Jeffrey Ladd is a self-described photo nerd and proprietor of Errata Editions, a prodigious publisher of reprinted vintage photography books. He is producing 5B4, a new blog/bookshelf to showcase exceptionally designed photobooks. Among other sources he has access to an archive of artist books at Walther Koenig (the German art bookseller since the 1960s) and is photographing many of them for future articles. The blog is on Patreon to cover some of the bills, and he leaves the donation tier up to subscribers. I asked him to pitch his illuminating work to readers of The Daily Heller.
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What is the reason for your deeply held interest in photography, particularly photo books?
Plainly stated, photography is my medium. Photography for me is far less about “making good pictures” than it is an excuse to explore my surroundings, and through the photographs I make, ask further questions about the world.
Over the past 30+ years, photobooks have informed my practice as an artist and evolved my thoughts on the medium, especially regarding the increasingly complicated question.
How would do you define a photobook?
Photography books are an artform. They are the way I engage with the work of other photographers, understand the history of the medium and know what has been done. I think it was John Szarkowski, the director of the MoMA photography department for several decades, who once said something to the effect of, “it is important to know if someone else has played the same game you’re about to play and already won.”
I have my own reference library of books and I truly feel it is important to have these works within arms reach. Just as a novel can mean something different to the same person as they reread it several times during their life, photobooks are the same.
Your promise is to show the most unusual photobooks published.
The way you are interpreting the intention of my site implies I know every photobook published, and that simply is impossible. I am offering articles on unusual photobooks. If you are a complete photobook nerd like myself, you will know some of the books I feature but hopefully what I write regarding those books inspires you to see them a little differently. The only promise I can make is, if anyone subscribed to the bookshelf and they didn’t find even $3 worth of content that they valued or that interested them, I’ll offer a full refund.
What constitutes this collection and why are the books that you’ve selected so special?
What I am showing are obviously books I find interesting and worth evaluating for one reason or another. They are drawn from many different categories—artist books, documentary photobooks, unintentional photobooks, industrial photobooks, company photobooks, advertising booklets. Whether a photobook or not, I have other interests in design, architecture and concrete poetry, so occasionally non-photobooks will be included too.
In most cases the books I feature have shifted my thinking somehow about that type of photographic work or bookmaking, or even challenged my tastes. I’ve been casting a wider net, looking for photobooks that surprise me in unexpected ways. I am no longer focusing on the “masterpiece,” but open to what a sales catalogue, or a non-artistic book has to offer. For instance, the first article on the bookshelf highlights a book of Eastern Catholic Liturgy. It is a step-by-step guide in over 800 photographs for performing mass in 12 Eastern churches, and it is brilliant. There is greatness to be found in unexpected places. It would be similar for a graphic designer to discover that one of Piet Zwart’s greatest book designs was for a Dutch cable company—Delft Kabels from 1933.
With so many blogs, websites and other online visual distribution points, how will you differentiate your blog?
Yes, the internet is full of information and some of it relates to photobooks. But actually, there seems to be very little original writing on the vast majority of photo blogs, etc. I am constantly on the lookout for good sources of information and to my disappointment, most sites grab two or three pictures of a book from another website and regurgitate the same talking points that have circulated for years. If cut and paste is just fine, then you probably don’t need to subscribe to the bookshelf.
What I am doing is similar to what I did as a teacher for over 12 years and what I still do in workshops and lectures: I’m trying to clearly articulate what I think is interesting about a particular book and put those thoughts out for debate.
What is your goal in producing this blog?
Trying to write about these books makes me examine and think about the medium in different ways. So, it is a form of continuing education, as much for me than any reader. Of course, I am not giving it away completely for free; the Patreon platform was specifically created to connect artists with an audience to find financial support for their creative work. That said, the “student” level on my site is only three dollars a month and anyone, even non-students, can subscribe at that level and have complete access to the content. I leave it to the reader to choose their level of generosity.
Although the site is for anyone, the readers I have in mind are students. I see 5B4 as an extension of Errata Editions, my publishing company that created the Books on Books series which examined rare photography books that students could no longer access. That series enabled students to see the books and decide for themselves if those books were important to them. I hope the bookshelf can achieve something similar but faster, and with a wider variety of books. And perhaps more importantly for students, without having to afford the $40 cover price.