The Photobook—Comments on a Medium That Has Been Largely Ignored by Photo-Historical Research

“Our age of technology needed a long time before one was prepared to afford photography, this universal maidservant, the status of being both art as well as an object. What may this be attributed to, that photography—practically for the entire span of the twentieth century—found its audience preferably in printed (hence mediated) form.”
Michael Koetzle

Since the turn of the millennium, the photobook has increasingly moved into the focus of an international public as an autonomous form. In terms of the history of its reception, the importance photography gained due to its being mediated in book form had existed for decades; however, this focus, as, among others, Michael Koetzle was able to so concisely demonstrate, was primarily limited to a photograph’s informative utility value.1 Publications that primarily included photographic images—mostly as a reliable reflection framework for photo-historical research which, in the act of publishing, assured itself of its historically and aesthetically relevant dimensions—served as indispensable instruments for the transfer of knowledge.2

Specialized bibliographies listing photography and literature continued to subsume photographers encyclopedias, technical manuals and illustrated books under a general categorical classification system with the aim of providing photography-related research with a frame of orientation which was as all-embracing as possible.3 The exhibitions that featured the printed image at the 1984 international trade fair photokina in Cologne for the very first time grouped the highly different varieties of areas of photographic themes in book form under the umbrella term 140 Jahre Photobuch (140 Years of the Photobook). Based on Daguerre’s manual Historique et Descriptions des Procédès du Daguerréotypie et du Diorama from 1839, the catalogue assembled a total of forty-five incunables ranging from Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature (1844) to Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) and Anonyme Skulpturen by Bernd and Hilla Becher (1970). The deciding factor in this review was the criterion of which books “have had the greatest influence on the advancement of the medium of photography.”4 In this connection, the close integration of book and photographic image was insofar consequential in that in addition to a discursive reference structure, it always constituted a recollective one. To postulate the reception history of photographic works, oeuvres, styles, genres, etc., in terms of a publication history has continued to remain a binding characteristic that dominates the perception of photographic books. “But who says that a museum’s store perforce has to be based on photographic prints?” asked the German journalist, Ulf Erdmann-Ziegler, in 1999. “One might as well begin with books. . . . A store of perhaps one hundred books would guarantee that exquisite exemplars from the history of modern photography could be viewed by museum people as well as by specialists, consultants and curators.”5

From an Object of Reference to a Collector’s Fetish

In hindsight one might state that in the same year the exhibition Fotografía Pública took place in Madrid—the first time an impressive international compendium of photographic publications from the interwar period was shown—a paradigm change was initiated that, under the dictum of modernity, for the first time placed special emphasis on the specific intrinsic value of photobooks according to primarily aesthetic criteria. To what extent photographic books have in recent years mutated from being an object of reference to a collector’s fetish can be exemplified by studying recent auction and exhibition catalogues. It is noteworthy that in the cast of the latter, they are nearly without exception projects initiated by passionate book collectors, connoisseurs and art dealers in order to celebrate the photobook as an autonomous medium and at the same time achieve its canonization. The following catalogues should be pointed out (in chronological order): The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of Twentieth Century (2001) and The Open Book: A History of the Photographic Book from 1878 to the Present (2004) by the American gallerist Andrew Roth, followed by, in 2004/06, by the two-volume corpus The Photobook: A History by the journalist Garry Badger in collaboration with the well-known Magnum photographer Martin Parr.6 It is significant to note that this selection of books caused a boom on the international collector’s market that can in part be regarded as overheated. More recently, further publications have been produced that have apparently also been guided by a strategy to increase the value of private collections.7 Since then, everyone is talking about “a new golden age of photobooks.”8

In this connection it seems striking that the qualitative specification of the term “photobook” was accompanied by a continuous effort to arrive at a precise definition. Based on the line of tradition of the artist’s book, in 1989, the Dutch historian Ralph Prints used elaborate references to embed the photographic book in the media network: “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 printed ink, of a dramatic event called book.”9 By pointing to narrative, dramatic, or even sculptural reference parameters, this was the first time an attempt at contextualization was made in order to do justice to the photobook’s singularity. In retrospect, it is all the more remarkable that the aforementioned parameters for the development of a conclusive methodology in the individual analysis of photographic books have up to now only been rudimentarily consulted. The well-known American photographer and book expert John Gossage may have formulated a criteria catalogue in 2004 in order to record the specific requirement profile for photographic books—“Firstly it should contain great work”—yet he exacted: “Secondly it should make that function as a concise world within the book itself. Thirdly, it should have a design that compliments what is being dealt with. And finally, it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest.”10

