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The Photobook: A History, Vol. 1 Hardcover – December 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

From Street Life in London to Hiroshima, from The Royal Mummies to Perspective of Nudes and The Sweet Flypaper of Life, photobooks encompass a tremendous diversity of subjects and styles. While some of these illustrated volumes are famous (Eadweard Muybridge's Animal Locomotion, Robert Frank's The Americans), many others are known only to specialists. The Photobook: A History offers an engrossing survey of this art form, beginning with early experiments in photography in mid-19yh-century England and ending with raucous Japanese photo-diaries of the 1990s. The scope of this handsomely designed book—the first of two volumes—is so broad that only a few pages of each photobook could be illustrated, and some of the 750 color and black-and-white reproductions are quite small. But the incisive commentary by British photographer Martin Parr and photo critic Gerry Badger opens up new worlds of visual information. The authors provide essential grounding, not only in the history of photography, but also in the artistic and social movements that influenced the look and content of photobooks.

In the 19th century, the object was to collect and to classify, whether the subject was a foreign landscape, a war, the surface of the moon or the manufacture of bread. Conversely, 20th-century photobooks are often frankly subjective, drawing on movements ranging from surrealism to the Beats. Yet a quasi-scientific approach could result in poignant imagery (as in Facies Dolorosa, a study of the faces of seriously ill people), and artistic subjectivity could yield bitter truths (Helen Levitt's A Way of Seeing, images of poor children in New York). Describing photobooks of the polemical 1930s as "the great persuaders," Parr and Badger remark that the best documentary work demonstrates an awareness of the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in the medium. Although we tend to think of propaganda solely as the product of totalitarian regimes (see "Long Live the Bright Instruction," a Chinese tract featuring unnervingly happy workers), the authors remind us that photobooks celebrating the American way of life often naively ignored the complex socio-political forces that underlie a sentimental or cheerful scene. The final chapter, devoted to postwar Japanese photobooks, vividly illuminates the cocktail of hedonism, rage and despair that makes these volumes extraordinary visual documents. --Cathy Curtis

From The New Yorker

Parr, an influential British photographer, admits to an obsession with collecting photobooks, and this sumptuous collection intends to establish the genre's importance in disseminating photographic styles and trends. Alongside acknowledged masterpieces by Walker Evans, August Sander, and Nobuyoshi Araki, Parr and Badger consider many less well-known examples. There are art books like "Paris," by Moï Ver, a Lithuanian contemporary of Brassaï didactic works such as the German medic Hans Killian's sixty-four images of suffering patients; and outright curios like Owen Simmons's 1903 "The Book of Bread" (forty life-size portraits of slices of bread). Sections on Soviet photobooks of the nineteen-thirties and Japanese photobooks of the nineteen-sixties point to two particularly fertile periods. One hopes that publishers may be spurred to reprint some of these exceptional books.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Phaidon Press; Revised and ed. edition (December 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0714842850
  • ISBN-13: 978-0714842851
  • Product Dimensions: 10.2 x 1.5 x 11.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #839,865 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book (and the next volume) will surely become the standard reference for anyone wanting to know about photobooks and in creating a new word for photographs in a book perhaps this will create a new publishing genre too. The author's rightly point out that photography is a printed-page medium and the four hundred and fifty titles examined, with just over two hundred in this first book, probably represent the best (or most interesting) titles ever published.

The nine chapters give a lucid in depth review of photobooks to the 1970s with Anna Atkins 1843 'Photographs of British Algae' taking the first photobook prize. I particularly enjoyed chapter six, Medium and Message: the photobook as propaganda, basically dealing with Soviet books in the Thirties and the examples shown are quite extraordinary in their use of images and design. Reproducing the pages from these books would easily make a separate title. The other fascinating chapter was nine, dealing with postwar Japanese books, again the reproduced jackets and spreads show amazing creativity and vision, not only in the choice of photos but also in the use of printing and binding techniques.

Stunning though this book is I thought there was one particular weakness, in so many of the books there are not enough pages shown. Many of them have two pages, for instance 'An American Exodus' by Lange and Taylor, there are fifteen spreads so it is possible to follow the flow of images or Avery Brodovitch's 'Ballet' with eighteen spreads to capture the feel of the subject.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a marvelous volume that can be enjoyed by book and photography lovers alike. As an object in its own right it exhibits a level of refinement in conception and execution that has become rare in our age of mass-produced books. Of course, there are many specialist photobook publishers but they seem to focus exclusively on print quality to increase the perceived value of their publications, whilst neglecting the vital contribution of design in a book's overall appearance (and desirability). In the Phaidon-volume, the exquisitely judged rhythm of layout and typography complement the vivid reproductions of vintage photobook material into a very exciting whole.

To be sure, the care spent on the production of this book is not gratuitous. To the contrary, it is a statement that reinforces the basic conceptual tenets held by Badger and Parr. From the introductory pages we learn that not every and any book that has been conceived around a collection of photographs merits to be included in the class of "photobooks". A photobook - as Badger and Parr understand it - is more than just the sum of its parts: pictures, words, design, and choice of subject all contribute to something which transcends the meaning of a photographic portfolio. This is all illuminating and one could certainly say that the "Photobook" is an instructive example of this synergy between various elements.

However, I wished that the editorial team would have left it at that. I think Badger and Parr are moving onto much more controversial ground when they hold forth that the emblematic photobook is a kind of dramatic event, "comparable with a piece of sculpture, a play or a film" in which the individual photographs lose their own character as things in themselves.
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A very interesting manual on photographic books. A lot of images and information on authors and items.
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