Horacio Fernández: 'Digital photobooks have more than a few surprises in store for us'

By Cristina Álvarez Cañas. March 8, 2013

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Thanks to the work made by Horacio Fernández -historian and ex-curator of PHotoEspaña- and his team including the prestigious photographer and collector Martin Parr, we have learnt of the first most important approach to the Latino American photobook’s legacy. The author and instigator of that book, ‘The Latin American Photobook’, published by RM and awarded the Historical Book award at The Photography Encounters of Arlès, keeps on making the most of the popularity of this format -which he compares to an ‘artist book'- to start new thrilling projects; like his collaboration with the Reina Sofía Museum for a reference collection on Spanish photobooks and their photographers.



When The Latin American Photobook was published, you compared the work that went into its compilation to "detective work". Can you give us a brief outline of what the situation was like then?

Very little information was available. Nobody really knew about the topic. The field of research into photobooks is very recent - it’s hardly even a decade old. Everything was the same back then – catalogues, almanacs, guide books, photo documentaries and propaganda books. It was only some fans and collectors - who were generally also photographers – who thought that those books were more important. It wasn’t easy to determine the two histories of photography. On the one hand you have the classic and traditional one with individual images on photographic paper framed like drawings or etchings, and then you have the one that examines a coherent series of images, edited consciously and published in the form of a book.

The Latin American Photobook
was awarded at the world's most prestigious photo festival in Arlès, France, and there are now lots of theorists, photographers and fans interested in this format. Do you think this is the golden age of the photobook? Or is that yet to come?

This is an excellent time for photobooks although their golden age was probably the 60s and 70s. That was when the best photobooks were published in many countries, including Spain - the Palabra e Imagen collection by Lumen was published at that time. After that, in the 80s, there was a tremendous decline in photobooks that, interestingly enough, was the result of photography gaining recognition as an art form. At that time it was becoming more commonplace to display exhibitions and publish catalogues and other conventional books on travel, for example, or that featured aerial views and photos of tourist destinations. Photographers were even able to get the museums or galleries themselves to make catalogues for them and the photobook format therefore stopped being used. Nowadays, the renewed success of the photobook is, at least in part, due to the economic downturn. Where there are no options for selling or exhibiting, this system has resurfaced and, what’s more, with a whole new realm of possibilities. This renewal still has a lot to offer, formally and technologically. Digital formats have more than a few surprises in store for us.

Which other reasons do you think caused the reduction in the publication of photobooks after the ‘boom’ they experienced in the 60s and 70s?


It might have been the quite justified desire for recognition and profit. An artist that is quite successful sells their signature and name. It’s on that basis that you can get retrospective samples of their work. If the artist in question is a photographer, normally what they would like the most is to make a photobook. However, with some exceptions, there are photographers who have triumphed in fashion, exhibitions, journalism, galleries and don't have any photobooks published but that doesn't detract from them being brilliant photographers. There are two different, although not necessarily contradictory, histories. You just have to differentiate the content (the artist's talent and work, i.e. what they have done) from the container (how they have done it, i.e. how they published that work). In this respect, there are those who have been lucky enough to position themselves in both areas and those that have only positioned themselves in one. Allow me to conclude by way of a comparison. Referring to photobooks is like talking about books in general - do we say that all books are literature? Or with reference to painting – do we say that all works are art? Of course we don’t. Similarly, only some photography books are photobooks. It should not be difficult for us to say so. It's a logical distinction.

The main point of interest in the book is centred on the distinction between individual photos, which tell a story in themselves and form part of an exhibition or a book, and the stories told by different photos in a cinematic and narrative manner. Although every photographer is different, could this interest in sequence be one of the characteristics common to Latin American photography at that time?

The sequential order of photography and of visual material in general is not a recent innovation. Photobooks have more in common with films than they do with paintings; they are neighbours to comics and graphic novels and can be interpreted as narrations between literature and film. This aspect isn’t limited to Latin America either. Photobooks have quite a lot in common. An exhibition by an important photographer can take ages to reach people. If you were living in Bogota or Caracas during the 50s and 60s you would not have had many opportunities to see exhibitions by photographers such as William Klein, for example, who was so important at that time. On the other hand, his books did reach different places. Therein lay the difference – books could get from one place to another. It was enough for just one to do so because normally a photographer would buy it and show it to everyone else.

Going back to the origins of The Latin American Photobook - what was your starting point? Before you began, were you aware that you could amass so much material? Did it exceed your expectations?

