Having looked at hundreds of photobooks and having written quite a few reviews, there always is that one frustration that I haven’t been able to resolve: Photobooks are objects that combine photography with all kinds of other things, some tangible (the materials used etc.), some not (the concept, edit, etc.). A review of a book should deal with all the various aspects. But how do you go about this? In the past, for the most part I have ignored this challenge, merely occasionally pointing out when a book was produced very well or when the edit maybe was a bit weak.
But isn’t there a way to do a little better?
I have been thinking about ratings for a while now. There are a few things that I would want to address, though. First, the ratings have to be precise enough. In other words, there has to be more than just one single rating. Furthermore, the reality of photobooks is that most of them are perfectly fine, average books. In other words, there need to be ratings for below and above average (instead of a simple good-better-best).
With that in mind I came up with the following. Right now, this is still in the development stages, and I welcome comments (please email me: jmcolberg at gmail.com). I am perfectly aware that ratings might have people just look at the numbers, ignoring the text. Well, so be it. These ratings really aren’t supposed to have the reader skip the text. Instead, they are intended to give an interested reader more insight into the photobook in question.
In my current scheme, there are four main categories. Photograph - Work, Photography - Edit/Sequence, Concept of Book, and Production Quality. The scores run from 1 to 5, with 3 being the average (in other words, most books would get a 3):
Photography - Work (35%)
1 - Flawed body of work
2 - Below-average body of work that could have been better
3 - Solid body of work with little, if any surprises
4 - Above-above body of work, with a few pleasant surprises
5 - Excellent body of work, filled with surprises and depth
Photography - Edit/Sequence (15%)
1 - Completely flawed edit/sequence
2 - Slightly flawed edit/sequence that produces a few bumps
3 - Adequate edit/sequence with few, if any surprises
4 - Inventive edit/sequence that produces a few pleasant/unexpected surprises
5 - Perfect edit/sequence
Concept of Book (25%)
1 - Failed/weak concept
2 - Below-average concept that leaves the viewer wanting more
3 - Solid concept with little, if any surprises
4 - Above average concept that enhances the photographs
5 - Excellent concept that greatly enhances the photographs
Production Quality (printing, binding, materials, etc.) (25%)
1 - Lousy/poor production with glaring problems
2 - Below-average production that mars the book somewhat
3 - Solid production
4 - Above-average production that enhances the book
5 - Excellent production that greatly enhances the book
The overall score is the average of these four. There is one little detail: The “Photography - Edit/Sequence” rating counts only as 15%, while “Photography - Work” is weighted at 35%. A good body of work can be marred by a bad edit, but it would seem extreme to give both aspects - the quality of the photography and the edit/sequence - equal weight.
It’s likely that different people might use different weights. I know many collectors value a high production quality much more than the quality of the work. The weight attributed to the different categories reflect my own preferences.
After calculating the average, the overall score would then be:
1 - Weak, forgettable book
2 - Below-average book that could have been better
3 - Solid, average book
4 - Above-average book that stands out from the crowd
5 - Excellent book that deserves to be seen widely
Again, 3 would be the average score. Also, the reviews would not only contain the overall score, but also the individual components. This would allow readers to see all the relevant details, and you would see, for (a fictional) example, how a book could have a solid body of work (3), a lousy edit (1), a below-average concept (2), and an excellent production (5), ending with an overall score of 2.95 (rounded up to 3): A solid, average book.
As I noted above, I am curious about what people think. If you have comments, send me an email (jmcolberg at gmail.com) to make sure I really get to see them (adding comments to this post being reblogged or sending comments via Twitter might easily get lost).
Needless to say, the ratings of course would be somewhat subjective. The point here is not to establish a perfect, objective rating. Instead, the idea is to come up with something that adds value to the photobook reviews I’m writing.
PS: I don’t know whether this is clear from the above (it might not be), but the rating would appear as a single line underneath the review. I don’t necessarily want to change the way I write reviews; I merely want to add something to them.
Update (25 Nov 2013): Please see this updated version.