The Dutch masters of the photobook

Two recent publications confirm the pre-eminence of Dutch art direction when it comes to marrying photography with print

We are currently experiencing an explosion in photobook-making, much of it happening in what, only a few years ago, were considered the fringes of the art form. Small publishers and, increasingly, even photographers themselves are producing books, giving large, more established publishers a run for their money. The Netherlands, in particular, has come to occupy a special position in this development – it is widely considered as the mecca of photobook publishing right now, in part because of the way that designers work very closely with photographers.

“It’s a tradition in this country,” explains Hans Gremmen, a designer who is actively involved in this scene, “photography has been going hand in hand with graphic design for quite a long time.” Asked what constitutes a good photobook, his answer is simple: “I think the most important thing is that everything that makes a book – the choice of paper, the size, the way it’s bound, the quality of the printing, the scans – everything should always be tailored to the book.”

Two recent publications, Quatorze Juillet by Johan van der Keuken and Fake Flowers in Full Colour by Jaap Scheren and Gremmen, can be seen as perfect embodiments of this philosophy. Superficially speaking, the two books could not be more different. Quatorze Juillet follows a seemingly simple format, featuring photographs taken by Johan van der Keuken on a single day in Paris – July 14, 1958 – and on a single roll of film. A simple softcover book, it is printed beautifully. Quatorze Juillet could be considered a prime example of how to present photography, using careful production and sequencing.

Prior to this recent publication, van der Keuken (who became a filmmaker after a brief stint as a photographer), had featured only one of the images from this roll of film in his books. Instead, Quatorze Juillet uses the entire roll and it replicates the photographer’s casual stroll, watching people moving around and dancing in the street, in book form. As a viewer, one gets to stroll and almost dance alongside him: a most seductive and sublime experience.
In contrast, Fake Flowers in Full Colour comes in a protective plastic bag, with a sticker featuring the book’s details – including the Universal Product Code (UPC) and the instructions to “Pay no more than 12 Euros” – stuck on it. It’s billed as a softcover but, in reality, it doesn’t even seem to have a cover as such. Where Quatorze Juillet showcases beautiful black and white photographs, Fake Flowers looks like colour printing gone bad.

Needless to say, that is not the case. Rather than showing the different colour separations of a single photograph, the book presents images of fake flowers that were then painted in the individual colours used in colour printing (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). The composite – the superimposition of the four individual bouquets – is the fake image, as is obvious from the fact that the individual components do not overlap properly.

The book is a collaboration between a photographer (Scheeren) and a designer (Gremmen), each contributing their personal ideas of what an image in a book is. While the description sounds almost too conceptual, the result is utterly compelling, elevating both the photography and the design beyond what they might be able to achieve on their own.

This is what unites these seemingly different books: their design goes hand-in-hand with the photography. The design is used to lift the photographs beyond being mere pictures in a book, without the design itself taking centre stage. A more considered study of Quatorze Juillet reveals that what appears seemingly simple in reality also uses a very careful design, especially in employing unusual margins for the placement of the photographs on the pages. There is probably no better way to describe what this achieves than to quote a student of mine who noted that “the images are made to dance on the pages” – along with the people dancing in them.

Of course, Quatorze Juillet and Fake Flowers in Full Colour are just two examples of this dedication to detail, this amazing application of design to photobook-making that has given The Netherlands such a special position in the market. But while they serve to be examples, they are perhaps also the two most convincing and most successful Dutch photobooks to come out recently. The two titles prove what can be gained from treating a photobook as more than just a collection of carefully edited and sequenced images, so that the whole – the book – becomes so much more than just the parts – the images – that feature in it.

Jörg M Colberg writes on art photography at at jmcolberg.com/weblog

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