Some of you may know that last year, Singular Beauty, was the 1st runner-up in the themed book category of Blurb’s inaugural “Photography Book Now” contest. Last year’s contest had over 2000 entries and needless to say I was incredibly honored to have been chosen. The great thing about the Blurb contest is that they really make it into an event, for instance last year I flew out to San Francisco for the awards, and there was an entire day of excellent seminars about photo books followed by a formal award ceremony. And while yes, it was lovely to win, more importantly just by entering the contest, I was able to solidify what a photo book of my work should be that I am currently submitting to publishers.
One other great thing to come out of the award for me, was getting to meet Darius Himes, head judge of the contest, publisher of Radius Books, writer, photographer, and truly one of the nicest and smartest people in photography. So as this year’s contest is about to really kick off, (DEADLINE FOR ENTRY IS JULY 16TH) I thought it would be an ideal moment to interview Darius about the contest and about the state of the photo book in general.
1. First off Darius, let me just say your current blog post about the Photography Book Now contest is incredibly informative and very useful for anyone interested in making a photo book. I am particularly struck by your comments here:
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.
Can you expand a bit on this? As you know there has been an explosion of internet magazines and photo sites/blogs, and the word most often used to differentiate them from the mainstream photo world is “democratic,” in that they are free and available to anyone with internet access. And truthfully, most sites have archives, so the images can be seen as long as the website stays up. So how to you see the photo book as more democratic than the internet?
DH: That’s a great question. Potentially, books are more accessible precisely because they don’t require any “interface”—a computer + electricity + Internet connection—to access their contents. I’m talking about books in general here, not just photobooks. I don’t have current figures at my fingertips, but I would assume that many hundreds of millions, if not billions of people, have no computer + electricity + Internet connections. But I’m not trying to set books against the Internet in this equation.
I think that when the word “democratic” is used in this context, we’re talking about the fact that there is direct access, by people like you and me and other image makers, to a means of expression that previously had fierce “goal-keepers” in the form of magazine and book editors. You couldn’t really be “published” in either of those formats without having the endorsement of an editor (and if you just paid for it yourself, you suffered the dreaded “vanity press” stigma).
So the Internet and this new print-on-demand technology does represent a “handing over” of the power to the people. That of course begs the question of the role of a good editor and the place of an endorsement by a publisher….
2. I ask this because obviously the print world, like film, is in danger of becoming obsolete. I think print books, however have a rosier future, but this is an important distinction to make, the experience of viewing images online versus in print. What do you think is the relevance of print books as a means of communication in the age of the internet?
DH: Another great question. First, the Internet is an amazing thing. Undeniably. Unbelievable access to information that the people of previous centuries would never have dreamed of. But somewhere deep in my gut sits the sense that because we are physical creatures, we still appreciate a physical object. The difference between printed text and printed images is that they generally serve different masters. Sometimes we just need information, and that information is conveyed through words or images. The Internet is great for that. Sometimes though the images (less so with words) are not about information as they are about the experience of viewing, and that involves a physical object. Here, the Internet falls short. Photography, because it is used for so many different intents, is very complicated in this regards. Sculptors don’t think about these issues. They make an object and then if you want to see that object, you have a limited number of options: either come to where the object is and gaze on it, or view it through a photographic representation (whether in a book, online, or in a magazine). End of story. It’s not so clear with photography.
3. Following up on that, you have a pretty strong web presence, do you think the web and print can actually co-exist and be mutually beneficial, or is print really being killed by the web as some might argue?
DH: The Internet is obviously a relatively new place for people to get news about their world and their surroundings. And it is undeniable that it is having an impact on the world of printed periodicals. But I think it is very dangerous for anyone in this day and age to become too “attached” to a commercial product. The commercial world is driven by market forces that are out of the control of any of us. Here’s another way of thinking about it: the daguerreotype was killed by the wet-plate collodion negative was killed by the dry-plate negative was killed by the tintype was killed by albumen prints was killed by nitrate film was killed by gelatin-silver film & paper was killed by Iris prints was killed by Epson was killed by …. You get the idea. I wrote an essay about this (which you can find here) as it relates to photographic materials and the really groovy work of Alison Rossiter.
I think that “killed” is the wrong word, because you can still make a daguerreotype if you really want, so it’s not dead. It’s just not a viable mass-market product. Magazines and newspapers are only a vehicle, in the end. They are a means (an “organ” in the old parlance). If they are the means, then what’s the “end”? The end is good, quality writing and journalism (+ news of the world, one’s industry, whatever). The periodical and book publishing industries are being reconfigured before our eyes and we get to play a role, if we think of it that way. This is the task of our generation! (Even though I may be too old, at this point. Perhaps it’s for the 20 yr olds to sort out).
4. If the web is a threat to publishing, what is the effect of on-demand publishing? Do you think there is a way for both business models to survive?
