All the Photobooks I’ll Never See

©Noah Kalina

It was around 100 degrees yesterday so the twenty minute walk from my place in Greenpoint to Kalina’s studio in Williamsburg left me completely drenched in sweat, and maybe on the verge of heat stroke. Luckily Kalina’s place comes fully air conditioned and stocked with nice cold water.

I was visiting to take a look at some work prints for one of his projects. While we were chatting, he started pulling a bunch of books from the shelf.

“Have you seen this one?,” he said.

“No. I can’t afford books at the moment,” I replied as I paged through Lorca diCorcia’s Thousand.

I looked through a few more books and a few zines before eventually blurting out, “Man, there’s just so much photography I’ve never seen because I can’t get ahold of the books.”

Reading that back, it sounds annoying, “the struggles of first world assholes in Brooklyn.” But it does illuminate something that consistently frustrates me about all the chatter about photobooks. It’s really amazing that so many people can produce them these days, but who the hell is actually looking at all of them? And is it possible to create a distribution system that enables more people to see more photobooks? I touched on this last year in a post, but I’m not sure I’m any closer to discovering an idea. It is an interesting problem and something I’m continuously thinking about.

There’s also a larger issue involved too. Without access to great photography books, I can you really evolve your thinking about photography? The internet is marvelous. I love you internet! I love looking at photographs on the internet and while we talk about the billions and zillions of photographs available online, there’s a shitload treasure trove only available in books. And sometimes those books are only available to select few.

“You elitist jerks! Why must you be so wealthy and able to afford kick ass photobook collections? Envy, pure envy.”

It’s a challenging situation, and more than likely I think most of us will just need to be content building a small collection over a lifetime while looking at what we can online. Over the years, I’m sure more and more will be scanned and distributed in some form over the web.

And who knows, maybe someday me or someone much smarter than me will develop a financially viable service that will allow people to share their photobook collections with trusted network of enthusiasts.

Until then, if you live in NYC, have a kick ass photobook collection and don’t mind entertaining strangers from ze internet, please feel free to drop me a line.

P.S. Maybe a new LPV feature could be about these visits, kind of like reviewing people’s personal photobook collections (the surprises, the gems, the obscure). Might even make an interesting video feature.

  • Chuck

    “And is it possible to create a distribution system that enables more people to see more photobooks?”
    Well, they used to call it a library. These days libraries tend to be more like Internet access service centers and the circulation of printed material is a function that,  like public telephones, has been offloaded onto the individual consumer who now pays exorbitantly for a basic service that used to be somewhere between free and cheap.   Maybe you can talk Amazon into running a pay-library service for high-end publications. Return the book in good condition or have your card charged. Hmm. Maybe they’re already doing this unofficially.

  • Anonymous

    That’s a really interesting article. Thanks. 

  • Lucy Carolan

    There’s a thing called Bookhopper (, which “lets users swap books through the post. Swaps are limited by national boundaries (to keep postal costs down) and you must offer at least 10 books before you can request one. This way there is always a fluid stock of books in the system.” It’s all literature though, no photography/art books. I picked this up from an article in the Guardian the other day -
    It’s interesting that everyone seems pretty much to be considering how to adapt to an existing structure/situation, rather than imagining how these things, or aspects of them, could be adapted or might change in future to better suit us as both authors and audience.

  • Clement Val

    The article and some reactions feel strange to me. First, I don’t see how viewing pictures on the internet or on an iPad screen could be any alternative to seeing actual books and exhibits. The resolution and format accessible on paper, plus all the different printing processes invented over the years just can’t be mimicked by merely scanning. Not to say that great work, designed from the beginning for the internet, can’t be done. It just frustrate me when people will look at my own pictures on their screen, and think they have seen the real deal.
    Then, nobody can afford all photobooks out there, even those he really likes, and I’m no exception. However, I still have the feeling that photobooks are everywhere to be seen, as long as you visit photo galleries and museums. They quite often have both an extensive bookshop and a library. Each time I see an exhibit, I can spend an hour there, just to have a look at the books. Sometime I discover new ones, but I also go back to those I like but don’t own… If I realize I’m regularly going back to a specific book, either to look at it or to show it to an accompanying  friend, then I’ll buy it.What I find really annoying, is that with so many photobooks being printed now, it’s getting harder everyday to be thrilled and surprised by a truly original work. Each year, at Rencontres d’Arles festival, in south of France, hundreds and hundreds of photobooks, published during the previous year, participate to a photobook prize. All of them are shown to the public, nailed on some tables in a big warehouse. You could spend days here, but honestly, I don’t find the experience enjoyable at all. At some point, you’re just brainwashed, and they all look more or less the same.So I don’t know… I’m not saying there are too many photobooks or that they are actually too accessible. I just wish my brain was actually able to cope with the flow. 

