Undeveloped snapshot blurs history's sweep

The Photobook
March 17, 2006

The Photobook lists, illustrates and discusses more than 200 worthwhile books in the medium, from the 1840s to the present day. Each item is illustrated, along with a few representative openings, somewhat in the style of an auction-house catalogue. Collectors will find it useful, and it should stimulate the market. Others, less interested in acquisition, will be intrigued and informed - but they will also be exasperated, for it is difficult to get one's hands on most of the material on show.

Modernist photobooks from the 1920s and 1930s, well represented here, have already fallen apart and, if the body survives, the dust jacket has long gone. It would have been a service to have mentioned where we might see the originals. Re-publications should also have been mentioned. Many reprints are of poor quality, but some can be rewarding: Ilya Ehrenburg's My Paris , given two pages here, was brought out in Moscow in 1933, and it has just been reprinted by Steidl, along with translations. As it is, very few of us are ever going to see any of the originals in the flesh, not even such a renowned book as Walker Evans's American Photographs of 1938.

One of the virtues of this book is that it is strict about details and editions. It points out, for instance, that Robert Frank's The Americans came out first in 1958 with a series of texts by French writers that was subsequently dropped in the US edition of 1959. The Americans , one of the best known books in the history of the medium, was published by Robert Delpire in Paris, and it is widely believed that Delpire, the most esteemed photo editor of modern times, was responsible for the selection and sequencing. The text says nothing on this point and is reticent throughout on the role of editors. I would like to know more about them, for they are often pushed into the background unfairly to make way for the photographer as auteur . It is likely that Diane Arbus's great posthumous book of 1972, published by Aperture in the US, owes a great deal to the work of her friend Marvin Israel. Sometimes it is difficult to get at the truth.

The main argument for a book such as this is that photographers, since the 1880s at least, have aspired to books of their own. The Photobook looks like the medium's main unit of account. However, we should not accept this thinking unreservedly, for by the time the opportunity of a book of one's work comes up, the photographer has been publishing for years in magazines and has a turn of mind determined by the editorial expectations of the day.

Unhappily, The Photobook has scarcely been researched, and many crucial questions of context are overlooked. At one point, the authors cite Bill Brandt's famous books of the 1930s, The English at Home and A Night in London . It should have been pointed out that Brandt's habit of envisaging pictures in complementary pairs was drawn from German practice in the 1920s, especially from Der Querschnitt , a small-format periodical that was the model for Lilliput in Britain. During the Weimar era, all German photographers learnt their trade in the illustrated press, which flourished until 1933. In France, Vu magazine, edited by Lucien Vogel, played a determining role. In Japan, during the 1950s and after, photographers learnt their trade in Asahi Camera and in Camera Mainichi . None of this is mentioned, let alone discussed, in Gerry Badger's extensive texts.

It is also easy to overestimate the aesthetic importance of photography books, most of which are no more than aggregates of pictures. There is often talk within the medium of sequencing, but little of it has ever been effective. A note on the dust jacket of Evans's American Photographs advises readers to view the pictures in order, and they do tell short stories of a sort. Photography's greatest achievement in this respect is a number of sets of eight pictures assembled by Brandt for Lilliput in the 1940s and printed over his own short texts. On this evidence, it looks as if photography is strongest in small groupings of pictures. Issues such as this ought to have been argued in the text.

The Photobook is in essence a catalogue, with measurements and detailing. But it pretends to be a history book - and it is here that it is at its worst. There is very little on relevant historical circumstances. It should be clear to anyone interested in the history of the medium that change takes place dialectically, even antagonistically. Many new photographers are repelled by the complacent work of their contemporaries and want to clear the air. The modernists, for instance, did their best to get away from the cloying atmospherics that the 1920s had inherited from the belle époque . At the time, some people would have singled out Kurt Hielscher as Europe's greatest photographer: he took pictures of German landscapes.

Spain's colossus for decade after decade was José Ortiz Echagüe. Photography of this kind should have been adduced to give point to the selection, which is mainly of vanguard production. Worst of all were the bowdlerisers who took new styles and gave them an acceptably domestic aura. Paul Wolff, who popularised the Leica in the 1920s, was Europe's main moderniser for years, and he did a fine book on the Berlin Olympics. Without this mediocre background, the highlights do not show up. Wolff's counterpart in Britain was E. O. Hoppe, represented here by a book on German industry from 1930. Martin Parr's own satirical documentary style can also be understood as a response to the polite style of his precursors: available-light photography carried out in a spirit of respect and compassion.

Whatever happened, elderly Britons will ask, to Edwin Smith, one of our all-time greats from the neo-romantic era? Not so much as a mention, although he does better than W. Eugene Smith, who, in Badger's saloon-bar appreciations, is dismissed as laying on "the schmaltz with a trowel". The authors' tendency is towards the expressive action photography of recent Japanese exponents such as Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki, and it is here that the selection is at its strongest.

Ian Jeffrey is lecturer in the history of art, Goldsmiths, University of London.

The Photobook: A History, Volume One

Author - Martin Parr and Gerry Badger
Publisher - Phaidon
Pages - 320
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 7148 4285 0

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