> New Audiences and the Photobook Renaissance
> Obsolescence, Recognition, Stability and Change?
> Beyond Production: The Photobook as a Collaborative Opportunity
> Commercial Realities and the Screen Experience
> I want people to see the work
> A new Era for the Screen-Based Photobook
> Slow Down, Truly Believe and Experience
> Culturally Relevant and Critically Stimulated
Dewi Lewis established his publishing house in 1994.
Internationally known, its authors have included photographers such as Martin Parr, Simon Norfolk, William Klein, Frank Horvat, Paolo Pellegrin, Sergio Larrain and Bruce Gilden. He works in close collaboration with a number of European publishers and is a founding member of The European Publishers Award for Photography, now in its 20th year.
Dewi Lewis began working in the arts in the 1970s. He was the founding Director of Cornerhouse, one of the major UK Centres for Contemporary Visual Arts and Film, which he ran for ten years. In 1987 he established Cornerhouse Publications which achieved recognition internationally for its ambitious and imaginative publishing programme and was a winner of the Sunday Times Award for Small Publisher of the Year.
An Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, Dewi Lewis was awarded the Society’s inaugural RPS Award for Outstanding Service to Photography in 2009, and in 2012, the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation presented him with an award for Outstanding Service to Photography Publishing.
New Audiences and the Photobook Renaissance
NFS: What is really fascinating at this moment is the rejuvenation of the image online and how that in turn is manifesting itself as artefacts and in particular the physical photobook. It isn’t a time of print versus digital but more what happens when those things come together. This is an exciting time for you coming into your 20th year as a photobook publisher, what is your perspective on the photobook in this new landscape?
DL: I would say that at the moment there is a renaissance of the photobook, very much at the same time, as things have developed in the digital world. I think one of the key things is that aspects such as digital printing have allowed photographers to do short run books, small editions of perhaps 50 or 100 copies. Often those have come from projects that might even have been developed online.
I think there’s a real tie-in between the two; I would say digital has expanded the audience and interest in photography. By that I mean essentially online, that the more images, the more projects that are out there, then the more that people seem to be picking up on ideas for new projects.
I think it’s all very positive. I don’t see any negatives. I don’t see any squeeze on publishing in print as a direct result of things happening online.
NFS: Do you think the online surge is bringing in new audiences as well as increasing the engagement and level of investment in the photobook then?
DL: I think it’s very much bringing in new audiences. One of the comparisons? I think it’s not dissimilar to the way in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that there was a great interest in film, in movies. In a strange sort of way photography has almost supplanted that.
Twenty years ago you were supposed to have an awareness of key directors, what was happening, etc., in movies. Now it’s almost as if photography has become something that people are supposed to be aware of. It’s a much more central position that it holds in culture generally.
NFS: Okay. That’s quite fascinating. In the conversation with Francis Hodgson, he talked about his reservations and concerns that these things aren’t necessarily pulling together. He’s concerned with the… almost the lack of culture, I think in a sense that’s taking place in photography with the dominance of digital consumption. Or maybe from the point of view of a publisher you’re suggesting there is a greater understanding of the value of both the image and the photograph generally in the context of the photobook?
DL: No. I think Francis is right in lots of ways although – I think as a cultural artefact, photography has become much more significant. It’s also become much more throwaway. In terms of the broader understanding of what photography can mean, I’m not really sure that that’s developed very much.
I would say that people’s view on photography is still pretty instant really in the way that they are responding. I mean from conversations I’ve had with him (Francis), I think one of the things that he’s very aware of, and I am as well, is that if you go into most colleges, for example, the awareness of any historical background is pretty slim with a lot of the students. In a way, you tend to think that that’s a real negative. But at the same time, I think essentially there’s a very new and separate form of photography which has been developing over the last few years. I would still say it’s important to have a knowledge of what has gone before. But in many ways the references are of things from other cultural areas in terms of whether it’s fashion, music, theatre – it’s other experiences. It’s not just about relying on photographic heritage. I think there is that change.
Obsolescence, Recognition, Stability and Change?
NFS: Is that where you see the photobook, positioning itself in this digital space fusing experiences into a single commodity? Are the rules changing for the production of photobooks?
