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Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: Understanding Photobooks, Jörg M. Colberg

The short review is that this is a complete primer on the production of a commercial book, from the point of view of the Serious Artist who wants to publish a book with a Serious Publisher. As such, it seems to me a pretty good resource, with a few issues. As you diverge from the Serious Artist/Serious Publisher model, the usefulness of the book drops. However, even if you're hand-building a 1-copy edition of an Artist's Book (roughly the exact opposite model) you may well find something of use in this book.

I approve of much of what he says. I learned several things about book publishing, which was a surprise to me. Colberg recommends things like "make physical book dummies (mockups), in fact, make a series of them" which strikes me as excellent advice. If you don't know much about the creation and manufacture of books, you're likely to learn quite a lot from Understanding Photobooks. If you're thinking about making a book, I think this may be a good buy, almost no matter what kind of book you want to make.

You will almost certainly find aspects of the book that do not apply, that are simply wrong for you, or that irritate you. Plug onwards. It's an easy read, it's accessible, and you will find useful gems.

Should you buy it? That is a tough question. Keith Smith's Structure of the Visual Book will teach you 1000x more about sequencing, and nothing whatsoever about publishing. Swanson and Himes Publish Your Photography Book -- which I have not read -- appears to cover much of the same ground in much the same size of book at about the same price. It has the virtue of being well respected, and in a second edition. As for me, I am not unhappy to own Colberg's book, but I am casting about for a chance to read Swanson and Himes.

Thus endeth the executive summary. Onwards to a more detailed discussion.

This book is, it turns out, actually two different books. The first is described above, the second book is essentially an apologia for the "traditional publishing" industry that makes photobooks. This essay will concern itself, as far as possible, with the first. The second I will deal with in a second writeup.

Colberg has an engineering background, and it shows here. As usual, he eschews the language of Arty Bollocks throughout, the whole thing is quite readable. He has a tendency to try to algorithm-ize everything, although you can practically feel him struggling against this tendency as well. He knows as well as you and I that there is no fixed algorithm here, and he tries to present his organized processes as suggestions, as recommended courses for the first-timer, to be altered as necessity and whim dictate.

The over-arching example of this is his insistence that you start from a completed photographic project, with a clear concept, and then follow a series of steps that end with the completed book in bookshops and for sale online. Colberg does say, repeatedly, that much of what he says should be taken as a guideline, and perhaps a useful "recipe" for the first time book-maker. It is not always clear what he intends as a guideline, and what he means as an absolute, however. Often he uses absolutist language for things that strike me as more like a guideline, and his general remarks lean away from absolutism. I recommend taking virtually every single statement in the spirit of a guideline, to be taken up or discarded as appropriate.

The book is structured around the various phases (editing, sequencing, design, print, binding) that make up the process of making a book, punctuated with "worked examples" in the sense of a more or less detailed examination of this specific book or that. Some of the examples are interesting and well designed, and others are, well, less so. In my judgement. Colberg's preference is for excessively design-heavy books.

Understanding Photobooks lacks in negative examples, even hypothetical ones. Colberg repeatedly comments that there are many many bad photobooks in the world, but he declines to name names. This, I suppose, I can understand. Unable or unwilling to name names, he should have distilled the problems into hypothetical examples, and gone over those. In the end, we see a handful of books that Colberg thinks are good, and we get a fair amount of general discussion about what makes things good, but very little about what makes things bad. The closest he comes is a handful of remarks of this sort: he notes that certain bindings don't open fully, and therefore are not well suited to photos printed across the gutter. These small samples of potential bad choices are, in my estimation, not enough, and his examples of what constitute good choices are, in my estimation, often quite weak.

A few general remarks in more or less book-order.

Colberg starts, correctly, with the statement that your book needs a clear concept from the outset. You've got to know what the hell you're trying to do before you can really make much progress. Everything flows from the concept. Colberg makes a solid argument here, and gives a good example (albeit a book I would never consider buying, but a book that makes his point quite well). He points out that narrative is really just one way to organize a book, and that other approaches can be deployed successfully. I think one could argue that he and I see eye to eye here, meaning and/or concept are necessary, pretty much everything else isn't.

In here Colberg sketches the process by which concept is converted into a book, how it flows into editing/sequencing, and thence into layout, design, and so forth. In reality, everything depends on everything else in a gigantic messy ball, but he does a good job of combing out the important dependencies and suggesting a general way to navigate them.

