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The Musee de l' Elysee in Lausanne, a rare museum purely for photography run by the writer and curator William A Ewing, is currently showing an exhibition titled Lasting Impressions The Fine Art & Craft of the Steidl Book. In collaboration with the ECAL/University of art and design Lausanne, the museum has organised an international colloquium on the future of the Photobook.

The Fine Art & Craft of the Steidl Book 18.11.2009 — 21.02.2010

The Fine Art & Craft of the Steidl Book 18.11.2009 — 21.02.2010

Details of the event here.

Announced to attend are Nathalie Bocher-Lenoir, Luc Debraine, Mary Delmonico, Frédérique Destribats, Bernd Detsch, William A. Ewing, Lady Elena Foster, Philippe Garner, Jean Genoud, Winfried Heininger, Françoise Jaunin, Werner Jeker, Pierre Keller, Walter Keller, Michael Mack, Lesley Martin, Gilles Mora, Lars Müller, Thomas Neurath, Neil Palfreyman, Alice Rawsthorn, Markus Schaden, Joachim Schmid, Alec Soth, Gerhard Steidl, Joël Tettamanti.

The event, over two days, is based around three round table discussions...

Profusion & Confusion: What is the photography book today?

Menaces & Promises: Where is the photography book going?

and Concepts & Objects: A Photobook Laboratory

So being a photographer who has spent a lot of time publishing online and more recently in print, I've come to Lausanne to hear the thoughts of those in the Photobook publishing, printing, designing and distributing business...and hopefully there will be a few photographers here as well.

A good primer for the weekend here in Lausanne would be to consult the Resolve Blog crowd scourced post on the future of the Photobook organised by Flak Photo's Andy Adams and Livebooks Miki Johnston in December. Some of the conclusions of that discussion can be found here.

There is a tangible feeling in the air that the photographic publishing industry is on the verge of a revolution, technology and the internet have moved the goal posts forever, this is good news for many but bad news for those who don't understand it and evolve. Traditional publishers are struggling to compete with the high standard of content that is now served up free on the web, new devices like Apples iPad are providing alternative non paper platforms for the dissemination of content and images...and services like Blurb have empowered individual artists to cost effectively produce their own publications. Digital printing and the low entry costs of desktop publishing have spawned a huge number of small, creative and innovative boutique publishers of books and magazines, many, I suspect, like myself, inspired by the need to hold photographs in the hand again after a decade of viewing them on back lit screens.

The Aditorium at ECAL Lausanne

The Aditorium at ECAL Lausanne

Day 1: What is the photography book today? & Where is the photography book going?

The first thing of note is that nearly three hundred people are sitting around discussing the Photobook at all, with attendees from Europe, the US and Australia it is clear there is a great deal of interest in the future of the Photobook. Artists can either exhibit their 'original' work or 'reproduce' it in a publication, but many, like photographer John Gossage, consider the book as their 'original'...he went on to say 'The responsibility of the contemporary artist is to create the work and setting the context in which their work should be seen, the book, between the two covers, is a world unto itself'.

There seemed to be some confusion over the current state of the Photobook market, reports were contradictory from different members of the panel, some reported that 'the rate of sales increase (of Photobooks) was faster than other areas in the last 10 years', Thomas Neurath of Thames and Hudson said 'there were more people making photographs and wanting to be informed about the worldwide scene'. While others like Gilles Mora said 'The economy of Photobooks is a catastrophe'....'The market is shrinking in the US and Europe'...they 'used to sell 20,000 copies of a monograph like Walker Evans and now only 8000. Publishing is an extraordinary daily risk'.

Some publishers are increasingly producing small editions instead of investing in big print runs, Christophe Shaden of Shaden books said 'Its a lousy business, everything has changed, we are more and more doing specialised editions of as little as 35 copies', Lesley Martin of the Aperture Foundation admitted they were producing fewer titles a year and agreed 'the Photobook market is bifurcating, the mainstream Photobook is the most jeapordised I don't know what's going to happen to that'.

