PHO703 Week 5: Three ‘Surfaces’

I have spent most of this week preparing for the Landings exhibition and looking at commissioning a book dummy. I have also read Jörg Colberg’s Understanding Photobooks (Colberg 2017) and Ralph Rugoff’s ‘You Talking to Me? On Curating Group Shows that Give You a Chance to Join the Group’ (Rugoff 2006).

Both were really helpful, especially Colberg’s book. After 25 years working in commercial book publishing, I know from my own experience that his key points are spot on. The points that emerged for me are

  • Who is going to buy this book? Without a convincing case for an audience interested enough and large enough to support the work by buying it, one does not have a project.
  • Collaboration is very important. A book is a team effort in many respects. It is a collaboration between reader and photographer. It is also a collaboration among the design and production team. A good curatorial eye from, say, an experienced graphic designer is very important.
  • A photobook must be conceived from the start as exactly that. It is not just a book that happens to contain photographs.
  • Clarity of concept and intention are absolutely vital. Without them, one cannot make a coherent case to the market about ‘Why buy this book?’ or ‘What subject section should the book go into?’ One cannot tell a strong story either, nor make a convincing marketing campaign (and marketing is key to sales).
  • Good curation and sequencing are absolutely vital, too, and are a much more nuanced affair than one might think. Good curation is an art in itself. It takes time and it also takes standing back from one’s own images enough to make informed judgements about what works and what does not work in a sequence. This means that part of the skill of a good photobook is skill at elimination at the editing stage. Most of what one does as a photographer will end up being left out. Yes, one has to learn to kill off one’s own babies sometimes.
  • The photobook represents an entire body of work in its own world. It is a place, a venue, somewhere to welcome in the visitor and let them explore. This means close attention to every detail of the world of the book – design, paper, size, binding, the cover, et al.
  • Compromises are inevitable. One is not aiming for the ideal book but for the very best book that can be made in the circumstances. Budgets (particularly) and deadlines are part of those circumstances.
  • Know your strengths and your weaknesses. If what you are really good at is making the images, then concentrate on that and find or hire the best advice you can to cover all the things you don’t know about. Otherwise, you are likely to end up with a rather amateur effort and in commercial publishing, at least, the amateurs almost always end up being dished by the professionals.

Ralph Rugoff’s essay was sparky and very enjoyable (Rugoff 2006). I am not sure how useful his points will be for my work at Falmouth, but I can already see how useful they will be for my work with Oxford Photographers (the collective to which I belong) since we usually hold a joint exhibition each year as part of the Oxfordshire Artweeks festival. I love his emphasis on an exhibition as an experience, something we are in, respond to, move through. It is not just about pictures on a wall, devoid of all context – although that is what people often think of when they think of ‘art gallery’ or ‘museum’.

I particularly like Rugoff’s distinction between the story that an exhibition purports to tell – often its theme – and the story it actually tells which emerges from interactions among the works displayed and which might be quite different from the ostensible theme. In his words, ‘The best group shows thus take on some of the qualities of installation art: rather than a chance to contemplate isolated objects, they involve us in an implied yet elusive narrative that we end up putting together ourselves as we move through the exhibition. … Finally, and most importantly, good theme shows take risks in how they address their audiences’ (Rugoff 2006: 48).

So, overall, a week rich in new ideas.


COLBERG, Jörg. 2017. Understanding Photobooks: The Form and Content of the Photographic Book. New York: Routledge.

RUGOFF, Ralph. 2006. ‘Chapter 4: You Talking To Me? On Curating Group Shows That Give You a Chance to Join the Group’. In Paula MARINCOLA (ed.). What Makes a Great Exhibition? Philadelphia: Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, 2006, 44–51.