Published in late February, Teju Cole's article in praise of photobooks as a source of solace couldn't have been much more timely. Who among us isn't currently recoiling from the horrors of daily reality and trying to escape to their metaphorical happy place?
For Cole, even "brief immersion" in the pages of a favourite photobook "provisionally repairs the world". As sequences of pictures rather than individual shots, they reveal "not only what something looks like but how someone looks". Indeed, it is the sequencing of the images that makes a photobook "truly special": "Look at this, the photographer says, then look at this, then look at this one. All books are chronological, but the feeling of being guided, of being simultaneously surprised and satisfied, is particularly intense in photobooks." (Sequencing, it's worth noting, is also precisely what makes Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment - a book about photography, rather than of photography - so good: the echoes, connections, parallels and contrasts that he teases out from one image to the next.)
Of course, the selection and arrangement of photos is important in an exhibition too, and you could argue (as, for instance, David Hurn has of Bruce Davidson) that contact sheets also give an insight into the way a particular photographer thinks. But Cole argues - in terms that this former book production editor readily understands - that great photobooks owe much of their power to the aesthetic appeal of their materiality: "the paper; print quality; stitching and binding; the weight, colour and texture of the cover; the design and layout of the interior; the size and colour balance of the images; the decision to use gatefolds or to print across the gutter; the choice to include or exclude text and, if so, how much of it, where in the book, and in what font; the trim size and heft of the book; even the smell of the ink!"
There's a certain irony in preserving a series of fleeting, ephemeral moments in a form that revels in the joy of the tangible and the physical, and, as Cole acknowledges, the high production values of the best photobooks make them prohibitively expensive for many people (as well as commercial suicide). Certainly, limited funds and space are why there are far fewer photobooks on my shelves than I'd like.
Writing the article in mid-February, Cole probably couldn't have foreseen that coronavirus would soon close exhibitions and galleries and that mass consumption of photographers' work would take place even more overwhelmingly on screen. Describing immersing yourself in a photobook as "an act of analogue rebellion in an obnoxiously digital world", he claims that looking "at a sequence of pictures on a digital device [is] to indulge a poor facsimile like frozen pizza, instant coffee or artificial flowers." Sadly, it looks like a facsimile that those of us without the means or room to accumulate extensive photobook libraries are going to have to get used to.