‘The Book of the Future’: Photobooks between disciplines

Fiona Allen, University of Exeter

Simon Constantine, University of Aberdeen

Daniel Hartley, Durham University

From self-published volumes to digital projects, the twenty-first century has witnessed a renewed interest in the photobook. Indeed, whilst the decision to combine text, photography and archival materials is a product of the nineteenth century, the term photobook is a somewhat more recent invention. This revival has also given rise to an increased scholarly and institutional interest in the topic – developments exemplified by Tate’s recent acquisition of Martin Parr’s photobook collection. In many respects, these events echo a claim made in a 1937 review of Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell’s You Have Seen Their Faces: the volume embodied ‘what the book of the future will be like’ – that is, one in which the established hierarchy between text and image has been dissolved. What is less clear, however, is whether the term photobook indicates the realisation of this goal or, as David Campany has argued, an attempt to ascribe a fictive unity to an otherwise plural field.

Although the photobook has generated a substantial body of scholarship, the majority of this material has chosen to focus on its visual components. As such, this panel will explore the possibility of adopting a more interdisciplinary approach. How useful are literary analogies, such as the comparison between the photo sequence and the sentence, when engaging with this material? What type of methodological framework would do justice to the collaborations between photographers and writers which underpin these books? How does literary form affect, imitate or trouble photographic form, and vice versa? By pursuing these (and other) questions, we hope to stage a dialogue on the photobook which brings together scholars from art history, literary studies and other related disciplines.


Polaroid, Portrait, Page: Richard Hamilton and the photobook

Kevin Lotery (Boston College)

Inspired by a visit to Roy Lichtenstein’s studio in March 1968, Richard Hamilton began asking friends – artists, writers, curators – to take Polaroid portraits of him. A kind of ‘joke’ as he described it, the result would be 128 one-off portraits of Hamilton taken over 40 years by an international array of cultural figures. The pictures became the basis of four, nearly pocket-sized photobooks (Polaroid Portraits, vols. 1–4, 1971–2001). Surprisingly neglected in the literature, these publications drew on Hamilton’s long-standing engagement with the medium of the book – he had typo-translated Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box and served as Editorial Director of the Copley Foundation, for example. But the Polaroid books’ spare design and small format, with each photograph allotted its own page, also signalled a new interest in the form of the photobook as a multi-authored, intermedia construct placed between photography, printmaking, object-based practices, performance, literary genres such as the autobiography, and the medium of exhibition-making (since the portraits also exist as a set of images that can be installed in the gallery).

Focusing on Polaroid Portraits, my paper argues that Hamilton approached the photobook for the strange new mixtures of technology, surface, narrativity, distribution and authorship that it might proffer. I am particularly interested in two aspects: 1) Hamilton’s expansion of the genre of self-portraiture into a temporal and literary endeavour, merging the passing of years with the turning of pages, the performative relationship between portraitist and sitter with the literary relationship between reader and book; and 2) Hamilton’s attempts to limit his own authorial decision-making to what he called ‘editing’: seemingly banal choices regarding when and whom to ask for a portrait.

‘To Inhabit, Uneasily, the Intersection’: Germaine Krull and the photographic book

Max Boersma (Harvard University)

Across the 1920s and early 1930s, Germaine Krull produced and contributed to a diverse suite of photographic publications: deluxe industrial albums, illustrated magazines, travel guides, avant-garde journals and the first photo-novel. While the German-born photographer assembled picturesque views for popular books on the French metropoles of Paris and Marseille, she was simultaneously developing one of the most exceptional practices within modern photography. Situated amongst these endeavours, Krull’s celebrated photobook Métal (1928) serves as the defining object of her wide-ranging career. Yet to date, the singular challenge of this project for conventions of reading and viewing remains overlooked. Lacking captions, titles and an index, the book’s 64 plates disclose neither the locations nor precise nature of what they picture, while systematically refusing formal consistency and pictorial convention. The only obvious constant is metal itself, the shared material of all depicted objects. This talk re-examines Krull’s genre-defying portfolio, breaking with its reception as a subtle critique of industry. Embodying a peculiar hybrid of the travel album and the industrial catalogue, Krull’s venture, I propose, is structured by a speculative analogy between metal and photography, a linking of material and medium. Placing her work within the early history of modernist photobooks, I will argue that Métal mobilises its driving analogy to invoke – and, moreover, to theorise in photography – the material life of the technical systems organising Western European modernity. Devoid of human actors and geographic markers, her assembled landscape of technical objects dwells on the distributed systems that shaped urban life.

