Articles 29-02-2020

Photobook or Artist’s Book? Where do we draw the line?

José Luís Neves


A book is a sequence of spaces.
Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment
– a book is also a sequence of moments.1

What characterises a ‘photobook’? According to Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s categorisation, the primary criterion that defines a photobook is that ‘it should be an extended essay in photographs’2. Parr and Badger do acknowledge the importance of other features – text, design, binding, typography, paper, printing processes – but the photographs and photographic sequences are the building blocks of the ‘special’ photobook examined in their study.

Although the above characterisation provides a much-needed and straightforward definition of photobook practice, one could argue it also minimises the vital role materiality plays in the creation of this book form. By converting photobooks into a ‘container’ of information, Parr and Badger’s classification imposes a divorce between content (author) and the physical attributes of the book (design, printing, editing, etc.). A separation that has its roots in Parr and Badger’s explicit and laudable desire to not only establish the photographer as an ‘auteur’ but also the ‘photobook’ as the ‘literary novel of photographically illustrated books’3. However, while such a classification might be sufficient to describe past photobook production, it is perhaps too restrictive to describe present-day photobook-making.

It is worth noting that the vast majority of the photobooks included in The Photobook: A History, particularly in the first two volumes, employ the stability and material linearity of the codex to disseminate the typical cumulative and relational narratives that sustain this book practice. Moreover, Parr and Badger’s selection demonstrates how the codex format – the near-universal set of standard size rectangular or square pages bound into a rigid sequence that is widely used in the Western world – was and continues to be the central composition space for photobook practice. This apparent orthodoxy of the form should not be interpreted as a negative factor since it is merely a consequence of the codex’s conventions and its resulting transparency. Moreover, it should also not be understood as an indication that past photobook makers ignored the physical qualities of the book. The choice of paper, binding, printing process, etc., has always been a vital component of the practice. Nonetheless, most of those practitioners chose to establish their work within the constraints and linearity of the codex. Contemporary photobook makers, on the other hand, although still using the same composition space, have begun to interrogate and deconstruct its boundaries.

Toni Amengual, Pain (2014)

At first glance, Rob Philip’s On the Game/Bisnisjongens and Toni Amengual’s Pain might resemble a traditional photobook. However, in order to read their content, readers must manually tear the ‘unopened’ edges of the book’s pages. When undone, the folds decorated with flower patterns in Philip’s book reveal the origin of those decorative elements: the work and home environment of male prostitutes in the Netherlands. In Amengual’s book – a study of the 2008-2014 Spanish economic crisis – the biblioclastic gesture forces the reader not only to pierce the consistency of the codex but also the Spanish flag!

Stephen Gill’s Buried, on the other hand, is completely covered in mud. An organic intervention that connects the series of buried photographs reproduced in the book with the physical vehicle that propagates them. Paul Gaffney’s Perigee uses a more subtle strategy to question the book’s structure. The two volumes that compose this title are interlocked through magnetic covers — a design choice that echoes the project’s leitmotif: the gravitational pull between the moon and Earth. The unusual shortness of the hardcover in Carolyn Drake’s Two Rivers symbolizes the abrupt end of the Amu Darya and Sur Dary rivers, which now stops flowing before reaching the Aral Sea.

Paul Gaffney, Perigee (2017)

Other contemporary titles explore and deconstruct the page. Several titles designed by Sybren Kuiper (-SYB-) are a perfect example of how subtle modifications and intervention in pagination can strengthen and support a book’s narrative. Judith van Ijken’s Mimicry, for instance, uses a series of fold-outs and pages with different lengths to create a playful interaction in which readers have to unpeel a primary visual layer to reveal a second image. The top layers obstruct the secondary layer only partially, giving readers a glimpse of the garment that connects the two generations depicted throughout the book. In Valerio Spada’s Gomorrah Girl, two different types of paper are used to establish its layered narrative. The rugged A4 pages depict the official material produced by Italian Police during the investigation of Annalisa Durante’s murder in Naples. The glossy square format paper interspersed throughout the Police report facsimile, on the other hand, is used to reproduce Spada’s photographic work.

In Carolyn Drake’s Two Rivers, the photographic images are wrapped over the edge of the Japanese bound pages in an attempt to make the viewer read the photographs more closely and establish links between them. The pages in Kate Nolan’s Neither, a book also designed by -SYB-, have been sliced at the bottom. This design sabotages any attempt to connect the handwritten quotes reproduced in those strips with the women portrayed throughout the book.

Nolan’s title also subverts the traditional hierarchy of saddle-stitched inserts – usually placed inside the book – by placing a small contextual volume outside the main book. This same strategy is spectacularly employed in Chen Zhe’s Bees & The Bearable. In Chen’s book its designers – Guang Yu and Xu Lei – have transformed the small booklet containing diary excerpts, letters and text messages into the physical support of the 19 large books that contain the project’s photographic material.

Neither Photobook from Kate Nolan on Vimeo.