DL: The rules are certainly changing. I think one of the things with the photobook is that it does provide a line, a route through things. It becomes almost a historical marker. If you look at the work of people like Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, exploring the history of the photobook, then you can follow a line of how photography is developing and changing. That is important.
The great problem with the Web, with the Internet, is the built-in obsolescence in a sense that there’s so much out there. We respond to things very quickly. We move on from them very quickly. The photobook gives some stability and certainty to things.
NFS: The volumes by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr are fascinating as they provide an opportunity to observe the changes in photography and witness perhaps the trends in photobook publishing. In this space the publishers are the gateholders but in the self-publishing arena this control is flipped. You’ve talked previously about the dangers of self-publishing, the ease of producing your books online, perhaps means books come into reality which aren’t quite ready for production. I think there is an interesting dynamic between the books that traditionally aren’t quite ready to be made, but the ability of pushing and exploring different ideas, without having to go through the establishment, frees the photobook from the commercial reality – it exists as a commodity doesn’t it?
DL: Yes. I think there are a few elements in that. One, and something I always say to younger photographers, is that their great, great grandchildren can go along to the British library and ask for a copy of that book in 100 or 200 years time, at least in theory.
That actually means that when you’re making a book, you’re doing something which has an immense longevity to it. As a photographer, wouldn’t you want it to be something that those great, great grandchildren would be proud of when they look at it in 200 years time?
There’s that element that the true photobook should really be something which is a culmination of a lot of thought, a lot of time, a lot of consideration.
The big problem about it is cost. In many ways it becomes a financial problem, so that those photographers who have access to money can do as many books as they want. They can keep producing small print runs, small editions. Those photographers who are harder pressed financially can only work on the Internet. They can’t afford the thousands of pounds that would be needed to put every new project into print form.
I do think it is valuable to see almost instant books, to see something that’s coming through very much as a concept, as an idea, as something which is almost throwaway.
I suppose the other thing is that the book has for a long time been effectively a portable portfolio. It’s something you can send around the world. You can get your work seen by curators and others far more easily than going off to meet people or showing them your proper portfolio. Those who have the advantage of having things in print have an advantage in terms of getting exhibitions.
It all goes towards creating a strength for those photographers who have that opportunity. It’s not as democratic in that sense.
Beyond Production: The Photobook as a Collaborative Opportunity
NFS: Equally, it is the recognition of the relationship that the photographer has with a particular publisher. Fundamentally, as much as the potential to have work shown in galleries, surely there should be the acknowledgement of the craft in the edit, construction of the narrative that you’re exploring that becomes a recognised entity in terms of the book as the product of that process.
DL: Yes, definitely. The book is also a collaboration. I think the role of publisher is often misunderstood. It’s often seen as just someone who puts a photographer’s work out into the marketplace. For me, it’s considerably more.
I think our role is very much challenging the work. It’s clearly working on the edit. It’s trying to give it a design concept that feels right for that body of work. It’s a number of those things. Actually, a photographer who self-publishes will often be working with a group of people. The best books involve a real relationship between a number of people, not just the photographer doing it by himself or herself. Sadly, a lot of designers are not really recognised for the input that they make into a book project.
I think the credibility that you can get from having a book can be significant, I don’t doubt that. But I think again it’s actually ultimately down to the photographers themselves. If you give five photographers the opportunity to have a book, one of them will use it in a different way to the others. One will be very proactive in getting the work out there, meeting people, persuading an audience to be interested in the book, etc. At least one of those five will sit back and do nothing. It’s not just a matter of having the book, it’s actually then thinking about what they do with it and how they use it properly.
NFS: It becomes a vehicle for something?
DL: It becomes a vehicle, yes.
NFS: We have talked about how a photobook has become something different and now has different opportunities associated to it, but how do those behaviours associate within the digitally social environment? Are the reading habits of a technologically driven audience impacting on the construction of the narrative of the books that you’re producing as well?
DL: I’m not convinced they do really. I think in a sense, the way that the book has moved over the last 5 to 10 years is that the book has become essentially much more an object, an art object. The focus has really been on creating a tangible artefact – this is something that people seem very concerned about.
If you look at recent designs you’ll have lots of inserts in a book, the placing of images in strange relationships, so some might be on the side and some landscapes might be effectively printed the wrong way around so you’re turning and moving the book. You’ll have objects inside. You’ll have techniques like embossing and inserting different papers, all those things. It’s very much the development of the book as object, rather simply the book as content.
