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Silver Eye Center exhibit shows how now is golden age of photo books

| Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, 8:22 p.m.
Allison Beondé, 'Hedges'
Dan Boardman, 'C elegan'
Robert Chase Heishman, 'IMG #3'

Bookstores are quickly becoming a thing of the past as digital and audio books have gained swift ground. Except for one small niche, the photo book.

In an age where your family photos can be made into a book with a few clicks of a mouse and a credit card number, the photo book itself, especially in the creative hands of artists and fine-art photographers, has risen to an art form.

So it is that last weekend, hundreds of art aficionados and photography buffs made their way to Silver Eye Center for Photography on the South Side for the 2015 Silver Eye Book Fair.

The fair featured 10 book publishers and the artists' works they have published, all of whom are making beautiful, exciting and utterly fascinating books.

Artists and vendors at this year's fair included Bo-Books, Conveyor Arts, Flash Powder Projects, Gratuitous Type, Jim Reed, Light Work, Mystery Spot, Paul Nelson, Silas Finch, Spaces Corners, TIS Books and Vice Verso.

Silver Eye also offered up a selection of books from its collection, as well as signed and editioned prints from its new series “Silver Eye Editions.”

The publishers shared exhibit-quality prints for the current display, “Golden Hour: Thoughts on the Contemporary Photo Book,” showing through Jan. 16.

The title of the exhibit is telling, says David Oresick, Silver Eye's executive director. “What makes this the golden age of the photo book is that so many talented artists are considering the book as the end of the process without an eye toward a traditional exhibition.”

Oresick says this lets the artists focus completely on making the book — editing, sequencing, selecting paper, binding and more. In other words, creating a thoughtful, well-considered finished art object.

“Great photo books feel complete, thoughtful and like a world unto themselves, and artists understand this,” Oresick says. “Certainly, artists will show images from their books in galleries, but that's not always the goal and it doesn't always translate.”

Nevertheless, “Golden Hour” features some fabulous images from recent or upcoming publications, experimental installations, and thoughtful and evocative sequences that add a new perspective to existing book-based projects.

Today, various competitions now award these self-publishing efforts. There's the Iberoamerican Photobook Prize, which awards a body of work that isn't a book but gives the opportunity for it to become a book. London-based MACK Books has a First Book Award. There's the Dummy Award at Fotobookfestival Kassel. And the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation celebrates the book's contribution to the evolving narrative of photography every year with its PhotoBook Awards.

Today, making a book is easier and more affordable than ever. Digital printing through groups such as Conveyor Arts, Paper Chase Press and Editions One allow for smaller runs, which are easier to manage and produce relatively cheaply. And with bookmaking being digitally driven, just like other aspects of photography, it's a comfortable medium for photographers to work with.

Funding book projects has gotten more affordable, thanks to alternative, Internet-driven fundraising choices. Kickstarter can give a publisher an early hedge against production costs, and this kind of crowdfunding may reach a new audience for advanced sales.

Still, as popular as the medium has become among artists and photographers, Oresick says he doesn't think of it as a trend.

“Books have been a part of the art photography world since as long as the paper photo print has been around,” he says. “They've always been an important way of distribution of a medium that had a difficult time getting inside mainstream art institutions.”

The difference today is that advances in technologies and the lowering of production costs have allowed younger artists the opportunity to get their work in book form, he says, and out into the hands of the public at large.

“In the past 10 years or so, the indie photo book has boomed as on-demand printing and affordable online distribution has become available,” Oresick says. “I think there's also been renewed attention to classic photo books of the 20th century that have inspired young artists. The book is also just a natural place for photography because the photograph's intrinsic qualities — reproducibility, time and narrative progressions work really well in books.”

The exhibit also features six prints from “Silver Eye Editions,” a new fine print program the center launched last month.

“We have selected six emerging artists who we feel represent exciting ideas in contemporary photography and are making beautiful prints,” Oresick says.

One each by Allison Beonde, Dan Boardman, Daniel Coburn, Robert Chase Heishman, Megan C. Ledbetter and April Friges is on display. These museum-quality archival prints were made either by the master printers at Light Work Lab in Syracuse, N.Y., or printed by hand by the artist.

Oresick says the program offers visitors a new way to collect the work of upcoming, cutting-edge photographers, all while supporting Silver Eye.

“All prints are signed by the artist and are available in an edition of 30,” he says. “All prints are matted, and frames are available for purchase.”

This program, and all its proceeds, supports educational programming at Silver Eye. “These limited-edition prints are available at a much more affordable price than the work in our gallery usually sells for,” Oresick says.

Many of the artists in “Silver Eye Editions” have published books that are available at Silver Eye, but, so far, Oresick says the center doesn't have any plans for a book for the program at this point.

“More than that, I'd like to reframe the idea of what it means to be an engaged art patron and talk about collecting as an important way of bringing art into the home where it really comes alive while buying into the institutions and artists you love,” he says.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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