Short photobooks: Why they are flourishing

Mon 22 Apr 2024

In this month’s blog post we look at more modest photobooks - books that are modest in size, expense, or the time the photographers took to produce the work.  

It used to be the case that photographers would dream of making a mammoth photobook, the kind that would collapse the coffee table, that would come with a special viewing stand (think Helmut Newton’s Sumo), that would be filled with glossy pictures that glorified the photographer.  


Image 1: Sayuri Ichida 

It’s a kind of conspicuous consumption where the expense of the book is part of its selling point, where design doesn’t serve the narrative but rather fits the coffee table photobook as a lifestyle choice that will look so nice on your table glass. 

That dream has receded somewhat since the turn of the millennium. Early photobook publications such as Fotografía Pública or The Photobook History series exemplified the global history of photobooks, emphasising the use of bindings, different paper stock, layout, size, and materiality to help tell the story that is only partly being told through the images.  

The upshot of this is the flourishing of photobooks that might have fewer images, fewer pages, be of a smaller size, and even have been made in a compressed time scale.  

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Brown box with 'unlawful meetings' printed on it

Image 2: Lina Hashim 

Lina Hashim’s Unlawful Meetings is an example of a book where size has been taken to the smaller extreme. Contained in a box measuring 7cm x 7cm x 2.5cm is a leporello that is stuck to both the lid and the base of the box. The images are of young couples from Hashim’s Danish Muslim community on secret assignations (hence the unlawful meetings) in the countryside. On one side of the leporello are images made at night, on the other side are those made during the day. Made in an edition of 50, it is an example of a book that does not need to cost in the tens of thousands (or even thousands) to make a mark. 

Two black and white images of a woman's body side by side

Image 3: Sayuri Ichida   

Sayuri Ichida’s Absentee is another example of a small handmade book that measured only 12.5cm x 10cm in the initial edition of 50. The book is a meditation on mortality, memory, grief, and the body. Beautifully designed by Tomasz Laczny with brilliant focus on the pairings of images, the book quickly sold out and was then made in a larger size and larger edition by the(m) Editions. 

“When my mother died, I put a cover over my grief,” Ichida explained in this interview. “I tried not to think about it.” Her grief resurfaced during Covid when she made images of her body, the landscape, details of interiors, and the occasional swan. Shot in black and white, the images are reproduced in low contrast, dark skin tones melting into the shadows, with some pictures inverted into negative form. The cuts of the paper reprise elements in the images, the curve of a release cable winding across the floor echoed in the curved cut of the book cover.  

Two black and white images side by side of a woman's profile

Image 4: Sayuri Ichida 

It's a choreographed book, one where Ichida’s body bends across the pages, finding solace in reflected elements from nature, from home, from herself. Images are moulded into the form of the book and its visual message, a message that is simultaneously sensual and melancholic. 

Black and white photo of men in a rural Irish pub

Image 5: Krass Clement 

Krass Clement’s brilliant Drum is a rare example of a book photographed over a few hours. The book chronicles the post-market rush of a rural Irish pub, with a focus on one particular man who appears isolated and lonely. As the world turns around him, as Klement gets through his three pints of Guinness and three and a half rolls of film, the man sits by the gas fire, orders beer, and turns, back hunched, away from the seemingly garrulous crowd of farmers who fill the pub. It’s the rare case of a book made over a few hours that hits all the spots and seals Clement’s reputation as one of Europe’s great, but often unknown, photographers. 

Brown bag with paper receipt stapled to it

Image 6: van Bruggel and Mudde 

McHotel by Olivier van Bruggel and Simone Mudde is a case of a book having a limited number of images. There are only 10 pictures in this book, but what really marks it out as a book that is accessible is its price.  

‘The concept of the publication is in line with the contents of the project so they emphasise each other. We’ve treated the publication as if it’s a cheap burger from McDonald’s,’ reads the blurb.  

So they wrapped the book in hamburger paper, sold it in a brown bag with a paper receipt stapled to it, and set the original price at two euros (‘the price of a Eurodeal’). It’s a design that is of a high level and matches the visual content of the book.

The Mc Hotel of the title are the McDonalds restaurants in Tokyo where people sleep when public transport has ended for the evening. These images were photographed after 3am and show people crashing out on restaurant tables as they await the first bus, train, or subway back home to the suburbs.  

Man asleep in a McDonalds restaurant

Image 7: van Bruggel and Mudde 

Printed in a (funded) edition of 2,500, the book sold ridiculously quickly, the accessibility of the price, the design and the entire concept being seen as both engaging and fun.  

Very often, people talk about the cost of making photobooks; the need to spend tens of thousands of pounds on huge editions. The truth is much more accessible. If you have interesting work that you can communicate to others, you don’t need a huge print run, an overpriced book, a mass of images.  

Doing that, however, takes skill and time and is not easy. All the books mentioned here have both an interesting story material and some incredible design elements, none of which has been done in-house by a big publisher. The artists and photographers have all worked to promote and sell their books, again on their lonesome. Making great work is always difficult. Small may be beautiful but it is just as difficult as big, and it takes a long, long time.  

Man slumped over table in McDonalds restaurant

Image 8: van Bruggel and Mudde 

Buy MC Hotel here (for 2 Euros) 


Colin-Pantall-photographyColin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer and teaches on the MA Photography programme at Falmouth University.

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Photography, BA Photo

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