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Hans Michael Koetzle, Opening Speech: Exhibiting the German Photobook Award in Iran, Stuttgart, November 19, 2021. Copyright: Matthias Galus, Hochschule der Medien

Opening Speech: Exhibiting the German Photobook Award in Iran

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear friends of photography and the photo book,

I am very pleased that, for the first time, a selection of award-winning German-language photo books from the 2021/22 “German Photobook Award” contest will be exhibited in Tehran. It is with great excitement that I introduce this inspiring exhibition to you today.

Before I elaborate on the history, the idea, and the concept of the “German Photobook Award”, I would like to ruminate on the following questions: What is a photo book? What constitutes a good photo book? And, lastly, what role does the photo book play in the digital age?

Photo books have often been regarded as little more than convenient references, substituting photographs in discourse when the originals were inaccessible. Of course, there have always been exceptions. Let’s call them “artists’ books”, I will come back to this later. The photo book has certainly been appreciated as a work of art in its own right, but is often overlooked for its achievement as a statement with wide-reaching possibilities and as a phenomenon that is widely discussed and examined.

More recently, however, the photobook has experienced an astonishing revaluation. For many photographers, it has become a kind of business card, a goal to aspire to, and an expression of their artistic will. Accordingly, photobooks are now published in unprecedented numbers, and are purchased to be cherished, collected, and auctioned. Last, but not least, they have become the subject of scientific exegesis, which is a testament to this paradigm shift. You could say that the photobook has arrived in the canon of art as a means of expression of its own qualities. Now, once again, I would like to address the question of ‘What is a photobook?’

Photobooks, comprised of bound sheets of paper that are adorned with images of photographs, have existed since the birth of the photograph itself. Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature from 1844, Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, published between 1843 and 1853, or Maxime Du Camp’s Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie from 1852, are considered the earliest examples of an effort to bring photographic images to the public via books as a medium.

Interestingly, what distinguishes modern day photobooks from most early photobooks is that their predecessors were more “albums”, with their pages filled with original photographs that were pasted on rather than merely featuring printed images, as we have grown accustomed to seeing today. This was a laborious, expensive process due to a lack of reprographic technology, which at best made small editions possible. It was not until the invention and refinement of halftone printing around 1900 that the photobook in its current form began gaining popularity. But this success cannot be attributed to technology alone. Added to this was the constructivist-based enthusiasm for books as a mass medium and a total work of art that consisted of images, typography, layout, and printing, as was initially presented by the Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists.

Between roughly 1920 and 1940, the photobook was recognized as an “autonomous art form” that was “comparable to a sculpture, a play or a film”, as the Dutch graphic artist and photographer Ralph Prins once put it. To quote another voice, in photobooks, “the viewer is immersed in the movement. With every page turned, the events unfold, like a film….”

While the photobooks conceived in the spirit of the fin de siècle were little more than well-intentioned anthologies in praise of an art photography that was coming to an end, modern photographs are taken with a distinct purpose in mind, like a clearly defined book project. This likely marks the decisive difference between the two categories. In time, the photobook became the ambassador for photographic ideas in concepts, be the revolutionary-constructivist or Surrealist in nature.

Contemporaries, the critics of around 1930, already acknowledged book titles such as Art Forms in Plants (Urformen der Kunst) by the Berlin photographer Karl Blossfeldt, Face of Our Time (Antlitz der Zeit) by the Cologne-based August Sander or The World is beautiful: One hundred photographic images (Die Welt ist schön) by the Essen-based Albert Renger-Patzsch as exemplary achievements and coherent works in which everything seemed to be suspended. They regarded such titles as innovative photography based on a well-thought-out concept, with adequate, sometimes deliberately simple book printing. Thoughtful designs. Contemporary typography as well as an appropriate format. The accompanying programmatic text, written either by the photographer or a proclaimed contemporary, was also not to be forgotten.

Rarely was the photobook the subject of debate on a larger scale. As a secondary, popular, mass-produced product, it led a shadowy existence within the discourse of photo history. But this is precisely what has changed, interestingly, in parallel with the digitization of our media world.

Since the 1980s, this paradigm shift has been induced by unprecedented exhibitions and publications, like Thomas Dugan’s 1979 interview series entitled Photography Between Covers: Interviews with Photo-bookmakers or Fotografía Pública: Photography in Print an internationally acclaimed anthology published in Madrid in 1999 that showcased exquisite designs.

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger made international history with the 2004 publication of their three volume The Photobook: A History, which has sold approximately 50,000 copies to date. In the meantime, numerous titles have been added to this groundbreaking list – whereby the European-oriented perspective began to widen. Similarly, in Japan, China, and Latin America, the publication of titles related to photobook culture represent a globalizing view of the subject. However, in central Europe, a limited understanding of the printed image in places like Africa and Iran remains. One of the aspirations of this exhibition is to address these deficiencies.

