[All photographs courtesy Mickey Smith. View her website here.]
“Will Blurb’s Photography Book Now competition award any non-Blurb self-published books this year? The competition’s credibility depends on it.” ~Twitter post
Here we are midway into the fourth year of Photography Book Now, Blurb’s annual photography competition that has, over the past three years, awarded cash and prizes to numerous photographers. I’m serving as the lead judge for a fourth year and am proud to do so.
The straightforward question pasted above was originally posted as an innocuous Tweet, but behind it is a deeper and legitimate concern. It not only deserves a thoughtful response, but it affords me an opportunity to voice my thoughts about the development and overall ethos and goals of the contest.
The most direct challenge of this question concerns the credibility and legitimacy of the contest. For the sake of clarity, I’ll state the point even more baldly: Is this truly a contest about the most current self-published photography books? Or is this simply a competition in which Blurb promotes itself and bestows self-serving awards?
I want to answer this directly. As lead judge since the inception of the contest, I’ve had the joy of reaching out to colleagues and heroes of mine in the photography community to serve as fellow-judges: Kathy Ryan, Dana Faconti, Vince Aletti, Martin Parr, Charlotte Cotton, Frish Brandt, Kira Pollack, Todd Hido, Anthony Bannon, Jen Bekman and so many others. They have all served happily and fairly in this role, and I thank them again.
I can happily say that of the books submitted to the contest, the judges have responded to and selected the most creative, the most accomplished, and those in which the artist and photographs were most engaged with the book form. In short, the judges have chosen the best books submitted.
Ultimately, this question of just what gets submitted is the key point, and leads right into the question of legitimacy. As is obvious, the judges are limited to the submissions. If it’s not on the table, we don’t get a chance to see it. At the end of last years’ contest, I was concerned with precisely this issue, that the contest was being perceived as solely the “Blurb contest”, and that the submissions were only for books produced using Blurb’s platform.* I wanted to know, could we encourage submissions from around the world and increase the number of non-Blurb produced books in order to advnace the explicit goal of celebrating all self-published photography books?
The answer is yes.
The first thing we** decided to do was look at the language used. There is a very careful use of wording this year informing and surrounding the announcement and marketing of the contest. The contest is “presented by Blurb” but supported by so many other companies within our industry: HP (who provides the Grand Prize money), Adobe, Wacom, x-rite, New Page, Mohawk, livebooks, and on and on. In other words, this is a group effort.
In the promotional material produced, as well as on the website, there is a concerted effort to avoid implying that one must use Blurb’s platform to produce a submission. The front page of the website states, “PBN is an international juried competition celebrating the most creative, most innovative, and finest self-published photography books – and the people behind them.” This should be read literally and taken at face value.
Sometimes there is confusion around the rules and guidelines, which, as we all know, are ultimately crafted by lawyers. Here, in plain language, is what we hope will be submitted: any self-published photography book by any artist (young or old, “professional” or not), using any reproduction and binding technique—from offset lithography, to web-press on newsprint, to print-on-demand, to bound ink-jet prints, to saddle-stiched Xeroxes. The point is, it doesn’t matter how you make your book, just make the best one you can and submit it!
Lastly, this year the organizers produced a series of videos with me, as lead judge, in which we explain and clarify the criteria of what the judges will be looking for in each submission and how to approach the categories. You can find those videos here, for the judging criteria, and here, for the categories. I hope you’ll find them explanatory and useful.
Friends, we are witnessing and participating in an extremely rich moment in the history of photography. This moment is quite unparalleled; the resources and tools available for artistic expression and distribution are immense. The interest in the photographic book form has blossomed over the last decade due to a variety of factors—the Roth and Parr/Badger volumes, the advent of print-on-demand (POD), the healthy flourishing of numerous small publishing houses and independent photobook distributors and libraries, exhibitions and awards devoted to photography books, and the global interconnectedness that the Internet has facilitated, to name a few. (I’ve highlighted some of these resources in a blog posting here).
The contest organizers have explicitly expressed the desire to provide a forum—the contest itself—as well as the financial capital and human resources to offer these amazing awards and parties around the world to honor those photographers that are making books that advance the medium of photography. In “presenting” this contest, they are stating a deep conviction to the book as a vehicle for ideas, for creative expression, and ultimately a belief in the arts as a means to advance human society.
Once again this year, we have an amazing line-up of judges drawn from the wide, wide world of photography: historian Gerry Badger, Chris Boot of Aperture, Matt Eich of LUCEO, photographer Larry Fink, Claudia Hinterseer of Noor Agency, photographger Henry Horenstein, Whitney Lawson of Travel+Leisure, Larissa Leclair of Indie Photobook Library, Jon Levy of Foto8, photographer Steve McCurry, Laura Brunow Miner, and Markus Schaden of Schaden.com.
If you aren’t excited about showing your book to these folks, I’m not sure who you’re waiting for.
This contest is here for us. It is here to seek out and celebrate the best self-published photobooks of our time. We have pulled together an amazing group of judges this year, all of whom represent a firm commitment to the medium, and are known throughout the photography world for their efforts.
It is up to the photographers and bookmakers to show us what they’ve got. We can’t wait!
—Darius Himes, June 2011
PS Want to continue this conversation? Head over to Flak Photo’s Facebook page and post your comments.
[All photographs courtesy Mickey Smith. View her website here.]
** I am not an employee of Blurb, but I consult with the contest organizers as the lead judge.