Rise of the Photobook

21 October 2013

Brian Steptoe FRPS.“With work between the covers of a book, what matters is how well the book works as a whole. Individual photographs, though they are important, do not matter so much. When a photographer takes a group of related photographs and sequences the images so that each resonates with its fellows, then this, more and more photographers are coming to believe, is where photographs sing their song to the fullest.”

... Gerry Badger, from “The Genius of Photography”.


The Photobook: A History, vol 1, by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger was first published in 2004, marking a major rise of interest in the photobook in the last ten years. This book was joined with vol.2 in 2006 and vol.3 is close to being published. Similar books listing and describing Latin American, Dutch, German and Japanese photobooks have recently been published. These books generally review photobooks produced from the beginning of photography right up to close to their own publication date. The book probably most referenced as a primary source and inspiration today is The Americans, by Robert Frank,
published in 1958.

Exhibitions of photobooks open to submissions from across the world, have a two-stage selection process: the first to establish a short-list and a second stage to name winning books. Each stage will have a different team of selectors, usually comprising curators, writers on photography and photographic editors. These have been held in recent years, either in conjunction with major photo exhibitions or as stand-alone exhibitions. These are regular events in mainland Europe. Examples are at Rencontré d’Arles, at Paris-Photo, at the Kassel Fotobook Festival and in Amsterdam, Unseen, organised by FOAM. 

Photobooks at Paris-Photo are organised in conjunction with Aperture Foundation, New York and the exhibition subsequently travels to Los Angeles. The Kassel exhibition is specifically for book “dummies”.The term “dummy” refers to a photobook produced to send to a potential publisher or book designer, as distinct from a published book printed in multiple copies for sale.

On 20 Sept 2013 the short-listed books for Paris-Photo 2013 were announced in New York by Magnum photographer and photobook publisher Alec Soth. His talk The Current State of the Photobook  is on this video.


At present there is only one judged and selected photobook exhibition in the UK: the Kraszna-Krausz Book Awards. These are for photography and for moving image books making educational, professional or cultural contributions and tend have extensive text content, in contrast to other photobook exhibitions. 

Browsing the Kraszna-Krausz winners in 2013

All these events are reported to have entry numbers of 400-800 photobooks, limited to one book per entrant. There are often two classes: one for mainstream publisher books and one for new photographer books, either self-published or seeking first publication.

Regular reviews of photobooks appear in photographic magazines such as BJP, Source and FOAM. Aperture Foundation publish their Photobook Review twice yearly and the World Photography Organisation are due to have a photobook magazine issue in November 2013. Some 200 attendees were at the Photography and the Photobook symposium at Tate Modern in November 2012. The hands-on exhibition of recent Japanese Photobooks at the Photographer’s Gallery in August 2012 attracted many visitors.

The photobook has been prominent among recent finalists for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. Rinko Kawauchi’s Illuminance was there in 2012 and Cristina de Middel’s The Afronauts and Broomberg & Chanarin’s War Primer 2 in 2013, the latter being overall winner with prize money of £30,000.

The Afronauts is one of a recent genre of photobooks that are part-factual and part-fictional. 

Catalogue for  the Deutsche Börse 2013 exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery, London












Redheaded Peckerwood, by Christian Patterson was another, winning at Rencontré d’Arles in 2012. Considered to be a great photobook, Redheaded Peckerwood takes time to absorb and tell its story. It has figured in many “best of” photobook lists. 

The book cover shows  a deliberately obscure reproduction of a photo of the young couple who embarked on a murder spree in 1950s America; the factual part of the story.





Personal photobooks

With this background and the growth in opportunities for print-on-demand photobook creation, plus interest in hand-made books, the time has come for the Society to enter the photobook exhibition arena. Proposals were submitted to Council, who, to quote, stated “as the exhibition is to be branded as a Society exhibition it is important that we have a degree of consistency [with the Society’s Print and Screen Projected exhibitions]”.  This support and endorsement has encouraged us (the author in conjunction with Rod Fry ARPS) to establish The Royal Photographic Society Photobook Exhibition 2014 in the event calendar. This is open to all members of the Society. This event is an initiative of the Contemporary Group, open to all Society members and not limited in any way to ‘contemporary’ photography. The closing date is 1 September 2014.

Photobooks are having a major rise in popularity with enthusiast photographers and the Society will hope for entry numbers of at least 250 books from its over 11,000 members. All genres and styles of photography will be welcome and books made by any process will be accepted, including print-on-demand and hand-made creation. 

Impressions from Canada, by Ingrid Demaerschalk; a visual art style of photobook. Ingrid is a member of Bracknell Camera Club.

Society members will be very familiar with the standards of entries selected in the Print and Screen Projected exhibitions which are open to all, but may be less familiar with the standards of international photobook exhibitions. These can be assessed by anyone able to purchase or at least browse books such as those listed for Paris-Photo in 2013 and earlier years. A selection of these will be available for viewing in forthcoming RPS workshops. These published photobooks represent a target to aim for, but it would be unrealistic to see such standards being attained in the 2014 RPS exhibition of individual member books, where more modest targets would be acceptable.

One guideline that separates good photobooks from not so good ones is clarity of purpose; what reader experience is aimed for. Creation of the book should not be rushed, with every decision about what goes where and why given thought by the author. Too often, the ready availability of book creation software encourages photographers to rush into creating their book. Ideally a similar time and effort should be put into editing, sequencing and designing the book as went into obtaining the photos. 

Workshops are being planned for Society members who have no experience in photobook creation or those who might be seeking to refresh their skills with further advice and insights to international award-winning photobooks. Advice will also be available on-line. Please contact Rod Fry ARPS,  or Brian Steptoe FRPS 

A useful guide on how to think about, prepare and make a photobook appears in Georg Colberg’s blog

Full details, rules and conditions, how to enter, judges and awards etc. will be published elsewhere on the RPS website.

(Quote from Gerry Badger, who will be our final exhibition judge, with his permission. Gerry is one of the final judges for Paris-Photo photobook 2013 awards)