NFS: So that would seem to suggest that books are going beyond simple production values? In Michael Mack’s commentary for TIME’s Best Photobooks of 2013 he states we’re, “at a time when photobooks are overloaded with diverting tricks.”
NFS: Fundamentally, it is about understanding the potential of the photobook form which is a piece of technology in its own right. Which today one would expect of the image on the screen, requires active engagement from its audience in order to convey its message.
DL: That’s the ideal, when it works. That’s certainly the reason you would approach things in that way, thinking about it as the object and having various devices inside. But I think Michael is absolutely right, that there’s been an increasing move towards “trickery” in his terms.
But as I say, I think the best photobooks become a means to interpret the work rather than simply a container for work.
Commercial Realities and the Screen Experience
NFS: Yes, absolutely. I suppose the question then really is how much the commercial viability of a photobook informs the decision around freeing a narrative from those conventions for you then?
DL: Right. That’s a very interesting point because there is a real difference between a book which is produced essentially as an art object and a book which has to work within a harsh commercial environment.
One is that the reason that most books look the same in the larger commercial bookshops is because they have to survive certain things. They’ll get moved around, bashed and severely handled.
All the commercial bookshops work on the basis of sale or return, damaged books will be returned to the publisher.
The publisher is supposed to fully reimburse the bookshop.
If you’re looking at a design concept of a book and you feel that it’s physically vulnerable in any sort of way, as a commercial publisher you have to be very nervous.
If you’re a photographer doing something where you’re producing perhaps 100 copies and they’re all going to go to specialist shops, then you can be much more relaxed about that. There is a difference; commercial rules don’t apply in quite the same way in terms of the physicality of books.
NFS: Is that the space where multi-platform outputs or print-on-demand can offer a hybrid opportunity? Can these processes still deliver a treasured object?
DL: Print-on-demand, I think, is still so much in its infancy. The quality of digital printing is considerably better than it was ? the Indigo presses can produce some very good work ? but rarely are they as good as proper offset printing. The on demand facilities that are available in various book shops for text books and maps, etc. can’t cope with the demands of imagery properly. We’re still in very early days there.
I think one of the reasons that books have become so object led is almost a reaction against this on demand approach. The books almost become personalised. Many photographers will do things where, if they’re doing a small edition, they’ll perhaps try and individualise each copy of the 100 print run –
not simply by signing but perhaps by some sort of differentiation on the cover, perhaps doing a handprint of some sort. They’re trying to create a difference.
NFS: It is becoming clearer that the physical artefact and digital publication aren’t in opposition to one another, they’re…
DL: They are very complimentary to each other. I think the digital book, is again something very much in its infancy. I still think that the designers who will really solve how to make fascinating e-books are probably in their late teens, probably just about to go to college and will surprise us in five years time.
At the moment I still think we’ve got designers who are trying to adapt their skills, their techniques into the digital world. I don’t come across many who really start from that digital point of view, from the e-book point of view. When they do it will be fascinating.
NFS: True, especially with the move away from terms such as interactivity or multimedia, to ‘experience’ and ‘touch’. We now have small and medium touch devices where physical interaction is enabled by a gesture through a screen.
I think you’re absolutely right, we’re only a few years in to that type of technology becoming as large scale as it has. But there is the sense that you clearly see those things will exist alongside each other and perhaps provide a different interpretation of that same information.
DL: I think the great problem – I mean if you look at the iPad for example and you look at the books that are being produced for that, there’s a real problem in terms of converting existing print books to iBook’s. If, for example, you’re working on a large format book where you have a double page spread which involves a number of images, then once that’s reduced down in size to the iPad, you’re not seeing enough of the detail to make that double page properly work.
There are all sorts of tricks and techniques that you use in terms of the sequencing of the book. You may be trying to create echoes from one page through to a page which is five or six further on. That’s very hard to replicate on the iPad. You can’t easily close half a dozen pages together and look at what was before and what’s after it, you have to scroll through. You get a visual background noise when you’re scrolling through. There are all sorts of techniques that you’ll use in the book form that you can’t adapt into the iBook form.
