This is a marvelous volume that can be enjoyed by book and photography lovers alike. As an object in its own right it exhibits a level of refinement in conception and execution that has become rare in our age of mass-produced books. Of course, there are many specialist photobook publishers but they seem to focus exclusively on print quality to increase the perceived value of their publications, whilst neglecting the vital contribution of design in a book's overall appearance (and desirability). In the Phaidon-volume, the exquisitely judged rhythm of layout and typography complement the vivid reproductions of vintage photobook material into a very exciting whole.
To be sure, the care spent on the production of this book is not gratuitous. To the contrary, it is a statement that reinforces the basic conceptual tenets held by Badger and Parr. From the introductory pages we learn that not every and any book that has been conceived around a collection of photographs merits to be included in the class of "photobooks". A photobook - as Badger and Parr understand it - is more than just the sum of its parts: pictures, words, design, and choice of subject all contribute to something which transcends the meaning of a photographic portfolio. This is all illuminating and one could certainly say that the "Photobook" is an instructive example of this synergy between various elements.
However, I wished that the editorial team would have left it at that. I think Badger and Parr are moving onto much more controversial ground when they hold forth that the emblematic photobook is a kind of dramatic event, "comparable with a piece of sculpture, a play or a film" in which the individual photographs lose their own character as things in themselves. Apart from being theoretically doubtful, I believe this criterion is simply too stringent and many vintage photobooks featured in this survey do not comply with it. For example, many of the early books were photo albums in the true sense of the word: bound collections of original prints glued onto white pages. Similarly, it is difficult to see in some of the modernist books - such as Erhardt "Das Watt" or Mendelsohn's "Amerika" - anything more than an expertly produced photographic portfolio. In each of these examples there is coherence, but it does not derive from some kind of dramatic or narrative logic. It can simply be a unity of style which holds a photobook together. Positioning the photobook "between the novel and film", therefore, raises more questions than it provides us with answers. It doesn't really help to make sense of "a ragged and sprawling subject, with more than its fair share of anomalies".
It is perhaps more useful to investigate how Badger and Parr have tried to organise their material within the confines of this volume (and the next). They seem to have relied on three different lines of thought. The first is chronological (it's a history after all). The survey starts with the very first publications, early on in the history of photography and will end with a section on "The Photobook and Modern Life". In this sense, the book can be studied as a remarkably lively and varied panorama of how photographers have engaged with their craft over the last 150 years.
The second organising principle is geographical: some of the individual chapters focus on a distinct area of cultural production (the US, Europe and Japan; the next volume features a chapter on "The Worldwide Photobook"). Finally, there is "intention" as a structuring element. Photobooks have been produced to serve a variety of purposes: to tell a story, to tell a non-story (stream-of-consciousness-like books), to non-tell a story (to deconstruct), to document, to persuade, etc. Indeed, a valuable photobook can even limit itself to simply showing. Most of the chapters in the two volumes put some kind of "intention" at the center of the discussion.
I think Badger and Parr's conception of their own book is to a certain extent at odds with their conceptual emphasis on the dramatic nature of photobooks. If there is drama in "The Photobook", it is mediated by the words that accompany the various chapters, not by the visuals. In other words: it is a conceptual not a photographic narrative that unfolds. As regards the visuals, curiously enough the daring use of white space and drop shadows around the book and page reproductions really make them stand out as preciously unique. Leafing through the book is akin to walking between carefully presented museum exhibits. In this sense, "The Photobook" clearly `shows' and, therefore pulls us away from the dramatic sweep of history.
Despite these theoretical misgivings there is not a shade of doubt in my mind that this book deserves five stars. It is a fabulous book and I look forward with keen anticipation to the second and final volume.