The chapter on editing and sequencing is fairly weak. He covers the basics. Connecting pictures one to the next through form and/or content. Narrative structures, both literal linear narrative and an example of a sort of montage of pictures that foreshadows and sets up a larger narrative. A little discussion of pacing and intensity. It goes on and on, and covers the basics, but without getting very far. He starts out on the wrong foot asserting that you should always choose the strongest single image from each grouping of similars, before proceeding to sequencing. He hints that you might wind up using a weaker picture from the set later, but doesn't explicitly state it (at least not that I noted). He's pretty dogmatic about how you ought to sequence (the tired canard of "print them all out and stick them on the wall") and his examples are remarkably thin. The nadir of the chapter is an example of straight narrative drawn from Hesitating Beauty by Joshua Lutz. These are all willfully ugly snapshots. Natch.

1. Picture of glum middle aged man.
2. Picture of glum middle aged woman holding something.
3. Reverse angle of same woman, she's holding a b&w photo of a young, happy, couple.
4. Similar photo of a young happy couple.
5. Photo of a decorative wall that's been made to look like its bursting/collapsing.

    I DON'T KNOW!!!!!

Seriously? You think I am making this up, don't you? Especially the wall. But no, someone actually put this sequence into a book, and Schilt published it. This garbage looks like Woody Allen and Diane Arbus had a love child, who suffered brain damage in a tragic car accident, and now makes art with a broken camera.

As an example to drive the point home to even the most dunderheaded, I suppose it serves, but I would be embarassed to publish that sequence.

The chapter on design reads a bit like "hire a designer" written out 1000 times, but it does also make the point that design should serve the concept, which point he's already made several times. It is remarkable that in the chapter on design, Colberg is almost completely silent on what design actually is. The chapter essentially consists of discussion of what it does, why it matters, why you should hire someone to do it, and (a little) how to collaborate with that someone. These are all good things to say, but one does arrive at the end wondering a bit what design actually is.

The next bit is production, in which he briefly discusses bindings, the necessity to hire other people, paper choices and whatnot, and notes that preparing photographs for print is complicated (especially if you're printing offset), and that you ought to hire someone to do it. Again, he hammers the useful and correct point that production, bindings, etetera, need to serve the book's concept, not the other way around.

He wraps up with how to make a photobook in 17 rules, which reads exactly like a long listicle. "Collaborate!" "Avoid Shortcuts!" "Have a Budget!" and so on. It's embarrassing, and one gets the sense that Colberg was struggling to hit 200 pages (which he does, barely). Should have gone with a bigger font instead, Jörg.

In general, this book appears to be aimed at Colberg's MFA students. It assumes that you know basically nothing, and walks you through the basics, but without much depth. There is a brief discussion of each of the major bits and pieces, with generally worthwhile discussion of how these parts interact, and the kinds of problems that are likely to arise. The design of a book and the sequencing of the pictures, while separate tasks, can interact in powerful ways. Finalizing certain design details may require that you go back and revisit the sequence, and so on. The choice of binding will likely affect how the pictures are laid out on the page. Etcetera and so forth, but never with much depth.

Colberg's solutions to most of the big problems are "hire an expert" starting from his recommendation to go with a Real Publisher (MACK, Steidl, Dewi Lewis, etc), but flowing on through hiring or enlisting people to help you edit, design, prepare for print, and so on. He recommends throwing yourself on the publisher's mercy for distribution, marketing, and sales.

This is in line with his relatively light treatment of all the relevant problems. Rather than discuss details of bindings and the kinds of problems that can arise in any depth, he simply recommends that you have a professional helping you out. Rather than give a brief primer on design relevant to books, he recommends hiring a designer.

Colberg's other big solution is "make physical book dummies," starting from pasting pictures into a cheap spiral notebook.

These two "big solutions" are defensible, but Colberg is a bit too absolutist on these points for my taste. None of these things are rocket science. I am not a graphic designer, but as long as I keep it simple and stick to stealing other people's good ideas, I am pretty confident that my book designs are OK. I am not a master binder, but I can make a pretty good looking book. I am not Keith Smith, but my edits and sequences are... well, they're maybe passable on a good day. The point is that you can learn these things.

Physical dummies are a good idea, but it's not clear that you can't do a perfectly good job of this with a series of PoD books in concert with carefully using the computer (a pattern he explicitly cautions against, without much of a convincing argument).

Interestingly, Colberg constantly beats the drum of "limitations are good" and "compromise is a necessary part of book making" while simultaneously advocating for what amounts to a spare-no-expense Rolls-Royce process. He's distinctly down on print-on-demand, making a point of dismissing it at least three times. These are not the only contradictions in the book.

The other truly annoying tic Colberg has is that he forces the reader to do quite a lot of work. The clearest example if the chapter on design, in which he say that you need to hire a designer, repeating more than once that it's about more than the margin widths. As noted previously, he does not remind us what design is, what a designer actually does.

