/ 18 October 2019

Week of the Festival: Madrid, Spain


A Genre To Be Established

Photobook could be defined as a work that is articulated from a sequence of photographs arranged on the pages of a book. Editing, sequencing and putting on the page are the three axes on which the visual narrative is based and projected, using the editorial design to configure a discourse sustained by the author's intention.

The photographs leave that formal abstraction called a ‘photographic project’ to materialise according to the book’s design, combining in an orderly series, in a harmonious progression full of meaning. The reading rhythm is created by arranging the photographs according to a structure of graphic associations and morphological resources that use the shape, colour, tone, scale, contrast, proportion, framing or distribution of visual weights to establish a frequency, a pattern. Through the edition and the selection of photographs and their combination (juxtaposing them, sequencing them, arranging them on the page) the author is composing a network of expressive, communicative and narrative associations that operates at the same time in two different levels of reading comprehension: In a verbal logical plane and according to a visual operation.

As if it were a song, the author of a photobook composes a melody and accompanies it with lyrics. The sequence of images and their arrangement on the page, the allocation of a size to the photographs in relation to the size of the book, establishes a regime of visual tensions that conducts the eyes, fixing attention, modulating the feeling, expanding the understanding more, beyond the limits defined by the narrative strategy. The eyes open to an emotional experience, not just discursive. Discernment and understanding occur simultaneously and progressively.

The photobook belongs to the category of heterodox books, that of the artist book, which can include from architectural books to exhibition catalogues, but while in those publications works by authors are reproduced following an editorial criterion outside the author's will, the photobook is always a work in itself, an editorial genre and a visual discipline which borders on literature, poetry and sequential graphic narrative. Within photography, the photobook is the biggest challenge, in linguistic and communicative terms.

The claim of the genre is ambitious: To take photography as a sequenced graphic narrative but, unlike the comic, in photobooks there are no printed words. The presence of texts is usually limited to a glossary or expanded comment that, as a paraphrase of the sequence, usually puts an end to the book. While it is true that, in them, the word may have another task, play a compositional function, be a configurator of speech, the resulting work should be considered more a hybrid than a photobook, since linguistically its construction is radically different, though much of their appearance and the medium in which they move are the same.

Books like L´Inasolible by Roger Guaus or Como la casa mía by Laura Carrascosa Vela in which the authors assemble the sequence based on the text, are among the best of this editorial genre, but more than questioning the possibilities of the visual language, what they do is expand the margins of a category that is yet to be defined. Linguistically speaking, this would be the opposite of books like Infinity by David Jiménez or Karma by Óscar Monzón, works that completely dispense with the text and the narratives of which are fundamentally poetic and musical, not literary.

A hybrid much closer to the ‘photo novel’ than to the comic book would be La Grieta, by Carlos Spottorno, a work published by Astiberri the main merit of which resides again in the questioning of the category and in the potential effect of attracting new readers. Nor should the photobook be confused with the photo novel, another editorial genre linked to photography, that has text and dialogues made up of speech bubbles, as well as being much less experimental in terms of page layout, editorial design and graphic production.

Bearing in mind that approximately 82% of the perceptions that our senses capture come through sight, that visual reasoning is innate in the human being and that, when practically dispensing with the texts that it is not necessary to translate, this genre has the potential to be of mass consumption. However, it is a minority publishing genre, with a reduced and inbred reading community. It also seems unable to scale positions in reading desires, although in the last decade it has experienced an explosion, both in the production of titles and in their quality. But sales have hardly increased. The average circulation ranges between 700 and 1000 copies, between 3000 and 5000 for established authors and titles, always speaking in terms of international sale and distribution. In national terms, the sale of copies by title does not usually exceed 300 units.

Like theatrical texts or poetry, photobooks have a very small, but very stable, audience. However, in terms of production their circumstances are very different, since although it is relatively easy to make economically viable publications of the aforementioned genres, photobooks require working and production conditions that make these books almost luxury objects, priced well above other publications, around 35 euros or even higher, more expensive than comic books and illustrated children's books.

In spite of this substantial weakness as an editorial genre, photobooks have a well-formed scene, specialised publishers, bookstores, fairs, festivals, specialised sections in museums and libraries at art centres, international awards, compelling historians, analysts and critics, collectors, fan groups that meet in reading clubs and even an inflated second-hand market that operates online. There is also a training programme available that addresses different aspects of the process of editing, design and production of photobooks, doctoral theses, traveling thematic exhibitions, and more. In summary: the potential of the photobook is impressive, but it does not end up establishing itself, nor growing in the proportions it would need to ensure stability. Perhaps we are again in one of those times when it flourishes, which one can easily contemplate, if one analyses the genre from a historiographic perspective, and it will soon return to its state of lethargy, reserving its forces for an indefinite amount of time.

By Gonzalo Golpe, a freelance editor and teacher, born in Madrid in 1975. He has a degree in Hispanic Philology and a diploma in the Edition and Publication of Texts from the University of Deusto. He is a specialist in desktop publishing and graphic production. Interested in visual language and photographic narrative, from 2010 to 2013 he directed Siete de un Golpe, a workshop specialised in the self-publishing of photobooks, artist editions and graphic productions. Since 2014, he has been part of La Troupe, a collective of graphic arts professionals dedicated to author-first work, both in its editorial and exhibition aspects. He directs the 64Pphoto essay collection for La Fábrica Editorial. He has worked with authors such as Cristina de Middel, Joan Fontcuberta, Antoine D´Agata, Alberto García-Alix or Billy Hare, among others.

His work can be seen at:

Edited by Sergio C. Fanjul