DH: l don’t think the web is a “threat” to “publishing”, though defining what we mean by “publishing” is required. Yes, things are changing because of the Internet (obviously), but that’s the nature of technology and the nature of the 20th/21st centuries. We’re actually seeing lots of small publishers—one- or two-person operations—flourishing, while we’re listening to large houses talk about the “death” of publishing as they know it.) So, from my perspective, I think that print-on-demand technology is another tool in the toolbox of an artist/writer.
5. One thing I have been thinking about lately now that I am taking my Photography Book Now winning book project to publishers, is the difference between a self-published book and a book done with a publisher. It seems like one of the benefits (or challenges) of working with a publisher is that the process is more of a collaboration. You get to work with an editor, a designer, and writers. When you make a self published book you tend to be the only voice present. Do you think collaboration is integral to making a successful photo book?
DH: Totally. Collaboration is essential, and being aware of all of the points along the way where collaboration *can* happen is important. Great collaboration can happen in conceiving the project and the aim of the book, in editing the photographs, in design, in the production and materials decisions that are made, in marketing the book, etc. In other words, there are lots of ways that collaboration can happen. Photographers that try to do all of those things singlehandedly often discover they’re not very good at one or some of those elements. Photographers often worry that they’ll “lose control”. But often they don’t have a clear idea of what type of book they want—from concept to audience to design—and they end up stifling the success of their book by trying to maintain what they think of as “control.” There’s nothing to stop a photographer from bringing all of those people into the mix, as freelancers, for their print-on-demand book, by the way.
6. As a follow up to the last question, in order to get your work published you obviously need to have a mock-up of some kind. Do you think contests like Photography Book Now, are a good way to test out your book and get the ball rolling? And of course if you win, $25,000 can help out with a lot of things.
DH: Exactly. For all those photographers that say they want a book of their photographs… well, bring it. Show us your best book.
7. One thing you mentioned last year in San Francisco at the awards event, was that you and the judges did not pick the winners based purely on photo quality. I think this is a very important caveat for artists to note. Can you talk a little about how a photo book is more than just a collection of good pictures? What about monographs, can they be structured more like a collection of prints that are bound or do they also need to be something more?
DH: Right. This is not a “photography” contest. This is a photography-book contest. The photography and the book elements carry equal weight. The judges will be looking at things like cover design, the subject matter of the book, the page layouts, the editing and sequencing, the emotional/intellectual/creative impact of the overall book, along with the strength of the photography itself. And the categories, as you can see from my own blog posting, are aimed at getting you thinking about books the way publishers think about books.
8. Getting specifically to the contest, you guys have had an amazing roster of judges both years, how did you get such a distinguished group to participate.
DH: I really credit the rising importance of art and photobooks for the reason that our judges want to be involved. Several of the judges have told me that they want to see what photographers are doing with this new creative medium.
9. The contest last year had a lot of great satellite events, will this year’s contests have more of the same?
DH: Yes, definitely. Keep checking here.
10. You must put an enormous amount of time and energy into this. What would you say you have learned, discovered, enjoyed, or been challenged by in this process? I ask this because I recently judged my first photo grant, the WIPNYC-Lightside Project Grant, and while I found it incredibly difficult to choose a winner, it was so gratifying to be able to give money to help another artist. It was quite a learning experience for me.
DH: Honestly, I just love the creative community. If you’re trying to work in the arts, you’re doing it because you love it. I love to be able to help and encourage photographers trying to pursue what they love. Plus, I love books + photography, so I wanna know what’s happening out there!
11. If you could give people applying one piece of advice for the contest, what would it be?
DH: Read my blog entry about the categories! :)
12. Lastly, you are out there is the photo world trenches. What right now is really exciting or interesting to you? What photo books are you looking at these days?
DH: Oh geez. Too many good books/publishers/photographers out there to list individually. I’m always thrilled to receive new Fraenkel Gallery announcements in the mail, and I’m pretty geeked out over the Google maps & timeline capabilities. I’m excited for the O’Sullivan show next Spring at the Smithsonian, and I’m kind of obsessed with John Gossage’s books right now. I’m also reading Titus Burckhardt essays on Islamic Art and “the Void” as well as looking at the work of Kandinsky, Augustus Vincent Tack, Mark Tobey, and Hiroshi Sugimoto in relation to each other and the presence of “the spiritual” in their work. And I’m trying to get some sun and desert hikes in amidst this very wet Santa Fe summer.
Darius Himes is a founding member of Radius Books, a non-profit, Santa Fe-based organization created in 2007 that publishes books on the visual arts, where he works as an acquiring editor. Prior to that he was the founding editor of photo-eye Booklist, a quarterly magazine devoted to photography books, from 2002-2007. He is also a lecturer, consultant, educator and writer, having contributed to Aperture, Blind Spot, Bookforum, BOMB, PDN, and American Photo. He earned his BFA in Photography from Arizona State University and a Master of Arts in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College and actively pursues his own photographic image-making. In 2008, he was named by PDN as one of fifteen of the most influential people in photo book publishing.
“Darius Himes, lost in the Midwest, thinking that Purple Rain was just about the coolest movie ever.”