In May, Tate Modern opened its doors to Offprint London, the biggest incarnation of the photography publishing fair to date. Tate’s curator of photography Simon Baker reflects on the success of the show.
We’ve come a long way since Martin Parr and Gerry Badger released volume I of their era-defining publication, The Photobook: A History, in 2004.
Going on to publish two more volumes, they helped set the wheels of a photobook revolution in motion, and there have been plenty of others too.
Small independent book publishers have sprung up around the world, helping photographers realise their projects in book form; for those who have chosen to go it alone, Bruno Ceschel’s Self Publish, Be Happy – which he set up in 2010 – has helped publicise their work.
Photobook festivals and fairs have also set up shop, with events in Paris, New York, Vienna, Berlin, Kassel, Los Angeles and elsewhere; PhotoIreland’s The Library Project, The Photobook Museum and The Indie Photobook Library have allowed the public access to classic and cutting-edge books without the pressure to buy.
Aperture Foundation has published a newsletter dedicated to photobooks, The Photobook Review, and artists such as Daisuke Yakota have staged live book-making events. Mack’s First Book Award and the Fotobookfestival’s Dummy Award Kassel have set up prizes devoted to new books, and galleries have hosted exhibitions such as the Contemporary Japanese Photobooks show at The Photographers’ Gallery in 2012 and The Chinese Photobook, which travelled from Arles to Aperture Gallery, New York and The Photographers’ Gallery.
Even the Tate, famously slow on the uptake with photography, has opened its doors to the medium, including photobooks and spreads in exhibitions such as William Klein + Daido Moriyama and Conflict, Time, Photography.
In May, the Tate opened its doors even wider to this contemporary phenomenon, inviting Offprint to take over its Turbine Hall from 22 to 25 May.
A photobook fair founded in 2010 by bookseller Yannick Bouillis, Offprint Paris runs alongside Paris Photo; Offprint London is similar in that it will take place while Photo London is on.
But where Offprint Paris welcomes independent publishers trading photobooks, zines, posters and prints by photographers, artists and graphic designers, Offprint London will focus squarely on photobook makers. And it will also include 150 independent publishers and self-publishers – 20 more than in the original.
“There isn’t anything on this scale anywhere,” says Simon Baker, who is curator of photography and international art at the Tate, and who was instrumental in bringing the fair to the UK. “It’s bigger Offprint Paris in terms of the number of publishers, and we’re using the Turbine Hall, which is a huge space. It’s also a very public, free space, which is used all the time by the general public.
“We want to attract the audience that comes to Offprint, but also the Tate’s audience – of which there are many thousands each weekend – and encourage them to come and see what’s happening in publishing. Photobook publishing is very strong in London – it’s kind of a hotspot – so it’s great we can do this here.”
Baker and his colleagues, Tate director Chris Dercon and Tate head of collections (international art) Francis Morris, decided to invite Offprint to the institution after visiting it in Paris two years ago. “We all thought it was a fantastic atmosphere – a really nice alternative and accompaniment to what you see in an art fair,” says Baker.
“At Paris Photo you see all these incredible vintage works, but at Offprint there was a different kind of atmosphere, and a far younger audience. And even though people were there to buy things, it felt much less commercial because most of the publishers were independent or self-publishers selling their own books.”
So they invited Bouillis and Offprint curator Colette Olof to collaborate on a London edition, including a much higher proportion of photography publishers, and also offering tables to students from courses at London institutions.
“We want to make it a fantastic edition of Offprint, but also tailored towards Photo London – although we’re not part of the commercial fair,” says Baker. “We’re running an event we hope will be the ‘off’ venue to Photo London, in the same way Offprint Paris is to Paris Photo.”
The Tate will also host a series of talks and workshops during the event, as well as a plethora of book signings. “What’s great is that if you like a certain photographer’s books, you can look up information on where they will be signing books, at which stand, and you can go there, buy the book, and have it signed – all for £30,” says Baker. “You’ve met the artist, bought something that’s important to you, and helped support someone whose work you believe in. It’s a very good interactive experience.”
