Photobooks

I enjoy a fine photographic print as much as anyone but in all my years, I have only ever paid for one photo print — Jody Forster’s gorgeous print of the east wall of Shiprock — taken by another photographer. Sure, artists gave me a few prints over the years (including several from Jim) and I have traded prints with a handful of photographers whose paths I’ve crossed. I have also purchased a small number of platinum/palladium contact prints on eBay for no more than $25 each.  I don’t count those because the prices I paid for them effectively round to zero.

Knowing all this, it probably will not shock you when I say that it’s my belief that, in today’s art market, individually produced photographic prints generally cost too much and deliver too little in terms of value. And I say that despite having sold more than 50 prints of my photos through several galleries over the years. Unfortunately, the math just doesn’t work for me.  As much as I enjoy viewing and collecting the work of other photographers, which is a lot, the fact is that I am just not willing to pay the prices that most photographers ask for their prints. Which isn’t to suggest they’re not worth those prices, of course, only that they’re not worth those prices to me.

Fortunately, there is another way to view and collect the work of many photographers besides buying prints.  It’s a better, more cost-effective way that is potentially even more artistically successful too. I believe that photography books (or ‘Photobooks’ as they’ve become known in some online photographic circles) are a better option than individual photographic prints and very much the way of the future.  At least for serious photography, that is, because we all know the way of the future for general photography is to view photos as jpegs on a computer monitor or Smartphone screen and skip printing them on paper entirely.

Photobook Collection
A small sample of my photobook collection.

In fact, I’m so convinced that I’m correct about this that I’ve voted with my wallet and purchased several hundred photobooks over the past decade, averaging roughly one book a week over the last few years that my finances allowed me to actively collect them. Mind you, it wasn’t always this way for me.

When I was just getting started with photography in the mid-70s and continuing through last decade, I didn’t pay much attention to photobooks, because I generally found the image quality reproduced there abysmal compared to a proper photographic print, made using wet chemicals in a dark room. This was especially true of the handful of books that contained color photos, which were then still a new medium in the fine-art photography world.

However, this started to change for me around the end of the last millennium, when my parents gave me a signed copy of Christopher Burkett’s Intimations of Paradise as a 40th birthday present. Burkett’s landscape photography was sublime, as was the photo quality reproduced in his book.  Surely much of the credit for this belongs to Burkett himself: after all, he had worked for many years as a press operator before becoming a professional landscape photographer, during which time he surely learned a thing or two about how to reproduce photos well using the offset printing process. But regardless of where the magic in his photos originated, the results were visually stunning and very much a revelation to me. That’s because, until that moment, I didn’t know that photos printed in a photobook — and color ones, at that — could look so good!

Inside the Covers
One of my photobook collection showing the layout of story and images.

Of course, by then, I already knew that photos printed using paper and ink instead of paper and gelatin could look great because I had made them myself at home from my medium, and large-format film transparencies for a few years.  Between the prints I was making myself and those I had started buying buy off the shelf (in the form of photobooks), I quickly came to realize that photographic prints made digitally using paper and ink were the future … well, my future at any rate, where traditional prints were clearly doomed to become the past, and very quickly so at that.

More than 15 years have passed since my eyes were first opened and not surprisingly, what I believed true then is proving even truer today, as the two technologies (inkjet printing and book publishing) have moved-in together and are now happily cohabitating. While photobooks printed on a sheet-fed, offset press still have an edge over those printed on demand using a large-scale, high-volume, inkjet printer, the small differences between them matter only to those who have a very discerning eye or photographers who make their own prints and are picky about such things, such as Jim and me.

These days, the quality of a well-printed photobook is quite remarkable and their prices — even the expensive ones — are actually quite reasonable when you divide the cost of a book by the number of photos that in it.  The typical $50 photobook has at least 50 photos (and often multiples of that) so the cost per photo is almost always a buck or less. And many (most?) photobooks can be purchased new for less than $50, which makes them even more of a bargain.  At the other end of the scale, I have also purchased used photobooks for as little as 25 cents at garage sales and thrift stores, which makes the cost per image infinitesimally small. Tell me: When was the last time you saw an art gallery selling photographic prints for a buck apiece (or for that matter, even 50 bucks)?