There’s no doubt about it: photobooks are the ideal medium for showcasing photography. One reason for this is that books accommodate the dimensions of conventional photography. With its sequence of pages, a book corresponds to the serial character of many photographic projects. Books are transportable, inviting, and create dialogue. Moreover, if the photographer is also responsible for the text, image selection, layout, and typography, then the photobook represents a total work of art. William Klein’s books from the 1950s and 60s are examples of this. What’s more, books are a very democratic medium for the consumption of art. In fact, the industrialization of repro, printing, and binding allows for affordable book prices, also for photobooks.

In recent years, the rise in the popularity of photobooks has been evidenced by fairs exclusively for photobooks and the establishment of antiquarian bookstores specializing in photobooks. These trends correspond to the existence of antiquarian book catalogs and auctions dedicated to photobooks. More and more publishers around the word specialize in the publication of all kinds of photobooks, while an increasing number of competitions award prizes annually to exemplary titles. Even the construction of a photobook museum in Cologne is currently underway. In compilation, these realities draw increasing attention to the photobook genre.

In Germany, this trend is evidenced by the annual “German Photobook Award” (Deutsche Fotobuchpreis), which is one of the most important awards of its kind due to its tradition and appeal in the German-speaking world. This competition dates back to the “Kodak Photobook Award”, which was launched in the mid-1970s and was the brainchild of Dr. Karl Steinorth, Kodak Germany’s longstanding legal advisor and press officer. Early on, Steinorth made a name for himself as a staunch promoter of photographic image culture by using company funds to organize exhibitions, promote young photographers, and support festivals like the Rencontres d’Arles. Steinorth was also a specialist publicist, book author, hobby photo historian, and a passionate collector of photographic literature. Naturally, such an enthusiast would establish an award dedicated entirely to the printed image, which explains why every year since 1975, under the direction of Dr. Karl Steinorth and in cooperation with the German Publishers and Booksellers Association (Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels) and the Federal Trade Office in Stuttgart, the “Kodak Photobook Award” has celebrated outstanding German-language publications in the field of photobooks.

Each fall, a jury, typically consisting of specialist journalists, met in Stuttgart. Those interested in the history of photography may know the southern German city as the venue for the legendary and groundbreaking “Film and Photo” exhibition that was held in 1929.

Supported by countless press reports and a presentation of winning titles, the “Kodak Photobook Award” quickly made a name for itself. After Karl Steinorth’s death in 2000 and the simultaneous decline of Kodak AG due to digitalization, the company began investing less in the award and in 2003, the competition was renamed the “German Photobook Award”. Since 2017, the competition has operated under the direction of the Stuttgart Media University.

The award honors outstanding publishing achievements in the field of photobooks, recognizes the editorial efforts of authors and publishers, and raises general awareness of the photobook genre. Once a year, an independent jury, usually consisting of six members, convenes in a one-day meeting to review, evaluate, and discuss the submitted titles, and finally, to determine the winning titles.

German-language titles are considered, including books from Switzerland and Austria, if they submitted with a reasonable participation fee. All titles must be deliverable and commercially available. Since 2017, self-published titles or student works are also eligible for submission. Apart from that, prizes are awarded in the following categories: “Artistically Conceptual Photobook” (Künstlerisch-konzeptioneller Fotoband), “Documentary-Journalistic Coffee Table Photo Book” (Dokumentarisch-journalistischer Fotobildband), “Coffee Table Book,” “Photo Technique” (Fototechnik), “The History of Photography” (Fotogeschichte), and “Monographs” (Monografien). The “Corporate Writing” (Firmenschrift) category has been abandoned. While this was a central medium for corporate communication in the 1920s until the 1950s as well as a field of activity for outstanding photographers such as Hans Finsler, Hein Gorny, Paul Wolff, and Tritschler and Albert Renger-Platsch, this genre no longer seems relevant to the globalized, digital age. In any case, the number of submissions to the category has dwindled in recent years.

Again, I’d like to revisit the question of What constitutes a good photobook? Certainly more than a collection of good pictures that have been bound into a book. When evaluating submissions, in addition to considering each work’s photographic quality, the formal-aesthetic implementation of a message as well as the explosiveness of the selected topic, the jury assesses each work’s concept, underlying idea, design, and the quality of the printing and materials used, from the paper to the endpapers to the binding, to other features such as color cuts, paper changes, foldouts, etc. – in short, everything that makes the analog, haptic medium of the book a book. The photographer’s commitment, dedication, and boldness – all of which often are the source of lively discussions among the jury members – are also considered.

Books should be held, the pages should be turned and smelled. Yes, smelled. The scent of books communicates a message as well. Therefore, exhibiting books makes sense. Following the award ceremony, the winning titles go on tour to be presented in Germany as well as in international institutions. The winning titles do more than convey the creative and artistic curiosity of their creators. They also stand for excellence in the repro and printing industry. They represent the power, the charm, and the possibilities of the traditional book medium, which is of paramount importance in the digital age.

With that, I invite you to be inspired by the winners of the 2021/22 “German Photobook Award” contest. Even now, photography remains a universal language. So, embark upon your personal journey of discovery. It all begins with one touch.

© Hans-Michael Koetzle
November, 2021