Cutting In: Gerhard Richter’s photobooks

Matthew Bowman (University of Suffolk)

Although many facets of Gerhard Richter’s career have been extensively covered, his forays into the medium of the photobook has received considerably less critical scrutiny. The situation is perhaps explained, to a certain degree, by the ambiguous position of the photobook within his oeuvre as a whole. Often categorised under the banner of artist’s books, Richter’s own catalogue raisonné includes photobooks such as Eis, War Cut and Birkenau alongside a variety of other book works. Meanwhile, his collaborations with the noted filmmaker and writer Alexander Kluge – December and Dispatches from Moments of Calm – are included within the literature section. All in all, the absence of the photobook as a self-sustaining category in Richter’s oeuvre is notable; and all the more so given the prevalence of photography in his practice.

The photobook has garnered more academic examination in recent years, and this allows us to perceive the ambiguity of Richter’s photobooks in a different light. Indeed, if the linearity of the book form underpins and suggests the linearity of narrative, thereby proposing a more quasi-literary approach to the photobook, this paper will explore how Richter disrupts the photobook’s physical structure by deploying strategies more derived from montage than literature. For example, Richter’s photographs interpose themselves amid Kluge’s already discontinuous textual fragments in their collaborations and something similar appears in Eis and War Cut. To what extent, then, do Richter’s photobooks – similarly to the constellational methodologies of Michael Schmdit – problematise the physical constraints of the book medium through the ways they cut into it?

The Book as Stage: Ugo Mulas’ New York: The New Art Scene

Gloria Boeri (University of Oxford)

On three occasions in the mid 1960s, Ugo Mulas, by then the preeminent photographer of Milan’s cultural and artistic scenes, travelled to New York. There, through his lens, he captured the world and protagonists of the new American art: from Jasper Johns to Andy Warhol, from Robert Rauschenberg to Frank Stella. This paper explores the content, form and impact of New York: The New Art Scene, the photobook that resulted from his journeys to the US, which he conceived in tandem with graphic designer Michele Provinciali and curator and critic Alan Solomon. Looking both to and beyond its exceptional documentary value, New York: The New Art Scene—overlooked in its own right for decades even as its contents have proliferated throughout literature—represents the photographer’s act of emancipation, that stimulated his research into the ontology of the photographic medium. What does the book’s visual narration, which encompasses photographs of artistic process, documentation of performances and events, and reproductions of artworks, owe to Mulas’s experiences with theatre and literature? By examining New York: The New Art Scene critically and with an interdisciplinary lens, I argue that while Mulas had to turn into, as Solomon defined him, ‘the most invisible of photographers’ (New York: The New Art Scene, p.7) to approach artists and collectors, he reclaimed his visibility through the photobook itself, a paper play in which the art scene is transformed into a theatrical event, staged against the proscenium that is Manhattan’s architecture.

Walker Evans’ Physiognomies

Stephanie Schwartz (UCL)

This paper revisits American Photographs, one of the most important photographic books of the 1930s. Containing two portfolios by Walker Evans and an essay by Lincoln Kirstein, the 1938 publication presents readers with eighty-seven photographs printed one per two-page spread. While critical studies of the book have focused on the sequential ordering of the photographs, on the book’s filmic qualities, this paper will consider the other organizing principle structuring American Photographs: physiognomy. As Kirstein writes in the closing lines of his essay: ‘The physiognomy of the nation is laid on your table’ (American Photographs, 1938, p. 198). I attend to Kirstein’s statement through a consideration of the three photographs from the work Evans completed in Cuba that he included in American Photographs. My concern is not to argue for an expanded definition of ‘America’; it is to attend to the processes of racialization framing the book and the nation in the 1930s.






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