I don’t remember ever having visited an exhibition of book design without experiencing what curators call the “Snow White effect”—an aching neck that comes from bending over one too many glass vitrines. Through video, touchscreen, reproductions, sculptures, and posters, Barcelona’s unprecedented Photobook Phenomenon at CCCB (the Center of Contemporary Culture in Barcelona) not only combats the bad posture associated with most exhibitions of book arts, but seeks to establish a new audience for and better engagement with editorial design.

The exhibition is of special note to the design community for a couple of reasons: Firstly, it’s an exhibition of books intended for a mainstream audience, perhaps taking precedent in MoMA’s 1994 A Century of Artists Books in terms of outreach and scale. Design is notoriously complicated to exhibit, and notoriously tricky to make exciting for a community beyond its own. Photobook Phenomenon indicates—in its scale and location—that there’s been a shift in cultural mentality and a wider interest in book arts and editorial design more generally. Chief curator Moritz Neumüller6 sees the current fascination with photobooks as part of that same trend as the independent magazine and zine revival; an inevitable response to increasing digitization.

Photobook Phenomenon is also interesting for the design community because it sets out to define book publishing as a practice with many authors beyond the name on the masthead. It explores how a photobook or artbook is never the work of a single person by abstractly highlighting the editors, writers, essayists, designers, typographers, publishers, curators, and more behind individual books.

This theme of multiple authors is why Neumüller invited seven curators to devise the various “chapters” of the show. There’s a section called The Collector’s Vision, another on books for protest and propaganda, a chapter on the history of the Japanese photobook, another on William Klein’s New York, a look at contemporary practices, and chapters on both the library and failures. Guest curators include Gerry Badger, Horacio Fernández, Ryuichi Kaneko, Erik Kessels, Martin Parr, Markus Schaden, Frederic Lezmi, and Irene de Mendoza.

Photobook Phenomenon begins with one of Martin Parr’s most beloved possessions, the playful The Book of Bread (1903)1. The instructional manual depicts loaves both good and bad in hazy black and white: inside the graying pages, spongy brioches with elegant domes puff up proudly, while depleted ciabattas sit in yeasty puddles like lazy, sodden seals.

What its central placement encourages is the questioning of whether or not The Book of Bread is a photobook at all: as a publication pre-dating offset lithography, each image was stuck on to the blank section of a page with glue. The term “photobook”, or rather, “fotobuch” didn’t emerge until the 1920s in Weimar Germany, and it’s a phrase that Neumüller observes has been used for a variety of different kinds of publications—from cookbook to tech manual to glossy coffee table tome. “I want the audience to think about whether a cookbook is a photobook because it has photographs in it, or whether there is something else that differentiates and defines the format,” says the curator.

Hung on the wall across from the enigmatic The Book of Bread is a display of August Sander’s classic Antlitz der Zeit (1929)5. With a reprint encased in a glass vitrine nearby, for the rest of the display each page of the book has been photographed and framed. On a closer look, the visitor will notice small numbers dotted on the right and left hand corners of the images, the only clue that these were originally part of a bound whole.

“We displayed the book in this way to show that a photograph and a glossy print often have the same value. The quality of the printed image on the page in the 1920s and the quality of a vintage print that’s been lab washed and mounted is nearly the same,” says Neumüller.

We wanted to make it clear that when we talk about photobooks we’re not talking about a secondary form of looking at images. We’re talking about a primary form.

Martin Parr’s 56 selections, dating between 1903 and 2015, are what Neumüller describes as the “spine” of the show: the rest of the curators are authors of the various chapters. These chapters often overlap, and it was welcomed if two curators chose to highlight the same book as it allowed for an index to grow and multiply in references, encouraging the audience to be aware of the multiple kinds of readings that one object can espouse.