Now, this is not a huge deal. One can in fact work out from the rest of the book what a designer does, and fill it in. Ditto various other places where the same tic appears, where he argues stridently in favor of something or other without giving much of a rationalization. It makes his arguments feel weak, however. And, to be honest, I think his arguments are weak.

The strength of his position is not enhanced by the design and editing of the book itself. Unless, I suppose, he intends the book itself to be that negative example I bemoaned the absence of, above. But no, the book is flawed, but not bad enough to serve that role!

His examples sections are, incomprehensibly, typeset with white text on a medium gray background, illegible in anything short of excellent light (especially the captions, which are set in a smaller font). The text, while not a mess, could have used a better editor. Consistent misuse of like vs. as, he uses the word amount incorrectly now and then, and I found at least one outright typo. I am a pretty close reader, and I expect to notice an error or two in even the best books, but Colberg's concsistent mis-use of what I assume is his second language should have been corrected.

Finally, he's very repetitive. Text and pictures found in the worked examples sidebars are often repeated in the main body. Even apart from that, he repeats the same points in the main text too often for my taste. A good editor would likely have chopped the book by 10-20 percent without loss, resulting in a tighter (albeit somewhat slender) volume.

I don't think Focal Press is a self-pub operation, but this thing felt like a quite well done self-pub book rather than a commercial product.

Despite these flaws, I think it is a useful volume, and I am pleased to have purchased it. In part, because it's quite inexpensive. You should perhaps own a copy, but have a good stiff drink before reading, lest you hurl it violently against the wall and damage the spine.

I regret that I am going to have to say some unkind things about Mr. Colberg in the next essay. This genuinely pains me, as I think he is one of the few genuinely smart voices in the area. Relative to the unkind things I intend to say about the industry, however, it will be as if I were hand-feeding him a fine cake. So there's that.


  1. Ah, guidelines... Ever seen the first "Pirates of the Caribbean"? My favourite moment in a surprisingly witty film is the revelation that the Pirate Code is more like, well, guidelines...

    I don't agree about Colberg; my sense is that he's part of what has gone wrong with contemporary art photography, from the affectless sub-Soth portraits to the myriad "my sad project" photobooks. I used to visit the Photo-Eye website daily for news of exciting new releases; no longer.

    For an insight into photobook publishing, I think the video "How to Make a Book with Steidl" is enlightening (hint: first get famous).


    1. Indeed, indeed. You may enjoy my followup remarks.

      I think the whole business is revolting. And the pictures are often shit as well.

    2. I did not see the film, but I have now watched the trailer for the Steidl film. "Fuck ze midtones" is now my new favorite thing to say.

    3. Yesss! Me, too! "Fuck ze midtones!!" (sorry, Thomas, if you're reading...)


  2. Thank you for the review! I was about to buy this book, but based on your review, I am wondering whether the book aims a bit too high for an evening-and-weekend-warrior like me. Probably it is better to go for what one can realistically achieve.

    Best, Thomas

    1. One of my lovely readers has offered to lend me a copy of Swanson and Himes, so if this comes to pass I will try to have some notes up on that book in a few weeks or so.

  3. Glad to hear your report, I was looking forward to it.

    I too think that Colberg has a little bit of a fetishization for photobooks. I remember him complaining in a blog post about photographers who don't care about design in their books, and the ones who also belittle the work of designers. And the whole time he didn't explain why, exactly, having a professionally designed book is so important to the point of being almost essential.

    He wrote a post about "photobooks as objects" and it was kinda of chilling how little the photographs themselves appear to matter in that situation; it appears that at times having an elaborately designed coffee table book full of shitty photos trumps having a simple yet effective book of amazing photographs. Quite bizarre, coming from a guy like Colberg who most of the time writes sensible stuff.

    1. Photobooks are literally his job. Colberg teaches photobooks in a photobook-centric MFA program. So, it's understandable.

      Why he's rapidly anti-Steidl, but rapidly pro-boutique-publishers is another question entirely. I don't have a clue, to be honest.

      PoD is where it's at, it is manifestly the future, and it is almost always the right answer right now, in the present. While it is not perfect, the problems baked in to the system Colberg endorses are far too deeper, and I think far too deep to be overcome. It essentially cannot produce good work for reasons I will argue shortly.

  4. A very interesting and good essay by Jörg:


    1. Indeed! It is worth a read, as is much of his writing.

      My only quibble with that essay is that I think there are things that every photograph does, and then there are things that are contextual. I can't tell if Jörg: agrees with that, or if he thinks *everything* a photo does is context-dependent, or what.

      But no essay is perfect!

  5. Hi, Looking forward to reading your book on how to make books. Thanks.

    1. I have no intention of writing any such thing. I have written a great deal on various aspects of photo book design, which you can read right here on this blog. For the rest I recommend Swanson and Himes which is a plainly superior reference.