There was a lot of talk about Steidl books who apparently produce a staggering 400 books a year, there recent re publishing of Robert Franks The Americans has sold an amazing 80,000 copies since 2008. John Gossage pointed out that 50 years ago The Americans was remaindered in bookstores and you couldn't give it away...Gilles Mora suggested that a young Robert Frank today would publish The Americans digitally. Mora also suggested that the successful Steidl publishing model was in fact part of the problem..'The Steidl system works very well, its drawing towards the Steidl system other ways of working. If I want to work with an American gallery I can't because Steidl is already there, that system is going to absorb all of the others, those are the terms we are going to have to face, there is an effect of quantity, the Steidl system is like a magnet, it draws everything to him'. Lesley Martin agreed 'The smart strategy of Steidl is to own the means of production, the printing press'...Gerhard Steidl admitted they don't co-publish, everything is done in Germany and everything except the binding is done by Steidl itself.

There was not much discussion of online publishing, the director of Ivory Press, Lady Elena Foster said 'The online magazine 'Burn' was a fabulous resource for young photographers, it is something to watch for publishers and artists'...but generally there was not much appetite for Photobooks on iPads...Apertures Lesley Martin said 'I wish I had the answers, we are trying to invent them right now, maybe the ebook format, social media has a place (in marketing) but you can't rely on that. We are standing staunchly behind the printed object'. The artist and founder of the ABC Artists book cooperative, Joachim Schmid said 'The book has been around for 500 years, if you want to replace that you better come up with something pretty convincing and I haven't seen it yet'....all electronic book discussion ceased after Mr Schmid declared ' The future of the book could be a pdf? this is complete nonsense, a book is a book and a pdf is a pdf.....I don't download wine!'

The print on demand services were mentioned with mixed opinions and doubts over their quality but for many artists the question is not 'good quality or bad quality', it is 'book or no book'. Gerhard Steidl suggested the print on demand industry 'does not believe in art or love art, they believe in profits'.

I was particularly interested in publisher Lars Mullers opinion that 'Photographers themselves are the best designers of Photobooks helped by him. Commissioned designers feel obliged to deliver 'a design' instead of being aware of the photography itself'.

I guess I knew the day would be inconclusive but it was fascinating, I think Joachim Schmid summed up the day rather amusingly when he said 'Predicting the future of Photobooks is like predicting the trajectory of a clipped toe nail, you don't know where its going'.

Day 2: Concepts & Objects: A Photobook Laboratory

The morning started at the Musee de L Elysee with a tour of the exhibition of Steidl books and publishing lead by Gerhard Steidl himself, we learned that Steidl changes his press every 5 years to ensure quality and that he doesn't consider modern offset printing to be as good a quality as the Gravure printing processes of the past. His aim is to eventually match it and he claims to be 80% there. He works from 5am in the morning and spends a lot of time experimenting on his own presses. Gerhard Steidl likes to see himself as a benevolent facilitator for artists to get their work published in the way that they envision it should be seen, he claims to have only a 'business' relationship with those whose work he publishes like Karl Lagerfeld, Jim Dine and Robert Frank. Steidl turns around publishing projects in an astonishingly short period of time and projects are often completed without a break.

Steidl exhibit at Musee de L'Elysee, Lausanne.

Steidl exhibit at Musee de L'Elysee, Lausanne.

Steidl exhibit at Musee de L'Elysee, Lausanne.

Steidl exhibit at Musee de L'Elysee, Lausanne.

We settled into the auditorium at the Elysee to discuss the process of making Photobooks but this session proved disjointed and covered a lot of the ground of the previous day, particularly the changing Photobook market and financial climate...this left one with the impression that the representatives of the publishers on the stage were struggling to get past lamenting the 'way it used to be' and had yet to engage with the new climate and adapt to it.

The question was asked 'Why do photographers want to make a book at all?' to which the photographer Jules Spinatsch replied 'To finalise a project, it doesn't leave me alone until its between two covers'...our moderator Mary Delmonico of Delmonico books said 'Just because you can take 10,000 photographs doesn't mean you should put them all in a book, if I'm going to make a book it has to justify cutting down that tree'. Michael Mack of steidlMack publishing in London encouraged photographers to consider carefully if a book was really the right outlet for their project, he sees a lot of proposals that would make a great magazine story but not a book. It was largely agreed that the Photobook market was polarising with expensive limited editions and specialist books being produced for collectors at one end and cheap large run popular Photobooks at the other with a big market in the middle were the publishers are scrapping it out. Neil Palfreyman of Thames and Hudson suggested that expensive limited edition books went against the whole democratic aim of publishing in general.

