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Friday, September 21, 2012

The Phaidon 55 Series

‘The illiteracy of the future’, someone has said, ‘will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography’. But shouldn’t a photographer who cannot read his own pictures be no less accounted an illiterate? Won’t inscription become the most important part of the photograph?
Walter Benjamin, ‘Little History of Photography’, 1931

The first part of this quotation was cited by Phaidon as one of the inspirations for their 55 series, a set of small monographs, published in pocket-sized paperback editions c. 2000. Each title in the series is dedicated to an individual photographer and features 55 images by him or her, with separate commentary for each image, and an introductory essay. The format and design for each book in the series is identical: it opens with a photographic portrait or self-portrait of the subject, followed by the introduction in continuous text (i.e. with no interpolated illustrations or 'figures'), followed by a series of 55 commentary / image layouts, most of which have a short passage of text on the left page (verso) and a photograph on the right page (recto). At the end of the book, there is a chronology for the subject’s life and work, followed by a final page with biographical notes for photographer and commentator / editor.

Mikhailov 55

The initial price of each volume was £4.95 in the UK. The idea was to provide affordable, portable introductions to the work of key photographers, to enable people to acquire a library of such works, in much the same way that Penguin Classics encouraged engagement with the literature of the past in post-war Britain. They were readable not only in the sense of being written for non-specialists, but in the sense you could slip them in your pocket and take them out to browse on the train.

There were of course other, related publishing initiatives (besides my collection of Phaidon 55s, I have several volumes from the Photo Poche series by Delpire, published originally in French, but acquired by me in various languages, depending on where and when I was able to get hold of them). However, the Phaidon series seems to me to have been the most imaginative and ambitious because of its use of text, which was, incidentally, typeset in light grey (with black for the headings). In skipping from photograph to text, the grey therefore served as a sort of calibration for the tonal scale of the image.

While the design and production of the books was uniform, the protocol for the selection of the images and the nature of the commentary differed from title to title. In most cases, a curator chose the 55 images and wrote both the introduction and the commentary. In some cases, a critic wrote the introduction, but the photographer made the selection and / or wrote the commentary. Some of the chosen writers contributed rather dull, pseudo-academic introductions that occasionally lapsed into artspeak, but in other cases the combination of writer and photographer was inspired: for example, in the volume on Walker Evans, where the text is by Luc Sante.

The direct commentary on the photographs was usually evocative and incisive, since it was almost always less than one hundred words per image, and it also avoided technical information (these were not 'how-to' books). But it otherwise varied greatly, both in tone and in what we might call its terms of engagement with the images. The commentary for the Eugene Richards 55, for example (by Charles Bowden), is a sort of continuous rolling jazz riff on the circumstances and characters of the human subjects of the images, cut into 55 short segments that run on into one another, like a Beat poem.

I own almost all of the paperback 55s, and in acquiring them I encountered many photographers about whom I previously knew nothing, so from my point-of-view the concept was an unqualified success, their only flaw being that the binding and glue tends to fall apart with extensive use (a problem that may be attributable to the paper, which is necessarily thicker than that used for most paperbacks). However, Phaidon significantly revised the project in the mid-2000s, when they started to issue new titles in the series (along with selected reprints of popular earlier titles) in a larger, hardback format, and at an increased price. The only currently available paperbacks seem to be left over from the initial print runs. So, perhaps, from Phaidon's point-of-view, the initial concept did not prove to be cost-effective.

The new iteration of the project is still cheaper than many photographic monographs or exhibition catalogues, but not by much - their newest 55 title on Edward Curtis is advertised at £22.95! At that price, I'd only buy a volume if I had a prior interest in the subject, and even then I'd have to consider it carefully. The increased price and page size also discourages browsing and continual use, whereas, because of the cheap price, I didn't much mind if the original paperbacks became dogeared or worn from carrying them around. 

The 55 series was not only an essential part of my visual education, but also a primer for the second part of Benjamin’s comment above (along with the work of John Szarowski): they taught me how to write about photographs in a concise and meaningful way.

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