The catalogue includes those books that are assembled by genre or subject matter, chronological by some date-sensitive sequences, thematic, or some invented concept by the editor(s) to assemble the images. Simply put, these are images collected together to form a book that presents no specific narrative. These types of books are no less interesting; they serve a necessary and valuable purpose. Photography books that I categorize, as catalogues require a great deal of thought and editorial supervision to provide the photographer a fair representation and the “reader” a satisfying experience. The photographic catalogue book is also a very useful means of presenting photographs that are historical in nature, the total oeuvre of a photographer, or providing a convenient means of viewing a broad sampling of work. These types of photography books include the majority of books found on the market.
The books that I refer to as visual literature are first and foremost narratives. The images in these types of books are arranged in such a manner as to 'tell a story'. There is an intentional theme or an idea that the photographer/author wants to put forth. Keep in mind that these types of visual stories are not similar in nature or design to the stories one reads in a novel or finds in a newspaper. These visual stories require the “reader” to use their imagination to discern the narration or plot line. Usually these books are also divided into chapters to assist the “reader” with the narration.
The obvious form of photography book as narrative is one that uses the images to tell a story similar to a motion picture without sound. Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test (1967) and Crackers (1969) are both examples of this type of book. Here the reader is presented with sequences of photographs that unfold with the traditional beginning, middle and end. A more challenging form of photography book as narrative might be the books of Ralph Eugene Meatyard; The Family Album of Lucybell Crater and Other Figurative Photographs (1974). In Meatyrad’s books, the sequences of images are less literal to the linear story yet the reader can still follow the narrative if they apply themselves.
Visual literacy may also take a less linear form and provide a “story” that is told as an emotional and/or aesthetic whole. These are books that let the story unfold as the “reader” pages through the book, piece by piece, until at the end the “reader” is engulfed by the story the author is telling. Sebastiao Salgado’s books are very good examples of this type of narrative; Workers: An Archeology of the Industrial Age (1993), An Uncertain Grace (1995), or Migrations: Humanity in Transition (2000). The photographs in these books are emotionally charged with the suffering of humanity, yet each image has it’s own story, collecting them together into a book the reader is presented with a story with depth that goes beyond the scope of any one individual picture.
Photography books have often strived to achieve a level of visual literacy by sequencing the images in the book in such a manner that the reader has no choice but to read into the pictures individual stories that when collected together create a more complete narrative. Robert Frank’s seminal work The Americans (1959) is a perfect example of this type of book. Frank shows the reader images, that when taken together, form a documentary of the people of America. The book goes beyond journalism and approaches literature, because it is Frank’s story, his perception, his truth.
It is my hope that more photographers will strive for this type of visual literacy in the books that they create. True, each photograph is in and of itself a story. However by assembling images together into book form, aren’t we as readers anticipating more narrative? It certainly makes for more interesting “reading.”
To be continued …