A Survey of the Rubenstein Library's Photobook Collection

July 8 - December 20, 2019

Exhibit Space: Mary Duke Biddle Room in the Rubenstein Library

Curated by Lisa McCarty

Full Essay and List of Books


This exhibition surveys the Rubenstein Library’s collection of photobooks. For the last five years the Archive of Documentary Arts has focused on building this collection which now includes over s thousand volumes. Much like artists’ books, photobooks are “conceived as artworks in their own right”1 and are often the primary medium for a series of photographs. Unlike an exhibition catalog or a monograph authored by a curator or scholar, the photographer is the principal author of a photobook. As such, photographers not only make the images but also become highly involved in all aspects of the book making process. In the photobook genre overall, the selection and arrangement of photographs and text are carefully and painstakingly considered by the artist, who usually works with an editor. Meaning accumulates through the interaction of successive images and text, much like in other forms of sequential art, such as films, graphic novels, or comic books.

The history of photobooks is almost as long as the history of photography itself. Books with original photographs emerged soon after the advent of photography was first publicized in 1839. Anna Atkins’s handmade book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions from 1843 is credited as the first book of photographs, with William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature following soon after in 1844. Both of these self-initiated projects fostered “the conception of photographs in book form.”2 Atkins’s and Talbots’s books established many traditions that artists have revisited for the last 175 years. This exhibition traces one such tradition, namely, that of the “Photo-Text.”

A Photo-Text is a book that fully integrates and gives equal weight to photographs and text. To quote writer and curator Federica Chiocchetti a Photo-Text is “a book where photographs and words share equal ontological dignity, or, less academically, equal importance in contributing to the narrative of the project—and where text is not a mere introduction, postface, or essay on the photoworks.”3  Chiocchetti addresses one of the main distinctions of the Photo-Text, namely that text is not secondary to the photographs. Similarly, the photographs cannot be ancillary to a larger textual project. Walker Evans articulates this concept in the introduction to his collaborative Photo-Text with James Agee Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, “The photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative.”4 The Photo-Text prioritizes the union of photographs and text.

This survey of the Library's collection is a wide-ranging, but incomplete representation of our holdings of Photo-Texts dating from 1844 to 2019. Forty-three books from forty publishers and self-publishers are featured here, with an emphasis on books published since 2010. The exhibit is divided into six themes within documentary practice and highlight a spectrum of approaches to writing and imagemaking.

1) “Artist Book.” Printed Matter, www.printedmatter.org/about/artist-book
2) Parr, Martin and Gerry Badger. The Photobook: A History, Volume 1. Phaidon, 2004.
3) Chiocchetti, Federica. “What Is a Photo-Text Book?.” The PhotoBook Review, Spring 2019, pp. 9.
4) Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Houghton Mifflin, 1941.


Featured Artists: 

Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland • Laia Abril • Morgan Ashcom • Mathieu Asselin • Richard Avedon and James Baldwin • Barbara Bosworth and Margot Anne Kelly • Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell • Andre Bradley • Robert Burley • Teju Cole • Debi Cornwall • Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes • Cristina de Middel • Phyllis B. Dooney and Jardine Libaire • Eliot Dudik and Arielle Greenberg • Amy Elkins • Walker Evans and James Agee • LaToya Ruby Frazier • Lauren Greenfield • Orestes Gonzalez • Alex Harris and William deBuys • The Hampton Institute Camera Club and Paul Laurence Dunbar • Lauren Henkin and Kirsten Rian • Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor • Elizabeth Matheson and Michael McFee • Gideon Mendel • Wright Morris • Nicholas Muellner • Bea Nettles and Connie Nettles • Rebecca Norris Webb • Thomas Ogle and William Wordsworth • Sylvia Plachy • Mary Ellen Mark • Sally Mann • Zanele Muholi • Lauren Pond • Maggie Lee Sayre and Tom Rankin • Collier Schorr • Clarissa Sligh • Aileen M. Smith and W. Eugene Smith• William Henry Fox Talbot • James Van Der Zee, Owen Dodson, and Camille Billops • John Willis

Featured Publishers / Presses:

21st Editions • Alskog-Sensorium Books • Aperture • Atheneum Publishers • Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago • Charles Scribner's Sons • Da Capo Press • Dewi Lewis Publishing • Dodd, Mead & Company • E.P. Dutton & Co. • Houghton Mifflin • Duke University Press in association with the Center for Documentary Studies • First Print Press • GOST Books • Hill and Wang •  Howard University Press • Image Text Ithaca • Kehrer Verlag • Kris Graves Projects • MACK • Morgan & Morgan, Inc • North Carolina Wesleyan College Press • Phaidon • Provost & Co • Princeton Architectural Press • Reynal & Hitchcock • Radius Books • Random House • Self-Published • Simon & Shuster • SPBH Editions • Steidl • True / AMC • University of New Mexico Press in association with the Center for Documentary Studies • University Press of Mississippi • Vela Noche • Verlag Kettler • The Viking Press • Visual Studies Workshop • Women's Studio Workshop