I want people to see the work
NFS: Given the multiplicity of photo publishing, do you think the role and status of the photobook is changing then?
DL: It’s much more subject to fashion. It’s much more throwaway. It’s going to become increasingly like that with photobooks, that they’re going to come out, they’re going to get attention for some months and then they’ll totally disappear.
Some will be revered and feature in books such as Martin (Parr) and Gerry’s (Badger), but a lot will simply be turned into recycled paper. I can certainly see that happening. I think the role of the book has also changed in that, certainly with younger photographers they don’t see it in terms of longevity that I was talking about before. They do see it as something which is almost a calling card, something that they’ll work on for frequently a very short time and then move on to something else.
But I still hanker for books which I want to look at in 10 years time. I’m torn between both, really. I do see a value in the quick, the instant, the throwaway, but I wouldn’t want to be just doing that.
NFS: But the hybridity of the photobook in the digital landscape means that it can be inherently iterative. It doesn’t necessarily have to conclude instead it remains fluid, constantly in motion.
This perspective seems to be something that you are touching upon with ‘The Reluctant Father’ project?
DL: In a sense ‘The Reluctant Father’ is ‘open’ on the Web. We have taken the view that there is a real difference between the experience on screen and the experience of the book. Therefore it’s fighting the fear that if you put everything out there in the public arena, then that will mean that no one will buy the physical object.
The website features everything in the book, it’s in a slightly different form really to fit the medium. Then it opens up to allow people to comment, to contribute their thoughts and ideas about it. In that sense it has a collaborative element to it.
NFS: Is that a rare thing for a publisher to be open and interested in different approaches?
DL: It is interesting, I would say just about every publishing contract would stop a photographer reusing that work in any extensive way without the publishers permission. For any given book we’d be concerned if the photographer wanted to use a third of it in another book. If they wanted to use half of it on a website, we’d also be concerned. So yes, it is a departure in this way.
NFS: Would you say it is that desire to find new and different ways to do things that motivates you still?
DL: I suppose it’s a mix of things. At its base it’s probably boredom. It’s actually very boring to do the same thing. If you read about or look at various new and different things they often become interesting to you.
I’ve been looking at doing e-books for round about a year or so, we’ll be starting that this year. I’ve gone full circle on other things. At Cornerhouse I was involved in running galleries then I decided, “No, I don’t enjoy that anymore – I want to focus on other things”. Now I would rather like to be running a gallery.
NFS: Would you approach that differently now?
DL: I’ve always started from the basis that the reason I’m publishing photobooks is that I want people to see the work. Essentially, I suppose a democratic approach really.
I’ve never wanted to produce 100 copies of a book at £1,000 and just have 100 people have access to the work. I’d much rather have lower priced books and more people seeing them. These days it’s a balance – there are lower numbers produced for most books but there are more books being produced. It is hard to get out to the audience that we’d like to.
We will produce limited editions and special editions to help finance things but it doesn’t really appeal. Again, if I was running a gallery I would want to be doing it to get an audience in, not to sell prints at extremely high prices.
A new Era for the Screen-Based Photobook
NFS: The e-book development will be in addition to the print?
DL: Yes, initially it’s relatively straightforward. It will look at our backlist of titles, things that we believe should be available and things that are out of print. But also some new titles that we think will work very well as e-books.
The thing I’m grappling with at the moment is that there’s no way that I would expect to pay the equivalent of a physical book price for an e-book. Yet lots of e-books are being sold at these very high prices. I actually want to be able to price them at really quite low figures.
The ideal would be the same pricing as Angry Birds. It would be great if you could do things at 69p. The reality is we’re probably going to be able to do things around about the £4.99 mark, something like that, around about £5. But I want to make them accessible. I want people to take a risk on things.
I’ll also take the view that as an e-book buyer you don’t really want to make a big financial investment in them because again, it’s the longevity question. You’re not going to be looking at them regularly in the way that you might a physical book. I can’t imagine that if I bought an e-book today, that in 20 years’ time I’d track it down off a hard drive and look at it again.
NFS: So you could say you see it as the perfect opportunity to capitalise upon the potential of these new ecologies, exploring new narratives and work with a new breed of photographers?
DL: Yes, I think it’s all of those things. Firstly it certainly opens up the possibility of doing things with less risk. There are projects which you think are worth doing but the cost of putting them into print is just impossible. There are projects where you feel they need extra layers of information. Of course, the e-book is ideal for that.
