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A conversation with Jeffrey Ladd

Olivier Cablat_

Hi Jeff, As I told you in Paris photo, I am running for 4 years on a semi practical and theoretical PhD about « digital influences on photobooks ». By digital (I didn’t found a better translation of the french term « numérique ») I mean everything that has been structurally codified with numbers in term of data, process, transmission, tools, interfaces, etc.. by opposition or transition to the analogue. My main argument is that a new history of Photobook is emerging for 15 years, due to an explosion of publishing practices directly connected to development and accessibility of digital technologies.

And you were involved at least 2 times in what, for me, had a great influence on the contemporary history of photobooks. You have created in 2007 the first blog dedicated to photobooks. And then you created in 2009 Errata editions, a publishing house dedicated to books on books publications. And a part of the reflexion of my doctorate is focused on books on books...

Here are some general questions and some others that I prepared specifically for you. Firstly, when and how did you enter the Photobook world?

Jeffrey Ladd_ I discovered photography books when I studied photography in the mid 1980s. Then, if you wanted to see an artist’s work, it had to be either through book or an exhibition – I preferred books. I saw exhibitions regularly, but at least with photography, I felt as if I could have a more meaningful relationship the work away from a museum setting. In museums the “Art” and the “Viewer” are on such unequal grounds. I’ve always felt that it is very difficult to have a meaningful response to any work when it is framed, surrounded by guards, and within a multi-billion dollar institution. A book however sits in my lap and I can decide how do engage with it. There are few external distractions.

OC_ Is there specially a book that convinced you to engage yourself in this way?

JL_ In 1986 I took one night class in photography at a local college before I moved to New York in 1987 to study for an undergraduate degree at the School Visual Arts (SVA). In that night class I was having trouble photographing each week and I complained to my teacher that I had nothing to take pictures of since I was living with my parents in the suburbs of New Jersey. For the next class, in order to inspire me, she brought me two books to borrow - Bill Owens’s Suburbia (1972) and Larry Fink’s Social Graces (1984). The combination of those two books showed me that there were things to photograph in my neighborhood and also introduced me to a new kind of “book” I wasn’t aware existed. Bill Owens’s Suburbia might have been perfect first book for me to see because the photographs describe late-60s early 70s Southwestern suburban houses and communities in California which happened to look exactly like the one where I grew up in Phoenix Arizona in the early 70s. It was like a book showing me my own childhood. Much like Robert Adams’s The New West also does but I only saw that book a couple years later while at SVA. Secondly, I think most of the photographs I had seen up to that time were mainly in newspapers and magazines so they were always accompanied by captions, so my experience was that photographs are always “explained” with words. The photographs in Suburbia are captioned too, so it seemed familiar, although I also could also see the captions and photographs worked differently than regular newspaper or magazine captions. Often they were funny, poking fun at the subjects and they didn’t exactly explain what you were looking at rather than illuminate something outside the picture frame. Then, to look at Larry Fink’s Social Graces where are the pictures have no caption (other than place and year) was an odd experience for me. These were pictures that didn’t look like “Art” and they weren’t “explained” either. I also thought it interesting that Social Graces is split into two parts – the first part photographs of formal black tie events mostly in Manhattan and the second part photographs of working class families living in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania – this made me “read” the book in a manner I hadn’t before. The implication of an “artist statement” or reason for the book which isn’t spelled out in words.


First edition ( Straight Arrow Press 1973) By Bill Owen


Second edition ( Fotofolio 1999) By Bill Owen

OC_ What do you think about the explosion of self published photobooks for at least last 15 years?

JL_ I think it is great. I believe all experienced or inexperienced artists should try to make books if they think there is something to be learned. I don’t think all should be published though. Most people have a hard time - when it is their own work – seeing beyond something that “looks like a book” and when it really says something beyond a group of nicely presented photos.

OC_ How the book, this millenary object could became compatible with this energy brought by digital technologies?

