As photography has grown as an art form, photo books have also proliferated, covering everything from museum and gallery exhibitions to the work of a single artist, individuals’ collections or a particular theme. Below, a selection of museum libraries that offer photo books and are open to the general public.
The history of photography is an important part of the library collection at Princeton University’s Marquand Library, one of the largest and oldest art libraries in the country. While broad and international in scope, the photo books span eras as well as continents, ranging from rare holdings to coffee table books. Japanese photography is one of the collection’s strengths. The collection took a leap forward during the time that Peter Bunnell served as both a professor and the director of the Princeton Art Museum. The non-circulating library offers a chance for visitors to pay for access, although town residents are welcome under an agreement with the Princeton Public Library.
With more than 10,000 volumes and 80 periodicals, the Spencer Reference Library at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, has a formidable collection. Under the guidance of Keith F. Davis, Senior Curator of Photography, collections acquired from art dealer Alex Novak and photographer Carl Chiarenza, who teaches at the University of Rochester, add gravitas to the collection. The library is also creating a regional research collection for the study of American photography, which will support the museum’s Hallmark Photographic Collection. Also included in the library: limited-edition photo books as well as books by or about photographers such as Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Alexander Gardner. Titles can be accessed from a web-accessible library catalogue. While books don’t circulate, the library is open to the public.
While the Stout Art Reference Library at the Indianapolis Museum of Art includes materials on the museum’s collection as well as the visual arts in general, one of the highlights is Stephen Rose’s collection of photographic arts books. (The museum only started collecting photographic materials in the early 2000s.) Concentrating on the history of photography from its inception until the late 20th century, it offers a special focus on Pictorialism and includes monographs, exhibition and auction catalogues, and magazines. The non-circulating collection includes about 100,000 volumes that range from books, journals, and auction catalogues to gallery publications from around the world.
The International Center of Photography tackled the subject of photo books with a somewhat novel approach: A recent exhibition at the library, PhotoBiblioMania, curated by David Solo, looked at books about photo books. It included an ongoing project that encompasses a bibliography about photo books, as well as thoughts about criteria for evaluation. The public is encouraged to contribute (icplibrary.wordpress.com) and the project may itself turn into a publication at some point. The widespread interest in books about photo books can’t be specifically dated, of course, but it was certainly encouraged about 10 years ago with the release of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: A History, Volume 1, and Andrew Roth’s Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century. The ICP exhibition and corresponding bibliography serve, in part, as a template for evaluation. An extension, perhaps, of our urge to catalogue and categorize our own photos, photo books show that photographs do not have to be on the wall of a gallery or museum to be appreciated or to make an impact.
The Constance & George Fearing Library, part of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, is open to the public three afternoons a week (books can’t be borrowed, just used there.) Its collection of photo books emphasizes fine art photography and includes exhibition catalogues, monographs, and books about artists in its collection, and it serves both staff and members of the public. Many of the books in the collections were donated – some by the photographers themselves, others by curators. An added bonus: Ephemera files – from clippings to gallery announcements, organized by individual artist.