If photobooks are a current phenomenon, it wasn’t something I was aware of until I visited the Centre of Contemporary Culture in Barcelona. Their current exhibition, Fenomen Fotolibre, is a collection of over 500 photobooks from the 19th century up to the present day.
Some of these are propaganda books and protest books of the 1960s and 70s, representations of state and counter-state laid out side by side. “Protest books have an immediacy, […] the desire to demonstrate the scale and energy of the protest,” reads the curator’s commentary. Does this make the protest book redundant in the internet age? In an era of online immediacy where pictures of political demonstrations can be on our news feeds in a matter of seconds, does anyone have the patience for print publications?
The answer appears to be “yes”, as the popularity of photobooks has surged in recent years. Much like with the resurgence of the LP, it seems that the digital age has only pushed us back towards tangible objects.
Another part of the exhibit that perfectly showcases this hybridity between new and old is Doug Richard’s ‘A New American Picture’, which is a collection of images from Google Street View. This is the first book of its kind where the photos are screenshots of a computer monitor. Just as the internet could be making some elements of the photobook obsolete, the photobook is adapting to use the web for its own development.
Print and digital co-exist throughout the exhibition. Many of the photobooks are presented in electronic form alongside their physical counterparts, so that visitors can flick through the pages using touch screen technology without damaging the original copy.
The descriptions are in Catalan, Spanish, and English, so useless British tourists such as myself don’t miss out. Interestingly, aside from a small section on photojournalism in the Spanish Civil War, the artists displayed are mostly British, American, and Japanese, despite the exhibition’s location.
Photobooks dealing with social issues are evident in abundance throughout the collection, one of which is Jim Goldberg’s ‘Open See,’ which focuses on refugees. He gets his subjects to write on his pictures, as well as combining his photography with found imagery, meaning the people he photographs get a say in the making of the project. Photography, and particularly white photography of people of colour, can often be voyeuristic. Goldberg’s attempt to combat this adds another dimension to his work.
Gentrification is also on the cards with Stephen Gill’s ‘Hackney Wick’. The photos in the book were all shot with a plastic lens camera that cost a grand total of 50p, purchased from the market in Hackney that he then went on to photograph. This market is now defunct, part of the “sanitisation” of this area of East London to prepare for the Olympics in 2012. The book serves as a kind of pre-emptive obituary for the diverse range of lives that were about to be altered irrevocably with the transformation of their part of the city, while also being so full of life and character that it can mourn without being morbid.
Perhaps a reason for the photobook phenomenon is this desire to memorialise, whether that’s an event or a person or simply a moment in time. The majority of these books are independently or self-published, so maybe that’s a part of it too, the desire to carve out your own space for your voice and your art. As always, and particularly in politically turbulent times, the presence of independent photojournalism is much needed. But, also, so is the presence of art, and Fenomen Fotolibre gives you both.