The multiple languages of photobooks

Fri 31 May 2024

This is the final in this series of posts on photobooks and the different ways in which they are made. Over the last two years, we have looked at ideas of portraiture, landscape, protest, gender, collaboration and more.  

So in this final post, we will review some of the key ideas we have looked over these last two years, with half an eye on what makes a great photobook.  

One of the first thing to understand is how difficult it is to make a good photobook. A good photobook is distinct from an exhibition catalogue or a coffee table monography.  

Size, paper, the use of text, design, sequencing, and the placement of images are all vital. These are things that are difficult to master, that you can’t learn from online video on Indesign. A good designer has soul, and that is what comes across in all the photobooks featured here. 

Image 1: Rafal Milach 

Rafal Milach

Rafal Milach’s excellent protest book, Strajk is a great example of a beautifully designed, modestly-sized photobook. It is, ‘…a sophisticated book that shows the complex interplay between the church, state, and the constant fight for social justice. It’s a book about gender politics, a multitude of gazes, and how people are fighting for rights.’ 

Read the whole story. 

Image 2: Ton Grote 

Ton Grote

The use of design in photobooks was highlighted in this post on grids, with a focus on two photobooks. The first was Eindhovenseweg 56 by Dutch photographer Ton Grote. This is a book where Grote documents the contents of his father’s house.  

It’s a book where, ‘Design is everything and the grids that the photographs are laid into are slightly disrupted by the designer, Jeremy Jansen. There are multiple grids. This lets a softness into the book which is accentuated by the warmth of the uncoated paper. Rather than being the intriguing, but rather cold comparisons that is invited by the Bechers, it feels like you are exploring through the family history of Ton Grote and his family. ‘ 

Image 3: Anton Kusters 

Anton Kusters

The other book this post looked at is Anton Kusters’ 1078 Blue Skies/4432 Days,  a book that ‘…uses the outstanding design of renowned Dutch (the Dutch are renowned for book design) designer Teun van der Heijden to transform something that was quite abstract into a quite concrete visual rendition of the Nazi Concentration Camp system.  

The book started with the 1,078 polaroid images of blue skies over the 1,078 official concentration camps built by the Nazis. In exhibitions, Kusters used location, sculpture and sound to add narrative to his images.’ 

Read the whole post 

Image 4: What They Saw 

image 4 what they saw_resized

The next post to highlight is one on the history of photobooks. There are a plethora of books on the history of the photobook, the ongoing fascination with photobooks kickstarted by (among others) the publication of The Photobook: A History Volume 1 in 2004. 

‘In the wake of The Photobook History Volume 1 came a flood. Books on Dutch, Spanish, Latin American, Chinese, Swiss, Japanese and Soviet photobooks followed. The world opened up onto a world of photography that had remained largely invisible, with volumes featured that were not books you were likely to pick up in Waterstones.’ 

Image 5: Abigail Heyman 

Abigail Heyman

‘At the same time, though new worlds were opened up, others remained hidden away, in particular women’s photobooks. That’s where Russet Ledermann and Olga Yatskevich stepped in. Co-editors   of What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999, Ledermann and Yatskevich believed the history of photobooks was one that needed to be unwritten.’ 

This post examined What they Saw, and the redrawing of the boundaries of what a photobook can be, and what counts for authorhip. It also led to the involvement of What They Saw editor, Russet Lederman, in a Falmouth Photography MA module on collaboration, which resulted in Falmouth MA students creating a What They Saw reading room at the Bodleian Library in Oxford 

Read the whole post.  

Image 6: Jesse Alexander 

Jesse Alexander

There have been several posts on photobooks and landscape over the last two years, with this post examining the psychological, emotional, and environmental links between photography and landscape through the work of Awoiska van der Molen, Esther von Plon, and Jesse Alexander.  

Image 7: Awoiska van der Molen 

Awoiska van der Molen

‘These are landscapes that work on geological time, on fascial time, on arboreal time, and as such the human presence is an afterthought. But Van Der Molen immerses herself in these places, staying in them for weeks on end to attune herself to the nuances and tempers of the land, the sea, the light and the life.  

It’s this that you experience in the photographs, the ineffable nature of becoming one with land where we don’t know whether it’s dawn or dusk, night or day. So there’s a timelessness to go with that hostility to human ideas of what life is or should be. Van Der Molen’s landscapes are an invitation to ponder the insignificance of our place in the world. We are simply not that important.’ 

Read the whole story. 

Image 8: Ernest Cole 

Ernest Cole

It’s been a pleasure to go through the different kinds of photobooks and write these posts. We have look at photography and grief, the archive, collaboration, and touched on apartheid, imprisonment, and the gaze 

Image 9: Salih Basheer 

image 9 - salih basheer_resized

The photobook is a wonderful way of engaging with an audience, connecting images and text and communicating with a reader intellectually, politically, or emotionally.  

There is not one way of making a photobook, there is not one way of writing about photography. We hope these posts have gone some way to communicating this diversity of perspectives, and the idea that photography and photobooks are most of all (if not all of the time) about the pleasure of viewing, the pleasure of seeing, the pleasure of being.  

Image 10: Emma Davies, Rolf Kraehenbuehl, and Philippa James

Women and the Photobook at The Bodleian


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

Learn more about Colin

Photography, BA Photo