“Design By Browns”
Gilden’s A Beautiful Catastrophe is another example of a photo book that hits that “sweet spot” for collectors. The book is relatively obscure and out-of-print, but Gilden is famous and very much in demand. In this redux review, I will take a closer look at A Beautiful Catastrophe and evaluate whether or not it remains a good buy for collectors, now that the book is out-of-print and soaring in price.
Photo book collecting should, in my opinion, remain a byproduct of a passion for photography and the artists represented in the books you collect. It should not, on the other hand, be see as a mere investment vehicle. If you are looking to simply make money than I would say buy stock in Berkshire Hathaway and call it a day. Photo books, similarly to photographic prints and art in general, have no definitive value and no immediate liquidity. Put another way, they are subject to what some other collector decides they are willing to pay. Now, you may want to tell me that the stock market works in the same way. Maybe. But the scale is the essential factor here. The photo book market is so small that one cannot depend on an abstract and constant demand. Often the supply is high and the demand is low – even for some of the best photo books by the most famous names. Finally, before returning to the title at hand, we should take note of the fact that photo book values rely heavily on the reputation of the photographer themselves. Many photographers are subject to fads. Gilden, for example, is very popular right now because street photography is very popular. Yet, there is nothing to suggest that street photography will maintain such a robust popularity indefinitely. In fact, most indicators point to a looming collapse in street photography popularity, but that’s another article.
Now that you understand the risks associated with this type of investing, I’m going to suggest that A Beautiful Catastrophe is a worthy buy relative to the above caveats. Why? Well, I have a few reasons, really. One, Gilden is one of the top names among living street photographers and this is not likely to fluctuate too much with the ups and downs of the genre as a fad. Second, this particular book is a fantastic representation of some of Gilden’s most notable and signature work. In other words, A Beautiful Catastrophe is the collection of the work that made Gilden famous in the first place. Finally, the book also represents work that has had a profound impact on the genre as a whole – the “Gilden look” that so many amateur street photographers seek to emulate.
There are some aspects of this of book that I don’t like, however. One is that the binding is notoriously weak. It is not uncommon to see used copies for sale with references to “binding issues”. This is somewhat unexpected, as we often don’t associate powerHouse Books with poor quality. This book also reproduces the photographs in tritone on a rather unrefined matte paper. This might be either an attractive feature or a deal breaker depending on personal preference. With this particular work – of New York City’s finest characters – I feel that this presentation works well. The grittiness of the city is well portrayed on this medium, itself literally “gritty”.
Gilden has been wandering the sidewalks of Manhattan since the early 80s on an incessant quest to capture the endless stream of local eccentricities. A Beautiful Catastrophe is a fine testament to his success. Page after page we are presented with yet another almost unbelievable candid capture. Could these people really be chanced upon? Indeed, they could in the era in which Gilden made most of his iconic work. Now, not as much. Today one might wander Manhattan for months and still not find even a single instance like the moments captured here in this collection. In many ways, A Beautiful Catastrophe represents a fleeting moment in time, a part of a bygone era. Many an eager amateur have tried to recapture the feel of these moments only to fall short time and again. Indeed, Gilden himself, in recent interviews including the one exclusive to StreetPhotography.com, has admitted to being unable to create images in this spirit in recent years citing the overwhelming sense of sameness that permeates our modern society, generally, and New York City sidewalks more specifically.
Anyone who is willing to collect photo books, despite their high volatility as an investment, should most certainly take a long hard look at adding this title to their collection. In used, unsigned condition, the book has limited appeal. However, should you come across a signed version, or a copy in pristine condition, is is surely worth consideration. Expect to pay anywhere from $200 to $2000 for a signed specimen in good to new condition. Used, unsigned copies in fair to good condition can still be had for around the initial release price of $40. A Beautiful Catastrophe is a certain classic of the 80s street photography era and is likely to make any street photography photo book collection shine just a little bit brighter.
Hardcover, 9.5” x 12.5”
140 pages, 86 tritone photographs
Price $200 to $2000.