This week we caught up with Darius Himes, the lead judge of Photography.Book.Now, for an in-depth look at photo book publishing. In 2008, Darius was named by PDN as one of fifteen of the most influential people in photo book publishing – we think you’ll like what he has to say.
How did you get started in photo book publishing?
I have a BFA in Photography from ASU in Tempe. Years later, during grad school at St. John’s College, here in Santa Fe, I was working part-time for photo-eye Books, the country’s best photography bookstore. After graduation, I was offered a full-time job and it was within a couple years that I pitched the idea of a quarterly magazine devoted to photography books. I spear-headed the development and implementation of that project, and concentrated on that for the next 6+ years. Working as Editor of the photo-eye Booklist served two great passions of mine: photography and books. It was at the tail-end of my time at photo-eye that Radius Books, as an idea, was conceived by myself and 3 other friends from the Santa Fe area who share a similar love of the visual arts and books. David Chickey, who acts as our publisher, and myself both serve as acquiring editors for Radius Books. So my “start” in photobook publishing really came from a deep-seated love of these two things..
How do you see photo books as a continuation of the commercial photographic process? And what makes a commercial book stand out from the crowd?
A book, in general, is a very democratic and accessible vehicle to disseminate ideas, in the form of either text or images—two primary advantages are that books require no electricity and can be returned to again and again, unlike an exhibition, for instance, or the Internet.
The three categories of this years’ contest are designed to let photographers approach the idea of a “photography book” from 3 different angles. The fine-art category is extremely broad and the most subjective, in that photographers and artists using photography can do whatever they want to produce their book. Often, these books are less subject-driven than they are name-driven. They’re books made by practicing artists and have little regard for communicating a specific narrative to a large audience.
Editorial photography, which is the angle that the second category takes, is a much different animal than “fine art” photography and book making. Let me state two things at the outset, though. I’m not really interested in or trying to stoke the debate surrounding questions about what constitutes “art” photography. First of all, anything done well is done artfully. If it serves the goals that one sets out with, then “art” has been employed. With more “utilitarian” tasks, art enhances the outcome—think of “the art of cooking” or “the art of furniture-making.” There are more abstract tasks, such as teaching or public speaking, which also benefit from thoughtful and inspired attention, and which employ “art”. So, in our case, I don’t want anyone to think that any of the three categories don’t somehow employ art or don’t constitute artfully done work. Editorial and commercial photographers often serve patrons other than themselves, however, and this is a big distinction. So, an editorial photographer sent on an assignment to cover X, may find themselves with a much larger, broader, more engaging body of work than will ever get published in a magazine. And they may want to turn that project into a book, and get it out there. Likewise, a commercial shooter ofter has photographic skills that translate into a broadly accessible visual language, and can be used for a “commercial” book project. Publishers often conceive of book projects in-house and then commission commercial photographers to produce work for the book.
Perhaps some concrete examples would help. This new book from Princeton Architectural Press—Bamboo Fences, by Isao Yoshikawa and Osamu Suzuki—is a great example of a commercial book project. It’s about a very specific subject—bamboo fence building in Japan, written about by Yoshikawa—and the photographs, by Suzuki, perfectly illustrate the work and convey the physical and abstract beauty of these objects. It’s primarily a photobook, but is supplemented by the text. Here’s another example: Bird, by Andrew Zuckerman. It has a specific subject matter, very artfully photographed by a commercial photographer. The audience for this book—and by that I mean ultimate sales for this book—is hoped (by Chronicle Books the publisher), I would guess to be upwards of 50,000+.
Here are two examples of books that have a pretty broad “trade” appeal, but which are not really “commercial” books the way I’ve talked about the books above. They are Jonah Frank’s Right, Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League (Chronicle Books), and Articles of Faith by Dave Jordano (Center for American Places). In my mind, both of these books probably stemmed from assignments, and once embarked upon, held a fascination for the photographers, blossoming eventually into the book length projects we see in the stores. Both have more of a storytelling quality to them then either Bamboo Fences or Bird. In that sense, that come out of a “documentary” tradition, but are presented in as appealing a way to as broad an audience as possible.
If you could only use one camera, what would it be?
My beloved Hasselblad 503CX. It’s a sexy, metal workhorse of a camera, and feels good in the hands. And I’d have one back filled with Fuji NPZ 800 color film and another with Ilford Delta 400 b&w film. I know. It’s kinda old school. But then, I’m not a commercial shooter!
If you could bestow one piece of bookmaking advice for photographers, what would it be? And for those trying to showcase their commercial and editorial work, what would it be?
In both cases, I would emphasize that you need to think like a publisher! Visit websites of publishers (like this one and this other one) and read the “catalog copy” that they produce about their books. It’ll give you great insight into what type of audience they are aiming for. For more reading on the current explosion in the art & photobook market, pick up The Photobook: A History, Volumes 1 & 2 by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger (Phaidon). I also contributed an essay about photography books to the online project WordsWithoutPictures.org run by Charlotte Cotton at LACMA.
And lastly, remember these words of the photographer John Gossage about what makes a great photobook:
Firstly, it should contain great work. Secondly, it should make that work function as a concise world within the book itself. Thirdly, it should have a design that complements what is being dealt with. And finally, it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest. — The Photobook: A History, Volume 1 (Phaidon, 2004)