be what we as humans react to more these days (I swear we’re becoming too aggressive as a race). O’Callaghan has gone into an environment full of men that most of the outside population would regard as scum, but instead of trying to portray them as such, she seems to get across a more sympathetic feel for these guys.

Before I came onto the photography degree course, I was a postman in and around Leicester city centre. Many of the walks I had to do included the much less desirable areas of the city of which some consisted of establishments like Arlington House. My opinion of the people inside and hanging around outside these places is indeed one of, SCUM! This is probably due to the amount of harassment and missile-dodging that I had to do back in those days on these walks. O’Callaghan has actually opened my eyes a little with this photobook to the fact that, if you spend more time with these people, you could very likely see a completely different side to them.

O’Callaghan spent the time with the inhabitants and got to know them well, to the point where she even went with them on one of their outings to Brighton and even Ireland.

One of my favourite images is of the guy sitting in what I assume to be the TV room, looking up at the TV.

I like the fact that he, and the two other guys in the shot, try to keep a certain amount of dignity and self-respect. The way they are dressed in shirt and tie, trousers (instead of jeans or tracksuit bottoms) and jacket shows this but so does the fact that they are well-groomed, whether they have a beard or not. One thing that puzzles me though is the framing of the shot. I’d assume that the amount of space above the men and the fact that shes cut his feet off has a meaning within the image but, at this stage, that eludes me.

Another shot I like is of another chap in a communal room sitting in a chair.

I think that this is a brilliant shot and I have no doubt that we are being led to believe that he’s sitting in his usual spot, supping his usual drink but with one thing missing; his drinking buddy. 

The pose in which he’s adopted of leaning into the chair next to him with his hand holding onto the chair arm shows us that he misses his buddy dearly. The unopened can on the table also strengthens the belief that there is usually a second person in this situation. The empty chairs in the background tell me that the passing of residents in Arlington House is a very common occurrence.

What I’ve said above may indeed be the story behind this image but it could also just be that O’Callaghan has a great eye for a meaningful shot when the meaning isn’t actually genuinely there. This guy could just be settling in for a couple of drinks whilst watching TV in a position within the chair that he finds most comfortable. Either way, it’s a great shot.

One image that’s comical at first but then when you stop to think about it is actually quite sad is:

I initially thought this guy might have been playing hide-and-seek as a means of entertainment whilst acting like kids. The more time I spent looking at the image, though, the more I began to think that he might actually be afraid to go into the room he’s peeping in to. Maybe he’s the victim of bullying within the building or maybe he’s just old and vulnerable. To go through life being afraid at every turn, especially in the community that you live, must take a toll on the soul.

I get the impression that this photobook is showing a group of men who were once strong and proud, who came to England looking for and willing to work. Over time, as the work dried up, they may have turned to drink as a way of getting through the hard times until it got to a point where they no longer cared. Arlington House would seem to have given them some semblance of dignity back and a base with which to rebuild. 

This degree course is definitely having an effect on me because, before I started it, I wouldn’t even have looked twice at images like this but now, I absolutely love them for the content within each one. It really isn’t all about attention-grabbing images that have been Photoshopped to within an inch of their lives for me anymore (I don’t think it actually ever was, to be honest).

“Step by Step” by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

Another photobook I wanted to look at is yet another that documents a certain community of folks and the area in which they live. This time it’s the work of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen and her Step By Step book.

Konttinen was born in Finland in 1948 and became interested in photography at the age of 12. She moved to England in the 1960s and studied photography in London before moving north to the Newcastle area in 1969. Her first photobook was another one that documented the area of Byker in which she lived. This one is called simply Byker and is a collection of photographs she took of the rows of terraced houses and the people who lived in and around them. This first book was shot in the black and white film of the time but she did go back some years later to do a follow-up book after the terraced houses had been knocked down to make way for a newer estate. This second book was shot in colour and is called Byker Revisited.

The images above are from the Byker book, but the one I wanted to look at is Step by Step. This book was shot in the early-mid 1980s and, according to Konttinen’s website, is about:

Mother/daughter relationships explored through a dancing school in North Shields, documented between the early and mid-1980s.

The book is said to have been of influence in the making of the popular film Billy Elliott, in which a young boy joins a dance studio and goes behind the back of his tough, hard-working dad’s back to carry out his urge to dance instead of doing the usual masculine hobbies of football and rugby.

I can’t help but think this piece of work documents a lot of mums who are doing the very common thing of living their dreams through the lives of their daughters. I’d say that more than a few of them would have loved to have been dancers but the routine of life got in the way. We’re led to believe that life upt north is grim and everyone works all hours fer pittance, which would have curtailed any opportunity for the mums to have made it as dancers. But, by ‘eck, I’ll give me daughter every opportunity that I didn’t get to make it! 

As is the norm with these kinds of community groups and the nature of the activity being done, I’d guess that there is more than a slight competitive edge to the whole scene. Moreso on the part of the mums than the daughters, although I can imagine many of the daughters were little bitches to each other and to people outside the dance group.

I think the reason I like this book is simply that I always wanted a son that I could teach to play football and go to watch play at the weekends and get involved with. I have two daughters and neither does the football thing and, to be honest, now that I’ve got older, I’m glad that I have them and I don’t have to get up on a Sunday morning to go watch them play football and be embroiled in a culture of competitive mums and dads all being nice to each other on the surface but really they’d be happy for their kid to step on another if it meant them progressing further and faster in the sport.

My youngest daughter has started at a street dance group and comes home all excited wanting to show me her moves. The one image that I absolutely love from Konttinen’s Step by Step book from the 1980s still rings true in our house today:

Although this piece of work was shot some 40-years ago and done so in a community that many would see as being not very well off, it’s still a good documentation of exactly what goes on today in all kinds of communities all over the world.