  • James Luckett

    did i say five to ten thousand books a week? wrong calculation. google is scanning that many books a DAY. 25 to 35 thousand a week. a million+ books a year. and they are scanning everything. to scan the entire collection of the university of michigan is a 10 year project. all parties are so invested in this process, inevitably there is bound to be some resolution to the copyright issues. in the future most everything will likely be available online — what will that access look like? that’s what is still up in the air.

    unfortunately at this point, “everything” does not mean print on demand publications. or self-published books. or really anything that lies outside the purview of the mainstream publishing world.

  • Blake

    I guess I misunderstood the Google thing. Does that mean they’ll be scanning photobooks for the online archive?

    More thoughts here:

  • James Luckett

    my source at the university of michigan library says google continues to scan the five to ten thousand volumes a week its been scanning for years and years. books are still leaving the stacks, loaded onto rental moving trucks to the secret google facility, where they are scanned, and then later returned to the shelves. i used to help out on this project when they needed an extra hand with the shifting of materials. quite a task. i think what google has stopped archiving is newspapers.

  • James Luckett

    and another nod to the indie Photobook LIbrary.

    Larissa Leclair has recognized the historical significance of this sea change in photo book publishing and is actively building an archive for future research. which is a lot. in the mean time she’s finding ways to share the collection with as many people as possible.

    it’s literally, in the light of bryan’s post, an invaluable project.

  • James Luckett

    this just makes me think when i was young, starting out, consuming everything “photography” — this was like 1990. pre-internet, pre-digital. the number of photobooks printed was a great deal smaller than today, but too the distribution was different as well. if you lived in or near a city, you could find that bookstore that had all the latest books and you could just spend all day there. and when finished there, you could go to the big city library or even better the big state university library, and they’d have a lot of most everything. which, again, was less than now, BUT you could see it — it was accessible without the need to front all the money and build your own private collection. and you know what else there was? little independent used book stores. sure they are still around — but there isn’t the same trading in used photobooks now as then.

    i’m not trying to be nostalgic or suggest it was a golden age or something. back then there’d be no way i’d ever design and publish my own book and have it available to anyone with access to the internet, to have my own book competing for dollars like the thousands we’re wonderfully inundated with. there is so much more possibility today than twenty years ago. just that with that comes new problems, new economies, and as bryan is talking about new distribution problems, access problems.

  • Blake

    IPL is great but it’s not very accessible. It can only be in one place at one time. The logical solution would be for someone to post all the classic books somewhere online but this runs into copyright issues, and in fact Google just abandoned their book scanning project, so probably not much future there. Last resort is live near a good library or bookstore. I think living in NYC you must have plenty nearby. Here in the sticks I rely on a mix of bookstores (Powell’s and Ampersand) and the U of O library which has a solid collection of out of print stuff. And of course what I can find online, but it’s not the same as real books.

  • Scott Brauer

    My thoughts exactly.  I was at the photobook discussion at the Flash Forward festival in Boston, and my question was “Why are we making all these photo books.”  On the one hand, it’s great to make photography accessible in another form, but if it’s just another art object that gets bought up and collected, rather than disseminated and viewed, we might be missing the point.  With my photography, communication is most important, so I might have different goals than many photobook makers.  But, if the books are 100-copy runs owned by the elite photo community (or whomever) we might as well be writing poetry to be filed away in diaries.  

    I am particularly interested in what the iPad means for photobooks.  Magnum photographers have a few out, and there’s the World Press 2011 annual, too.  These are much more affordable (well, if you can get past the barrier of owning an iPad).  It’s different from a photobook, but it’s also different from viewing work on a website.  But they’re much cheaper than photobooks, and copies aren’t limited, which feels to me like they could reach a much a larger audience. 

    And, if you can get into the New Yorker offices, they’ve got one of the best photobook collections I’ve seen.  So many old and new books….I wish I could just spend a week in that room…

  • Larissa Leclair

    You had 400+ such titles in NY during the NYPH at the Indie Photobook Library pop-up exhibition. Come down and visit the iPL in DC. You can stay for a few days. “The indie published stuff that you might not be able to find through traditional venues” is directly fulfilled by and one of the missions of the Indie Photobook Library.

  • Bryan Formhals

    Thanks guys. Yeah, I certainly need to take advantage of the resources at my finger tips in the NYC. I guess my hasty rant was aimed more at the indie published stuff that you might not be able to find through traditional venues. 

  • Clay Lipsky

    check out the it tours around the country and is an ever growing resource/database

  • Anonymous

    What about public libraries? I have no idea what their art sections, and photography sections might look like. obviously in NY you could start with the Main Public Library by Bryant Park, but I also wonder what the catalogue is like in the smaller neighbourhood libraries. Secondly, why not start a photo-collective specifically for the lending of books. To help guard against theft one option would be that you could only borrow one if you swapped one in return. My own photography and art library is tiny also and these were the first two things that came to my ind prompted by this post.

  • Wesleybrownphoto

    Befreind a photo gallery.  They usually have good collections.  Also, check with MOMA and the Met to see if you can make an appointment at their research libraries to view.  Their bookstores will have a lo you could look through also.