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Book Review: The Photobook: A History Vol. III


Book Review The Photobook: A History Vol. III By Martin Parr and Gerry Badger Reviewed by Melanie McWhorter It is difficult to create a complete survey of any medium. Even a tome on the history of the photobook that covers work as early as Anna Atkin’s handmade publication of cyanotypes of British algae from 1843 cannot fully document the entire photobook history. Yet, Gerry Badger and Martin Parr attempt to cover what they consider some of the most important books since the inception of photography in The Photobook: A History.

The Photobook: A History Volume III
By Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. Phaidon, 2014.
The Photobook: A History Volume III
Reviewed by Melanie McWhorter

The Photobook: A History Volume III
By Martin Parr and Gerry Badger
Phaidon, London, 2014. 320 pp., 900 color illustrations, 11½x9¾". 


It is difficult to create a complete survey of any medium. Even a tome on the history of the photobook that covers work as early as Anna Atkin’s handmade publication of cyanotypes of British algae from 1843 cannot fully document the entire photobook history. Yet, Gerry Badger and Martin Parr attempt to cover what they consider some of the most important books since the inception of photography in The Photobook: A History.

I must admit that I am among the readers who are not well aware of many of the publications in this book; many of them were a discovery. As with the previous books on books, this volume is illustrated with the cover of each featured publication and one or more page spreads, and a bit of text long enough to digest in a brief sitting, but enough to illuminate the importance of each publication. While presenting me with a wealth of previously undiscovered books, they focus on a few of my recent favorites with beautifully composed words of accompaniment. Donald Weber’s Interrogations they describe as a book that “certainly confirms the fact that vestiges of the old totalitarian Soviet power systems remain;” they explain how the pictures in Susan Lipper’s Grapevine “amply fulfill photography’s material mission in a myriad of telling physical details” and how Viviane Sassen’s Flamboya “displays an awareness of the chequered history of Europeans representing Africans, but deals with it, as it were, by simply ignoring it.” Parr and Badger's text describing the book and placing it in its historical context is what makes this an invaluable resource.

The Photobook: A History Volume III. By Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. Phaidon, 2014.
The Photobook: A History Volume IIIBy Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. Phaidon, 2014.

Surveys and histories are often subjective depending on the inclinations of the contributors and the authors do not deny the existence of bias. Following The Photobook: A History Volume I and II in 2002 and 2006, respectively, Parr and Badger “state the subjective nature of [their] photobook history.” They base their listings on books that they happened to notice, but also ones that they feel are neglected, overlooked or simply slipped past the main channels for photobook consumption. Volume III is a continuation of the previous two. After Volume II the authors, who did not originally conceived of a trilogy of publications, responded to reader requests and their own desire to include books that did not make it into the first two volumes for organizational reasons and books discovered since the previous publications.

The Photobook: A History Volume IIIBy Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. Phaidon, 2014.
The Photobook: A History Volume IIIBy Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. Phaidon, 2014.

For the new book, Parr and Badger cover books from the 20th and 21st century focusing on books published since World War II. Influenced by the section Modern Life that closes Volume II, they use this new publication to examine in more depth “how contemporary photographers worldwide were dealing with modern life in their photobooks” with the themes of “propaganda, protest, desire, society, place, conflict, identity, memory and the medium itself.” Scholarship on a photographic project that is often included in a monograph as an accompanying essay is often neglected for the sake of the pictures. Great work is, as Parr and Badger reiterate from the words of the wise sage and photographer John Gossage, the foremost quality of a successful photography book. The images could stand alone, but we continue to dialogue about this medium so why not allow words their proper place. Some argue that the proliferation of imagery can continue as long as there are narratives, stories to go along with all the images. Parr and Badger provide us those words, although more fact than fiction. I encourage all who indulge in the photographic book to explore the presence or absence of words. Here, in The Photobook Volume III, Parr and Badger tell us why they love photobooks, why the medium is important and although this is the final volume of their history, they expect others will continue in photobook research and continue to explore. Parr and Badger hold open a “veritable Pandora’s box” of photobooks for us to jump right in.—MELANIE MCWHORTER

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MELANIE MCWHORTER has managed photo-eye's Book Division for 16 years and is a regular contributor to the photo-eye Blog. She has been interviewed about photography in numerous print and online publications including PDN, The Picture Show and LayFlat, has judged the prestigious photography competitions Women Photojournalists of Washington's Annual Exhibition and Fotografia: Fotofestival di Roma's Book Prize, has reviewed portfolios at Fotografia, Photolucida, Review Santa Fe and PhotoNOLA, and taught and lectured at numerous venues.

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