That’s particularly true when you’re looking at reportage-based projects, where you want people to have the opportunity to see those links out from the project to the greater world. The problematic area still seems to me to be those quieter photobooks where essentially it’s really about the image. Books that you could compare to poetry I suppose, quiet, calm, where it makes no sense to have external links, where it’s about the aesthetics and placement of the image on the page. Those I still can’t see how they work as e-books.
NFS: Is there a concern for the traditional print-based photobook in the future though?
DL: No, I think printed books will be around for a long time. It’s not that people will stop wanting to buy them.
The problems are going to come because ? will there be enough commercial printing out there? Will the commercial printers be able to survive on reduced numbers, reduced numbers of books being produced, etc.? What will happen to the brochures and catalogues that commercial organisations print now? If they stop printing them, where will the printers get the work which allows them to do the books? It’s that end that I think has the problems, not the finding of customers for printed books.
NFS: Recently, publishing has seen some major shifts, disrupting the status quo of power for the publisher and associated gatekeepers in favour of todays informed consumer.
DL: There are major shifts I suppose. Amazon certainly was really important. I can’t see that we would still be publishing today if Amazon didn’t exist. It’s partly because the major book stores who, until very recently, had quite a stranglehold on the whole publishing industry.
They were never really that interested in visual books, they still aren’t ? you’ll only ever find a very small selection of photobooks.
But what’s happened in the last few years is that with the growth of the photobook, you’ve also had increasing numbers of small outlets, specialist outlets, and specialist online booksellers. Not just Amazon but people, the Photo Book Store in the UK, Beyond Words, a number of people like that who have their own small audiences, their small group of customers but manage to work to very high standards of customer service, who are very well informed about things.
We now sell a lot of books through those smaller suppliers. That’s been a big shift. But distribution has always been a problem and it’s a problem for any publisher, large or small. We all feel that distribution is not good enough ? but I can’t see any resolution to it.
Slow Down, Truly Believe and Experience
NFS: The photobook today increasingly seems to have become part of the process for photography as much as an end product. It would be wrong to say that self-publishing is something that’s only happened as a result of the new landscape and its associated tools. But the independent photobook scene with specialist shops and online communities certainly seems to have increased the presence and audience via a combination of both live and digital events.
DL: I know. That’s definitely true. The self-publishing route, as you say, is not new. Martin Parr, Paul Graham, many photographers, their first books were self-published. I think the key difference now is that generally the print runs are much lower than they historically were.
But set against that, you can produce a book where you may only sell 400 or 500 copies but you can almost guarantee that considerably more people will know about it. That’s through the online networks, people see the book, they’ll talk about it. They may not buy it but they’re aware of the book, of the photographers work. They’ll see reviews about it.
When I started publishing photography, getting reviews of photobooks was almost impossible. There was no online system then. In the UK the national press didn’t review any photography books so you were really just down to the handful of magazines. Now there are blog sites, there are just so many ways that you can get information about a book out there. It doesn’t mean you’ll sell more, but it does mean that people will know about it.
NFS: So how can we best help the upcoming image-maker or people who have that desire to understand, engage and capitalise upon the opportunities for publishing in the new landscape?
DL: I wish I really knew that, I think the key is preparation, even though we’re saying, “Yes, it’s fine to publish work in progress, to get it out there quickly,” but, I think one of the key things to say is to get them to slow down, to actually get them to find a project that they really believe in.
The big problem is that so many feel they’ve got to do something quickly so they grab at anything, even whether it means something to them or not. You get a sense very quickly from talking to a photographer or looking at their work whether they believe in what they’ve done.
There are some projects done by young photographers which are extraordinary and have enormous depth, but most tend to be a bit throwaway and really they need to spend time.
I think of photographers like Tom Wood and his book ‘All Zones Off Peak’ that took 15 years of work. I’m not suggesting photographers wait that long, but I do suggest they take a bit longer in working through a project.
NFS: I remember being in awe of Tom’s dedication, but if I remember correctly he also sought to increase engagement through exhibitions as the body of work evolved? Which would seem to mirror the approach of contemporary photographer’s such as Rob Hornstra with his ‘Sochi’ project. Creating an assemblage of experiences through photography and using the Web to amplify that message.
