In the olden days, when photo books were mostly just show catalogs, when Robert Frank roamed America, and so on, photo books were uncomplicated things. You balance two things: 1. connecting each photo with the next one, graphically and/or thematically, and 2. maintaining a fairly steady flow of overall meaning. Walker Evans had an idea of America which came in two parts, and the his book American Photographs reveals that idea to us. One assumes that, first, the show did, and then the show catalog, which we know as the book.
Ditto Robert Frank, for a somewhat different vision of America, and without a show.
Naturally, this evolves, along multiple paths of evolution. On some paths of evolution, interconnections between photos get more complex, we're not just going from one to the next, citations go back and forth across the whole book. On some paths, meaning becomes looser, more amorphous, more open to interpretation.
In recent years we see people eschewing everything we know about photography. The cliche is desperately avoided, MFA students back away from the old cliches into their own, new, cliches. The meaning inherent in a single photo becomes more and more tenuous as the referents we're used to are discarded. As often as not the superficial interconnections between photos grow in to a dense thicket of graphical and subject references, but this thicket does little to reveal meaning. A, B, and C are tied together by X, suggesting that X is important, but we're no further forward on why X matters.
I have already drawn an analogy with abstract painting, which I continue to think is apropos.
I have no particular objection in theory to these kinds of experiments. Change is good, right? We shouldn't just go ahead and make the same things over and over.
Anyways, the natural result of this kind of experimentation is that artists find themselves riding a razor edge. They're pushing away from what was, where meaning was clear, where we have a vocabulary of tropes to lean on, where we know what's going on. They're striving for something new, something apart from that cozy and understandable world.
Sometimes they push too far, and the result is gibberish. Sometimes they don't push far enough and the result is sort of trite. That narrow groove where the work is meaningful but interesting, new, challenging, is not a groove that's easy to hit.
The failure we're seeing today (and, who knows, maybe in every era we saw the same) is that the critical apparatus surrounding the activities of art-making are not up to the task of telling the artist whether they hit the groove or not. The critical response to an artist's work seems to be almost completely independent of the work itself.
Criticism has abandoned the art almost completely, to focus on the artist. Colberg appropriates photos of women, photos he did not take, of women he does not know. This is ok not because of any properties of the work, but because we know Colberg is a good guy. He dutifully wrings his hands in the proper ways, on the proper schedule, so we know that his work is good. Prince, doing the same work, but resolutely failing to signal his politics suitably, is a bad guy and therefore his work is bad. Obviously it's not just Colberg/Prince, this approach to criticism is near-universal, from amateur photography forums to exalted European Biennales.
There is even, kind of, a theoretical basis for this. You hand-wave vaguely at "context," remark that you cannot meaningfully examine a piece of art in isolation, and hope nobody notices that you've palmed the ball.
But palm it you did. It doesn't matter which cup the mark chooses, the ball won't be there.