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  • Writer's pictureJohn A Lewis

The Photobook: Not just a collection of images!

We all know what a photobook is – don’t we. Of course we do. It’s a book made of predominately photographs, with some supporting text. It’s a sort of modern day photo album that we can now create on our computers. . But I have learnt that it’s not a simple as that. Doesn’t it need to tell a story? And how should the pictures be sequenced? How much text should be included? How do we want the viewer to view the images? How many images? What about the header page. Who is its intended audience? Should the pictures support each other, or tell a story in their own right, or should the sum of the parts create a greater meaning?

Once we start to think about the ‘book’, it raises all sorts of questions. But let’s have a look at some definitions of a photobook. The Dutch photographic critic Ralph Prins (1926 – 2015),says, “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 printing ink, of a dramatic event called a book”

One of Prins best known works is the design of the National Monument Kamp, at Westerbork.

John Gossage (1946 - ) is well known for his artist’s books and photographic publications, and has produced seventeen books and boxes on specific bodies of work. His work has been exhibited worldwide.

Gossage says: that the criteria of a great photobook should try and fulfil is: “Firstly, it should contain great work. Secondly, it should make that work function as a concise world within the book itself. Thirdly, it should have a design that complements what is being dealt with. And finally, it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest”

John Gossage's The Pond was ground-breaking when first published in 1985, and remains one of our most important photobooks. - See more at:

From this research the book is itself an ‘event’ , in which a group of photographs is brought together between covers, each image placed so as to resonate with its fellows as the pages are turned, making the collective meaning more important than the individual meanings.

The other question regarding the photobook is: are they just created to support an exhibition? The main photographic work is presented in a gallery, and seen for a limited time and in specific place or places. The book is therefore subservient to the main event, which is the exhibition. How the work will be presented will affect the making of the pictures. Again quoting from The Photobook: A History volume 1, the Photographer, Lewis Baltz says, “It might be more useful, if not necessarily true, to think of photography as a narrow, deep area between the novel and film”.

Baltz’s minimalism was manifest in a series of enduringly influential photobooks, including The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine California (1974), San Quentin Point (1986) and Candlestick Point (1989)

My photobook project in relation to 'ONE IN 8 MEN' can be classified as an artist’s handmade edition, as opposed to a professionally produced ‘coffee table’ book. I have worked hard to consider the message of each image, how they fit together and support each other in the sequence. I have not captioned the images but provided supporting contextual text in parts of the book. Each spread provides ‘rests’ so that the viewer is not expected to look at one picture per page. The meaning of each image should be clear, but this is not true for all of the images. The viewer will have to look and think about the meaning of the image in relation to the context of the book. My intention is to make the book interesting, provide surprises, break the mould of the ‘typical cancer story’ and in particular the relationship impacts within the family. The book is my ‘main event’, and if an exhibition comes out of it then this will be a bonus. I am in conversation with Prostate Cancer UK about how the book might be used, but this is for the future. For now the book stands on its own.

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