We are delighted to present a series of interviews introducing our jury members for the talent development programmes at Unseen Amsterdam 2018. We begin with a conversation with Sarah Allen, who will be part of the jury judging the Unseen Dummy Award. Coming from an Art History background, Sarah's specialist knowledge on photobooks earned her a much sought after position at Tate Modern, UK, as Assistant Curator of International Art, where she is also the curator of the Martin Parr photobook collection. We talked to Sarah about the qualities of an outstanding photobook and the discoveries she made whilst delving into Martin Parr’s photobook collection.
Where does your passion for photobooks come from?
I’ve always been fascinated by the cumulative nature of the photobook and the experience that can be created in the move from page to page. When I was an undergrad in History of Art at Trinity College in Dublin, I was researching the Magnum agency and in particular Philip Jones Griffiths' Vietnam Inc. I remember being so impressed by how a photobook could allow the photographer to make an argument – in this case a damning inditement of the Vietnam War. I went on to study my MA at UCL where I researched photobooks such as Brecht’s War Primer but also photo-essays in magazines such as Life or Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung.
What criteria are important for you when evaluating a photobook?
I think it’s important to ask the question – why does this project make sense as a book? Nowadays a lot of photographers are very eager to bring out their first book but sometimes they could actually benefit from taking their time. Or sometimes a project really makes most sense on the gallery wall. Strong content is of course key but then I think about how the form and design enhance rather than overwhelm the subject. Finally I am really interested in sequence, how does the sequence and pacing build a narrative?
What is Tate Modern’s vision on photobooks, and how has this vision evolved over time?
Since appointing the first curator of photography in 2009, Tate’s position towards photography has shifted quite dramatically. Up until that point there had been a focus on collecting ‘photographs by artists’ but not ‘photographs by photographers’ – which was problematic. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then. Now photography is in the DNA of the institution and the frequency with which we have shown photobooks within our exhibitions and collections displays has ramped up significantly. We consider the photobook as an art object, not supporting material. We really want to underscore the fact that in many cases the photobook is the primary means of presentation for a photographer's work.
As the curator of Martin Parr’s collection of 12,000 photobooks, how do you work with and showcase it?
We have been lucky enough to borrow from Martin’s collection for several years before the collection came to Tate (an acquisition that was part gifted and part acquired through the support of many generous funders.) Photobooks from the collection took pride of place in exhibitions like ‘Daido Moriyama + William Klein’, for example, and have been included in all the photography shows that followed. We have integrated the photobook collection within larger monographic displays of work too, and we have a dedicated photobook space within the permanent collection at Tate Modern.
We are now in the process of cataloguing the collection and once cataloguing is complete the public will be able to book an appointment to view works. We will be considering plans for digitisation so we can use ‘turning the pages technology’ to allow for more dynamic displays of the photobook. We will, of course, continue to work with The Luma foundation, our partners and funders in this acquisition, to share the collection and look forward to the material being shown in Arles.
What was the most surprising thing you learnt about photobooks in the process of researching the collection?
Martin’s collection is full of surprises, it was fantastic to see the many different forms the photobook can take! Martin is also a fountain of knowledge on all things photobook so the process of going to his home to bring the collection to Tate was hugely informative. I think the most surprising thing to learn is just how healthy the history of the photobook is in the many regions all over the world. Many people might be familiar with photobook production in Europe and North America but places like Latin America and China have a really rich history too – not just for artist’s publications but in areas such as propaganda and protest, for example. On a lighter note, Martin once showed me a Chinese cookbook that Stephen Shore had shot the pictures for, that was quite a surprise!
Thank you, Sarah!