What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999, ed. Russet Lederman and Olga Yatskevich

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by 10×10 Photobooks (here). Softbound  (30 x 24 cm) with dust jacket and Smith sewn binding, 352 pages with 672 images. Edited by Russet Lederman and Olga Yatskevich, with associate editing by Dolly Meieran and Jeff Gutterman. Essays by Mariama Attah, Jörg Colberg, Elizabeth Cronin, Deirdre Donohue, Anthony Hamber, Christine Hult- Lewis, Michiko Kasahara, Paula V. Kupfer, Jeffrey Ladd, Carole Naggar, Tony White, Rose Bishop, María Beatriz H. Carrión, Jesse Dritz, Taylor Fisch, Lauren Graves, Anna Jacobson, Paula V. Kupfer, Ashley McNelis, Katherine Mitchell, Frankie Moutafis, Carole Naggar, Caroline M. Riley, and Kelsey Sucena. Designed by Ayumi Higuchi. Edition of 2000. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: This may well be the golden age of photobooks, but the dark ages are not long past. When I first began to buy (collect is too strong a word) photobooks in the early 1990s, there were no written guides. There were no titles listed online. I felt my way blindly through the photo woods for many years, ears pricked for rumors about this or that book. Certain titles were whispered about, Friedlander’s Self Portrait or Shore’s Uncommon Places, for example. But I had no idea what they looked like. There was no easy way to see them, and those were the few known to me. When it came to most titles I was oblivious. Occasionally I’d encounter an old classic on the used shelf at Powell’s. That was on a good day twenty five years ago. Today on my computer, I can browse more photobooks in a half hour than I encountered in ten years of early gleaning.

Andrew Roth’s seminal The Book of 101 Books shined an initial light in the darkness. Published in 2001, this was the first scholarly curation of photobooks that I became aware of (Fotographica Publica was published in 1999, but I did not learn this until later). It took a historical—and somewhat idiosyncratic— view of important titles. Each one was listed with factual description, critical analysis, and a few sample spreads. Whether consciously or not, this model paved the way for a steady stream of successors. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: A History Volume I was published in 2004, followed in the next few years by Volumes II and III. Then the floodgates opened. The period since has witnessed an explosion of similar compilations, most focused on a particular subgenre of photobooks. One can now find a book covering Chinese photobooks or Spanish photobooks. There are guides to the photobooks of Latin America, Japan, Africa, The Netherlands, and Magnum, to name just a handful of several dozen. Most follow the rough structure established by Roth and fine tuned in the three Parr/Badger books. They show book spreads, with facts and analysis, balancing information with graphic appeal. Some of these compilations have become quite collectible in their own right, and they have certainly boosted the collectibility of their contents. Perhaps a photobook of photobook compilations is in order.

That’s probably not going to happen. But the assorted flood of photobook curations can still be appreciated. To date they have varied widely in focus, but there is a common thread. Almost all were compiled by men, and most of the books featured in them are by men. Out of the 101 books listed in Roth, 11 were authored by women. A back of the envelope calculation by critic Jörg Colberg found only 18 women authors among the 209 books listed in Parr/Badger Volume I. In Parr/Badger Volume II, the ratio was barely better, 37 out of 211. I don’t have totals for other books but it’s safe to assume their percentages fall in a similar range. 

This is a depressingly familiar pattern in photo history, but the response of two New York photobook collectors was unusual. In 2018, Russet Lederman and Olga Yatskevich devoted the first critical survey to photobooks authored by women. The book’s title How We See: Photobooks By Women, was a sort of double entendre, referencing their own take on photo history as well as that of other female authors, while poking sly fun at the blind spots of male curation. The name of their publishing imprint, 10×10 Photobooks, referred directly to How We See’s crowd-sourced nature. Ten informed collectors were each asked to recommend ten photobooks, and the physical compilation was published in conjunction with a traveling exhibition of the actual books. Many had not previously seen much circulation. How We See crashed photoland’s male party with a jolt, earning a jury special mention award at Paris Photo in 2019.

Now comes the follow up, What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women 1843-1999, edited by the same dynamic duo (full disclosure: Olga Yatskevich is a regular contributor to Collector Daily). Like How We See, it’s published in conjunction with traveling reading room and public programming. Leaving that aside, the physical book What They Saw bears some similarity to its predecessor, but this tome is more ambitious in scope. For starters, it covers 156 years of history, compared to nineteen (2000 – 2018) in the first book. The range of contributors has been greatly expanded a crack team of 25 expert critics—most of them women. 

