I hope you've all paid your taxes because 5B4 just got slated to receive a huge bailout as a second anniversary gift. Today marks two years of 5B4 and the very first post on April 15, 2007 was a short editorial on the Parr/Badger effect on photobook pricing. Since I recently let loose a few shots across the bow of book dealers I thought it would be interesting to open a discussion and let you know my thoughts about the photobook scene, good and bad. Please contribute your own thoughts in the comments section.
I have nothing against people making a living selling books. Someone has to do it and I have many friends who are sellers or dealers in one capacity or another. Some are high-end dealers and others penny-ante sellers supplementing their incomes. The problem I have is that commerce has become so wrapped up with photography books that it has clouded people's own opinions and aesthetic judgments about what they like about the books themselves. Some don't buy books because they want them for the content but for the book value alone. In some extreme cases, the content isn't even considered, it is just pure greed as the motivator.
The way many photobooks are being marketed is the perfect capitalist wet dream. Small quantities mixed with the hype that if you miss out in the very beginning, that same book will be very expensive in just a matter of months. This increases pressure to act quickly with clouded judgment and the wrong reasoning.
I had a funny moment with a friend who approached me in a store carrying a book that I would never have thought he'd be interested in. I skeptically asked him if he liked the work and he replied, "I feel like if I don't get it now then I'll never have the chance to really know whether I like it or not." That pretty much sums it up right there.
The other concern is inflated pricing of older books. For years photobooks were pretty cheap - even the rare ones. When I moved to NYC in 1987 I remember seeing a shoebox full of multiple copies of Ed Ruscha's books in the Strand bookstore's rare bookroom and they were around 50-60 dollars each - a price I considered absurd then. William Klein's Life is Good & Good for You in New York was commonly seen for 200 dollars. Prices held with only modest increase until the Roth 101 and Parr/Badger books smashed the ceiling ten fold. There is a cause and effect that has had considerable consequences.
Absurdly inflated pricing removes many copies completely out of circulation so that no one sees them. Books are made by artists with the intention of them being seen by somebody. I don't think talent springs up out of nowhere. It comes with the accumulation of knowledge and most great artists have learned from example somewhere along the line. Just like how new writers learn from older writers, artists look at other artists for the same reasons.
The funny thing is that there seem to be only about 200 people world-wide that are buying books at those absurd prices. The rest are dealers who keep circulating the same titles amongst themselves through trades and consignments until they find the right book for the right client within that 200 world-wide pool. Almost like a Ponzi scheme of over-priced goods, if the circulation amongst the dealers were to stop, the bottom would drop out because at some point all would realize that the prices have been artificially inflated for those couple clients for whom money is no object.
The claim that there is large demand for these books and that is what justifies these prices I think is false. I think much of the "value" is based upon the fact that these books are being noticed and acknowledged AFTER it had become almost impossible to see them. If you can't see something and are told how great it is constantly, then you're going to believe it is worth whatever price someone dictates.
Surely some books deserve the large price tags because of extreme rarity but it is across the board now and this is something I feel is detrimental to the printed history of the medium. One person puts a listing on Ebay or on ABE at a high price and every other internet dealer uses that as a guide. My friend recently saw something to this effect in reverse over a book was listed many times at $500 (all of which sat unsold for years) and someone recently listed a copy at $200 in the same condition. Within a matter of a few weeks many of the other sellers dropped their price to $180.00 or lower. There is no authority with the internet. The same as "no one knows you're not a dog" on the internet, they also don't know that you are just greedy.
Speaking of the greedy and opportunistic, I was at a recent booksigning with William Klein at the Howard Greenberg Gallery and in front of me were three known NY book sellers and they were discussing recent finds and "flipping" values about signatures etc. They were discussing this while standing five feet from the artist. Their obvious concern was value and that is entirely disrespectful and disingenuous for them to approach that artist to sign books. They couldn't have cared who was in the seat signing, just about flipping values. They want something for free from the artist that they will turn around and charge a premium for. Well I think if that is your only reason to be there then drop a twenty dollar bill on the table you greedy scumbag. It's like that New Yorker cartoon that had a man approaching a writer at a booksigning and asking him "Could you inscribe this one to Highest Bidder." Of course, those sellers were insisting that Klein just sign the books without inscription at all.
I go to booksignings and have my books inscribed to me. That is the tradition of booksignings - personalization of the book to the owner. Booksignings used to be a chance to meet an artist or writer, chat for a second or two, get a book signed because you appreciate the work. Artists should start charging money for their signatures like baseball players sometimes do at trade shows. New title $5, older rare title $50 per book. Plunk down some cash and share in your profit.
Two of the most embarrassing displays of booksigning insanity have happened at Robert Frank events. At the public library a couple years ago, physical altercations broke out. At a recent Steidl event at Walter Reade theater Robert was visibly uncomfortable when a crowd descended upon him with open books. One dealer who had lent his book as an example during the actual discussion opportunistically approached Robert to sign his book while on stage. That copy appeared for sale online within a couple days along with "ephemera" from the event. Had the guy had identified himself as a bookseller and asked Robert if he'd sign the book so the he could make an extra 500 dollars do you think Robert would have signed the book? Josef Koudelka had an event at Aperture last year and expressed his disappointment afterwards in finding many copies posted the next day on Ebay. He told me he'd never do that again.
If you look at the consequences you may realize that over 90% of the recognized landmark photobooks are now out of the hands of people who may be interested in exploring the content. These books, which are visual artistic statements, in most cases have been turned into words. Now in order to learn about an older book of photographs, you read about it in short 500 word essays without seeing any of the content. What is detrimental is that each of these objects will have a multitude of reactions from different sets of eyes. The sad fact is that we no longer have the ability to see for ourselves what these works mean to each individually. There are now a couple of voices that "explain" the work to you as if we all saw through the same collective peephole.
The history of photography has always been written by a few, but what I ask is, how is it possible to open the dialogue further and make this a much richer discussion. A discussion which includes a multitude of voices and opinions that ebb and flow and lead to a deeper understanding of these objects and ultimately their intended purpose - a better understanding of the world we live in.