I'm of the age where I can recall sitting in school seeing educational movies that told me that 'in the future' the computer would be our salvation; that computerised control of many processes would mean we would all be working three day weeks and be enjoying inordinate amounts of leisure time. It all seems so sadly amusing, looking back on it, but really I don't think it took many of us long to realise how misguided those kinds of Utopian visions really were and that in fact computers would only end up as another means by which we would be driven to work faster, harder, longer, all in the pursuit of making someone else more money. It's a humdrum world right enough.
I also recall (somewhat later than those high school memories, yet still nearly a decade ago as I write this) sitting in an seminar when I was training to be a teacher, discussing the impact of computers on the use of books in the classroom and in society in general, hearing all kinds of people gloomily forecasting the death of the printed page. I recall saying at the time how I felt they were all wrong, and recall too the amazement that I was the sole voice of optimism. I think I was proved right.
I think there are many reasons why the printed page is perhaps more popular now than ever before, but I think that the computer is indeed one of those factors. Rather than turn everyone away from the physicality of the book, I suspect that they have had the opposite effect; that hours spent looking at screens all day has led to more people appreciating the very physical actions of holding a book in their hands, of turning the pages, of really reading and looking. And whilst all genres of book have benefited from this feeling, no area seems to have benefited as much as the Art Book.
Take a look at the Tate Modern. I don't like it, and have said as much in the past; I find looking at the people flowing through its rooms to be a quite depressing experience, seeing largely a blankness, a consumption of image that is empty and driven more by a feeling that, like washing the car on a Sunday, this is what 'doing Art' is all about. Contrast this with the bookshop in the Tate Modern, where I see a great deal more excitement in the eyes of consumers, which maybe says more about the nature of ownership and consumerism than anything else, but there it is. People are enjoying picking up the books, the boxes, the things; they are invited to buy, yes, but there is also somehow an implicit encouragement to interact with the art in this way which people seem to naturally enjoy. People really do enjoy the very thingness of books, and although this can often lead to disappointment when the discovery that the actual content is less interesting than the packaging concept (but hey - maybe this just means that the concept is the book) it's nevertheless a welcome development.
Phaidon has been at the forefront of making Art Books both incredibly desirable and accessible over the past few years, notably with their series of 'Art Book's and boxes, in their numerous alternative formats. Latest in this movement is the publication of the Phaidon 55 Series of photography books.
It's a simple and amazingly effective concept: take a selection of great photographers from around the world, from throughout the history of the medium (W. Eugene Smith, NanGoldin, Julia Margaret Cameron,Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, as a brief example) and select 55 of their images. Print the images, with brief but illuminative accompanying text, in a high quality manner, bind the 128 pages together into a tastefully designed package that will fit into a coat pocket, and sell them so the consumer gets 5p change from a fiver. Eleven pence a photo. What a bargain.
It's an idea for 'reinventing' the photographic book which Phaidon freely admit is borrowed from the way in which Penguin reinvented the novel through their paperback series' of the 1930's and which I'd wager is as every bit as successful at least in it's execution. The appeal of picking up one of the series every month, say, is very seductive, and appeals to the collector instinct in me. I dare say I am not alone.
© Alistair Fitchett 2001
The Phaidon 55 Series will be published from May 5th 2001 in a series of twenty titles.