Other titles destabilise the codex’s physical boundaries by transforming the book into a sculptural artefact. Thomas Sauvin’s Until Death Do Us Part – depicting the essential role cigarettes have played in Chinese wedding ceremonies – could be described as a ready-made. Although its images are printed on a traditional codex, the book is cleverly presented inside a real Chinese cigarette pack. A design choice that establishes an immediate connection between content and form. Ishizuka Gentaro’s Pipeline Alaska, on the other hand, comes inside a tube that echoes the photographic images of the Trans-Alaska pipeline system included in the paperback volume.

Sunyoung Kim’s approach in Schema is even more radical. Her ‘book’ completely dismantles the established structure of the codex. In this game-like work, photographic blocks are used to create fragmented narratives that evoke distorted and exaggerated memories. Importantly, this photobook demonstrates how the creation of elliptical narratives can easily subsist outside the traditional boundaries of the codex format.

Sunyoung Kim, Schema (2018)

The above titles are only a small sample of a much broader practice. Not all contemporary photobooks explore materiality in such a radical way. Many times, structural investigation manifests itself through subtle interventions that question the traditional role of a book’s physical elements (endpapers, printing techniques, ephemera, fold-outs, etc.). Nevertheless, even those restrained artistic gestures seem to demonstrate a contemporary predisposition to disrupt the established use of the codex that is not present in past photobook production.

The question then arises as to whether these ‘rebellious’ volumes should still be described as ‘photobooks’ or if they belong in the artist’s book category. According to Johanna Drucker:

To remain artists’ books, rather than book-like objects or sculptural works with a book reference to them, these works have to maintain a connection to the idea of the book – to its basic form and function as the presentation of material in relation to a fixed sequence which provides access to its contents (or ideas) through some stable arrangement . Such a definition stretches elastically to reach around books which are card stacks, books which are solid pieces of bound material and other books whose nature defies easy characterization.4

Most of the photobooks described in this essay fall under Drucker’s characterisation. Does this mean we should instead define them as ‘artist’s books’? Or could this overlap of categories indicate that perhaps there should be no fixed boundary between ‘photobook’ practice and what has been termed as ‘artist’s book’ practice? Although the photobooks presented in this essay are physically different from ’traditional’ photobooks, they still retain the key identity of the form: the use of photographs to create a cumulative and multi-layered visual narrative that traverses the whole book. This unique property, not present in other forms of photographically illustrated books, also means that the ‘special’ type of photobook historicized by Parr and Badger should perhaps be understood as a precursor of 1960s ‘artist’s book’ practice.

Drucker acknowledges this latter hypothesis when stating that some early 20th century photobooks5 demonstrate how ‘a form of artists’ books can be industrially produced and widely distributed to a larger audience’6, adding that:

That they were artists’ books seems irrefutable, that they formed the background for much later work is somewhat questionable, since they were part of a history which was temporarily forgotten at the time artists’ books emerged in the 1960s. But that they have an important place in that history, and that they can serve as inspiration for both scholarly and creative work in the future should be abundantly clear.7

Hopefully, this essay was able to demonstrate that there is, in fact, a clear connection between ‘photobook’ and ‘artist’s book’ practice. Regrettably, Drucker’s statement concerning the direct influence of photobook practice upon 1960s bookmakers is not sustained by concrete evidence. It should be noted that in recent years some scholars have been able to trace potential overlaps between the two forms. Sylvia Wolf, for instance, established how Walker Evans and Robert Frank’s photographic and book work shaped Ed Ruscha’s artistic practice8. Although this historical link needs to be further studied, it is amply clear that contemporary bookmakers no longer are limited by any stylistic and formal boundaries. Today’s bookworks, to use Ulises Carrión’s terminology, seem to be shaped by what he described as an ‘expressive unity’, that is, how a book uses material and formal elements in unison to generate the book’s ‘message’9. Therefore, and to answer the central question of this essay, the line that separates ‘photobooks’ from ‘artist’s books’ is perhaps inexistent. What defines these works is how they use the book as a composition space for artistic practice. Perhaps we should simply call them bookworks.


José Luís Neves is currently a Lecturer in Photography at the University of Northampton (UK). His main areas of academic and curatorial research involve the history and historiography of the photobook and artist’s book history and practice.


1 Ulises Carrión, ‘What a Book Is’, in Second Thoughts (Amsterdam: Void distributors, 1980), 7.
2 Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, Vol. I (London: Phaidon Press, 2004), 8.
3 Gerry Badger, ‘Elliptical Narratives: Some Thoughts on the Photobook’, in The Pleasures of Good Photographs: Essays (New York: Aperture, 2010), 221.
4 Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York City: Granary Books, 2004), 123.
5 Titles by Lázló Moholy-Nagy, Albert Renger-Patzsch, August Sander, Walker Evans, Weegee and Robert Frank.
6 Drucker, Century Artist’s Books, 63.
7 Drucker, 63–64.
8 Sylvia Wolf, Ed Ruscha and Photography (Göttingen: Steidl / Edition7L, 2004).
9 Ulises Carrión, ‘From Bookworks to Mailworks’, in Second Thoughts (Amsterdam: Void distributors, 1980), 25.