There is no identified procedure for measuring the quality of a photo book, and there is no norm for regulating the production of a „real“ photo book. However, there are several criteria, which may be helpful when it comes to telling a good photo book from a bad one.
A photo book is a complete work of art, on its own. Its form, and therefore the quality of print and paper, binding, cover, composition of the pages, format … all of this needs to correspond with the content. And of course this content – photos and text – should justify the effort and the expense. Photo books in this sense of the word therefore include coffee table books, monographies, catalogues, artist books, substantial reportages, children’s books, company celebration publications, specialised books, propaganda, promotional gifts. We are not talking about whether it is art or not art; but we’re talking about a work the core of which is photography. Comparison is a good way of separating the wheat from the chaff – not every illustrated bit of propaganda is automatically noteworthy; not every book on Bauhaus is an incunabula of the Avant-garde, and not every picture book is a photo book.
Preservation. A book is an object that is not thrown away as quickly as a newspaper, and is not as quickly forgotten as an exhibition. Libraries and collectors preserve the existence and memory of books, which due to their greater circulation are also much more easily available than individual prints.
Historical relevance. Other photographers refer to the book, or learn from it.
The photographs as such. Sometimes it is not the book that is important, influential and successful, but simply the pictures it contains.
Narrative structure. Even if you can turn the pages any which way you want: the book does suggest a specific sequence of pictures.
Print and overall design. A book is never great simply because it has been beautifully printed or designed, however, a clear statement requires an appropriate form.
Picture-text combination. Pictures and text enter an inextricable alliance.
Significance in an artist’s oeuvre. There are books that are simply indispensable for appreciating an artist’s life’s work. It may represent this artist’s finding his own language, or something he became famous for.
Market acceptance. This is of course part of any work of art’s value. If it doesn’t cost anything, it can’t be worth much. If it is not talked about, the same may be true.
Collector’s value. A collector’s assessment of a book’s value will include rareness, circulation, variants, completeness, and condition as well as individual preferences.
Books and photographs go together. Kurt Tucholsky wrote: A picture says more than a thousand words. Let me adapt this a bit: a photo book says more than 100 individual images; a photo book therefore needs to say more than the sum of its pictures. Otherwise they’re not worth one’s while. They may be impressive, beautiful or informative, but they’re not works. It is too bad that so many shelves in bookshops, libraries and antiquarian bookshops are crammed with these pretty, bland picture books.
Maybe the increasing attention to photo books will result in greater attention to the photo books’ quality as independent works. The highly popular publications on photo books by Martin Parr and by Gerry Badger seem to be a first step in the right direction. The serious study of the wide field of the photo book definitely needs these impulses and guides to orientation, as it is still largely uncharted.
Translation Stefani Ross