“Both Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, for his selection of propaganda and protest, choose to display KZ – Bildbericht aus fünf Konzentrationslagern (Photo Report from Five Concentration Camps),” says Neumüller. The leaflet of photographs from German concentration camps during WWII was produced by the U.S. after the war: thousands of the booklets were thrown out of airplanes across Germany so that no one could deny they hadn’t seen what was happening in the camps. “As part of Badger’s selection, you see how the photobook was propaganda, it was used as a weapon by the Americans to weaken the Germans,” says Neumüller. “As part of Parr’s selection, you consider it amongst the rest of the objects that he’s chosen, and think of the KZ photobook more in the context of social documentation.”

Other books included in the exhibition are there to highlight artistic craft and material form. In the contemporary chapter, a book by Thomas Sauvin called 线 (Xian)2 is placed in a vitrine next to a video displaying how to open and interact with the publication. Made from folds inspired by a traditional Chinese box used to keep needles and threads, Sauvin worked with manufacturers in China to produce the beguiling book. After two days of hand folding, the book needs weight on top of it so that it stays in its meticulous webbed form. Nearby, a leporello “anti-family album” Shvilishvili3  by Jana Romanova is opened out on a table so that visitors can peek into either side of the flaps, demonstrating yet another kind of formal construction.

The final chapter of the show is an installation by Erik Kessels, an interpretation of his book of photographic errors, Failed It!, released last year. For the installation4 the curatorial team uncovered photographs from the National Archive of Photography in Barcelona, picking out pieces that were eaten up by funghi or blotted out frantically with ink, hanging them with sculptural precision in the exhibition’s final chamber. Harkening back to Parr’s precious The Book of Bread, the installation highlights the materialism of the photographic medium; how it’s a form of alchemy, a recipe, with a careful methodology behind it that too much salt or light can easily spoil.

“The archive keeps these ‘failures’, using tax money to preserve what photographers wanted to throw away,” says Neumüller. “Kessels is examining what we choose to keep and what we discard. In the future, when we look at our own photographic practice, we’ll see that no one has photos from the late ’90s and early 2000s because that was the moment albums turned digital.

In 100 years, we’ll be called the generation of no images, although we currently think that we’re saturated in them. Photo albums in the past were of course important because they preserved.

While Neumüller makes this distinction, the show overall resists polarizing digital and print, which is a common trap that mainstream discussions of the “print revival” fall prey to, more often than not indicative of an industry caught up in nostalgia and denial. Photobook Phenomenon instead invites the audience to interact with its displays through digital technology, and many of its videos are shot to deliberately echo the internet’s fondness for video reviews; disembodied hands leafing through pages framed from above by the camera. These interactive platforms and touch screens work in tandem with two “reading rooms” filled with bean bags and 100 additional versions of the books on display in cases. Neumüller and his team spent endless hours scouring AbeBooks and eBay to find them:

“The museum and security were convinced that they would be destroyed and stolen immediately,” says Neumüller. “Yet I knew that if the visitor sees that we’ve treated the books with respect in the exhibition, by not nailing them to wood for example, then they would treat the books with respect themselves.

“After two months and thousands of people walking through the rooms, nothing has happened—no ripped pages, no stolen books. There’s been wear and tear of course, but that’s the price we knew we’d pay. People appreciate the gesture of letting them touch the material.”

Photobook Phenomenon doesn’t glorify print or imply that it’s of higher moral standing than the web, but rather it reveals the curatorial value of the photobook as distinct but just as worthy of discussion as exhibition design. Through its distinct curatorial approach, it serves to highlight the medium’s vital role in shaping the ways that we read, interpret, distribute, and display photography. 

  1. The Book of Bread, photo courtesy of Photobook Phenomenon, CCCB, 2017.
  2. Photobook Phenomenon at CCCB, Installation view, 2017.
  3. Antlitz der Zeit: 60 Fotos Deutscher Menschen [Face of Our Time], August Sander, 1929.
  4. Photobook Phenomenon, Installation view, 2017. photo courtesy of CCCB.