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-from Last Days of W., by Alec Soth

“What would happen if the printed book had just been invented in a high-tech world in which people had never done their reading from anything but computer screens? The unquestionable advantages of the computer would not be threatened by this new product but the people, who so love to compare apples with pears, would be quite bowled over by this ultra-modern invention: after years spent chained to the screen they would suddenly have something they could open like a window or a door – a machine you can physically enter! For the first time knowledge would be combined with a sense of touch and gravity – this new invention allows you to experience the most incredible sensations, reading becomes a physical experience. And after experiencing knowledge only as a bundle of connections, as a system of interacting networks, suddenly here is individuality: every book is an independent personality, which cannot be taken apart or added to at will. And how relaxing these new reading appliances are, their operating systems never needs updating – the only thing that changes over the course of time is the message that they contain, which is always open to new interpretations.”

—By Juan Villoro, in an article in last month’s adn CULTURA (an Argentinian culture magazine) about the “future of books,” found on Darius Himes’ blog.

I just picked up a copy of McSweeny’s San Francisco Panorama, a literary magazine served up in newspaper format, with all of the sections a newspaper might carry, printed on oversized newsprint, with a magazine and a books section sandwiched in its fat fold. Their goal was for it to “basically be an attempt to demonstrate all the great things print journalism can (still) do.” I think that 1) they succeeded in producing a “great thing”, 2) a newspaper that takes 5 months to put together is awesome but not exactly a newspaper, even if printed on newsprint and presenting news, 3) it is an interesting exploration of the print format, which is suffering from some shrinking/growing pains. (The first printing has sold out, by the way.)

More than anything, this latest McSweeney’s issue is a call to keep printing and to experiment more with the medium (a paradox, really, since newspapers are not exactly experimental). And one of the reasons McSweeny’s has become so wildly popular is because it keeps doing these two things, and well – they serve up quality content and present it in unpredictable, eclectic bundles (sometimes gold embossed Medieval-looking hardbacks, others like a month’s worth of junk mail in an envelope) that I personally want to own, to physically handle and explore. Like Monocle, or the unfortunately defunct Nest Magazine, they explore the print medium and take advantage of what you can do with it, not revert to it because the internet or Kindle have somehow failed them.

So when Darius Himes writes that “the future of human language written on sheets of paper bound between two covers will exist with us for millennia into the future,” I hope (and think?) he’s right. It’s already clear, however, that print is changing. Let’s take, for example, the photo book.

Photo books are a beautiful, expensive luxury. The typical photo book, if you look in a book store, is an oversized tome with glossy pages, quality production (paper stock, well-designed covers, printing, etc.) and a hefty price tag. However, walking around at this year’s New York Art Book Fair, held at P.S.1 in October, there was a very notable presence of photo books that did not fit that bill. There were books printed on newsprint (again the newsprint!), small flipbooks, photo copied and stapled photo zines, and a ton of other DIY alternatives to the photo book. More and more there are people putting out their own books and a plethora or small publishers (basement co-ops, 3 person publishing agencies, friends printing shit while drinking Pabst, etc.) taking on projects. Made possible by relatively affordable and accessible printing technology, the self publishing approach is not only a great option for those who can’t seem to get published by a more established publishing house, but also the best way to get your work out the way you want it. Even Alec Soth, who can probably get published by whomever he wants at this point (he seems to prefer Steidl, who publishes some of the most beautiful photo books out there) has just started his own little “publishing house,” Little Brown Mushroom Books, and put out his latest series, The Last Days of W., himself (on newsprint!!).

While some photographers sell their little tomes for mad money, approaching it as if it were a bound, mini version of their limited edition prints, others sell them for $15, $20, $30. Great, right? The obvious downside to this kind of printing is its lack of distro power, which could develop as the book world settles more firmly into its new, boundless arena of producers. The other downside is the amount of stuff a consumer has to wade through – it may get exhausting flipping through countless versions of the same book to find one golden nugget – since a DIY approach to publishing will inevitably lack the [arguably] stringent editing a more formalized industry has. Also, big, beautiful productions may become less common (though perhaps not, since a niche for those is likely to remain).

I hope the print industry, photo books and otherwise, veers off into other experiments, [physical] formats, production models, and uses technology to do new things with an old thing: the printed book. My prediction (and woe be me if it’s true) is that the industry surrounding [photo] book production will shrink while both output and variety will blossom.

Check out this great blog devoted entirely to photo and books:

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