Francisco Medail
Argentina -
September 16, 2023

The photobook as an artifact for (re)thinking a country

The exhibition “Imagen Impresa” explores the production of photography books in Argentina from the mid-20th century to the present. Curated by researcher Francisco Medail, it is an ambitious work that invites us to consider the photobook as a multifaceted device linked to the history of art and politics, science, and popular culture.

By Alonso Almenara


Francisco Medail points out that for many years, the photobook in Argentina was not seen as an artist’s book or a vehicle for an authorial vision. It was a popular product consumed by broad segments of society. A title like “Buenos Aires y su gente,” published in 1960 with photographs by Sameer Makarius, had a print run of 63,000 copies—something that seems unthinkable today. One of the most widely circulated books in the country did not focus on an artist’s production but one that simply served as propaganda: “Argentina 78,” about the World Cup.

“The Monumental stadium of River Plate, the largest stadium in Argentina, is located very close to the ESMA, where people were tortured,” notes the researcher. The dictatorship organized the event to improve the country’s image since there were significant international accusations of crimes against humanity. The book includes photos of the matches and a prologue by Rafael Videla. “Furthermore, in the first and last pages, ‘Argentina 78’ portrays the country as a natural paradise, where white doves of peace fly. The intention is evident.”

Medail coordinates the collection of theoretical books on photography called ” Pretéritos Imperfectos,” published by the ArtexArte Foundation. The exhibition “Imagen Impresa: Fotografía & Libros en Argentina” emerged from this experience and was inaugurated on August 26 at the foundation’s premises. The collection comprises over 130 books ranging from scientific publications from the 1930s to contemporary artist photobooks.

It is structured around three major conceptual axes: a first core investigates the use of the photography book as a means of political propaganda, in contrast to artistic projects that used this device to reflect on political and social events in the country. Secondly, it explores how the Argentine territory has been represented in photobooks, highlighting the imbalance between the centrality of Buenos Aires and the rest of the provinces and the essentialist attempts to depict the country as a whole. Finally, the exhibition recovers the relationship between the photography book and other artistic disciplines, such as literature, painting, music, and photography.
“The exhibition is not about creating a ranking of books or saying which ones are the best, but rather, starting from certain problems, thinking about the function of the photography book,” says Medail. “What interests us is to show how the photobook was functional to the multiple characters of the photographic device. In many cases, these publications have a very different functionality from what we understand today as a photobook.”
On the other hand, the exhibition draws interesting dialogues between historical books and contemporary books. The oldest title included is “Misiones y cataratas del Iguazú,” published in 1930 by Gaston Bourquin, a photographer specializing in postcards. This title is placed next to one by contemporary photographer Jose Nicolini, titled “Las que vencen,” which documents her two-year journey on a motorcycle through the Argentine coast while interviewing women. For Medail, these juxtapositions help us think about the photobook differently and suggest new directions for current creators.

How did the idea for this exhibition come about?

The exhibition emerged from an invitation from the ArtexArte Foundation, where I coordinated a collection of theoretical books on photography called “Pretéritos Imperfectos.” In mid-2021, Marisol Miguel, the executive producer of the Foundation, proposed that I create an exhibition related to photobooks. Initially, we considered a project about the photobook phenomenon in Latin America, but it seemed too vast. Ultimately, we decided to focus on Argentina. One reason is that, although there has been a wide range of editorial production in the country throughout the 20th century, no research has been conducted on the topic. For example, research on this subject has been carried out in countries like Chile and Venezuela. The exhibition is ultimately a crossover: on the one hand, it is a non-chronological, problematic journey through photography books made in Argentina. On the other hand, there are a series of virtual and in-person activities in which we seek to problematize the photobook at the Latin American level. We have guests from abroad and organized dialogues with Peru, Chile, Mexico, and Spain.

I’d like to start by discussing the political themes addressed in the exhibition. The journey consists of three parts, and the first part is called “Problems of the State.”

This axis occupies the lower floor of the exhibition. It proposes a cross between books produced by the Argentine state, mostly propaganda books, both official or ideological and tourist-oriented, and more authorial books that work on projects related to political, social, or economic events in the country’s history. For example, one of the books included is “Argentina 78,” the famous book about the World Cup. You know that the largest stadium in Argentina, the Monumental of River Plate, is located very close to the ESMA, the main detention center of the dictatorship. So, the event had been organized somewhat to improve the country’s image because there were already significant international accusations of crimes against humanity. The book includes photos of the matches and a prologue by Rafael Videla. Moreover, in the first and last pages, “Argentina 78” portrays the country as a natural paradise, where white doves of peace fly, etc. The intention is evident in that book.

Another interesting book is “Tucumán: Cuna de la Independencia, Sepulcro de la sSubversión,” edited by the dictatorship. In terms of design resources and more, it is a brilliant publication. However, it is a book that legitimizes the extermination of left-wing militants in Tucumán. It is a narrative about how the subversives sowed panic in society, and the military entered the jungle and got rid of them to restore order. That table, for example, dialogues with one that brings together photographic essays about the disappeared published from the 1990s onwards.

