By Teju Cole. Reprinted from The Guardian 2/24/2020
Where can one find temporary help in this hectic world? People go on retreats, join religions, cushion themselves in headphones or lose themselves in novels. We counter the rush-hour stampede with a walk in the park, and against the public squall of political debate we set the private consolation of poetry. In an age of mayhem, everyone needs ballast and, for most people, I would guess, that ballast is made of several different things. Near the top of my personal list: photobooks. I take a photobook off the shelf and spend 20 or 30 minutes with it, and this brief immersion provisionally repairs the world.
It might be a book I’ve already looked at many times – which is even better. I’m not talking about simply looking at photographs. There are photos everywhere, and most of them are like empty calories. Many photos, even good ones, tend simply to show you what something looks like. But if you sequence several of them, in a book, say, or in an exhibition, you see not only what something looks like but how someone looks. A sequence of photographs testifies to a photographer’s visual thinking, a way of seeing revealed through choices of color, subject, scale and perspective. The photographs encountered in an exhibition might be beautiful new prints or vintage ones imbued with the aura of originality. But there are disadvantages to exhibitions: they can be noisy and crowded, open during inconvenient hours and have closing dates. With a book, though, the images and the photographer’s arrangement of them are yours for all time.
The photobook was born, by one account, when Anna Atkins made an album of her cyanotype studies of British algae in 1843. Henry Fox Talbot began to issue The Pencil of Nature, with tipped-in calotype images, the following year. It did not take other photographers long to seize on commercially distributing their photography in book form. The middle of the 20th century saw the publications of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment (1952) and Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958), and those two books, in strikingly different ways, became the looming influence against which almost all subsequent photobooks were measured. Even today, ask photographers what sent them down their chosen path and one or both of those books is likely to be mentioned as exemplars. The strength of the individual pictures is central to the success of a photobook (The Americans, like The Decisive Moment, is almost nothing but winners), but there are photographers of genius who have never made a truly great photobook; at best, they have made books of their great photos, which is a different matter.
What makes a photobook great is how well it combines a large number of variables: the paper; print quality; stitching and binding; the weight, color and texture of the cover; the design and layout of the interior; the size and color balance of the images; the decision to use gatefolds or to print across the gutter; the choice to include or exclude text and, if so, how much of it, where in the book, and in what font; the trim size and heft of the book; even the smell of the ink! Every great photobook is a granary of decisions, an invitation into the realm of the senses. If a poem is great, I’m indifferent to the design choices made for the book in which it is published, unless the design is particularly atrocious. But I can tell whether a photobook has been meticulously made, or is merely a pile of pictures printed one after another. Truth be told, not all photographs in a photobook need to be great, and the real artists of the form know how to aerate their stupendous images with less forceful transitional ones.
But what a joy it is when all of those decisions seem right, when the print quality is meticulous, when a book crying out for matte paper is made with matte paper, when the color profile favors magenta over yellow, or cyan over magenta, depending on what the pictures need. The experience becomes multidimensional, and the memory of the work becomes idiosyncratically specific. I think not only of certain photographers’ styles, but also of the tactile and sensory trace of their books. The luxuriously uncut double pages of Rinko Kawauchi’s Illuminance are as much a thrill to the hands as her glimmering images are to the eye. Liz Johnson Artur’s self-titled book has a flawless combination of color images with those in black and white, the better to convey the effervescent generosity of her vision. The stippled deep purple cover of Gueorgui Pinkhassov’s Sightwalk is a braille-like prophecy of the delirious scatter of light within. These qualities are more enduring than whether a project is “important” or not. Investigative reports are important, but in our intimate moments it is sensibility that best restores us to our human selves. This is not to downplay the ethical dimension of photography, but to suggest that the ethical flourishes best when the formal conditions are in place to protect it.
Of all the elements that make a photobook truly special, the most important is the order of the images. Look at this, the photographer says, then look at this, then look at this one. All books are chronological, but the feeling of being guided, of being simultaneously surprised and satisfied, is particularly intense in photobooks. I think of Masahisa Fukase’s legendary Ravens (1986), which is largely about the titular birds. It is gloomy, making great use of blur and nocturnal shooting, with a black and white palette, and set entirely in Japan. I thought about Ravens a lot when I was preparing Fernweh, though my book is superficially very different: set in the Swiss landscape, shot mostly in clear bright color in summer weather. I was aided by the way Fukase looked and looked again at the ravens, finding remarkable new ways to think about those unsettling birds. In one magical sequence, an image of a congress of ravens in the snow is followed by one of a single wing against a white field, followed by a photo of numerous corvid footprints on a lightly snowy surface, the footprints startlingly like the shapes of the birds themselves. And so, black on white was followed by black on white, which was followed by black on white – a virtuoso display of analogical thinking. This is language without words. Elsewhere, among many pictures of ravens, a sinister-looking cat suddenly appears and then a nude sex worker, and later an almost abstract closeup of a plane in flight. The trust in variation is wonderful. I tried to keep that trust in mind in making Fernweh.
In a world of deafening images, the quiet consolations of photobooks doom them to a small, and sometimes tiny, audience. They are expensive to make and rarely recoup their costs. In this way, they are a quixotic affront to the calculations of the market. The evidence of a few bestsellers notwithstanding, the most common fate of photobooks is oblivion. But it is precisely this labor-intensive and financially unsound character that allows them to sit patiently on our shelves like oracles. Then one day, someone takes one of them off the shelf and is mesmerized by the silent and unanticipated intensity. (The experience of reading a novel, by contrast, is not so silent, for the reader is accompanied by the unvocalized chatter of the text.)