The phenomenon of books-on-demand has come on strong in the past few years as an inexpensive way to self-publish photobooks. Without the financial pressures of commercial publishing, photographers now have a way to explore their work in book form and take greater aesthetic risks than previously possible.
Photography Book Now, Blurb's photobook competition, has evolved in just two short years to become the premier awards competition for this relatively new category of publishing and their 2009 winners have just been announced.
The event's organizer and chief judge is Darius Himes, former photo-eye magazine editor and co-founder of Radius books.
This is the second of two interviews with Darius where we peek behind the scenes of the competition. Part I can be found here.
Rixon Reed: What made the Grand Prize winner stand out from the rest? What made the book so exceptional?
Darius Himes: Out of the winning titles selected by the great team of judges, of which I served as Lead Judge, Rafal Milach's "Black Sea of Concrete" stood out as the best overall photobook. It stands as a wonderful embodiment of all of the criteria I asked the judges to consider: strong photography, important subject matter, vigorous edit and intelligent sequencing, combined with a thoughtful attention to those elements that are specifically book-centric, including type treatment, page-layout and cover design.
Overall, Milach's book is one that I think people will want to return to repeatedly. He enlisted the assistance of a designer and an editor, and in doing so exhibited care and attention to the overall book, not just the photographs, acknowledging his own strengths and weaknesses in the process; it was truly teamwork that led to a better end-result. As lead judge, I'm extremely proud to have been able to award the Grand Prize to a relatively young photographer and book artist and I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.
RR: What was the total number of submissions this year?
DH: There were 2400 books submitted across the 3 categories. This was up from just around 2000 last year.
RR: Could you give us a sense of what the judging environment was like?
DH: There were hundreds of books in a single room, held in the School of the International Center of Photography, in New York City. The judges worked in teams and were assigned to specific categories. During the morning, the judges looked at every single book in order to get a sense of the "landscape" of the work submitted. Each judge was able to "pass along" a loose number of books, which narrowed it down to about 50 books total. In the afternoon, after having narrowed it down, the judges set about choosing the winners by consulting and debating and standing behind their favorite few books. In this fashion we arrived at a winner and 2 runner-ups. The rest of the day then was set aside for choosing 25 honorable mentions for that category.
I Sell Fish, by Joshua Deaner. 2009 PBN Fine Art Category Winner.
RR: Were there criteria that the judges followed?
DH: Yes, we had 7 main criteria:
Relevance to the Category:
There are three categories: Fine Art, Editorial and Commercial. These categories are easiest to think about if you approach it like a publisher: a commercial book will have broad, commercial/public appeal and will be theme driven (Dogs, Lighthouses, Celebrity, etc). A successful "editorial" book will be theme driven, will tell a story (for instance a book about a certain ethnic group or place, or a pop/cultural/social phenomenon. Think "Honky Tonk" by Henry Horenstein, or "Russia" by Simon Roberts), and may have a recognized photographer. Lastly, a fine art book is successful if it fulfills or presents the vision of the artist, and the artist alone (think Friedlander, Robert Adams, Collier Schorr).
Consider the image used, the cropping (or not) of the image, the placement of the title, and the overall impact of the cover design.
Strength of the Photography:
Are these photographs strong and successful? Do they convey the photographer's intention? Are they advanced in technique, sophisticated in their aesthetic appeal, and appropriate to the subject matter?
Subject Matter of the Book:
What is this book about? Has the photographer created a clear sense of the subject of this book? The subject matter needn't be necessarily of deep import or pressing social relevance—anything from apples and abstracts, to bikinis and bulldogs, conflict in Kenya or Karachi or Kalamazoo is appropriate. Is there a clear and powerful vision behind the book?
Consider the placement of the images on the page and determining how successful the artist was. Page layout is extremely diverse, images can run across the gutter, can bleed off the page, and can vary from spread to spread. We want to see that the artist was conscious of where they've placed their images, and why. Take into account the success of the combination of text and imagery (if text usage applies).
Editing and Sequencing:
In this category, the editing of the work—which images were included and which weren't (or shouldn't have been)—as well as the sequencing of the images will be scrutinized. If your body of work has a narrative quality, take into account the success of the "story."
Emotional/Intellectual/Creative Impact of the Overall Book:
How much does this book "stick with you" after viewing it? What is its lasting power? Do you want to pick it up again? Was there consensus among the judges in picking each of the winners?
Volume One, by Dennis Kleiman. 2009 PBN Commercial Category Winner.
RR: Compared to last year's submissions, were this year's submissions, on average, more interesting? Do you feel that the quality of the books, especially Blurb books, is improving?
DH: Yes, the percentage of interesting submissions increased this year, over last. And when it comes to questions of "quality" there are two ways we approach quality. The technological quality of print-on-demand books seems to jump ahead about once every six months. The paper, printing and binding all keeps getting better. The quality of the photography and creative vision going into the books is also increasing, which is nice to see.
RR: Since there was not a Best Designed Book category, do any of the winners and runner-ups stand out in this regard?
DH: The design of the book figures into the judging criteria, so in that sense every category is about the design, as well as the photography, the sequencing, the editing, the cover design, etc. The photographs in some of the books may have been fantastic, but the design was amateur, and the judges commented on that. Likewise, the books that were really well designed also stood out for exactly that reason. But design alone can't make uninteresting photographs amazing!
RR: Will the winners be honored at a special ceremony?
DH: There is a big awards ceremony in New York City on September 23rd at the Tribeca Rooftop. All of the judges and many of the winners will be there to celebrate! It's open to the public and there will be copies of all of the winners and honorable mentions on hand. (See the press release and the Blurb blog.)
Darius Himes is co-founder of Radius Books and is the former editor of the print version of photo-eye Magazine. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.