Many hands make light work, and they’ve divided a huge territory into manageable chunks. Each writer was assigned books within a specific time period or subject. Some contributed longer chapter introductions which flesh out historical epochs, and help organize the book into a well managed flow. Beginning in 1843, photography’s primordial era, chapters follow a natural chronology forward, each epoch subcategorized by historic theme. The postwar period 1946-1955, for example, is subtitled “From Ashes To A Family”, while 1976-1979 earns the heading “Sexual Politics”. As a general structure these labels—leaning toward feminism and progressive awakening, with an international bent—work well. But books which do not fit easily their arbitrary categories—e.g. Nancy Rexroth’s Iowa from 1977 or Andrea Modica’s Treadwell from 1996— are left as the odd women out. Other omissions are less easy to rationalize. Important books like Asphalt Gardens by Flo Fox and Solos by Linda Connor are excluded. There are no books by Wendy Ewald, Jan Groover, Bea Nettles, or Annie Leibovitz. No Janet Malcom. No—gasp—Sally Euclaire?

Those omissions are forgivable considering What They Saw’s crowd-sourced nature, somewhat subject to individual whims. Another factor is its sheer scale as a mammoth endeavor. No book can include everything, no matter how vast. This one is huge, and without some arbitrary structure, it would degenerate into a mess. A timeline of years running along the bottom edge of each page is quite helpful. And the routine celebration of women is a through point and rallying cry. Writing about Judy Dater’s Twenty Years, Taylor Fisch casually takes John Szarkowski down a few pegs. “The influential curator of photography exudes the nonchalance of power in a photograph that shows him with crossed arms and closed eyes as he leans against a sculpture in the garden of New York’s MoMA.” This is about as close as What They Saw comes to outright repudiation. But male privilege is a quiet menace throughout.

Even unified by this raison d’être, the book feels somewhat amorphous and imposing. If it verges on cluttered, that might be expected when curating a field of packrats generating physical artifacts at high volume. It’s just the nature of the medium, reflected in What They Saw’s dense design. After excellent intro essays by Lederman and Yatskevich, and then Mariama Attah, content hits the reader from the starting gun with words and pictures in coming quick succession boom boom boom for 350 pages. One entry follows another with few noteworthy gaps. When a particular book description ends at the gutter, the next one picks up immediately on the proceeding page. Adding a bit of spice to the mix, a secondary timeline running throughout the book’s margins covers selected feminist landmarks and lesser books of note. In the rush of information, one can feel the burden of a task at hand. It’s a crash course in photobooks by women. There’s a mountain of information to convey, and the approach feels like photobook boot camp. The learning curve is steep. Most readers (myself included) will require multiple readings over the course of several days to internalize. 

Whew. Hopefully I’ve conveyed What They Saw’s overwhelming nature. But there is method in the madness. The heart of this book is its sense of discovery. I thought I had a good grasp of the photobook world (advanced since the 90s anyway), but the majority of these books were new to me. I am guessing most readers will have a similar experience when thumbing through the 19th century work. Some of the musty photo albums and deep dive treasures in this section had been little known to anyone outside of private collectors. But the revelations continue into the 20th century, through the entire book in fact. Delightful obscurities like Lola Álvarez Bravo’s Acapulco en el Sueño or Martha Swope’s Mourko: The Autobiography Of A Cat had me reaching for my phone. They nestle easily in the mix with well-loved classics like Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York or Mary Ellen Mark’s Ward 81. Incredibly, What They Saw comes close to the physical experience of browsing books in a reading room, where chance discoveries might turn up around the next corner. For any readers seeking followup, that opportunity is in the offing. What They Saw reading room will be on view at the New York Public Library beginning in May 2022. It will then make a brief international tour, exact stops to be determined.

One aspect which come through clearly in the physical book, which may not translate in a reading room, is its thoughtful design by Ayumi Higuchi. As mentioned above, the material is dense. But her layout has enough variety to keep the reader engaged. Book spreads and photos come in all sizes, arranged in elegant balance into all parts of the page. The accompanying text is meaty but, ordered into columns and broken by photos into bite size chunks, easily digestible. Perhaps the most innovative element is the dust jacket. The decision to include one at all on a softcover book (an unfussy cardboard stock) is unusual, but this one fits like a glove. Incredibly it manages to pack thumbnail covers of every photobook in a colorful grid. They’re displayed in chronological order from rear flap to back cover to front cover and flap. It’s a bold stroke which conveys the entire contents at a glance, while subtly charting the shifting course of photobook cover design over 150 years. A combination of graphic beauty and pure information, the dust jacket signals what’s inside.

“The photobook world is in danger of imploding,” warned Lederman in a recent interview. “It’s a niche community and very insular. In order for the photobook world to grow and survive, it has to speak to the larger society, and it has to speak to its time.” What They Saw is a gesture toward remediation. Lederman and Yatskevich have placed photobooks into a political and historic context, and given them currency amid the contemporary politics of inclusion. Photobook nerds will find plenty of interest here. So might the general public. Perhaps most importantly, it should provide a valuable resource and source of inspiration for photographers—women or men—making future photobooks.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a volume of in-depth historical research, which lists and describes hundreds of books by various photographers, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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