The photobook according to Parr

Reading Time: 14 minutes

Rewriting history

His enthusiasm is infectious. There is a delight in the possibilities of photobooks, both as design objects and as living expressions of political and cultural histories – a delight that, with the publication of The Photobook: A History, Volumes I and II in 2004 and 2006, and the third to come later this month, has been felt across our photographic culture, challenging us to rethink the medium’s history with the book now centre stage.

Parr’s photobook collection began predictably enough. “I remember buying Robert Frank’s The Americans in 1971 and Tony Ray-Jones’s Day Off in 1974, so I bought a few then, but I didn’t have much money of course. I guess it accelerated in the late 1980s when my father died and he gave me £100 and I bought a copy of Bill Brandt’s The English at Home. And since I joined Magnum and became more established, my income has increased, and that has meant I have been able to reinvest money into books. Over the years, I hate to think what I have spent on books, but it’s probably now my biggest expenditure. I wouldn’t know how much that is because luckily I don’t work it out, but it might be 50 to 70 grand a year.”

GB. England. Bristol. Martin Parr's study. 2009.
Martin Parr’s study. 2009. The photographer’s collection at home in Bristol © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

The transition from occasional buyer to obsessive collector began when Parr discovered his great passion: “I remember going to Japan in the early 1990s and being completely gobsmacked by the quality and standard of books, and I was amazed that these books were not known in the West. I couldn’t believe it because in the Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s, we had probably the greatest movement in photographic publishing, and indeed in photography, and it was entirely ignored more or less. [Former MoMA curator John] Szarkowski did a show of Japanese photography in the 1970s, but he didn’t really focus on the books, and the books are the thing. It’s exciting to suddenly find this mine of photographic publishing, which is phenomenal, that hasn’t been discovered or understood. That’s the excitement you feel.”

The excitement is apparent when Parr asks me what books I’d like to see. I mention Kikuji Kawada’s The Map and Eikoh Hosoe’s Ordeal by Roses, two Japanese classics from the early to mid 1960s, and we wander down the stairs past prints by August Sander, Alec Soth, Garry Winogrand and the Bechers to another room filled with more books. Parr brings them out. The Map is a £30,000 book, but there are no white gloves, no plastic covers. I ask him if he ever wears gloves. “No,” he says with disdain. These are books made for touching and feeling and smelling. This lack of preciousness adds to the feeling of openness and accessibility. The value, the gravure printing, the paper and design are only one element of these books. Far more important is that they are a physical and visual connection to people, places and events from the last 172 years of world history.

As we are talking, Parr gets out some Soviet propaganda books and we enter the world of Lenin, Stalin and the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Then he lifts out a book commemorating the 10th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China that shows faces scratched and scrawled upon; a direct reference to the thought control of the Maoist leadership and an indirect nod to the sufferings of The Great Leap Forward. In his collection there’s communism, fascism, surrealism, feminism, consumerism – every ism you care to mention. And though Parr is an expert on the photography side of things, he also knows that his photobooks go beyond that, into the great political, art and social movements that have shaped our world.

Combined with this excitement, there is also a restlessness about Parr’s photobook collecting. “It’s the continual research to try to refine and understand this forgotten history of photographic publishing, and slowly but surely I’m closing the gaps in my knowledge through my collection.” He says that the last major gaps in his knowledge are Chinese and Italian photobooks. “I am working on a book on the Chinese photobook, and that is probably one of the last countries with a substantial publishing output that hasn’t really been explored. So with that coming out later this year [and with the Italian books he’s recently acquired], I’m slowly getting there. It’s a continual global research, and the exciting thing is going into the territories that haven’t been done. You’re looking into the dark. You have to slowly put the jigsaw together.”

So in recent years, Parr’s collecting habit has been accompanied by a drive to challenge photographic history through his books about photobooks. Although the three volumes he’s produced with Gerry Badger are the most influential of this sub-genre, he readily admits they were not the first to cover the subject, acknowledging Andrew Roth’s popular The Book of 101 Books, which kickstarted the boom for photobook collecting 13 years ago. But he cites another book as more influential in shaping this new history and the way it is presented. “The first was Fotografía Pública, which Horacio Fernandes published in 1999. It’s on photography publishing between 1919 and 1939 and was accompanied by a show at the Reina Sofia in Madrid during Photo España. I saw that show and was amazed by it, and I realised then that there’s nothing sexier than reproducing a book and putting it in a book. It just looks great. That really was the first book that showed books and magazines [as photographs of them] in a book.”

Fotografía Pública inspired Parr to make his own photobook history, but it was a Magnum connection that helped shape the idea and make it a reality – Chris Boot leaving the agency to work for London-based book publisher Phaidon Press. Boot initiated publishing Parr’s collection of Boring Postcards, as well as the history of photobooks, initially editing it himself. But Parr soon realised there was so much material that it would have to be split into two volumes, and he chose Badger to work with him and do the text because he valued his writing, his viewpoint as an image-maker and collector in his own right. “One of the reasons Gerry writes so well about photography is because he is a photographer. Likewise with Szarkowski. He understands how photographers think, and that insight is a great bonus to those two great writers on photography. I’m just very lucky to have found somebody who is such a brilliant complement to my restlessness and inability to write.”

For Volume III, the writing process took place through meetings at Parr’s house, where the two determined key areas that would be included. The final chapters include sections on propaganda, protest, desire and memory, areas not touched upon in the previous books, and bring the history more up to date, the most recent being Mike Brodie’s A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, published last year. Parr recognises that the selection process is subjective and open to debate. “Whatever happens, there will be someone who will complain, someone who says, ‘Why wasn’t I in it?’ Gerry and I agree on 95 percent of the book, but there’s always a difference in opinion and approach, which we always work out amicably.”