Celebrating the art of the photo book

Celebrating the art of the photo book
A century after it was established, arts publisher Phaidon continues to stand at the vanguard of art, photography, fashion, and design.

Established in 1923, Phaidon has risen to become one of the foremost publishers of the creative arts. In the century since it's birth, the company has sold more than 50 million books across an expansive program of art, photography, fashion, design, and lifestyle titles by luminaries like Nan Goldin, Joel Meyerowitz, Catherine Opie, Daido Moriyama, and Mary Ellen Mark.

New exhibition, 100 Years of Creativity: A Century of Bookmaking at Phaidon, looks back at the timeless art of the printed page. The centennial celebration traces the evolution of the independent publishing house as it set forth to create a new category of art books that made high quality production accessible to a broader audience.

While the publishing landscape consolidates, Phaidon continues to stand at the vanguard of the form, maintaining the integrity of editorial and design standards befitting its most famous author, Rihanna.

“Photography has a very special relationship to books,” says Deb Aaronson, Vice President, Group Publisher at Phaidon. In recent years, the house has published groundbreaking books like Roger Ballen’s 2001 monograph Outland, as well as reissuing seminal volumes like Danny Lyon’s Conversations With the Dead, a chilling portrait of the Texas State prison system during the late 1960s.

“For a long time, photography wasn’t considered art. Images appeared in magazines and newspapers, and didn’t have a gallery life,” says Aaronson. “Eugene Smith’s Minamata, Robert Frank’s The Americans, or Danny Lyon’s Conversations With the Dead — these books happened because photographers needed a medium to share their work.”

As documentary photographers redefined the photo book during the second half of the 20th century, a new generation of artists emerged, ready to charge the gates of the exclusionary art world. At the forefront was Robert Mapplethorpe, who set the nation aflame at the height of the AIDS crisis and became a focal point for Senator Jesse Helm’s campaign to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Mapplethorpe was exceptionally talented at using classical modes of representation to depict startling content with a great deal of formal care. It was incredibly controversial at the time, and people are still shocked by his imagery,” says Aaronson, who points to his 1977 photo, American Flag, which appears in the 2020 comprehensive survey, Robert Mapplethorpe.

“I can't imagine how Robert Mapplethorpe felt about America,” Aaronson continues. “As is someone who died from AIDS, he was part a tragic time in America when we did a huge disservice to large swathes of our communities by demonizing people who became sick and not working fast enough to find solutions.”

Like Mapplethorpe and Lyon, Martin Parr is finely attuned to the nuances and possibilities of the photo book that stand the test of time. “Martin is a huge photo book collector himself, and he's believes in the power of the medium,” says Aaronson, who points to Parr’s Boring Postcards.

“We get so much information digitally, but a photo book is something different because it lives in the world,” she says. “You have to pick it up and feel like I've never seen this before, and it feels like this has been here forever at the same time.”

Kenny and Slex, Brooklyn, USA, 1992, © Danny Lyon

100 Years of Creativity: A Century of Bookmaking at Phaidon is on view through September 18, 2023, at Christie’s Rockefeller Center in New York. The New York exhibition will travel to London on October 15 -19, 2023.

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