01 May 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

I have been thinking a great deal about taxonomies, histories and spectrums of the photobook for the last four years — an activity that is essential as part of my PhD investigation into “Connections, made and missed, digital and other, between the contemporary photobook and its reader.” This is in order to define a scope for the research and acts as the pivotal point of a proposal for a new framework of photobook theory. This interrogation of terms, characteristics and exemplars must have real applicability or ‘wield-ability’ for myself and others inside and outside academia.

There are existing proposals for what constitutes a photobook (Sweetman, 187) (Badger and Parr, 7) (Borda, 55), and some thoughtful considerations of how, within these loose definitions, we can better delineate photobooks in reference to specific categories. Jorg Colberg’s “Taxonomy of the Photobook” (2018), Phillip Zimmermann’s “Photo-bookwork Graphic-Continuum Chart” (2016) and Doug Spowart’s “A Spectrum: Photobook to Artists’ Book” (2018) all present to us clear categories and characteristics (ways to assign photobooks) and all operate well in their respective fields and with respective parameters in mind. But I would suggest even combined they don’t quite reach a holistic view of the photobook (though clearly this is not their remit), and, importantly for my research, they locate categorisation and classification in formalist and structuralist approaches to the book.

Colberg is primarily concerned with narrative structure — how the work progresses and the various elements it employs to tell a story. It is clear and it is surprisingly easy to assign my own works to this system not to mention that is captures a number of current trends in photobook production. Spowart’s spectrum eschews narrative structure for an emphasis on material structure and publishing choices. This is perhaps unsurprising given Spowart’s interest in the artists’ book’s influence on the photobook — he approaches the task of categorisation pragmatically with the book as art object, and book as mass produced object in mind. Zimmermann’s beautifully constructed “Photo-bookwork Graphic-Continuum Chart” goes on to articulate the significance of intention and the issue of mis-representation (2016).

Spowart’s interest in the pragmatics of publishing and Zimmermann’s hint at purpose are most interesting to me because building a workable framework for photobook critique is not an archival pursuit but one that seeks to question the photobook and ultimately increase its efficacy. Intention is what offered me a starting point for a new way of considering the photobook, and I began with the interactions of photograph and book. Presented below is my contribution thus far to the discourse. It is a proposal that asks us to think of the purpose of the photograph’s relationship with the book and posits that 4 distinct histories have contributed to the contemporary photobook.

The Photographic album

a.k.a Family album, Special-interest album

*Intended for consumption by its own maker and those personally connected

*Its semi-private life doesn't warrant the same critique of experience and efficacy that the photobook will

The Photographic book/photobook

a.k.a Photography book, Book of photography, Photographically illustrated book

*A book of photographs

*The photographic book/photobook often appeals to those outside of what we think of  as a photographically inclined audience

*Often the primary goal of the photography book is to ‘appeal’ and thus sell

*The photographs have not commonly been made with the intention to be displayed in  a book

The Artist’s book/photobook

a.k.a Artist’s photographic book, Photographic artist’s book

*The work contained in the artist's book/photobook generally falls into two categories

          Desire, the want of the author to express oneself (often abstract, unspecified)

          Curiosity, the personal (author’s) drive to see or explore something

*Due to the above, the location and experience of the reader is often secondary consideration

The Photo essay/photobook

a.k.a Photoessay, Photographically illustrated book

*The photo essay/photobook is concerned with the world in which its authors and readers are situated

*These works are not solely personal musings (though they may have personal aspects)

*The location and experience of the reader is often primary consideration.

As intent is so key to this proposal it is worth returning to the intent for such a proposal in the first place — if we, as makers, readers and critics have a set of tools which allow for a critique of photobooks in relation to their purpose-lineages then we have tools to shape a more positive, less obsessive and increasingly de-centralised and democratised readership. As is evident, this proposal for a series of lineages for the photobook is in need for refinement and questioning — I hope that this space might be an opportunity for that to happen.


Badger, Gerry, and Martin Parr. The Photobook: A History Volume I. Book, Whole. London: Phaidon, 2004.

Border, Sylvia Grace. “The Artist’s Photographic Book: Towards a Definition” in Photography and the Artist’s Book. Edited by Theresa Wilkie, Jonathan Carson and Rosie Miller, 28-61. Book, Section. Edinburgh, UK Museums Etc, 2012.

Colberg, Jörg. “Towards a Photobook Taxonomy.” Conscientious Photography Magazine. Accessed April 2, 2018.

Spowart, Doug. “A Spectrum: Photobook to Artists’ Book.” Wotwedid. Accessed April 14, 2018.

Sweetman, Alex. “Photobookworks: The Critical Realist Tradition.” In Artists’ Books : A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons, 187–207. Book, Section. Rochester, NY: The Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985.

Zimmermann, Philip. “College Book Art Association - PHOTOBOOK TO PHOTO-BOOKWORK, A SPECTRUM” Accessed April 13, 2018.

Matt Johnston is based in the UK where he leads the Photography BA programme at Coventry University. He is the co-founder and editor of The Photobook Club, a global community of photobook readers and is a PhD student at UCA Farnham where he is part of bookRoom research cluster.


  • 11 May 2018 4:04 PM | Philip Zimmermann
    Thanks for mentioning my "Photo-bookwork Graphic-Continuum Chart". This is a subject close to my heart and of great interest to me. I have published some thoughts on your essay on my blog. Please go to the link below to read it if you like: <>; . It's the most recent post, from today, May 11, 2018.
    Link  •  Reply
  • 16 Aug 2018 8:36 AM | Matt J
    Philip, so sorry for not replying sooner, I had only just noted the comment. It is great to read your piece and get a fuller sense of the work and conversations that led to it and I am glad that we have some common ground in thinking about intent. I certainly agree with you about the lack of awareness many makers have about the traditions and histories their works operate in and owe a debt to but I am as yet unsure whether this might...

    a) be a good thing -- untethered from the wight of what came before perhaps we can see new, innovate works without an esoteric contextualisation needed

    b) or be evidence that the celebration of the photobook/photobook-work/photography book is permitting lazy publications with loose intent and looser conceptualisations of that intent

    Link  •  Reply
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