About photobooks – old and new.
This blog is about photobooks that are related to New York, which I started to collect a few years ago. This all started after stumbling on Diane Arbus’ monograph on a sidewalk, in the East Village. I took the book home, knowing Arbus’ work, but unaware of how expensive her monograph had become. Not long after, I saw the same copy up for auction for about $600. I considered this a sign that I should collect rare photobooks.
As I started to invest more time and money in this field, I came to realize how photobooks are a great format for photography. The photobook offers a narrative that is often lost by looking at individual photographs. A whole series of photographs assembled in one publication with or without text, with or without the participation of other artists, allows the reader to decode the photographer’s underlying message.
Given the immensity of the photobook field, I decided to narrow my interest to photobooks related to New York, the city where I am currently living and where I stumbled onto my first valuable book. But choosing New York as the main anchor for a photobook collection and research offers several advantages.
First, many photographers/artists, starting with the pictorialists, passed through, lived or still live in the city. During their stay, many have developed a body of work, which may have taken the form of a photobook, magazine, etc. Today, there is an abundant number of photo publications and the challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff. Second, gathering those photobooks together should offer an interesting historical and comparative perspective on photography, on the photobook media, as well as on the city. Ultimately, a comprehensive list of New York photobooks may include many of the photographers and artistic movements referenced in a history of photography, but hopefully unexpected names and works may also be identified. Finally, searching for books related to New York allows me to collect both historical and old publications, as well as more contemporaneous perspectives.
The city as a subject [New York in photobooks]
The first group of photobooks that are included in this list are obviously those that use the city as the main subject. These are books that try to capture the essence of the city by looking at its urban and architectural idiosyncrasies, or at its social environment and different communities. All these photobooks could be organized in a large group whose main purpose is to document the city in its different dimensions.
The city as a cultural influence [the New York photobook]
The first group of photobooks is obvious and unavoidable for someone who aims to collect photobooks related to New York. However, that group misses another important type of photobooks, which we could call “the New York photobook”. These are books that may not use the city as a subject, but are influenced by its cultural and artistic environments. These are photobooks that may be autobiographical, conceptual or simply an aesthetic essay, and may or may not integrate clear New York identifiers. For instance, Alexey Brodovitch, whose famous photobook “Ballet” has an important place in the history of this media, would be part of the group “the New York photobook”. The nature of his work may not be part of a formal movement, but his aesthetic choices influenced a large number of photographers in New York and later in other parts of the world. One could even consider that he was part of “The New York School” (see Livingston), which is characterized by a conscious breaking of the rules of photography, leaving behind an important contribution to the history of photography as an art. This is an example of photobooks that have taken shape in New York, which may not be just an accident, but rather the result of a specific cultural context.
Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts about this blog or photobooks.