Five questions to Matt Johnston of The Photobook Club

First, what is the The Photobook Club?

The goal is to create a space for people to share their thoughts on photobooks as well as to promote the physical book and experience of looking/reading in itself. That space lives online at the photobookclub.org where we choose individual books to look at over a given month and invite others to add their thoughts, but it also lives in the physical world as book clubs. The first of these I ran at the London Photobook Festival back in 2011 and since then I have been organising more myself as well as helping others to set up their own Photobook Clubs around the world - there are currently 6 permanent clubs who meet once a month as well as others who run one-off events and many more who are planning to launch before the year is out. The popularity highlights the level of interest in the physical book as well as in getting together to share that experience but it's also worth remembering that a lot of these events are enabled by digital technology in the form of websites, Twitter and Facebook.

Through the online presence, book clubs and now digital publishing I hope that the Photobook Club as a whole is helping more people see more photobooks, and to enter into dialogue about them regardless of their experience or knowledge.

How did you first come in contact with the photo book Invisible City and Ken Schles?

I first came into contact with the book via an open class I work on with Jonathan Worth at Coventry University. The free class called #phonar (Photography and Narrative) was drawing to a close for the term and with the success of a guest post by Wayne Ford listing some of his favourite narrative photobooks we decided to approach other contributors, photographers, publishers and the like to submit their own suggestions. Only a few books appeared more than once as Invisible City did* and so I was curious to check it out. Unfortunately it's popularity and scarcity became quickly apparent but I managed to see a portion of the book online, it was a short while later that Ken and I began to exchange emails about the possibility of a special Photobook Club feature on the book with the author taking part. It wasn't until a few months later when I met with Ken in New York that I finally got my hands on the book and began the project (to which I owe a huge amount of thanks to Ken for his participation and of course initially for the trust and loan of his own copy).

*Jeff Brouws and Steve Pyke who both nominated the book to the #phonar book list have written their own personal reflections featured in 'Invisible City, A Digital Resource'

Why did you decide to publish Invisible City, A digital resource, and why digitally?

In a nutshell, both Ken and I wanted to realise the project as a way to introduce a new audience to this work, but also to give added value to those who were already familiar with the book in it's physical form. Since it's birth in 1988 as a $20 hardback it has taken on an interesting life of it's own to a point where you struggle to get hold of a copy for less than $800 second hand, and so in part I was also trying to understand this strange life and perhaps even demystify it a little.

When I first started thinking about how I could showcase this work it seemed such a shame to simply create a digital translation, instead I went about creating something that would be of interest not only to those coming to the book for the first time but also those who had a copy, or who had seen it hundreds of times. With Ken's help we could feature scans of his lecture notes from 1990 at the ICP, a video showcasing a handmade alternate version, his own thoughts on the books history and personal reflections from people who have known the book. Doing this digitally meant that it could be distributed for free and that all the rich content we had gathered, could be embedded within one artefact, I think it also makes clear that it is in no way an attempt to replace or to compete with the generative experience that having the book in your hands, brings.

Will we see more digital publications from you in the future?

Absolutely, for starters I will be releasing an ePub/enhanced PDF version of the 'Invisible City' book. It was never an intention for the book only to be available on iPad but just as I was keen to enhance rather than copy the physical book for a digital experience, I do not want to simply 'port' it onto other devices with which we interact in different ways.

Beyond this there are other photobooks I would love to work with in a similar manner and I am also looking out for projects and artists who I can work with in really taking advantage and pushing the boundaries of both physical and digital books/apps. This being said I shall keep focus on the Photobook Club - one of the huge advantages of the changes in physical and digital publishing means that we can become occasional publishers of individual works through on demand printing, newspaper print and relatively cheep and easy to use digital options.

You mostly deal with physical books at The Photobook Club, but are there any ebooks or apps you like in particular?

I really love the HP Magcloud app for iPad, there is a vast amount of great content there and all of it is very easy to browse, download and view. As a rich accompaniment to the images and exhibition I think it is quite hard to fault the Burtynsky: Oil app but the project I am most excited about currently is Kadir Van Lohuizen's 'Via PanAm'. The App that was built to showcase this live project was fantastic in itself but now the work is to become a book and I am really keen to see how that unfolds as we are traditionally used to conversions only heading in the other direction. Bas and the team at Paradox are always looking for possibilities rather than problems in publishing so it is definitely one to watch. (I seem to have avoided the question and gotten back to physical books - sorry about that)

If you would like to download 'Invisible City, A Digital Resource' from the iBookstore, click here
You can contact Matt via email matt@photobookclub.org

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