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In order to build an organized photobook collection, something my wife and I enjoy doing, begin with Andrew Roth’s Book of 101 Books, published in 2001. Roth, a rare book dealer and photography collector, assembled the most influential and collectible photobooks of the 20th century and presented them in this single volume. For many, it changed the way people look at photographic books and essentially created the idea of a photobook canon – a notion that was further solidified by The Photobook: A History, a two-volume set by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger and the extensive catalog of a touring exhibit, The Open Book: A history of the Photographic Book from 1878 to the Present. Both books were published in 2004.
Technically, the first photobook was published within five years of the invention of the Daguerrotype. William Henry Fox Talbot created a method to develop and mass produce paper photographs, and he used them in his 1844 landmark book The Pencil of Nature. Its very title explains his use of photography to replace drawing. Then, it wasn’t considered an expressive medium of its own.
Photography began to take form as an artistic expression in the 1920s and 1930s with avant-garde artists, such as Man Ray, publishing collections of their photographic work in book form. Most dealers and collectors, however, point to Robert Frank’s The Americans as the first modern photobook. Frank, a native of Switzerland, came to the U.S. on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 and spent nine months driving and photographing the country from New York to California. In just over 80 photographs, Frank captured the soul of the country, but he couldn’t find an American publisher for his work. A French publisher released Frank’s photobook in France under the title Les Americains. In 1959, a year after the French published his work, Grove Press published an American version, without the French text and with an introduction by Jack Kerouac.
Frank and his contemporaries – William Klein, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind – dominated American photography in the 1960s with innovate techniques and edgy style, reshaping conventional ideas about what photography should look like. Other photographers like Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand and Bruce Davidson took the traditional photo essay in new directions pointing the lens in new neighborhoods at new faces with new perspectives.
“The 1970s were a very interesting period,” says Andrew Cahan, a bookseller and photographer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “Photography became legitimate in the galleries and auction houses. Many photographers could actually make a living just selling their work.” Photographers became more playful, as in Lee Friedlander’s Self-Portrait and stranger, like Diane Arbus’ posthumous eponymous monograph.
The 1970s also saw the rise of the New Topographics, photographers who eschewed the romantic landscapes of Ansel Adams for the urban, industrial landscapes of the time.
Confronted with canons and a half-century of choices, where should the aspiring collector start? Identify a photographic style, school or key photographer who arouses your passion. Experimental or traditional? Photojournalism or fashion? Portraits or landscapes? When you identify your passion, find a bookseller or photography gallery that shares your enthusiasm.
Half the fun of collecting photobooks is finding underappreciated and emerging photographers. American women photographers, like Olivia Parker who brings an unconventional approach to still life, are due for a critical and popular rediscovery.
Also, watch for limited editions of photobooks, which often include signed prints. And visit galleries and museums. Try to keep up with everything, and buy books when they’re first published. Later on, those same books will cost you much more from a dealer or collector.
See our video review of At Work by Annie Leibovitz. › Play Video
Henry Fox Talbot may be the father of photobooks. He created a method to develop and mass produce paper photographs, which he used in his book Pencil of Nature. The original 1844 edition is rare, but this first 1969 facsimile edition costs $500.
1969 Facsimile Editions of Pencil of Nature | All Copies
By the 1940s, photographers were chronicling World War II, including photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, the first female war correspondent and the first woman to work in a combat zone. Her photos of the war in Italy are included in this first edition for $758.
First Editions of They Called It "Purple Heart Valley" | All Copies
During the 1960s and 1970s, photographers like Lee Friedlander were making a living at photography. This rare two-volume set, published in 1976, features 14 American monuments and is a numbered, limited edition with 10 original gelatin silver prints. Each photograph is hand-numbered and signed by Friedlander. The set is offered for $85,000.
All Copies of Fourteen American Monuments
Garry Winogrand was known as a street photographer who portrayed life in 1960s America. Like Levitt, he focused his camera on the social issues of the day. This book of animals and zoo visitors, characteristic of his loose style, is a rare first edition still in the publisher’s plastic wrap. It’s available for $550.
First Editions of The Animals | All Copies
The first modern photo book arrived in Robert Frank’s seminal book, The Americans. Frank couldn’t find a publisher in America, so it appeared first in France under this title. This first edition in good condition is available for $3616.
All Copies of Les Americains | All Copies of The Americans
In the 1920s and 1930s, American expatriates like Man Ray helped solidify photography as an art form. Ray’s collection of Paris photographs from the 1920s and 1930s is offered as a first edition, available for $6,750.
First Edition Copies Man Ray Photographs 1920-1934 Paris | All Copies
The New Topographic photographers of the 1970s, like Lewis Baltz, revolted against romantic landscapes by photographing the urban, industrial landscapes of the times. This signed, first edition of an exhibition monograph is rare, and a good value for $440.
All Signed Copies of Rule Without Exception | All Copies
Helen Levitt’s fascination with chalk drawings done by New York City children launched her career and a new direction in social photography. This first edition of her first major book, published in 1965, is signed by Levitt and sells for $5,900.
Signed Copies of A Way of Seeing | All Copies
During the 1960s, Diana Arbus worked as a fashion photographer and controversial photojournalist whose work included Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park. This first edition exhibition catalogue offers sample of her magazine work for $28.
Exhibition Catalogues of Magazine Work | All Copies
Since 2001, several resources have been published that not only legitimize the photobook but describe the best photobooks to own. This one highlights what many consider to be the most influential and collectible photobooks of the 20th century. This first edition is $750.
First Edition Copies of The Book of 101 Books | All Copies