- The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond ed. by Patrizia Di Bello, Colette Wilson, Shamoon Zamir
After decades of relative neglect in comparison with mainstream histories of photography (approached as either a canonised art form, or in its expanded social, documentary or scientific cultures), and other relatively under-researched fields such as the photo-exhibition or the illustrated photographic press, in the last ten years photobooks have begun to receive the attention they warrant. The Photobook is the latest in a number of recent publications to deal with the genre. It contains twelve essays generated by a series of workshops and a major conference held at Birkbeck, London, in 2009. There is much to commend in the collection, which crosses a disparate range of geographies and histories - from the medium's nineteenth century gentleman inventor Fox Talbot's 'Sun Pictures of Scotland', to the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's recent memories of Istanbul. However, such a diverse spread of periods, interests and locations also confuses the kind of focus a more historically- or thematically-specific study might offer. Furthermore, like many collections with conference origins - so popular at present due to the pressures to publish brought to bear on British higher education - the chapters are far too short to offer the reader a satisfactorily in-depth treatment of the many complex subjects and objects examined.
The editors' generalised approach takes any book - and in some cases, simply any pages, be they in magazines, newspapers or booklets - as a suitable object for analysis. Although providing only a sketched history of the photobook's [End Page 203] material development, Di Bello and Zamir's introduction fails to make apparent the significant difference between the appearance of photographs in nineteenth century books and the emergence of the photobook as a specific phenomenon and material object in the fraught modern and modernist visual cultures of the 1920s and '30s. Further, this superficial overview of the genre leads to several problematic reductions. For example, the irreconcilable strategies of Bertolt Brecht are conflated with those of Ed Ruscha (p9) - an issue that might also have arisen because of the nineteenth and early twentieth century specialisms of the editors. Further, there is a lack of any strong critical positioning vis-a-vis the genre's political and social cultures and forms. This is particularly the case given that the political and social relationship between image and text, producer and viewer/reader in photobooks are central to any nuanced reading of them. Surely the technology and materiality of the photobook cannot but be connected to the production of different spectators across these periods? Instead, Di Bello and Zamir stress that although ethical, political and cultural issues are by no means of secondary concern, 'they are approached firstly through an analysis of aesthetic practice rather than through a methodology which privileges the social construction of visual meaning over the aesthetic' (p7). Given the fact that the photobook, arguably more than any other genre, is entirely dependent on the knotty, often dialectical aggregation of content/form, and politics/aesthetics, it seems odd to try and separate or prioritise them thus. Paradoxically, however, the strongest essays in the collection all privilege the social construction of visual meaning. Those by Zamir, David Campany, Annabella Pollen and David Evans stand out. Zamir examines Edward S. Curtis' early twentieth century ethnographic study of the North American Indian; Campany considers Walker Evans' work for Fortune magazine in the '40s; Pollen explores mass participation and British vernacular photography of the 1980s, and Evans deals with Brecht's 1955 War Primer in the context of postwar and post-communist Berlin. In contrast, those essays which get stuck in superficial accounts of the genre's various material forms, such as Liz Well's overview of exhibition catalogues versus booklets contribute little to deepening or extending the present literature on photobooks.
The editors are at pains to stress that the collection is not intended as 'a history or a theorizing of genre', yet at the same time they claim...