At the end of a labyrinthine corridor in the Barbican, an imposing mass of brutalist architecture in East London, a dimly lit hall is filling up with photography fans.
They’re here for the launch of Magnum Photobook: A Catalogue Raisonné, a visual ‘greatest hits’ of the 1,300 photobooks published by Magnum’s photographers between 1947 and 2016.
Among them is Martin Parr – president of Magnum Photos and one of Britain’s most iconic photographers – who is the event’s main attraction.
He and collector David Solo will discuss the importance of the photographic book – covering its emergence as a counterpoint to ‘objective’ media and the democratisation of the medium through self-publishing.
Dressed in a checked shirt and jeans, Parr has generously (and unexpectedly) agreed to grant me a one-on-one interview.
But just as I rise to greet him, he’s whisked away for sound checks, re-emerging shortly before the event is due to start – the place now heaving with people and filled with chatter.
Spotting the only space available, Parr leads us to a dark corner and bends his tall frame into a chair.
Later, on stage, he will admit that he can appraise a photobook within five seconds – and it’s easy to see why.
He is funny and charming but commandingly matter-of-fact, his gaze never breaking eye contact.
As a visual storyteller celebrated for his satirical takes on day-to-day life for over 40 years, Parr has accumulated the kind of insight and experience that anyone could learn from.
But we have just a matter of minutes together. Given the theme of the event, and the fact that Parr is a prolific collector of photobooks himself, it make sense to spend this brief moment getting to the heart of their value.
What, for you, are the milestones in the Magnum photobook catalogue?
Let’s start with Decisive Moment and Death in the Making by two of our founders [Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, respectively] who also set the agenda, if you like, for Magnum with their opposite art and journalistic backgrounds.
What does a photobook give you that a regular book doesn’t?
It gives you an opportunity to live with the work and enjoy it, to take it in and soak it up. You wouldn’t get that with an exhibition or an online show, so it creates a relationship. It’s a tactile thing as well, so it’s a very appealing way of delivering a body of work.
Instagram versus the photobook: who wins and why?
I like Instagram, but ultimately I’d have to choose the book. It’s the perfect package because of the reason I just said. It smells; it has a shape or form; it’s physical. You know, Instagram is [full of] one-off pictures whereas the photobook is a sequence of pictures – and that’s very important.
We’re currently archiving our lives on a daily basis. My generation takes photos of everything, but we apply filters and we edit them, choosing what we want to show the world.
Well, that’s what we do as well. We don’t apply filters and in fact most people on Instagram don’t apply filters, really, I would say. Wouldn’t you think?
I do apply filters.
Right. Well, you’re a romantic then.
Yes, possibly… But in terms of cultural preservation, what role can the photobook play?
As you point out, everything’s online these days. At least with a book, it’s there forever and it won’t be corrupted. It might be damaged but ultimately it’s a very good way of preserving pictures. There’s more chance of it hanging around. Even though I shoot digitally, I print [my pictures] out. I think people should.
Magnum Photobook: The Catalogue Raisonné is published by Phaidon.
Lead image: Moises Saman, Discordia, Self Published, London, 2016. Photo collage by Daria Birang and design by Daria Birang and Moises Saman. Book photography by Ian Bavington.