For five years, Ben Krewinkel has been building an ever growing collection of 20th century African photobooks. The 500 to 550 titles in his possession reflect the changing visual representation of the continent. Krewinkel’s collection is visible online; he is also working on a book.
At what point did you realise you were starting a collection?
I’ve been collecting photobooks for a long time now. The first two photobooks in my collection were Black Child by the South African photographer Peter Magubane and the beautiful book Sahel by Dutch photographer Willem Diepraam. In 2012, I visited the exhibition Don McCullin or the business of being human, where I bought one of his books. After this, the book collecting went faster. I started to study photography and my teacher, Joost van den Broek, often brought books to the classroom and stirred my enthusiasm. The Photobook: A History by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger did the rest. It was about five years ago that I decided to focus mainly on books about and from the African continent. It was from this moment that I realised I was building a cohesive collection.
Your collection seems to focus predominantly on Africa in the 20th century. Can you comment on this and what are your parameters for adding books to the collection?
There is a difference between the website and the book I am currently working on. For the website there are no restrictions, although I only showcase professional and commercial books. In the case of amateur, self-published print-on-demand books, I decide based on the content whether or not I showcase the book on the website. Since there is obviously a limit to my book-buying budget, I have to be selective when acquiring books for the collection. Occasionally, I buy books that I feel fit the collection, but fortunately photographers also send complimentary copies of their book to be showcased on the website and help build the collection.
To me the era from the 1890s until the 1990s is most interesting. From about the 1890s photobooks were made using new, commercial printing techniques and became more accessible to a mass audience. Older, one-off photographic albums such as Africa Occidental by Cunha de Moraes (on Angola published in the 1880s) is beautiful but is excluded from the collection. I must admit though that this is also due to the fact that I cannot afford to buy titles like this, which are rare and expensive. The 1990s mark both the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the end of colonialism in Namibia. Also, this period brought a (re)valuation of African photography because of exhibitions like In/sight:African photographers, 1940 to the present at the Guggenheim in the 1990s. In a relatively short time, many monographs of African portrait photographers were published during these years. These books are less important for my collection, since the photographs – taken as portraits in studio for paying customers – weren’t originally intended to be published in book form. This was done on the part of collectors and curators looking to add commercial and institutional value to these collections.
One last thing, there are no restrictions on content. Most of the photobooks published before the 1950s are problematic, but so are many of the books published after this date. The website is about the changing visual representation of Africa as expressed through the medium of the photobook. By buying and showcasing the books I don’t endorse the work, but hope to make it available to a wider audience for critique and assessment.
How many books are currently in the collection?
I think there are about 500 to 550 books in the collection, of which 430 can be viewed on the website.
There is significance to the name you have given the collection: Africa 'in' the Photobook. What is the ratio of books produced in Africa by Africans as opposed to books produced by Europeans about Africa and is this distinction easy to discern? Would you agree that this is predominantly a colonial history?
I fully agree that when considering the books in the collection that predate the 1960s, we are looking at a colonial history. Obviously, a name such as The African Photobook would suggest the collection consists of books made and published in Africa by African artists. Fortunately, more and more African artist are making photobooks, but most books in my collection, especially predating the 1960s, were made by western photographers, designers and publishers. Even many of the first books commissioned by the national governments of the new independent nation states in Africa were made in Europe and contained photographs made by Europeans. The earliest examples that could be considered African were books that were made by nationalist organizations such as the FLN in Algeria and Frelimo in Mozambique. More often than not, the photographs in the books aren’t attributed to specific photographers making it very difficult to discern African books from European books. What is very interesting is that in very early books there is evidence of the inclusion of photographs made by African photographers. An interesting example is the book Voyage au Congo (1897) by Charles Lemaire that at least contains one photograph by H. A. Shanu, a photographer from Nigeria. That said even Shanu worked at the time for the Belgian authorities, so his work served this colonial perspective.
What, in your opinion, is the value of this collection?
The value of this collection is most definitely the fact that all books are brought together into one collection. In this sense they interact with each other. Many books are not obviously interesting on their own, but when looked at within in a wider context that the collection brings, one can discover certain patterns and connections between different titles.
Could you point to a lesser-known book in your collection and describe why it is exemplary?
