The Photobook is an Art Object.

We are pleased to introduce a post by Rahul Majumdar

‘A photobook is an autonomous art form, comparable with a piece of sculpture, a play or a film.  The photographs lose their own photographic character as things ‘in themselves’ and become parts, translated into printing ink, of a dramatic event called a book’  -Ralph Prins, in conversation with Cas Oorthuys in 1969, quoted in Mattie Boom and Rik Suermondt, Photography Between Covers: The Dutch Documentary Photobook After 1945, Fragment Uitgeverij, Amsterdam, 1989, p 12; in turn quoted in the Introduction to The Photobook: A History Volume I, Martin Parr and Gary Badger 

Photobooks that stand as unique art objects, commanding their own space, take the coming together of photography, writing, design, and sculptural skills. They bring a definite tactility to the viewing experience that moves far ahead of simply turning pages; making the viewing experience physical activity and true discovery. Here are six photo books that move beyond the sum total of the images they hold and occupy a space as little temples built to house those images in.

As soon as you consider the photobook as an art object, one has to tip their hat to the years-long experimentation that Dayanita Singh has worked at to shape out new book design formats. (The ICP library holds a book dummy of Sent A Letter.)

Museum Bhavan and Sent A Letter, both beautiful and incredibly well-received works of art have been written about extensively. We’d like to draw your attention to a smaller, less complex (in physical form) and beautiful piece of work, Blue Book (one of two color books Dayanita has made). At about 4.5” x 6”, Blue Book, is a collection of industrial landscapes; each photo is presented as a postcard that one could actually tear out of the binding to send out (currently available anywhere between $114 – $400, I’m not sure how many of us will actually send all of the postcards out, there is something deeply spiritual about this exercise though).

Lucy Helton’s Transmission, a photobook in the form of a scroll, and created by sending the images through a fax machine is another gem. Cased inside a thick cardboard cylinder, Transmission is nine panoramic images that are held together by Japanese clip binding. Lucy describes this body of work: “at once deeply personal and dystopia, my work imagines the future earth as a scarred, damaged, fragile landscape“. Her choice to thermal print on facsimile paper speaks directly to the ‘delicate’ and urgent subject of our environment, as the paper itself is meant to be ephemeral and will begin to disintegrate at an advanced pace.


The fantastically odd shaped In Other People’s Bathrooms, by Alexine Chanel was published by The Green Box Kunst Editionen to coincide with a 2008 exhibition by the same name. As the name suggests, this is “a photo adventure by Alexine Chanel”. Presented like a huge collection of paint swatches, under 15 “families” (sic) such as Hit, High, Patterns, Contact, Hide, Mess, Clean, Pet, Jet, Charge, Orbit, Flood, Monster, Cream and Naked, Alexine’s photobook asks the viewer to consider the bathroom as a “laboratory”; a space that allows for the playing out of multiple scenes.


The Pictoral Key to the Tarot is the genesis point of Bea Nettles Mountain Dream Tarot: A Deck of 78 Photographic Cards. A line drawing in that book inspired Bea to make a self-portrait as The Queen of Stars, and the next morning she woke up with an idea that occurred to her in her dream: to ask people to pose for her photographic tarot card deck. That is where the ‘dream’ in the title of her photo object comes from. It took Bea five years to photograph this project. The 1975 edition consisted of 78 cards of hand-colored photographic paper enclosed within two sheets of frosted mylar. The more recent 2001 edition (presented here) has been scanned from those original prints.

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On the Road, by Bert Teunissen is an excellent piece of work that emerges from the “in-between” spaces. Working on Domestic Landscapes put Bert on the road and behind the wheel often. From this point of view, staying in the car, perhaps one hand on the wheel and the other holding up an Olympus Pen camera, Bert created this travelogue printed on newsprint and presented as a daily-paper with a black ribbon tied around it.


There is a beautiful and mysterious box, Resonance by Minny Lee. It consists of a box, the inner base of which is a photo grid of the covers of literature focused on essays and metaphysics. The book holds three scrolls and a thin stitch bound booklet. The scrolls themselves have content and pages from other books, printed edge-to-edge giving them a continuous and seamless feel. The contents make for an investment of time to read and understand, but the form of this object belies this fact by how feather-light it is. In an interview ( Minny says, A book consists of a sequence of pages and therefore it is a time-based medium. I can intend to lead the viewer in a certain way by sequencing and designing the book but each viewer will experience and react to the book differently due to their diverse backgrounds and histories.” Resonance, as a photobook, allows for ample room for play, for discovery and experience.  

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