Another table includes all the books published by different ministries or tourism secretaries about Argentina. This shows how, during the dictatorship and in the 1990s, the country was portrayed as a natural paradise, with many images of lakes and mountains. The same did not happen during governments like Perón’s or Néstor Kirchner’s, which promoted Argentina as a developing power, an economy in industrialization, etc. This is a very interesting starting point because it shows that the photobook is not something innocent but has a background, an ideological connotation, or a specific objective.


You mentioned some publications that present what we could call “official views” of Argentine geography. I would like us to discuss this further. It’s something that the exhibition explores in the second axis of the journey, called “Representations of the Territory.

The second axis is divided into three sections. The section dedicated to Buenos Aires is the largest, occupying 25 linear meters of wall space. Buenos Aires is overrepresented in the history of the photobook in Argentina and is depicted as a modern city, the city most similar to Europe, unlike the rest of the country. In the second section, we examine photobooks dedicated to other regions, and we see that the emphasis is always on natural resources, geography, and tourism.

A third section explores photobooks that aim to represent the entire country: books titled Argentina, mostly coffee table books. These books, for me, are problematic because how do you represent an entire country? How can such a vast country as Argentina fit into a book? Each of these editorial pieces has an underlying discourse that presents a certain image of Argentina depending on the target audience of the publishing house. But here, we establish a dialogue with books by artists who have thought of Argentina as a kind of metonymy, books titled Argentina but which focus on something very specific about the country. The word “Argentina” becomes a rhetorical figure, a good way to escape the attempt to cover everything because it is truly impossible.

Today, propaganda books and tourist books are still being published, but the photobook as a niche is more anchored in the artist’s book or the photographer’s book as an author. And from that standpoint, having a broader view of the format also allows for taking resources and developing new possibilities.

The exhibition’s third part, “Art in Books,” examines the relationship between the photography book and other arts. What elements do you highlight in that dialogue?

There are four quite large tables there. One is dedicated to the relationship between photography and literature: on the one hand, publications by writers include photos, and on the other hand, books by photographers who create portraits of writers. Another table focuses on the dialogue of photography with painting, music, and dance. It’s interesting because, in reality, every art book is mediated by photography. There, you can see the first major books on Argentine art history that had impeccable reproductions of paintings in color, made possible by excellent photographers and high-quality printing.

A third table is dedicated to books that seek to promote local photography production. For example, there are some books called “Fotografía Actual,” two volumes published in the 90s that, when they came out, aimed to showcase the future of Argentine photography. It’s funny because you wouldn’t know half of those people if you read them today.

The last part of the exhibition, perhaps the most arbitrary or heterogeneous, is one where I try to highlight some new practices related to books and art through photography. It’s a small potpourri of the photobook in contemporary times. On the one hand, we see photographers editing their publications and zines; on the other hand, there are many works dedicated to found archives, as well as books on historical recoveries, publications about photographers who were unknown until yesterday but are now rediscovered and brought into circulation through these editorial pieces.

The local crisis, however, impacts the production of photobooks, doesn’t it?

We are in a very challenging context. Julián Barón says, in the case of Spain, that moments of crisis are when the best photobooks appear. I would like to have the same optimistic view for the Argentine case, but financing these kinds of projects is becoming increasingly difficult. Publishers no longer produce the same number of photobooks as they did five or six years ago. Nevertheless, I believe that Argentina has a very rich material production and a highly interesting pool of artists. We are accustomed to having few resources, and sometimes, the particularity of Argentina is that with very little, we manage to create very good works.

Is what’s happening in Argentina very different from what’s happening in other Latin American countries?

There are some commonalities, especially with Venezuela, which has a wide production of photography books produced by the state and oil companies. Some countries had very active periods with governments interested in producing propaganda books. Today, the situation in Venezuela is very different. Fortunately, Ricardo Báez, one of the most well-known photo book designers today, is doing excellent work from Venezuela, even working remotely for other publishing houses.

Then I think about Chile, which had a rich production in the 70s and 80s, linked to resistance against the coup d’état. Something that is very much in line with what happened in Argentina. I believe there is a fairly similar publishing activity in Mexico and Peru, as well as in Uruguay, with the Center of Photography, which has revitalized the photographic scene.

What is needed is for us to look more at each other. And I say this also as the editor of a collection of theoretical books that I would love to be read in other countries, but it is very difficult to distribute. Venezuelan books, for example, do not reach here, and it’s the same situation in Mexico.

To conclude, what does this kind of reflection on the history of the photobook contribute to photographers’ perspectives?

That is the guiding thread of the next book in the Pretérito Imperfecto collection, titled “El Hechizo Roto.” Something I mention in the introduction is that I find it interesting to consider the role of the photobook in understanding the multifaceted nature of the photographic medium: to understand how photography occupied various spaces, not only in the artistic field but also in the scientific, cultural, political, etc. I am interested in thinking about photography in a more interdisciplinary sense. That’s why I depart from the logic of a book like Horacio Fernández’s, which is a compilation of the best photobooks in the region. Instead, I reflect on the book’s various functionalities and analyze how all its elements, from the photos to the design and editing, are subordinated to that function.

Today, propaganda books and tourist books continue to be published, but the photobook as a niche is more rooted in the artist’s book or the photographer’s book as an author. And I believe that from that perspective, having a broader view of the format also allows for using resources and developing new possibilities.