The large number of photos contained in a typical photobook leads me to my next point, which is that most photobooks are projects, where the photographer presents many photos of and on a subject, then careful and thoughtful sequencing tells the viewer a story visually, or a visual story (which isn’t the same thing). When this is done well, the result is absolutely fascinating and far more so than is possible with just a single photo.

Although many photographers also use photobooks the way that musicians use “greatest hits” albums (i.e., collect their most successful/popular works from across their career into an easy to sell, easy to digest package) and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The most successful books, artistically speaking if not also financially for the book’s publisher, are monographs that focus on a single topic. In my experience, there are very, very few single photos that are fully self-contained and able to tell a complete and compelling story without some added context, be it in the form of a written caption, an accompanying narrative text, or more supporting photos.

Collecting photobooks instead of individual prints has allowed me to broaden my photographic horizons and knowledge by a large margin, as well as affordably explore the work of emerging photographers and established photographers who are working in genres that are quite far afield from the type of photography I do myself. When they’re done well, photobooks are like mini-exhibitions. But instead of me having to go to a gallery across town or a museum across the country to see them, the mailman conveniently brings them to me!  I mean, how great is that?!

If I have somehow managed to piqué your interest (it’s always possible, right?), but you don’t know where to start, might I suggest one or both of Jim’s photobooks?  There’s a link to them somewhere on this page and as I own copies of both (bought with my money, in fact!), I can recommend them enthusiastically. Another source I use for new photobooks is the daily email I get from the Photo-Eye Gallery/Bookstore in Santa Fé. It features several photobooks each day. Better still, it offers a sample tour of most of the books featured, so it’s a quick and easy way to familiarize one’s self with both new and old photobooks. The sign-up page for it is here: http://www.photoeye.com/EmailNewsletter/index.cfm .

Happy hunting … JG

Check out Jeffrey’s photoblog here – Ed.

Hikography

Hi, I’m Jeff, another one of Jim’s long-time friends. Jim recently invited me, along with his other friends to write a guest post for his blog. I presume he thought his friends would jump at the chance to give to his blog and like Tom Sawyer, his friends would paint his fence. I was onto him though and intended to politely decline, because I find writing too much work and I have done quite enough of that for now, thank you. But as I was drafting my response to his email, my fingers somehow typed the words “Sure … it sounds like fun” and now I’m stuck. I hate when that happens.  There is no pain worse than self-inflicted pain!

Because I didn’t have any ideas what I might write about, I subsequently asked Jim if he had any particular topics in mind.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t very helpful, suggesting only that I should write about something that’s related to travel or photography, even if only minimally. Oh, and if possible, I should try to make it humorous, too.

Well … okay then.

Unfortunately, my past and present family circumstances have been/are such that I’m not able to travel very often nor very far these days. Instead I wind up photographing my dog, Miss Abby, while we’re out walking. I have a photoblog where I post the resulting photos: https://abby.aminus3.com/. The only photography I do nowadays is typically done late at night while I’m walking around well-to-do Scottsdale neighborhoods with Miss Abby in tow or in the seedy, grimy downtown Phoenix warehouse district.

While I’m not able to travel as often or as far as I would prefer, I do still enjoy getting away from it all when I can, even if only to a small and very temporary degree, and the very best way I’ve found to do that is to take a hike … literally. Fortunately, I live in the geographic center of Scottsdale, which means there are two hiking areas within a 10-minute drive from my house and three more within 20-minutes, all of which are part of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy project (https://www.mcdowellsonoran.org/).

Thompson Peak
The broadcast towers visible on top of Thompson Peak are the only clue that one isn’t in a pristine wilderness.

At each of these hiking areas, I can hike for several miles without backtracking over the same trail and better still, once I’ve hiked 15 minutes or so away from the trail head, it’s surprisingly difficult to tell that I’m on the outskirts of the fifth largest metropolitan area in the U.S. instead of way out in the remote desert, miles from anywhere (The only thing that occasionally ruins the illusion is the broadcast towers visible on top of some of the nearby mountains). The time commitment is small; two to three hours, max, round-trip from my front door. These trips require minimal planning, so I can usually be out the door and on my way within 10 minutes of when the urge to get away hits me.

