While it may not be entirely obvious, for nearly all of the photographic categories we cover at Collector Daily, from galleries and museums to art fairs and auctions, our task is primarily a reactive one – we select what we think is the best of what is on view, on offer, or generally available for consideration and try to think critically about what we’re seeing. But we can’t control either the content or the timing of what is on the walls, in the catalogs, and in the booths – we can only do our best to analyze what is being shown, draw conclusions about what it might mean in the context of the long arm of photographic history, and offer a snapshot of the choices others are making in building the world of photography. In short, we write about what we can see, not what we might want to see.
But our photobook section is a bit different. Given the permanence of the end product, the extended time that a book can be considered “new” (in our definitional case, an entire year), and the impossibility of being comprehensive in our coverage of everything published, we have much more flexibility in crafting our strategy. And because photobook discovery is still often serendipitous, our approach to photobooks is the opposite of that in our other sections – it is proactive. Sure, we get tips from publishers and photographers alike, we browse “new arrivals” tables at our favorite bookstores and at book fairs, and read online reviews, but most often, we go out searching, looking for new releases that might catch our eye for one reason or another. All these ideas (and impulse buys) ultimately get fed back into an increasingly systematic process of building our review queue, where books pile up, sit around for a while to stew a bit, and quietly jockey for position. In the end, review decisions (and which of our writers will be best suited for any particular book) are made in relation to the entire landscape of books we might review; in all honesty, given the top-to-bottom quality of what we are seeing, the competition is nothing short of brutal.
For the past several years, we have been keeping relatively detailed statistics about all of the reviews we publish (as well as the photobooks we decide not to review), tracking everything from book type (monograph, zine, exhibition catalog, biography, etc.) and photographer geography (where the artist is from), to publisher and photographer gender. The reason for tracking these data points is that we want to know how we are doing against our own ideas of how we envision the photobook section. In many important ways, we want our photobook reviews to be a corrective for the reactiveness found in all of our other sections. Regardless of what might be shown in the galleries or museums, we fundamentally believe in expanding our definition of photographic diversity, to include more women, more people of color, more voices from different geographies, and more risk taking from small publishers – photography has become a universal language and superlative work is being made by people all over the globe. By tallying up what we have written about, we can accurately measure how many exciting books from Africa or the Middle East we have reviewed, and hold ourselves accountable for how many overlooked zines or small press offerings we have covered.
Now that we are armed with some historical data, we can now set better and more achievable forward looking goals. Last year, we published a total of 63 photobook reviews, roughly 38% of which were discussions of photobooks made by women or multi-photographer books that included the work at least one woman. It is our firm belief that this wasn’t good enough, which brings us to the point of this short essay.
While other photobook reviewers may churn out review after review of photobooks made by male photographers and think nothing of it, we now have too much information at our disposal to deceive ourselves that this makes sense. While the quality of the photography remains our top criteria used in judging photobooks for review and we continue to believe a photographer is a photographer first (before he or she is a female photographer, a Japanese photographer, or an African-American photographer), on a going forward basis, we are making a firm commitment to gender equality in our photobook reviews. A different way to state this is that when we tally up the aggregate review numbers at the end of 2016, we will ensure that we achieve a roughly 50/50 split between men and women (with the multi-photographer books counting for both sides as appropriate). This is something we can control, and while there may be points in the year where we have more or less men or women having been reviewed or a string of reviews by one gender or the other, when the dust settles, we intend to create balance in our reporting.
In the coming years, we plan to work extremely hard to cement our position as an important critical voice in the photobook community, and it is our belief that exercising up front leadership is part of what earns the ongoing trust of our readers. Stating with conviction that we are committed to gender equality in our reviews (and backing it up with verifiable action) is just the first step; of course, we also know that we need to redouble our efforts to write about the great work being made by black and Hispanic photographers, or by those in Central/South America, China, and Eastern Europe (as examples). These race and geography issues are very much on our radar as well (especially since many of these artists may be largely absent from the New York photography scene) and we are proactively looking for worthy books that might fit some of these expanded criteria.
But today, it is our fervent hope that our esteemed colleagues writing for other publications will take heed of our commitment to photobook gender equality and make the jump to join us. Let this be the last year we see all-male year-end top 10 lists published anywhere – as a community, we are too smart for such inattentive laziness (or outright discrimination), and if we need to work harder to bring more diverse (and contrarian) points of view into the broader discussion of the medium, then we ought to get started.