Coffee Tables and Prayer Books / by Graham Dew

If you have a love of photography then it is inevitable that you will have a love of photobooks. I’m not an avid collector by any means but over the last few months I thought that it was time that should corral all my books into one place. So I set off to that Nordic temple of wood, IKEA, and bought myself a new bookshelf to house my collection from the last three decades. I divested all the other bookshelves in the house of their photographic volumes and opened long sealed packing boxes to be reacquainted with half remembered books. By the time I had finished I had filled the new shelves to bursting point, had a pile of books looking for a home and still had nowhere to put all my art books, self-made photo books and technique books. Another trip, another meal of meatballs and cranberry sauce, and now I am sorted. 

Off to buy a book case - IKEA Southampton © Graham Dew 2012
Off to buy a book case - IKEA Southampton

If I were a collector of Penguin paperbacks or first edition hardback novels, then I could have laid out my shelves evenly but my collection of photobooks has almost every size imaginable. Despite my dedicated bookshelves, I still have some books that are so large that they have to lie on their rear face and still overhang the shelf. The biggest of these is Chronologies by Richard Misrach. Several years ago I was fortunate enough to meet John Blakemore at a workshop and, he suggested that I might like to look at Richard Misrach’s The Sky Book. I nearly ordered a copy from Amazon, but I prevaricated and by the time I had made my mind up to buy the book it had gone out of print and prices were already out of sight for me. So when Chronologies was published a couple of years later I jumped at the chance to purchase this ‘greatest hits’ volume. I failed to take notice of the book dimensions when ordering and was staggered by the size and weight of the lump delivered to the door. At 39 x 31.4 x 3.4 cm and 3.7 kg it is a seriously oversized tome. 

Chronologies by Richard Misrach © Graham Dew 2012
Chronologies by Richard Misrach
The size is just the first hurdle with book. To read the book you have to find a table and chair, and then turn the book so the spine is on the top. Chronologies is printed portrait format but the images are laid out in landscape. This means that the table has to be deep; the book has to be flat to stop the early pages from flipping back on you. All of which means you have to stand up to look at the pictures. In fact the whole book id poorly designed. The book title ‘Chronologies’ gives a disguised warning – all the images are presented in chronological order, not in any relational order, so the book lacks any structure. Projects or groupings stop and restart at various parts of the book. And finally, each photo is printed with a quarter inch margin on the page, so the book has no rhythm either. The quality of the printing is undeniably excellent, but you get the feeling that you are flicking though a pile of bound-together proof prints.

Wider than a coffee table© Graham Dew 2012
Wider than a coffee table

Misrach is a brilliant photographer and his pictures are well worth spending time with. But this book is so unsatisfying physically that it rarely comes of its inadequate shelf. Perhaps I should return to IKEA, buy a set of table legs and convert the book into a coffee table.

So, if big is bad, then is small beautiful? Again, you can go too far. The smallest book in my collection is Influences by Brian Griffin. This is a beautiful object, measuring a diminutive 14.5 x 11 x 1.5 cm. From its hand tooled calfskin cover, gilt edged pages and velvet lined slip case, it feels more like a prayer book than a photography portfolio. Griffin’s portraits are graphically strong. They need to be, as each image is tiny - no larger than 6 x 6 cm. And therein lies the rub; the pictures are really too small, and too few, to warrant more than a few minutes with this book.

Influences by Brian Griffin © Graham Dew 2012
Influences by Brian Griffin

Small and beautifully formed © Graham Dew 2012
Small and beautifully formed

So what is the ideal size of photobook? For me, this is largely determined by where I wish to use the book, and that is determined by when I get some free time. So that means on the train and in bed. In those places, even A4 is too large. A5 is fine, but octavo (9” X 6”) is probably optimal, which happens to be the standard size of a hardback novel. I have very few photobooks that are near this size. I have one book that is very close to this size. Deus ex Machina is an anthology of just about all of Ralph Gibson’s projects up to about 2000. Printed as ‘block’ style book that the publisher Taschen has a penchant, it has an amazing 768 pages. Unfortunately it is a paperback and being so thick it feels like a heavy miniature accordion in your hands – you can never look at the pages laid flat.
Thick and Chunky - Deus Ex Machina by Ralph Gibson © Graham Dew 2012
Thick and Chunky - Deus Ex Machina by Ralph Gibson

Of all the books I own, the 2008 Steidl hardback edition of Robert Frank’s The Americans is pretty much perfect (21.6 x 18.8 x 2 cm). It sits nicely in the hand, the pages lie flat and the paper and printing are beautiful. It is a superb example of the craft of photobooks and it just happens to be one of the greatest books in the history of the art.
Perfection - The Americans by Robert Frank
Perfection - The Americans by Robert Frank

Recommended Reading: On a similar theme, Mike Chisholm wrote a great article on oversized books over at Idiotic Hat.