Photography

History of the Photobook

Explore the history of the photobook and how it helped disseminate the works of photographers to a mass audience

Mariela Sancari (@marielasancari) is an Argentinian photographer and visual artist based in Mexico who is also involved in the creation of photobooks. Together with the team at the ImageCenter in Mexico City, she created FOLIO, the first public collection of photobooks from worldwide artists and publishers in the city.

In her new Domestika course, Mariela introduces you to the universe of photobooks, approaching concepts related to the book as a system, as an object, and as an experience. So what exactly is a photobook?

Read on as we explore the history of the photobook and the role of photobooks over the years.

Mariela Sancari
Mariela Sancari

A comprehensive collection

British author Gerry Badger and photographer Martin Parr, co-edited the trilogy ‘The Photobook: A History (Volumes I, II, III).' The first volume alone includes 200 of the most artistically and culturally relevant photobooks. They explain:

The photobook is a particular kind of photography book, in which images prevail over text, and the joint work of the photographer, editor, and graphic designer helps build a visual narrative.
The Photobook: A History Volume I, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger
The Photobook: A History Volume I, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger

Origins

The first photobook, 'Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions' (1843–1853), was created by Anna Atkins to help scientists identify marine specimens. The photographer used the cyanotype printing process, making impressions of actual samples in contact with the light-sensitive paper.

Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, Anna Atkins
Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, Anna Atkins
Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, Anna Atkins
Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, Anna Atkins

The most important photobook

In 1938, Walker Evans was the first photographer to be given a one-person photographic exhibition at the new Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition came with an accompanying publication ‘American Photographs’, which today is considered the most important photobook.

Watch the below video and immerse yourself in 1930’s America:

Japanese tradition

During the 20th century, Japan underwent a rapid transformation, more than any other country. Shashinshū―the Japanese word for photo books―captures the most important historical moments of Japan, together with the country's cultural development.

In the 1960s and ’70s in Japan, the photobook became particularly popular as an art form, combining excellent design, printing, and materials. Japanese photography cannot be discussed without including this type of work, and famous works are a source of inspiration for artists internationally. The publication 'Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and '70s' by Ivan Vartanian and Ryuichi Kaneko provides a selection of photobooks from that era, including some relatively unknown ones.

Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and '70s, Ivan Vartanian and Ryuichi Kaneko
Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and '70s, Ivan Vartanian and Ryuichi Kaneko
Shomei Tomatsu
Shomei Tomatsu

In 1986 Masahisa Fukase published the book 'Karasu (Ravens or The Solitude of Ravens),' in which he experimented with color film, multiple exposure printing, and narrative text. Karasu is regarded as an insight into the post-war Japanese psyche and in 2010 the British Journal of Photography awarded it Best Photobook of the previous 25 years.

Karasu - The Solitude of Ravens, Masahisa Fukase
Karasu - The Solitude of Ravens, Masahisa Fukase
Karasu - The Solitude of Ravens, Masahisa Fukase
Karasu - The Solitude of Ravens, Masahisa Fukase

Modernist Paris

Hungarian artist Brassaï captured the essence of 1933 Paris in the outstanding 'Paris de Nuit' photobook. With text from Paul Morand, it was described as ‘the eye of Paris’ in an essay by Henry Miller. Brassaï portrayed Paris’s high society as well as the seedier side, in a layout style that is quite ahead of its time. Brassaï photographed many of his artist friends, including Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, and writers such as Jean Genet and Henri Michaux.

Watch the below video for a closer look of Paris by night during the Modernist era:

To discover Mariela Sancari's influences, read complex narratives with images, and understand the development of the concept book, sign up to her course Photo Books: Concept and Use of Materials, and create your own project.

You may also be interested in:

- 3 Free Tutorials to Become a Great Photographer
- Domestika Diary: Aaron Walls
- Tips for Your Commercial Documentary Photos
- 20 Essential Shortcuts You Should Know in Adobe Photoshop

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