Past, Present and Future of the Photo Book | Markus Hartmann | Tuesday, 28.10.2014

On Digital and Analogue Books and a Possible Scenario for the Future

(I will take the liberty here to describe my wildest fantasies).
Lorenzo Rocha and Andreas Langen in their discussion on September 24 and 25 raised an interesting point that I want to reflect on.
What could be the new medium for digital images? Do digital images need analogue manufactured books as a presentation medium, or something different or new?For me, what is important about the analogue book is that it is the final expression of the artist in terms of how he wants his work to be seen and presented (as to size, order, look) and this can no longer be altered by the viewer (at worst, it can be viewed under poor light conditions!). All digital media I have seen so far can be altered or adjusted by the viewer – in terms of size, contrast, layout, etc. – depending on the technique used. The book, on the other hand, is made by the artist, the publisher, and the whole team involved with a final idea. Admittedly, the notion of the book has not changed since Gutenberg. It has been improved, but ultimately, it is printed paper that is bound together in order to be read from page one to the end – and until recently, nobody came up with a better idea. Whether or not the new digital possibilities will be better remains to be seen.
So, in this light, yes: the book becomes a piece of art when it is made by an artist with the intention to represent his vision of his artwork, or by a designer who ingeniously reflects with his design on the artwork.
Having made or accompanied many hundreds of books in the last 25 years of my publishing career, I also had to realize – and this is a strong recommendation to all photographers printing a book in the future – that the book is its own medium; it is not the original. When making a book, you must compromise in almost all aspects of your work. But you can use the analogue (offset) printing process (as long as it still exists) to create something different, new, and not necessarily worse. I have seen many books where the works or images looked better than they did on the wall in the gallery or museum, sometimes simply because they were smaller and more unified. I say this because I have spent too many days and nights fiddling on the final color correction with the artists or designers thinking that the end result will not look better, but different – and different to the original in any case. But because the artist decides himself (if only they could decide faster sometimes!), this tiresome process also makes the book special and an artwork in itself.
Daniel Grammlich, Jacqueline Hassink, Nadine Schmidt (of Hatje Cantz) and one of the printers (of Druckerei Grammlich, Pliezhausen) looking at a sheet (maybe a bit too long) and making corrections (maybe too many) on Hassink’s last book, printed in spring 2014.
To answer one of Lorenzo Rocha’s questions
I personally do not look at digital images differently than I look at analogue images. An image is an image. It is interesting or boring, meaningful or meaningless, beautiful or ugly. How it was generated is secondary. I do not think that digital images need a different presentational treatment than analogue images. However, both imaging techniques need a “treatment” in order to be published. What treatment this will be in the future will not be decided by the process used to generate the images, but by the best technique offered to edit and reproduce the images and design a publication. Publishing, in its original (Latin) sense, merely means to make something public, not necessarily as a book. Only in the last centuries has publishing come to mean something having to do with printing.
So far, e-books, PDFs, and other digital publishing possibilities leave too much to the imperfection of the digital technique that is used for viewing the publication. Every screen is slightly different in color, screen sizes vary, etc. Will future technologies improve and change the rules?
How about a look into this possible future
I am aware that companies like 3M, Sony, Samsung, and others have been developing “e-paper”. I assume that in the near future we will have a material that feels like paper and is as thin as 200g or 250g offset printing paper, with a slightly rough, tactile surface that can be used to look at photo books in the highest possible color resolution. You can fold this paper, (which comes in double A3 size or so) down to a size you prefer to use (again, here ends the artistic will) and then read the book from page one to the end on one double-page spread (by brushing over the surface to get to the next page spread). This paper can also be used as a big screen on the wall or as a computer/television screen. It will next to nothing and (the best feature comes in the end) it will consume next to no energy. Supposedly, it can even be used as a solar collector during the day to refill its batteries. I know this sounds like a crazy, futuristic idea, but aren’t we getting bored with the mere incremental improvements of mobile phones and iPads? Where is the next big thing, I ask Apple, Samsung, and all other e-manufacturers? This multi-use paper would be it – and it would certainly change the rules of publishing more than the clumsy A6 or A5 scaled e-book readers I see on trains all the time. It would make printing magazines and newspapers obsolete. The question is: would it make printing art books obsolete? One possible future strategy for digital publishing platforms would be to advertise the printed book and have interested customers view the book digitally before deciding whether or not they want to have a physical copy, bound as a real book and printed on real paper. Such books would most likely be released in small print runs (almost like printing on demand), mostly digitally (as offset will slowly be overtaken by digital printing technologies), but still be beautifully bound and packaged in smaller or bigger sizes.