For Baker, it’s the next logical step in a trend he credits Parr and Badger with popularising, “since they went to the trouble of showing us what the history of this art form is and establishing that it is an art form. They bear a lot of responsibility and credit for making people understand what the word ‘photobook’ even means,” he says. “People are starting to realise, historically and in the contemporary sense, that it’s an interesting and specific way of looking at art. Now the books that generate the most interest are often not the £7000 vintage works, but something that came out this year, and is new and exciting. There is a feeling of this being something you can keep up with; if you go to photography bookshops, you can find some truly amazing things.
“In very simple terms, photobooks are showing the next generation of photographers – those who maybe don’t yet have gallery representation or haven’t had a big show, and that’s very important,” he continues. “There aren’t so many smaller galleries giving opportunities to younger photographers – there are some, but there aren’t many. The photobook is the place where you can still afford to publish – and people do, by self-financing or crowd-funding.”
Baker cites Cristina de Middel as an example: after self-publishing her book The Afronauts on a limited budget in 2012, the Spanish photographer went on to become “a mini celebrity in the photobook world”, as Baker puts it, staging shows at The Photographers’ Gallery and Foam and winning a nomination for the 2013 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.
And then there is Nicoló Degiorgis, who self-funded and published the award-winning Hidden Islam, he adds. “Degiorgis had stalls at book fairs with just that one book, and you knew that if you bought a copy you’d be helping him to fund his next book,” he says. “You’re helping someone amazing continue to make their work, which makes us all very small patrons.”
He’s also happy to host an event in which visitors can get their hands on photobooks, he says, because while he’s keen to include photobooks in exhibitions at the Tate, they’re often valuable first editions that have to be kept under glass or shown in facsimile.
“There’s a sense of wanting to see an original copy of something, and at the Tate we show those books in vitrines, but we might also show a sequence of prints from a book next to a copy of the book,” says Baker. “Then there are digitised versions with technology so people can digitally turn the pages for themselves.
“But a lot of historic artworks that are in the Tate’s collection weren’t kept under glass – they were circulated, touched and used – and the nice thing about the Offprint fair is that it reminds people that photobooks aren’t always supposed to be hermetically sealed. I think that’s really important; we often can’t let people touch works of art, but at something like Offprint you can buy your own copy or just browse.”
And Offprint is also accessible in another sense too, he adds, as it allows visitors to buy contemporary photography for just a few pounds. “We are not making a publishing fair for collectors who are going to spend several hundred of pounds on a book,” he says. “The idea is for Offprint to be accessible, and for items to be affordable. I think you should be able to buy a little masterpiece for £30 – and I have. Photobooks are a very democratic and affordable way to get into photography.”
He hopes that this factor will help get a young audience in – and younger bookmakers, too. “The audience is young at Offprint if you compare it with that of Paris Photo, for example. When you go to publishing fairs, the publishers are young, and their audiences are young. It’s an absolute principal of our vision at the Tate to diversify; photography has a different audience to an extent, and photobooks have a different audience again.”
Baker describes the current interest in photobooks as a “critical moment”, but also says it’s much more than a trend or fashion, saying “the physical object – the reprographic object with its nice paper and inks, and different formats – has always been part of the photographic medium. I don’t see the interest in photobooks as a bubble; I see it more as a raised awareness to what’s out there,” he says. “I think it’s more accurate to say it’s something we haven’t been looking at in quite the right way.”
And while he recognises that a tiny fraction of the books at Offprint will go down in photographic history, he says that’s just like any other art form. The difference is that with photobooks, more people can share in dictating what’s remembered. “It’ll be the same as any other art form, in the sense that a small number of very good things will last, and many of them won’t. Many won’t be historically important, while others will,” he says. “The question, then, is who gets to decide? Is this only decided by who ended up in Parr and Badger’s books? I think it’s more likely to be the things that people really treasure. If you buy lots of books, there is always one you’d never want to sell.”