In 2020, we reviewed at total of 156 photobooks on Collector Daily, beating our previous year’s record of 96 by a whopping 60 reviews. Of course, the cause of this massive jump in photobook reviews lies with the global virus pandemic – when the lockdowns came, the one thing we could all still do from home was write about photobooks (assuming publishers could still ship them to us, which they did, valiantly). In March, we reoriented our entire team to writing about photobooks, and for many of the following months, we published a steady stream of daily photobook reviews. It was not until the spring and summer when auctions, and later galleries and museums, came back into the flow, and even today, our mix is still much more weighted toward photobooks that what we previously called “usual”. It remains to be seen whether this becomes our new normal.
Last year, we did a thorough statistical tally of our photobook efforts, largely to try and understand what we were doing more systematically, and the two main issues we surfaced were “scale” and “discovery”. (The full assessment of our 2019 photobook efforts can be found here.) Scale refers to the total number of reviews written by us in a single year, and our conclusion was that we needed to double or even triple the number of reviews we were publishing to achieve some degree of credible coverage of the photobook world. Discovery refers to the challenge of finding photobooks that are scattered all over the world, sold by independent publishers or self publishing artists, and often irregularly distributed or available, and our somewhat obvious realization that we can’t write about the most exciting photobooks being published if we can’t reliably find them.
What we learned in 2020 was that these two seemingly independent problems are actually linked together, at least partially. The pandemic forced us to quickly increase scale, and to do this, our team needed to find enough books that we felt were worth reviewing. This in turn forced us to spend more time and effort in search of worthy photobooks, broadening and deepening our collective “net” to include more publishers, more geographies, and more photographers. And as we wrote more consistently about books, more readers (and photographers) helped us with recommendations and tips, further widening our incoming stream of information. So our increase in scale (and visibility) directly led to improved photobook discovery. Roughly 150 book reviews still isn’t enough to cover the whole market, and our discovery is still weak in many areas, but we’re clearly moving in the right direction, as seen in some of the statistical measures below.
|Photobook Reviews by Book Type|
|Monograph||135 reviews / 86.54%|
|Zine||9 reviews / 5.77%|
|Catalog/Retrospective||8 reviews / 5.13%|
|Biography||2 reviews / 1.28%|
|Criticism/Essays||2 reviews / 1.28%|
The spread of book types above isn’t wildly different from last year, with monographs once again dominating the genre – this year, we reviewed more of everything, but in roughly the same proportions as in the past. And while it would certainly be possible to simply focus entirely on monographs, the other book types offer an important range of alternate perspectives, from the casual, guerilla voice of the zine to the institutional editing and rigor of the retrospective.
|Photobook Reviews by Gender|
|Male||95 reviews / 60.90%|
|Female||56 reviews / 35.90%|
|Other/Multiple Artists||5 reviews / 3.21%|
Trying to equalize the gender imbalance in our photobook reviews has turned out to be a stubborn problem – while we consciously made searching for and selecting photobooks by women a priority all year long, our aggregate numbers actually got frustratingly worse this year, albeit by a small percentage.
Again, the solution seems so simple – just choose to feature more books by women. But when the flow of photobooks being published isn’t broadly gender balanced, the pool we are reporting on is inherently uneven. And anecdotally, as we extend our reach out to more and more small publishers that we haven’t known before, very few are helping push the numbers in the right direction. Luckily, the overall tide of demand is visibly changing, with more obvious interest in photobooks by women (and people of color and other previously marginalized artistic voices) driving many of the large and midsize publishers to revise their plans. Parity remains the goal, and hopefully with some sustained effort, 2021 is the year we get there.
|Photobook Reviews by Artist Nationality (by Region)|
|USA/Canada||48 reviews / 30.77%|
|Western Europe||38 reviews / 24.36%|
|Asia/India||17 reviews / 10.90%|
|United Kingdom/Ireland||13 reviews / 8.33%|
|Scandinavia||11 reviews / 7.05%|
|Central/South America||10 reviews / 6.41%|
|Russia/Eastern Europe||9 reviews / 5.77%|
|Middle East||6 reviews / 3.85%|
|Africa||1 review / 0.64%|
|Australia/New Zealand||1 review / 0.64%|
|Multiple Geographies||2 reviews / 1.28%|
Last year’s scale and discovery improvements show up markedly in the geographic numbers above. In 2020, we wrote about photographers from 42 different countries, and the percentage of reviews from the USA/Canada actually fell, which is an achievement, given our location and the natural proximity of American photobooks. While the gains weren’t entirely even across the globe (Africa and the Middle East remain difficult spots for us to uncover new photobooks), many regions showed marked increases, particularly Western Europe, Asia/India, and Scandinavia, leading to a better balanced spread of international voices.
|Photobook Reviews by Publisher|
|Self-Published||28 reviews / 17.95%|
|MACK||5 reviews / 3.21%|
|Stanley/Barker||5 reviews / 3.21%|
|Art Paper Editions||4 reviews / 2.56%|
|RRB||4 reviews / 2.56%|
|Dalpine||3 reviews / 1.92%|
|Fw:Books||3 reviews / 1.92%|
|Kehrer||3 reviews / 1.92%|
|Skinnerboox||3 reviews / 1.92%|
Increases in scale and discovery also show up in the publisher statistics. None of the leading names above will be a surprise to those following the photobook world closely, as all of these publishers (and many others) are making high quality new releases each season. Where things get more interesting is at the other end of the list, the long tail which now stretches to include 86 photobook publishers (plus the 28 self-publishers), up from a total of 65 publishers (plus 17 self-publishers) a year ago. Many are names that are essentially new to us, even though we track the photobook world pretty closely. As the list grows and expands, our coverage is reaching beyond the obvious to the lesser known and perhaps overlooked, and we are working to achieve a thoughtful balance between thinking critically about photobooks everyone has heard about and celebrating photobooks that deserve some amplification.
As we look back on 2020, if there is any silver lining to the many tragedies of the pandemic, a small one may be that we were forced to fully turn our attention to photobooks for a while. What we found is that, at least in the photobook world, the more we dig, the more we find that excites us, and we still haven’t found the bottom. And while with 150+ reviews under our belt last year, we may indeed be the largest English-language reviewer of photobooks on the planet, we still see much work to do – to get to our own definition of critical mass, we likely need to double our coverage once again, with particular attention paid to the areas of weakness we have identified above. While that kind of growth is an undeniably audacious challenge, in these times of uncertainty, it feels good to have something to strive for.