Bruce Gilden’s Haiti (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 1999) is one of those photo books that make you think twice about investing in the stock market – at least initially. I say this because the book is routinely selling for as much as 350$US. I forget what I paid for my copy back in 2006, but it was surely less than fifty dollars. The question that lingers, however, is whether or not this phenomenon represents a true economy? Put another way, is this book actually worth $350US dollars?
Gilden’s work is not for everyone. This is true of most photography but it is especially true of Gilden’s work. His rough, no-nonsense, and sometimes rude, approach to photographing strangers is nearly world-renowned. Haiti is no exception. His aim in this collection is not to flatter his subjects or to produce a travel promo for Haiti. His work here is exploitive but effective. A viewer would be hard-pressed not to have a visceral reaction to many of the works in this monograph. The “voodoo-esq” approach to the subject matter leaves the spectator with a mysterious, unsettling, but profound glimpse into the “otherness” of the native population of this storied Caribbean nation. Up close, flash-infused, monochrome photographs bustling with motion blur confront the view page after page in this collection. In precise, the work is powerful.
Image Credit Bruce Gilden
Like most art books, Haiti eventually went out-of-print and prices began to rise. That brings us to the present and Haiti’s almost unbelievable price point. Although, I can’t say I haven’t seen this play out before. For example, Taschen published a collection of Dennis Hopper’s photographs in 2011 that sold for as little as $15 at the time. Now, that same book can easily fetch 200-300$ US. The only trick is to find a willing buyer.
Changing gears, for a moment, I want to tell a little story about my own personal collection of art books. I recently moved. When one moves in New York City the rent often goes up and the apartment size goes down. So it goes. As a result, I tried to cull as many of my art books as possible. When I began to examine them (and price them for sale) I noticed that many of them were already suffering from UV damage. Quite remarkable, actually, as they had been stored in my relatively dark study where the books received no direct sunlight. The point? Books are an incredibly delicate investment. Even in the best of storage situations there is no guarantee. At the end of the day a book is just a pile of paper. That said, things are indeed worth what someone is willing to pay for them. Nothing has a definitive value. Even currency is susceptible to devaluation, global markets etc. So, if someone is willing to pay $300 for a copy of Haiti, who am I to suggest that it is not worth it?
Image Credit Bruce Gilden
Now, what is the point of this article? Well, it’s twofold, actually. First, to say that yes, Gilden’s work in Haiti is engaging, dramatic, and worthy of our hard-earned hobby allowance. Second, I aim to disrupt the notion that photo books are automatically worthy of their price, at least from an investment perspective. Beware, street photographers like Gilden, Moriyama, Eggleston, and even more obscure types like Cohen, are well-aware of the “street photography craze” underway at the moment. They have all responded in kind by publishing “limited edition” books as quickly as the printers can spit them out. Like all other markets, a correction is almost certainly unavoidable. But that fact doesn’t make the work here any less unique or worthy of our praise. Some of Gilden’s very best work appears in this collection. Essentially, Gilden used his already perfected “signature” style and applied it to a worthy subject matter. The result is exceptionally powerful photography that easily eclipses his more “one trick pony” Manhattan sidewalk stuff. So, buying the book for it’s contents is a sound move, as an investment – not so much. In the end, if you’re bent on acquiring a copy of Haiti – for whatever reason – mine is for sale!