Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards
Project info

Initiated in 2011 as a way of “celebrating the book’s contribution to the evolving narrative of photograph,” these Awards have established themselves as the preeminent annual showcase of photobook excellence. In six years, the Awards have bestowed recognition to some of the most important practitioners in the field while also offering invaluable exposure to a generation of innovative book-makers (and publishers) around the world.

On Friday, November 11, the winners will be announced at the Grand Palais. But in advance of the jury’s final decisions, here are one writer’s thoughts on the most deserving candidates from the full, 35-book shortlist.

FIRST PHOTOBOOK

Since the 2nd edition of these Awards, there has been a hanging question about the preference shown to newcomers—$10,000 plus a feeling of top billing for the First PhotoBook Prize-winners versus a more subdued nod for those who actually won the PhotoBook of the Year.

In the past, this could have been justified by the fact that those putting out their first photobooks were in need of the additional attention, calling out for encouragement to keep pursuing their underappreciated craft.

This year, many of the “first” photobook nominees can look elsewhere for sympathy. Scanning the list to discover heavy-hitting names like Yannick Bouillis (founder of OffPrint Paris), Michael Christopher Brown (Magnum member since 2013), Sohei Nishino (headline exhibitions at both FOAM and Photo London) felt nothing short of shocking—none of them had ever had a book attached to their names?

On the one hand, it’s heartening to see the dizzyingly high level photobooks have achieved—even first photobooks command 5-figure cash prizes and headline presentations at fairs around the world. On the other hand, “dizzying” is not wholly positive—what of the as-yet unpublished photographer who looks at this year’s nominees and feels that if these are first photobooks, surely their still nascent efforts don’t stand a chance?

But after looking past the names on the covers, time spent with these 20 books reveals a refreshing sense of intrepid experimentation from even the most acclaimed photographers. For example, Michael Christopher Brown—an accomplished photojournalist—has filled his hefty maiden volume Libyan Sugar with nothing more than iPhone photos and email exchanges. Yet through the pared down, quotidian contemporaneity of these materials lies one of the most intimate visions into the work of conflict photographers ever captured on the page. His feelings of doubt and fear, as expressed at the time to close family members, reach us directly. Each page is a penetrating, yet accessible portal into his raw, deeply human experience of the frontlines.

So, the jury could do worse than recognize this wonderful (if already fêted) publication. But if they decide to honor a more experimental path, two other books stand out. Jack Latham’s exceedingly well-researched and formally inventive Sugar Paper Theories is brimming over with a treasure of material presented in delightfully creative ways. Similarly, the small, self-published masterpiece, How We End., pushes at the boundaries of the narrative photobook by combining sculptural, collaged public imagery with poignantly written short stories, all packed into the confines of 192 smartly designed, spare pages. If only for its efficient yet impactful format, this book should receive plaudits as a bold first foray.

CATALOGUE

It has only been two years since these Awards began awarding catalogues in a distinct category—fortunately, they arrived just in time. In 2015, Le Bal’s show, Images of Conviction, offered an occasion for the institutional straightjacket on catalogue design to fall away—and the resulting publication took home the prize. This year, an even more daring exhibition and catalogue from Le Bal will likely take the cake again: David Campany’s A Handful of Dust.

For visitors to last year’s Paris Photo, this may feel like déjà vu—the exhibition was running last November. But the catalogue, like the Man Ray photo from which Campany’s investigation begins, has had a life beyond its original context. In tracing out a new history of photography, the book’s long, winding, yet strangely inviting central essay draws us into a enchanting world of discovery. Physically enveloping the text, which comes in a separate, removable booklet, are 150 consecutive pages of images—uninterrupted by words—which recreate the feeling of being lost in Campany’s brilliant visual stream of associations. This risky, yet not overly showy, publication stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Honorable mentions to the approachable, scrapbook feel offered by Terpak and Brunnick’s Mapplethorpe catalogue. Both intimate yet rigorously organized, this catalogue (like Mapplethorpe himself) shows that pleasure and business need not be opposed. And a similar tip of the cap to the group behind Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, which presents the most complete and comprehensive picture of this 20th century giant to date. After all: as much as we’d like to see them lighten up, catalogues serve an essential purpose in the historiography of the arts and works such as Future Present are irreplaceable.

PHOTOBOOK OF THE YEAR

In some past years, the First PhotoBook category has threatened to overshadow its elder sibling due to the excitement and energy emanating from the selection of newcomers.

But this year’s PhotoBooks of the Year more than hold their own. These are substantive, weighty projects, beginning with The Meadow, a photographer and writer’s decade-long focus on a single meadow in rural Massachusetts and stretching to Taking Stock of Power, a pair of Germans’ visual (re)comprehension of the entire length of the Berlin Wall. Each of these volumes, from the smallest scale—Looking for Alice, the story of one family’s loving yet complex relationship to their youngest member with Down syndrome—to the Democratic Forest, a 1010-image mammoth extracted and republished from the copious archives of William Eggleston, all speak to one of the essential binding threads of photography: obsession.

First, a sidenote about the unavoidable Eggleston tome. With all due respect to the laborious efforts of Steidl, the publication seems to miss the point of the photobook altogether. Lovers of the medium have long proclaimed its democratic nature—many more people can afford a photobook than a fine art print—yet this ungainly publication comes with the downright undemocratic price tag of €550. Photobook-lovers also point to the form’s inherent intimacy: when cradling a book, a reader communes face-to-face with the artist. But simply carrying this “book” (10 volumes, encased into something like a war chest) is a strenuous physical challenge. Most fundamentally, looking at a thousand pictures while trying to maintain a proper sense of attention is nothing short of Herculean. In sum, a thoroughly unapproachable (if noble) effort.

In sharp contrast, two books this year stand out for their innovation and simplicity. The first, End., by Eamonn Doyle, was already the darling of last summer’s exhibitions at the Rencontres d’Arles. The work comprises Doyle’s explorations of his hometown Dublin, taking the form of hard-hitting street photographs, conveyed in an enticing array of formats—silver on black; acid-trip yellow; vibrant, rich (almost Eggleston-like) color.

Beyond the pictures, Doyle’s publication is complex, varied and most importantly, immensely inviting. The “book,” consists of 13 separate booklets, a handful of ink drawings and a 7” vinyl record (!). While this assemblage may seem fussy at first, in reality, it asks the reader to spread out and truly engage with what lies therein. This is a photobook as a truly experienced (and beloved) object—rather than an impressive yet unloved volume that gathers dust as a rarely opened bookend. 

Similarly, Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX isn’t the biggest or most grandiose work on the list, but its straightforward pages pack a punch. Assembled over the course of seven years spent wandering the lonely sidewalks of Los Angeles, Halpern takes us on a journey from the city’s fiery eastern deserts to its exalted western shores. For what the book lacks in conceptual panache, it more than makes up in its photographs, which are simply outstanding. While others toil in archives or scour the internet for inspiration, Halpern has been busy honing his visual acuity out in the world. Like Doyle, Halpern is someone who might legitimately push the language of photography in new and bold directions, much as the greats like Winogrand (and Eggleston) did in decades past.

So yes: odes to the towering figures of the medium are essential to photography if we are to take it seriously as an art form. But for a photobook award which hopes to celebrate fresh ways of looking at the world, it is photographers like Doyle and Halpern who offer us the most promising way forward.

—Alexander Strecker
Managing Editor, LensCulture