Over the last five years, Barbara Tannenbaum, curator of photography at the Cleveland Museum of Art, has been noticing a growing pile of inexpensively printed, artist-made photobooks in her office. In this digitized age when so much of our experience of photography is limited to viewing pixels on a screen, Tannenbaum was coming back from photo festivals year after year with more bound printed matter in hand than ever before.
Many critics are proclaiming this the new golden age of the photobook. The arrival of the digital offset press in the last decade made it possible for the first time to print books at relatively low cost in editions as small as a single copy. The photobook publishing industry has since gone from a few hundred titles put out each year by a handful of commercial presses, to hundreds of thousands of books published by anyone with an Internet connection and the impetus to do so.
Established and emerging artists began experimenting with work that no longer had to be commercially viable enough to attract a publisher. No one had to take that financial risk and print work at volume. The print-on-demand phenomenon began to democratize art publishing, but it also reignited intense interest in the tangible book as an autonomous and accessible art form.
The pile of digitally printed photobooks in Tannenbaum’s office eventually became the jumping off point for curating DIY: Photographers and Books, the first museum exhibition to focus on this phenomenon, on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through Dec 30.
“There’s a different nature to looking at photographs in a book as opposed to on a wall or a screen that in this digital age we really pride,” Tannenbaum says, noting that this is “perhaps a response to the increasing dematerialization of information.”
One hundred fifty-seven books by over 130 artists are displayed for perusal along a 65-foot table in the museum’s Photography Gallery. Artists included in the exhibition are as diverse as the new spectrum of publishing, from renowned photographers Stephen Shore, Daido Moriyama, and Martin Parr to undergraduates at three Cleveland photography programs.
Michael Loderstedt, an Ohio-based artist, has exhibition prints on view alongside his print-on-demand photobooks. It’s an effort, Tannenbaum says, to demonstrate just how different the experience of one artist’s work across media can be.
Print-on-demand itself is a new medium apart from traditional books, Tannenbaum says, which is why it hasn’t been so disruptive to established publishing houses.
“I’m not worried that we’re going to lose designers or editors,” she says, or any of the more specialized roles that commercial art publishers bring to the collaborative effort that is known as the traditional photobook.
Some artists’ “subject matter is too personal or too private or too much of a sort of one-liner to be a commercially viable publication,” she says, and they choose not to have others “intruding on their vision.”
That means, however, working within the strict limits set forth by platforms such as Blurb, Lulu, or Apple. Those limits were not initially designed for artists, but for individuals interested in sharing family photo albums, “things that are essentially private,” Tannenbaum says, which is what really sustains this industry and technology. “The art is really the icing on the cake.”
Some in the photo world have criticized these limits and often the print quality, consistency, and color cast issues that come from these platforms. This could in part be valid, but Tannenbaum says she wasn’t looking for the best examples of fine printing, rather conceptual objects with a curious interplay of this new form and content.
As the digital press gains popularity in many communities though, these limits are also loosening. “There’s a new movement I’m seeing emerge,” Tannenbaum says, “where people are going on press locally to digital print shops—on digital press,” to exert more control over the final product.
“It’s an interesting, exciting development,” she says, “and I don’t know how it will fare against time because so much depends on the commercial market.”
For now, the opportunity to publish is open to anyone, and one thing is certain: “The book does not just come at the end of an exhibition,” Tannenbaum says. “It is a worthwhile end in and of itself.”