Taking into account substantial design-related elements as well as the theme underlying the contemporary-historical relevance reveals how multilayered the attitudes toward the photobook can, and have to, turn out to be. The American journalist and publisher Darius Himes recently stated that “at this level, the book becomes something more than the sum of its parts. But those parts are wildly multitudinous: paper, printing, binding, cloth, boards, ink, typefaces and lettering, page layouts, sequencing and editing, trim size and proportion, essays and interviews, forewords and afterwords, bibliographies, captions, collections and exhibition, and last but not least, the photographs themselves and their subject matter.”11 Added to the multifarious material-, concept- and design-related aspects that have to be taken into account when producing a photographic book are no doubt factors related to publishing and distribution.

Seeing and Thinking

One may fittingly speculate about in how far a multiperspectival approach that calls for looking at the photobook has led on the part of scholarship to the fact that decided analyses of publications that are relevant in terms of the history of photography have up to now only sporadically been carried out. In a brief sketch of the problem, the Leipzig-based art historian Katharina Menzel noted in 2004 that there a large number of reasons why the scholarly treatment of the photographic book has been decisively impeded. In addition to the requirement of placing a reproduced photographic illustration in relation to layout, it is the elaborate research of relevant secondary sources and the laying down of the typographical determinants that are necessary for a sound individual analysis of the photobook. Furthermore, a dilemma arises with respect to the artistic original. “In the scholarly treatment of photography and photobooks it is questionable that it is apparently plain sailing to dispense with the original work. In the case of photography in a book, the original is as indispensable as it is in the case of architecture or painting and can often only be performed with a similar amount of effort. Reprints of photobooks and books containing photography harbor dangerous traps for research, as the frequently grave differences to the original only become noticeable in a direct comparison.”12 Last but not least there is the task of recording a sequence of photographic images in book form using a suitable methodological analysis instrument.

In view of the extremely rich lines of tradition that photography in book form can list, for instance in its genres and artistic as well as national attributes, the general question arises as to the segments and epochs in which photo-historical analyses have hitherto even been performed. In German-speaking countries, it can be stated that based on a narrowly formulated conceptual definition, individual investigations on the Weimar Republic are primarily available in which a handful of photobooks—including Urformen der Kunst by Karl Blossfeldt (1928), Die Welt ist Schön by Albert Renger-Patzsch (1928) and Antlitz der Zeit by August Sander (1929)—are consistently drawn on as canonical reference parameters of the photo-artistic avant-garde.13 In this connection, in her 1997 essay “Die neue visuelle Realität”, Hanne Bergius arrived at a contemporary historical thesis: “The photobook developed in the twenties as an independent image discourse that did not respond to the repression of the word by photography in the media, but created an argumentative, associative and suggestive rhetoric that equally challenged, both concretely and abstractly as well as synthetically and analytically, seeing and thinking.”14 The author makes reference to several titles from the height of prewar modernity, including Painting, Photography, Film by László Moholy-Nagy from 1925. Such a narrowing down of the conceptual designation according to epochs nevertheless remains problematic, not only within the scope of an international comparison.15 In postwar Germany, one can identify a gradual progressive development of the photographic book, which is paradigmatically reflected, for instance, in the specific circumstances of its genesis as well as in the reception of individual publications.16 An attempt to achieve a differentiated view of the photobook by means of periodization that does justice to the respective technological and artistic innovations was carried out in 2003 in the French volume of essays Photographie et le Livre, which, among other things, compared in table form the parallel stages of development in photography and the book and demonstrated traces of tradition.17 In doing so, it took into account, for example, the, to a large extent, autonomous line of tradition of the photographic book in Japan as well as current tendencies. If one sums up the previous attempts made by art- and photo-historical scholars who approach the photobook by depicting epochs and analyzing genres due to the, to a large degree, lack of evidence, one is inclined to in future advocate basic analyses that include informed discussions on individual works and oeuvres and at the same time hold verified cognitive value from a primary source.18