Distribution would be direct-to-customer from the printer/publisher. Alternatively, the collector would make purchases at book fairs (or rather art fairs, as books are considered art), and other events where the makers and the collectors meet. There would be book galleries (no more ordinary bookstores) for delicate and special books. Textbooks, novels, etc. would no longer be sold on paper and also not be printed, but could only be read on the above described e-papers – or if desired printed using print on demand but in much better quality than today’s POD offerings.
And if you would have an exhibition and need to produce and sell 1,000 or 10,000 books or more relatively fast, this would present an opportunity for offset printing to survive and make such catalogues really special. Maybe a book printed in offset would become like a vintage print in the future.
Whether there will still be publishers at all remains an interesting question. I think that the future “homo digitalis” will appreciate experts making choices for him, maybe even more than in today’s world, and this, by all means, is the role of a good publisher: to sort the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly, the meaningful from the meaningless… and this talent or gift will needed in the digital future even more.
A big question for this slightly frightening but also exciting future is copyright protection. If no solution is found to protect copyright digitally, I do not see how artists, authors, and all creative people will survive or feel motivated to produce content in this future. The copyright issue could easily fill another full blog and unfortunately I cannot address it here, but again, this is an advantage of the old-fashioned analogue book publishing world – a printed book is much harder to copy than a digital book.
Another issue to take into account when considering the future is the world of 3D imaging and how the new light field image capturing technique will further change our perception of a photographic image.
But as I have already said, ultimately, an image is an image and as long as it is defined, final, and made by a human creative mind with an idea connected to the image, it needs to be published and looked at (if it is good enough), and this will not change with all the new technologies.
P.S. As we are still travelling in the real “analogue” world, we have now reached Madrid, coming from Seville, where we met with Alberto Rojas Maza from Cobertura Photo, whom I mentioned earlier. In Porto at the CPF (Centro Português de Fotografia), we discovered the exhibition “The Other European Travellers,” a great project by Cobertura focusing on an important chapter of recent European history: the working migrants between the 1950s and 1980s. Realized with financial support from the EU (I know how hard it is to get this, so congratulations!), it presents the work of mostly younger photographers and is a travelling exhibition that will visit other institutions in the years to come. I received a digitally printed copy of the beautiful catalogue (edition of 60 copies!) that is waiting for a bigger offset print run for its future exhibitions. This is different from usual: the digital print run is the special edition, while the offset print run is the less exclusive edition!
In Madrid we will visit Ivory Press, which is a gallery, publisher, and educational institution rolled into one. I want to study their program more, as I think this is a possible future for all cultural companies. We will also see the bigger museums, as we have not been there for ages, as well as some galleries and bookstores (recommendations always welcome). Then we will head back home to Stuttgart, with a possible brief stop in either Zaragoza or Barcelona.
I end my time as a blogger for Fotomuseum Winterthur with warm greetings to the next blogger, Ekaterina Degot, from Moscow. I am curious to follow her ideas.
And I have to share another photo (or two) from one of the many spectacular sleeping places we had on our journey through Spain and Portugal.
Our car upon arrival at an evening's stop (at the border of an unnamed barrier lake between Azuel and Conquista on the A-3200).
The view from the car a little later (no photo retouching!).
Admittedly, I can be romantically minded. I want to change what Audrey Hepburn said about Rome (in the film Roman Holiday) and add: “Spain by all means Spain,” or better, “Europe by all means Europe.” The Spanish and Portuguese cultural and physical landscapes are so rich! We only got a glimpse on our journey but what we encountered is very inspiring, despite the economic crisis both countries are in right now.