Exploring photo books with Harvey Benge

Photobook New Zealand 2016 is just around the corner now, so if you're not situated in Wellington, now's the time to book those flights or plan that road trip to get to the March 11–13 event. In the lead-up to the festival, we caught up with Harvey Benger — who will be speaking at the event — and heard his thoughts on the medium of photo books.

Installation view, Nothing Is As It Seems: Harvey Benge Photobooks, 2015, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

D-Photo: What is it about the medium of photo books that you like, and why do you think they’re a good way for photographers to showcase their work?

The book medium enables the photographer to structure a series of photographs that come together to form a visual narrative with, metaphorically, one image talking to the next. The sum of the parts becomes stronger than any one individual image. The book medium, apart from its ability to tell extended stories, has a degree of permanence that is absent from a gallery show. The bookwork is portable and can take the work anywhere that there is a bookshop or a post office.

How exciting is it to see an event like Photobook New Zealand come about? What do you expect people who attend the event to take away from it?

The takeout [that] I like to to see from any photographic event is a bunch of participants fired up and inspired to make pictures and make them better.

You’ll be speaking at the event. Can you give us a bit of an insight on what topics you’ll be covering and what messages you hope to leave the audience with?

Basically I'm in a panel discussion talking about ‘getting your work out internationally’. The message I will be leaving is that one needs to take the long view, be patient, and follow Woody Allen's advice that 90 per cent of life is showing up. That means gazing at the wall in Auckland isn't going to get you anywhere. You have to go to Paris or London and attend the festivals, meet other photographers, publishers, and gallerists, and let them know you are serious. And keep doing that.

What has been your personal favourite photo-book purchase that you have made?

The last book I purchased, Roger Ballen's OUTLAND. Roger and I are conducting a workshop in Auckland together, and I love his work.

Can you please tell us about the variety of photo books you have produced? When did you publish your very first one and why?

I've published nearly 60 books with publishers in Britain, Germany, France, and Japan. They are all ideas-based and, although they all have my visual handwriting, each has addressed a particular concern of mine. I'm interested in the idea of how we see — always subjectively of course — and the truth that nothing is what it seems.

My first book was published in Auckland in 1993 it was called Four Parts Religion Six Parts Sin and in it I was getting the cynicism off my chest relating to commercial unreality and what really matters in life.

How do photo books help in the professional/commercial realm? Are they helpful to show potential clients to give them an indication of the quality of work you are producing?

Yes, photo books can be a tool for any sort of shooter, including commercial. The book becomes a calling card. Although I don't do commercial work; never have, never will.

If you could give one piece of advice to a photographer who is considering publishing a photo book of their work for the first time, what would you suggest?

Make sure the concept is strong, the pictures are working really hard, and give the production time. Rushed work is never any good — particularly as we can all always do it better.