Questions of Methodology

With regard to individual examinations of photobooks, the question at the same time arises regarding the appropriate analysis instruments. In closing, three different approaches will be presented that were recently developed by three German art historians. In her dissertation Die Städtebilder von Paul Swiridoff, published in 2006, Adelheid Teuber devoted herself to the lifework of the German photographer Paul Swiridoff (1914–2002), whose extensive journalistic oeuvre has been handed down in, among other things, twenty-five volumes of urban photographs which were published over a long period between 1955 and 2001.19 As the basis for her work-related genre analysis, the author initially developed a standardized list of questions which, alongside other things, explored the photographer’s and client’s intention, the publisher’s specifications and the function of the layout and possible text. The resulting source material served as the basis for a descriptive and analyzing review of the volumes that in each case comprises the image section, the text section and the graphic design. In a third step, a book’s reception was considered on the basis of book reviews. Although the analysis of the sequence of images does not adhere to a uniform concept, the procedure contains a reliable approach intended to break down the photographer’s narrative strategies, who wanted his photobooks to be “visual tours through the city”, with respect to the extent they correspond to the images. Swiridoff’s books of urban photography, in which filmic, dramaturgic and even cartographic aspects are inherent, virtually without exception have a consciously associative arrangement meant to convey a modern image of the respective city.

Christiane Stahl applied a completely different method in 2007 in order to review the photographic lifework of the Bauhaus artist Alfred Ehrhardt (1901–84).20 Falling back on the photographer’s artistic biography, who also worked, among other things, as a musician and as a painter and educator trained at the Bauhaus in Dessau, the author derived the organization of the two photographic books Das Watt (1937) and Die Kurische Nehrung (1938) in a very convincing way. Stahl saw the sequence of images in Das Watt, a volume of landscape photographs, “orchestrated like a musical composition in which overtures and codas embrace variations on a basic theme.”21 In decided structural analyses of the individual photographs, the sequence of images and the resulting book, a “book choreography” unfolds that corresponds to an inspiration on the part of the author that is verifiably influenced by music, painting and education, as well as filmic ideas.

Within the scope of a master’s thesis, Julia Reich chose yet another method for the analysis of the photobook Facing New York (1992) by the American street photographer Bruce Gilden (*1946), who has been a member of the Magnum Photos agency since 1998. In her formal-aesthetic examination, the author proceeded in progressive stages. In three steps, she first of all analyzed all forty-four individual photographs in the volume from aesthetic-technical points of view. In doing so, using so-called setting parameters she fell back on a suitable film-theoretical classification criterion that permitted categorizing the images in close-up, semi-close-up and long shots. In a second step, the specific sequence of the images was disclosed from dramaturgic points of view, and it was proven that the work is based on a rhythm of movement inspired by film in which the respective changes of angle are arranged openly. Taking the medial singularity of the book form into account, in a third step Reich was able to demonstrate that renewed consolidation of the sequence of the photographs could be achieved by activating the reading operation, which is situated in the open act of leafing through the book. “The viewer directly participates: he or she has to reach into the photography in order to turn the page.”22 The result is a convincing ‘urban narrative’ that at the same time emancipates the viewer by adequately reflecting the vitality of the city in the way the book is received.

As different as the applied methodological approaches are, what these three studies have in common is that they derive the specific structure of the photographic book from the author’s respective intention. Moreover, it reinforces the basic assumption that the photobook is to be regarded as an unmistakable amalgam of two commensurable media.

© Christoph Schaden, 2008 




1. Michael Koetzle, “Passion in Schwarzweiß”, Schupmann Collection. Fotografie in Deutschland nach 1945, exhibition catalogue, Braunschweig 2001, 9.

2. The author has highlighted the development from an information medium to a collector’s fetish in German-speaking countries in an exemplary way. Christoph Schaden, “Eine Frage bis heute. Das Fotobuch im Visier der Sammler”, Das Fotobuch, Photonews 5, 2008 (supplement), 6–7.

3. Cf. Eric Lambrechts and Luc Salu, Photography and Literature. An International Bibliography of Monographs, London: Mansell Publishing Ltd. 1992; Frank Heidtmann, Hans-Joachim Bresemann and Rolf H. Krauss, Die deutsche Photoliteratur 1839–1978. Theorie-Technik-Bildleistungen. Eine systematische Bibliographie der selbständigen deutschsprachigen Photoliteratur, Munich et al.: K. G. Saur Verlag 1980.

4. Das Gedruckte Photo. photokina Bilderschauen, exhibition catalogue, Cologne 1984, 36–45.

5. Ulf Erdmann Ziegler, Fotografische Werke, Cologne: Dumont Buchverlag 1999, 10.

6. Andrew Roth, The Book of 101 Books. Seminal Photographic Books of Twentieth Century, New York: Roth Horowitz, LLC 2001; id. (ed.), The Open Book. A History of the Photographic Book from 1878 to the Present, exhibition catalogue, Göteborg 2004; Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The Photobook. A History, 2 vols., London: Phaidon Press 2004/2006.