JL_ I think digital technologies are forcing artists to think outside the traditional “page” or “book” and towards objects that blend the two, interactions between page and virtual content. In a sense, most books even today are copies of a form which dates back to the invention of writing. They are pages read in an order from front to back. The “book” is still identifiable and clearly defined as a book. Maybe the future brings “books” which have little relation to what we think of as a book today.

most books even today are copies of a form which dates back to the invention of writing

OC_ As I already told you, a part of my research is specifically dealing with the books on books. On my research the books on books do represent the real switch to contemporary publishing practices. Firstly because a big part of the material comes from the internet (ebay, blogs,..) then because it has given a huge database of knowledge to the new generations of publishers.. and the term « Photobook » itself is linked to these kind of books, that helped to give a consciousness of a whole culture. While I tried to make an inventory of all theses kind of publications I realized that Errata editions has a specific and important role in the construction of this culture. What was the intention behind the creation of this dedicated publishing house?

JL_ The intention behind the Errata Editions books on books series grew out of a realization that many of the so-called “great” bookworks weren’t actually available to new generations of students or artists because the old books were out of print. For me that increasingly seemed absurd. “Photobook history” became a spoken/ written history and not one that could be seen as it was intended. People read books differently and attach different meanings to art so to have just a couple “scholarly readings” of a famous book dictated repeatedly so it becomes gospel doesn’t inspire thinking. We wanted to give people a chance to at least see for themselves what the books are and what they could mean to them. The biggest compliment I ever got for the Errata books was when a young artist told me they finally saw one “famous” book in the Errata series and they didn’t think it was very good at all. If you only are able to read something is “great” or “interesting” without actually seeing it, you are influenced to think the same way.

OC_ Books on books are also ambiguous, in the sense they are supposed to talk about an analogic object, but their conception is totally under influence of the digital technologies : Selling platform to buy them, scanner to digitalize, website for the distribution, etc. Moreover, they present the book in its state of conservation (or destruction) unlike facsimilé publications. That means that a totally contemporary object is wearing the appearance of a ruin. What will be the Historical meaning of the books on books?

Collection Errata edition

JL_ Yes, the Errata books were “studies” of books rather than full-scale facsimiles. We sought books where the artist either wouldn’t make a new edition of the old book or, in making a new edition, they’d change it greatly in edit, sequence or design. We wanted to study the book object in the original state/edition that had had some influence on others at the time. A facsimile could do that too, but as I mentioned, we were looking for books where the photographer wouldn’t make a new edition exactly like the original.

OC_ To which level do you locate the bigger influence of digital on photobooks? Content, graphic design, printing, binding an book forms, distribution?

JL_ The impact has been great on all aspects you mention. I can’t think of one being influenced more.

OC_ Will «digital books» (dematerialized) find a place in the future of publishing?

JL_ I imagine it will. What they are, or look like, or how they define themselves as “books” I don’t know. I know that I will not be on the forefront of such projects. I don’t think so far outside of the box (or book).

OC_ Do you have an idea or a wish for the future of photobooks?

JL_ My wish is selfish. I want photobooks to teach me something or excite me about the medium in some way. That’s why I consider my books as not a “collection” but a living research library. They feed my own photographs and understanding of how books work. Many times they also reconfirm that the old, predicable model for a book still works because they don’t need anything “new.” If digital aspects contribute to that in some way, that’s interesting to me as well.

OC_ Do you agree if I affirmate that digital has influenced the creation of a new contemporary history of photobooks that started at the transition of our century?

JL_ Certainly, I think mostly because the idea of what a photobook is to begin with has expanded greatly due to the access of information through online booksellers and libraries. We can browse for new objects in unexpected places without much physical leg-work. Before, you’d have to go to special libraries or bookstores to “find” things – looking in shops in all other sections not just in the photography section. When I look for books online, rarely are the labeled as a “photobook” anymore.

the idea of what a photobook is to begin with has expanded greatly due to the access of information through online booksellers and librarie

I give the example of the “Photobook History” books that started appearing more frequently in the late 90s early 2000s. Andrew Roth published the Book of 101 Seminal Photography Books and all the choices were the usual books historians had agreed upon for many decades. It just more or less regurgitated the established history. The search for objects outside those 101 Seminal Photobooks like what Parr and Badger presented in

their 3 volumes was far better. They searched out books from deep in the underbrush and considered books not intentioned to be labeled a “photobook” and applied that label to expand the history. That is not to say their history completes the discussion, it also is just a starting point.

OC_ Could you purpose a definition for the photobook?

JL_ Every time I could try to define a photobook, I can also cite an example that belies my definition – so, no I really can’t.

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