The McDowell Mountains
Within 10 minutes drive from my home, I can immerse myself into nature.

While I’m not much of a landscape photographer these days, I always bring a camera with me and practice what I have come to call “hikography,” which means taking photos while I’m hiking, sometimes even one-handed and without breaking my stride.  It’s roughly similar to  “street photography” (walking around with a camera and recording scenes of everyday life), except that in the desert, there are no streets, only trails … and a lot fewer people.

Share the Road
Like Street Photography, you can capture shots of other travelers along the trail.

To my way of thinking, hikography is different from other genres of photography, because hiking is the primary activity and photography is strictly secondary.  This means that I leave my tripod home, as well as the extra lenses and filters and other accouterments that are part and parcel of the landscape photography experience, and instead carry a simple, point-and-shoot-type camera in my right hand, secured by a wrist-strap and always powered-on, so it’s immediately ready for use.

Sagauro
There is always time along the trail to stop and take shots of the giant icons of the Sonoran Desert.

For me, the key to hikography is that it’s not purely photography nor purely hiking, but a complementary combination of the two.  Without taking photos along the way, I find hiking pointless and boring; and without hiking, I find landscape photography ho-hum (which is almost, but not quite boring) and largely a waste of time due to the all the standing around and waiting on the ‘magic’ light.

But combine the two and something magical happens, just as when peanut butter and chocolate combine to make Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.  When done together, the two activities, hiking and photography, create a greater, more enjoyable experience than either of them one does when practiced individually. Hiking now has a purpose, a raison d’être, if you will, and photography becomes a tangible experience, not just an intellectual search for pretty scenes to put in front of a camera when there’s good light available. The two activities build upon each other, the way that fine wine complements fine food and a cigarette after sex used to hit the spot.  Just ask the Queen … er, never mind.

So now I have a reason to hike regularly, as well as a reason to take photos while I’m doing so.  By engaging in both activities simultaneously, I am now actually engaging in both activities, instead of just thinking about doing them … tomorrow … maybe. Did I mention the fitness benefits of hiking?  They are real and if it’s done often and energetically enough, hiking can replace a significant amount of time spent in the gym (Unless your gym is amply stocked with attractive, toned women wearing Lycra and Spandex and doing pole aerobics [or, I suppose, depending upon one’s orientation, hunky men pumping iron], this is a good thing. Alas, my gym is not one of those, because it recently closed and I now use the free gym at the nearby Scottsdale Senior Center, which is very aptly named.  Needless to say, given my options, I would much rather spend my time hiking in the desert than working out at the gym.)

By now, you’re no doubt thinking, Well, … this is all well and good for him, but I don’t live in the desert with many hiking areas nearby and I’m not very good at using a camera, either, so what good does any of this do me? To my way of thinking, the answer to that question is crystal clear: Just as New York is said to be a state of mind, so is landscape photography. Landscape photography — literally, photographing the land, doesn’t mean just photographing grand vistas at a National Park or the Grand Canyon. It can also be done (in fact, it should be done!) close to home as well and not just during the two weeks of the year when you are vacationing somewhere scenic.

No matter where you live, there are many places nearby where you can hike and photograph the land.  It may not be the pristine, natural land untouched by man that you want to experience, but just as with sex and pizza, even the worst you’ve ever had is still pretty damned good! While there’s nothing wrong with appreciating the work of others (or buying many large prints to hang on your walls … hint, hint), there’s also nothing like creating art of your own. Even if the only camera you own doubles as a telephone and video arcade, it can still be used to take (nay, to make) great photos, so long as you point it at an interesting scene instead of at yourself (Just say No to selfies … puh-leeze!).

No matter where you live, there is somewhere nearby that you can explore, both on foot and with a camera. Now you have two reasons instead of just one to push your chair back from your computer, lace up your comfy shoes, and head out the door with your camera in hand. You may well come home empty-handed. Hey, it happens. At least you will have gotten outdoors for a while and had yourself an experience, and possibly even a bit of an adventure.

JG

Check out Jeffrey’s Photoblog – ED.