I thought there would be enough for one, maybe even two, conferences. In the end we had enough for a book, which has been published in four languages, as well as an exhibition that has been touring for over a year and still has another two years ahead of it. We couldn’t have predicted it. When everything began in 2007, during the Latin American forum on photography held in São Paulo, we organised a small team, in which I was tasked with the methodological research since I’m a historian and that’s what I specialise in – bibliographies and libraries. It was very complicated research because there were no previous studies but as soon as we got started, we found a great deal of high quality material – part of which we subsequently had to leave out, and there is still a lot more left to research.

One of the most unique photos in the eyes of the younger generation could be the one showing the meeting of Jean-Paul Sartre, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. A snapshot like that has very different meanings and interpretations now, starting with the use that has been made a posteriori of the image of each of the personalities who have become legends. However, at the same time, it encapsulated a very powerful political intention. How do you think those kinds of images have aged? Do you think the meaning behind those kinds of photos has distorted?

It's very interesting because until 1959, the photographer Alberto Korda had dedicated himself to happier more commercial photography, which included photographing nudes. Sartre was a fairly prestigious and not very frivolous intellectual whose only intention was to bless a revolution. While he was there, they made the most of his visit to invent revolutionary tourism. In Cuba, they thought that publishing a propaganda photobook featuring a European personality of such standing would be a brilliant way to make a good impression. At the end of the day, propaganda books show the political version of history. Politicians want to tell history their way but historians will put everything right later on. In the end, Korda will have made a better impression than Sartre.

Can you give us some other examples?

The 70s were a very political era. Books by Gasparini and Bostelman, for example, demonstrate tonnes of ideology that is half humanitarian, half extremist with few nuances. Nowadays those things seem schematic, not to mention simplistic.

What was the level of quality of the photobooks you worked with?

The quality of the material depended on the technological opportunities available to each country at the time each was published. In any case, the level of quality to which you print an image is not what defines its quality. If that were true only the pictures printed well would be good. The intensity of the look matters more than the standard of the technology used.

Based on the focus on delving into different Latin American political situations it could be said that there is a close relationship between its photography and its literature. Do you agree? The book illustrates this with many examples - from Pablo Neruda, including photos in his books of poems, to the paradigm of Julio Cortázar, who even included his own photos.

Literature combined with photography is one of the most stimulating things about Latin American photobooks. Pablo Neruda published a book featuring photos in 1937, and from then on frequently published photos in his books taken by photographers from different countries. In The Heights of Machu Picchu, for example, Neruda tries to justify a great American idea that exceeds time and history: an uninhabited place undiscovered for a long time but that will last forever. It’s a fantastic book in itself but the photos by the great Martin Chambi make it a work of art. In Chile, there is a lot of literature featuring photos. The same goes for Brazil: Vinicius de Moraes, Guilherme de Almeida, Roberto Piva in Paranoia – an extraordinary book featuring photos and designed by Wesley Duke Lee. This is also true of Bogota, Lima, Caracas, Mexico and Buenos Aires, where in fact this passionate pairing of words and photographic images began with Borges, who illustrated one of his first books, Evaristo Carriego, with photos by Horacio Coppola. Cortázar loved photography. He took photos, wrote about the subject and worked with a lot of photographers, above all, Sara Facio and Alicia d’Amico, who he compiled the brilliant book Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires with.s.

Horacio Coppola, Paolo Gasparini, Graciela Iturbide, Sergio Larrain... are all great photographers but not as well known in Spain as they deserve to be.
Do we need more bridges?

I mentioned before that photobooks move around, albeit slowly sometimes. The public moves even more slowly, and not always with as much curiosity as you might think. It’s probably best we don’t mention the hurry academics are in. It’s worth mentioning the small print runs too, which produced editions that were not saleable. In the Latin American countries that had money, such as Venezuela because of its oil reserves, books were of an exquisite quality in terms of their paper, ink and binding. However, they tended to be given as gifts by companies and foundations and never reached bookstores. These books did reach different places but to a limited extent and only by means of the few copies that were sent and perhaps through artists who went to Europe.

After such extensive work and all of the material found, do you think that The Latin American Photobook might need a second part?

Yes that could be done quite easily but I think it should refer to more specific local areas. The first part has served to open up the field and create a methodology. To give you an example, I'm now working on a more specialised project about photobooks published in Chile, but as part of a team together with academics from over there.

And to conclude, when do you foresee a story about the Spanish photobook?

I'm actually involved in a project with Museo Reina Sofía at the moment relating to a landmark collection of Spanish photobooks, which will also be shown in an exhibition. This is a wonderful time for photobooks in Spain with artists such as Julián Barón, Ricardo Cases, Juan Valbuena, Cristina de Middel and Antonio Xoubanova - let's hope it lasts!

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