PHOTO / BOOK / CLUB; Connections made and missed, digital and other, between the contemporary photobook and its readers, 2004-2018

  • Matt Johnston

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


In the post-millennium period, the photobook has become a central form for the presentation and dissemination of photographic works by contemporary practitioners. As interest in the medium has increased rapidly, so too have the communities, dedicated events, platforms and competitions which shape the photobook world. Yet there is little critical discourse accompanying this new age of the photobook, and where consideration of the medium exists, it tends towards maker-centric or art-historical discourse. In response, and in a continuation of The Photobook Club project, this research sets out to critically interrogate what happens in the space between the production and reception of the contemporary photobook. In doing so this work addresses not only the making, but the making public, of the medium.

The thesis begins by opening up the photographic canon, a process which tethers the newly unified term ‘photobook’ to a taxonomy of photographic relationships with the page, termed ‘lineages’. The specificity of critique this enables is employed first in an investigation into how the contemporary photobook is impacted by networked technologies in the guise of postphotography and post digitality. Aided by content analysis and framed within Michael Bhaskar’s theory of publishing, the research witnesses a number of contemporary design and production trends in response to, and adoption of, new technologies: with different effects across the lineages. Subsequently, attention is turned to the photobook world with extensive surveys, elite interviews and discourse analysis providing a detailed account of an emergent community whose tendency towards production and sophistication has contributed to the contemporary photobook being seen as a new form of a longstanding medium. Finally, literary and montage theory is combined with empirical research, which employs graphical elicitation, in order to provide the first research-informed account of photobook reading.

Through the contributions this research makes to the field of study in an ethnographic review of community and discourse; a historical and contemporary contextualisation; and an account of photobook reading, it is able to demonstrate how the photobook is forging stronger connections with engaged and like minded readers, whilst excluding others. As response, the research is structured by, and concluded with, a proposed critical framework for the contemporary photobook, which connects the maker, scholar and reader, and provides a set of potential tools to interrogate the purpose, realisation and impact of a range of photographic publications. In this way, the research brings together photographic and publishing discourses with a focus on the ground between making and reading, seeking to allow stronger and more informed connections between authors and existing, as well as potential, readers.
Date of Award2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorEmmanuelle Waeckerlé (Supervisor), Jean Wainwright (Supervisor) & Camille Baker (Supervisor)


  • photobook
  • post-digital
  • publishing
  • community
  • reader

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