‘What makes a good photobook?’ is almost certainly an impossible question to answer, and yet there are several universal considerations: superb images and a strong edit – a given. Text? Perhaps, and if so, how much and where? And what about foldouts and inserts? Side or saddle stitched? And the cover – should it be hardback or softcover? The list goes on…
If you measure a book’s greatness by its design and finish, then Tamsin Green’s Born of the Purest Parents, which tells a story of salt, is without a doubt a great photobook. Hardback with a laser cut cover, five foldouts and exquisitely bound, it’s a book for book fetishists and will keep you entertained for hours. But what makes it a fascinating read (the foldouts, diagrams, maps and quotes) is what makes it hard to navigate in places. It’s a book that demands you take a closer look and spend time with it, piecing everything together, and indeed, it rewards those efforts, but at a price: looking closely and trying to follow and fathom the book’s concept takes you away from the images themselves, which makes it harder to enjoy for images’ sake.
And there are some brilliant images here. The black and white still lifes of objects relating to the discovery and uses of salt (pan, salt cellar, salt lick and a lovely Walker Evans-esque hammer) are beautifully shot, as are the immersive landscapes shown full-bleed over a single page or as a foldout. The photography is so accomplished in fact I almost wish the book had focused exclusively on the images of and relating to salt, its production and uses, rather than worrying so much about following a concept and rigid structure that becomes slightly constraining.
Nonetheless, it is an intriguing idea for a project, an idea that Green explains some way into the book. ‘When I was a child I was fascinated by rocks and minerals,’ she writes. And a little later: ‘I started to question if I would be able to find them again within their natural landscape…’ Suddenly, two thirds of the way in, it all starts to make sense. This is a journey of sorts for Green, a quest to investigate through photography and diagrams (Green is a qualified architect) what salt is and its value to humans.
We learn from her statement that she began the work by exploring and mapping ‘unfamiliar geological terrain’ and that the project ‘combines field images with photographs of found specimens and Google satellite images to create an alternative guide to salt.’ Equipped with this information, looking again through the book from start to finish is a far richer experience the second time around.
It also makes the book suddenly seem more personal, for on an initial look through it comes across as a little cold and detached. We don’t really get a sense of Green as she embarks on this journey and I would have loved to know more about what she was thinking and feeling – what drove her – as she was travelling to these locations (France, Spain, Cyprus and Romania).
Somewhere between topographic survey, field guide and a photobook that has a fictional or poetic bent, this is a really clever and meticulously produced book. There’s no doubt a lot of time and thought has gone into it (Green worked with photography luminary Yumi Goto on the concept and the project was developed as part of TRIPOD at Photofusion). Despite a slight niggle that this is a book that is slightly too clever for its own good, I love the ambition here, and uncompromising vision. An impressive photobook debut.