Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hoarding Shadows: The Best Photo Books Of 2013

I love the end of the year. There are three main reasons for loving the run-up to January 1: The first, which I'll cover in more detail in my forthcoming 2014 resolutions post, is that I love the mental state of starting over that comes with the dawning of a new year. Second, at the New Year's party I attend, everyone breaks out their reserve stock of rare beers, but you probably don't care about that. Third, I get to read a slew of amazing articles and blog posts in which savvy people talk about their favorite music and books of the year. This is great for me, since, hey, I'm a full time artist and being buried in the studio so much, I miss things. I've already bought a whole bunch of albums and added some interesting books to my reading list. 

Yet, one set of lists is bothering me. I'm a photographer, and I love photo books, so of course I seek out the lists of best photo books. I collect obscure contemporary black metal, experimental and jazz vinyl, so I'm used to dealing with the vagrancies of tracking down self published and import work. But as I clicked through the menagerie of tomes I noticed a disheartening trend. In this article I want to take a look at the 2013 best of list ( created by PhotoEye, one of America's premier photo book bookstores. I don't want to call them out specifically, since they are an amazing store filled with smart and dedicated staff but the reason I want to use their list is because it is very representative of which books are showing up on these lists (that is, it's filled with the photo book equivalents of Deafheaven's Sunbather album). 

The first book on the list, Rasen Kaigan/Album by Lieko Shiga had me pulling out my credit card to buy it, but it was not available from their store. There are 6 copies on Amazon going for the low low price of $245.00 to $485.00… Let's just assume that's one of those stupid Amazon bot pricing issues (such a futuristic problem to have!) and move on. Cool, the next book has a couple of copies of the in stock for $75.00, but Amazon is out of stock and already the price is creeping up past $124.00. Book three - out of stock, but there are two used copies floating on Amazon for $80.00. Unless you want a first printing which would run you $240.00. Book four - well, that's not available on Amazon OR at PhotoEye. Next book, only two used copies, going for $373.00 and $445.00 respectively. 

Let's just skip to the chase: This isn't some weird Amazon bot-pricing issue. Additionally, just to be clear that I'm not pitting a mega-corporation against an indie bookseller, PhotoEye partners with Amazon, and co-lists these prices. But more importantly, my concern is availability: Of the 27 books in PhotoEye's best of the year list, only 6 are available to buy new at their store. 5 I could find direct from their respective publishers, mostly in Europe, some of which were possibly unavailable (I had to rely on Google translate to let me know if they were in stock or not). 6 aren't available to buy at either PhotoEye or Amazon. Of the last 10, which are available on the secondary market, their average price for the cheapest copy available is $219.21! 

Let's push aside the secondary market speculation/inflation/bubble issue for a moment (which is still a very valid conversation in this economy where the middle class's presence in fine art is disappearing) and talk about this list, and it's brethren across the internet, just from a perspective of being a fan and wanting to check out the best work that came out in the last 12 months. 

If this were Pitchfork's Top 100 albums of 2013 it would break down as: 22 albums would be available. 19 would be available as imports with all the hassle and fees associated. 37 albums could be found in highly limited supply on the secondary market for two to ten times their initial asking price. The final 22 wouldn't be available anywhere. This isn't a list of "greatest of all time," this is a list of the best stuff since the last college football season ended. Put in to terms of music, hopefully you can begin to see how insanely exclusive, opaque and reclusive the photo book world has become. For reference, of the 100 albums on the Pitchfork list, 100 are available in complete versions, usually in multiple formats; the same is true of the New York Times 2013 notable book list.

Despite the bluster and hype, when you break down this community in to these weird numbers, it begins to speak volumes about the possible unhealthiness of the photo book in its marketplace ecosystem. I'm part of the group that believes that the art of the photo book is experiencing an exciting and fearlessly creative period of maturation. Working in photo book form is crucial for a number of my projects. But I get anxious when I stop and think about what might happen to my art in this hyper-rarified landscape.

If only a tiny, self-selected population of speculators, sycophants and the wealthy ever see these magnificent objects, what does it mean for the possible ability of the art to affect the world? I mean, most artists who aren't already famous (sorry Alec Soth, I actually really like your book reviews) certainly aren't seeing these books. The same can be said for most fans of art, since these books aren't ever displayed in a physical space like a $100,000 painting might appear in a gallery or at least a fair to be gawked at briefly. 

So is the photo book field just a new set of luxury items for the rich?  Are these just objects that will disappear in to the collector-mists (in acid free archival wrap like a body bag) the moment they come in the mail? Are they just fodder for online markets and auctions the way that silly colored vinyl releases from bands like Uncle Acid are used to drive publisher headlines and speculator bankrolls? Are photo books just some cute old-timesy product like a tin photo at an amusement park or a hand-blown glass ornament? Are they just a flashy symbolic gesture of taste for the Vice magazine kids? Basically, as someone deeply invested in making these sorts of objects, I'm thinking out loud if this just a boom based on NOT seeing; a boom based on hoarding shadows? 

I don't have answers to these questions, of course, but I honestly do believe in the amazing work coming from the artists that are making these books. Well, from what I've seen of their work in bits online and various prints at galleries, not of course, from the books themselves.


It was obvious to me when I wrote the article that I wasn't accusing PhotoEye of anything negative but I'm not sure if that came through as well as it should. To be as clear as possible, PhotoEye should be commended if anything. First, they actually had most of this data out in open. I had been thinking of writing this article about a half dozen other, earlier, lists but I couldn't quite get a concrete handle on the topic. Second, and most important, you can really tell this is a list of books they loved. I mean, PhotoEye is a store and they only stock 22% of their recommended titles! They could easily have made a very reasonable editorial decision to fill their list with in-stock titles to bolster their sales.

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