The Photobook and Conceptual Art

Sol LeWitt, Autobiography, illustrated with more than 1,000 reproductions of LeWitt’s sequential photographs of his apartment and possessions, first edition, New York, 1980. Estimate $1,500 to $2,500.

Conceptual Art first emerged with Marcel Duchamp’s readymades in the 1910s, but multimedia artist Edward Kienholz actually coined the term in the 1950s. Subsequently, Sol LeWitt’s influential essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” which appeared in Artforum magazine in 1967, described the physicality of the artwork as secondary. “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand, and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

Typically, conceptual works may include photographs, image-text composites, or found images. Pictures appear banal in order to focus on the ideas they convey. Moreover, figures associated with the Conceptual Art movement did not consider themselves photographers—a distinction that exists to this day. Rather, they employed photography as a mode of documentation appreciated for its immediacy.

The rise of the Conceptual Art movement parallels the interest in seeing photography accepted as fine art. It should be noted that, in the 1960s, there was resistance to the idea that photography was an authentic medium of creative expression, and both the high-art establishment and the general public were in agreement that photography was too mechanical to be an acceptable creative pursuit. But books conceived and designed by photographers flourished.

Lee Friedlander, Photographs, 1957-1984, illustrated with reproductions of Friedlander’s photographs including a special section on cherry blossom season, first japanese edition, Tokyo, 1987. Estimate $800 to $1,200.

Fine-art photographers such as Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander shared with the conceptualists an interest in subverting the conventions of photographic representation. Both were prolific book artists. Early on, Friedlander, like Ed Ruscha, self-published his books. Soon after, photographers Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld pushed the boundaries by shooting images in color.

Edward Ruscha’s Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles, illustrated with reproductions of photographs by Art Alanis of aerial views of parking lots, first edition, Los Angeles, 1967. Estimate $2,200 to $2,800.

Today, the photobook market features titles by artists and photographers who, during the 1960s-80s, expanded the visual vocabulary associated with Conceptual Art and challenged conventions associated with classical photography. Swann Galleries acknowledges the grand tradition of the photobook in our bi-annual sale of Photographic Literature, Tuesday, December 8th at 10:30 am.