DL: Sure. I think Rob is an interesting example. I think you have to appreciate that he’s already a well-established photographer who’s done some great projects. With the
‘Sochi’ project he’s feeding out, releasing elements of it over time. That’s partly a strategy to help with fundraising and all sorts of things. But I think that’s absolutely right, I don’t have any problems with that. Photographers have done that for a long time.
I just think the problem really is there’s no reason why work can’t get out there quickly. There’s no reason why a project can’t be really very small. Some projects might be six images, photographers shouldn’t be afraid of that. They shouldn’t try and overblow something that hasn’t got substance. But I think the key thing is, it’s about finding your subject.
NFS: It is also about working with the form itself, whether it be a book, an exhibition or a website. In each of these strands the photographer needs to consider both the subject matter and the experience as combined elements that will unfold and unravel revealing the narrative of the project.
DL: I think that’s a very good point actually, thinking about the format for everything. For me there are too many examples of photographers who are thinking in terms of their book, their website, everything that they do, their exhibitions, in the same way.
I think actually the hardest thing to work on is the Web. The hardest way to present your work interestingly is there. I think that photographers today have to be multi-skilled. They have to be thinking in terms of, not just the images they’re taking or why they’re taking them, but how they want them then to be used. Often there’s not enough thought being given to that.
Culturally Relevant and Critically Stimulated
NFS: A common factor with some of these ideas, seems to be a lack of self-criticism within contemporary photographers, as you’re saying, patience…
DL: I think that self-criticism is so central and sometimes so missing. You don’t want people to lack confidence in their work, but equally you want them to examine it from every possible perspective and really decide whether or not what they’re doing is working.
It goes back to what we were talking about with Francis Hodgson’s comments about a cultural context. Sometimes there are younger photographers who are replicating the work of people before them without being aware of it. They can be wasting an awful lot of time and sometimes they need that redirection.
NFS: What stimulates and drives you to plough new avenues in this evolving and new photographic terrain?
DL: Currently they’re not so different to what they’ve always been really. It is trying to see as much work as possible. Then actually trying things out and really working through ideas. It really is a mix of going out to see things and talking to people. The networking thing is so critical, it’s essentially the experience of it. It’s not about expecting any tangible benefit. I think that’s one of the things that I would say to anyone really, that when you approach it simply from what’s the benefit for you then it tends not to work.
Again, one of the things, it might be a negative for photographers, but they shouldn’t try and work out a commercial project. They should work out a project that they believe in, that’s of interest to them and that they feel could sustain that interest for a few years.
But in terms of influences, my influences are very much looking at what other people are producing. I look at Steidl books, Mack books and Here Press at the moment are doing some very interesting things. It’s a mix of things like that.
NFS: How is the landscape of the photobook changing? Has there been an impact with the rise of independent publishers like Harry Hardie with Here Press?
DL: The first shift really was 20 years ago, when it became possible for smaller publishers and individuals to get involved in publishing. Once the new digital world came into effect really – then costs came down, the pace changed and all sorts of possibilities opened up. You started to see small publishers. Small publishers do things differently to big mainstream publishers. Our decisions are made by myself and by Caroline. We don’t have to present things to a committee that looks at sales, statistics and the rest. Therefore you naturally produce different things as a result.
There are more people doing things. What you do tend to find is that those publishers, like Here Press, currently doing relatively small editions, relatively thin volumes initially, as they evolve, produce bigger and more substantial books over time.
It’s very rare that publishers stay at the same level. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s basically that they get more ambitious and become financially more stable and are more aware of distribution networks.
NFS: What will this mean for the new generation of image-makers and audiences of photography?
DL: As we touched upon earlier I don’t believe the model for the large bookshop chains is sustainable. The market growth of the independent store, following a similar path to the specialist record shops, means there will be a real shift in that retail side of things. There will probably be no more than six or eight specialist photobook shops in the UK. This combined with the dominance of online retailers such as Amazon means that when the likes of Simon Norfolk or Martin Parr bring out a new photobook people are going to buy it – people know what to expect. However, the newcomers’ photobook, the first time photographer, is not going to be seen and therefore no one is going to buy it. I fear new work is going to be really marginalised.