One of my favorite books, actually more of a booklet, is Nôs resistência cultural (1976) that was published in Cabo Verde. I think many people wouldn’t consider this a photobook. To me it is very interesting since it is a propaganda book in which the makers show a cultural self-awareness that is way more subtle than I am used to seeing in books from the same era. By showcasing local handicrafts in a sober, sometimes abstract manner the makers of the book are communicating a certain cultural pride and progress as propagated by the Cabo Verde revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral.
Is there a prevailing genre that arises through the collection? In other words, do you find more of one kind of book than another and why do you think this is?
Certainly, there are some genres or trends to be discovered in the collection. Many of these are time-bound. Just after the Second World War one sees, for instance, an increase of illustrated children’s books. Although many of them were made from a humanistic point of view, they are often nostalgic and Eurocentric. Another prevailing genre is books published after the 1960s by the governments of the new independent nation states. Without exception they are about state formation and nation building. Many of these books were still made by European photographers and publishers. The books made by the liberation movements, in particularly Lusophone Africa, are more self-aware and do focus on the liberation struggle as well. These books are much more radical. Nôs resistência cultural is an exception since it doesn’t depict explicitly the struggle or the progress of the country, neither does it show a portrait of the president. It only shows the objects made by ordinary civilians who have always been, by sticking to their traditions, an important part of the resistance to the colonial administration. Although the content of these nation-building books is very much the same, their designs differ. There are some very beautifully designed books that stand out from this period. As is well-known Ahmed Sékou Touré the president of Guinea saw the potential of photography, which can be seen in some of the early publications from independent Guinea such as Guinea and its people (1965) that was published both in English and French. A photobook that was also beautifully designed is Côte d’Ivoire (1967) with photographs by the French photographer Roger Espinat. The strikingly abstract cover only showing an ‘A’ standing for ‘Amitie’, ‘Afrique’ and ‘Avenir’. Just like the sober cover the book also stands out because of the depiction of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny who is not placed at the beginning of the book, but only at the end in a very small portrait.
You currently catalogue the books on a dedicated website and (generously) make a selection of spreads and bibliographical information available to anyone who is interested. I know that you are working on a book/s about the collection. What do you hope to achieve with the book that you don't with the website?
I’m currently working very hard on the book project. The most difficult thing is finding information on the selected books to be included in the publication. Most often there is very little information on the books, authors, photographers and the motives behind their publication. By writing the book I hope to be able to place the selected photobooks from the collection in a logical context and to delve deeper into a selection of books that are exemplary for the different genres or trends. I have no pretention to completeness and hope the study is just the beginning of a deeper level of research. There are so many interesting books and potential topics to write about. Recently, the book Photobook Belge was published. It includes is a chapter fully dedicated to photobooks on Congo. I think one could write a complete book on this region alone and the same would apply for other regions.
Who do you see as the audience for the books?
The idea behind the website is to open up the collection for a wide an audience as possible. The problem with physical archives is that they must be visited in person. With the website anybody with access to the Internet can get an idea of what the books look like inside. This way you don’t have to be a wealthy collector to get access to specific and often hard to find titles. Although I know the website is of interest to book collectors as well, I hope to reach a wider audience, for example, students from African countries who don’t have easy access to European archives. By opening up the online archive I also hope to connect with people and be able to gather more information on certain books.
At this point there is very little detailed information on content of the books. This information takes time to gather. The research for the book is partly funded, but my intention is to see how I can include more information about the books included on the website in future. The audience for the physical book I am working on is smaller, but making the book provides a unique opportunity to gather information. I would like for the book to be affordable, but oftent the price of reference books like these, due to their extent and the time that goes into compiling them, is high. My hope would be to be able to make the content of the books digitally available at a reduced price.
Check out the Africa in the Photobook website here.
Ben Krewinkel (1975) studied modern African history in Amsterdam and Pretoria and Photographic Studies in Leiden. He also finished the FotoAcademie (cum laude) in Amsterdam. He teaches photography at the School of Journalism in Utrecht and at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. He also works as a curator and writes on photography, mainly photobooks. In 2012, his first photobook A Possible Life. Conversations with Gualbert. was published. Currently, he is working on the follow-up of A Possible Life. The title of the forthcoming book is Il m'a sauvé (He saved me). Ben is the main editor of Africa in the Photobook, a website about the changing visual representation of Africa as expressed through the medium of the photobook.