There was disappointingly little advice for photographers about approaching publishers, about preparing and presenting their project to a publisher or about self publishing, the closest we got was a few inconclusive comments about the necessity or not of having a photograph on the cover.

The Day 2 Photobook Laboratory discussion

The Day 2 Photobook Laboratory discussion

Conclusions

The Photobook is a fundamental part of the the work of many Photographers, for many it is their aim, their final object and many things must come together if they are to reach an audience with their work. The traditional model is under a lot of stress, Photobook buyers only have a certain amount of money in their pockets and there is a proliferation of titles on the market, the pie has shrunk in the last decade and they need to reduce the number of slices taken out if they are to continue to make and sell Photobooks.

subject > camera > photographer > publisher > distributor > bookshop > audience

The challenge for the established publishers is that the technology is now there for photographers to self publish their own books and to market them and sell them using social media and cheap online payment systems directly to their audience.

subject > camera > photographer > audience

Some things haven't changed of course, the quality of the concept, the work and the publication still need to be high but if it is, the web is like a big pond, if you chuck a big enough stone in the ripples will spread far and wide through the twitter and blogosphere.

In many ways this is a time to be optimistic about the future of the Photobook despite the challenges faced by the established Photobook publishers. There are no longer 'gatekeepers' between the photographer and the production of a book, which means that an unknown photographer can still produce, market and sell and a quality publication at a time when the main publishers are becoming more risk averse. Today Robert Frank wouldn't wait two years to find a publisher for 'The Americans' he'd produce 2000 copies himself and sell it through his website and market it through his blog and twitter account.

While forms of electronic publication such as Burn and Magnum in Motion have a roll to play in telling stories, nobody in Lausanne really saw them as a replacement for the Photobook. Having said that, the publishers present were print experts and not technology experts, one example of an electronic book was mentioned by the director of Kodoji Press, Winfried Heininger...the 'Magbook' produced by Andreas Magdanz of his 160 page out of print book Dienststelle Marienthal available through itunes for 3.99 euros.

Dienststelle Marienthal iPhone book through itunes by Andreas Magdanz

Dienststelle Marienthal iPhone book through itunes by Andreas Magdanz

I have only skimmed the surface of the discussions around the Photobook in Lausanne and some of the conclusions above are mine rather than those of the Colloquium as a whole. It was a great event and all those present were passionate and dedicated to the Photobook form. My thanks goes to William A Ewing at the Musee de L' Elysee for organising the weekend and to all those who were so generous with their time and candid opinions. It is clear that publishing a Photobook is a risky business and requires hard work and faith wether you are a lone self publishing photographer or a large international publisher...but this weekend showed there are many with a huge abundance of those qualities who will be producing many wonderful Photobooks over the coming years.

A wider take on the book discussion might be gained from the articles and work of 'The Institute for the Future of the Book'

P.S. If you are in the market for a Photobook, buying through my books page will contribute to the costs of running sevensevennine.com

3 Responses to “Lasting Impressions: Photobook Colloquium”

  1. Eric R. Bechtold

    Nice article. I wish I could have gone to the event… I’ve become quite interested in the photobook as the final product of my work.
    I’ve also become interested in bookbinding as an art form in itself. I’m actually taking a class on the subject this year…
    Eric

  2. International Conference on the Future of the Photobook | [EV +/-] Exposure Compensation

    […] The Musee de lElysee in Lausanne, a museum purely for photography run by the writer and curator William A Ewing, is currently showing an exhibition titled Lasting Impressions The Fine Art & Craft of the Steidl Book. In collaboration with the ECAL/University of art and design Lausanne, the museum organized an international colloquium on the future of the Photobook that took place last February … (via sevensevennine) […]

  3. Faith Simmons

    self publishing is kind of difficult at first, but you can easily learn the tricks of the trade :-‘

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