7. Michèle Auer and Michel Auer, Photobooks. 802 Photo Books from the M.+ M. Auer Collection, Hermance: Editions M. + M. 2007; Stephen Daiter, John Gossage and Jess Mott, From Fair to Fine: 20th Century Photography Books That Matter, Chicago: Stephan Daiter Gallery 2006; Alessandro Bertolotti, Livre de Nus, Paris: Editions de la Martinière 2007.

8. A. D. Coleman, The Photo Book: Another Golden Age, unpublished manuscript, New York 2001.

9. Mattie Boom and Rik Suermondt, Foto in omslag. Het Nederlandse Documentaire Fotoboek na 1945 / Photography between Covers. The Dutch Documentary Photobook after 1945, Amsterdam: Fragment Uitgeverij 1989, 12. For the relationship between the photobook and the tradition of the artist’s book see Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books, New York: Granary Books 1995, 62ff and 217ff.

10. Parr and Badger 2004 (reference 6), 7.

11. Cf. Darius Himes, “Who Cares About Books?” Words without Pictures, <> (27.05.08).

12. Katharina Menzel, “Fotografie im Buch. Eine kurze Einführung”, in: Barbara Lange (ed.), Printed Matter. Fotografie im / und Buch, Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag 2004, 16. For the problems associated with the original in a photobook see Thomas Wiegand, “Zweite Chance. Das Fotobuch im Reprint”, Das Fotobuch, Photonews 5, 2008 (supplement), 10–11.

13. Ulrich Rüter, “‘Die Welt ist Schön’ von Albert Renger-Patzsch. Anmerkungen zu einer Inkunabel der Photoliteratur”, in: Jahrbuch des Museums für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, vols. 15/16, 1996/1997, 113–124. Cf. also David Sánchez Cano, “Genesis eines Fotobuchs. Das unbekannte Spanien von Kurt Hielscher”, in: Michael Scholz-Hänsel (ed.), Spanien im Fotobuch. Von Kurt Hielscher bis Mireia Sentís. Eine imaginäre Reise von Barcelona in die Extremadura, Leipziger Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte 2, Leipzig: Plöttner Verlag 2007, 51–57.

14. Hanne Bergius, “Die neue visuelle Realität. Das Fotobuch der 20er Jahre”, in: Deutsche Fotografie. Macht eines Mediums 1870–1970, exhibition catalogue, Bonn 1997, p. 88.

15. Cf. the contribution by Kathrin Tobias, “Mediale Wechselwirkungen von Wort und Bild. Die Fotobücher der 1920er Jahre”, in: Scholz-Hänsel 2007 (reference 13), 59–67.

16. Cf. Viktoria Schmidt-Linsenhoff, “Die Verschlusszeit des Herzens. Zu Hilmar Pabels Fotobuch ‘Jahre unseres Lebens’ (1954)”, Fotogeschichte 44, 1992, 53–64; Sigrid Schneider, “‘Solche Darstellungen akzeptieren wir nicht!’ Zur Rezeption des Bildbands Im Ruhrgebiet von Heinrich Böll und Chargesheimer”, in: Chargesheimer. Bohemien aus Köln, exhibition catalogue, Cologne 2007, 241–247.

17. Michele Debat (ed.), La photographie et le livre. Analyse de leurs rapports multiformes Nature de la photographie—Statut du livre, Paris: Trans Photographic Press 2003, 166f.

18. For an example of a general analysis cf. Almut Klingbeil, Die Bilder wechseln. Meereslandschaften in deutschen Fotobüchern der 20er bis 40er Jahre, Hamburg: Books on Demand GmbH 2000.

19. Adelheid Teuber, Die Städtebilder von Paul Swiridoff, Ph.D. dissertation, ULB Bonn 2006.

20. Christiane Stahl, Alfred Ehrhardt. Naturphilosoph mit der Kamera. Fotografien von 1933 bis 1947, Berlin: Reimer Verlag 2007.

21. Stahl 2007 (reference 20), 26.

22. Julia Reich, “Bild-Serie-Buch. Die Analyse des Fotobuchs Facing New York (1992) von Bruce Gilden”, in: Lange 2004 (reference 12), 120.

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