Is a photobook a collectable object or a trick festivals and publishing houses use to earn more money? Which guidelines do art consumers follow when purchasing a photoprint – their own taste or gossip? And finally – who is Martin Parr? Roland Angst – on some of the questions that worry us most
Nowadays photobooks are definitely keeping both young and mature photographers passionate and curious. Just like Middle Ages pilgrims, the crowds of this fresh phenomenon’s fans migrate from festival to festival, carefully scrutinizing latest publications and reviews written by well-known critics. They are even armed with a sort of the Bible of their own – unfinished volumes of Martin Parr’s named «History of Photobooks». But Berlin book publisher, collector and founder of «Only Photography» Gallery Roland Angst seems to have been vaccinated against the virus of photobooks hysteria. Since 2005 his gallery serves not only as a regular venue for photo exhibitions, but also as an independent publishing house which produces two titles a year, focusing on upholding a high standard of design and production. Roland Angst does not chase for particular names from the “best of the best” lists, and has his own critical view on Mister Parr’s Bible. But what is even more interesting, Roland Angst collaborates a lot with Japanese authors. So far “Only Photography” has published photobooks of 8 artists from the far away island, among whom Shomei Tomatsu, Issei Suda, Yuichi Hibi, Yutaka Takanashi and others.
Roland Angst shares with «Bleek Magazine» his view on the nuances of Japanese art market, questionable collection of Parr’s, capitalism in the art world and ambiguous perspectives of book publishing industry.
Bleek Magazine: Your gallery is called “Only Photography” but when we look at the range of roles it performs – a publishing house, a library containing both new books and archive prints, an exhibition lounge… – we realize that the scope is actually much wider.
Roland Angst: That is true. But the idea of the original name was not in putting the emphasis on our “only photography” function. It was more about the ironic approach, because in Germany and in some other parts of Europe photography is not yet really accepted as an art technique, alongside with painting or drawing, for example. And my idea to give the place such a name came from our customers who used to enter the gallery saying, “Oh, it’s just only photography!” Whereas for me the kind of media the artist uses certainly does not really matter – the point is in the quality of the work. Great art work can be made in each media!
You can have a horrible painting and a horrible photograph, so it has never been a question about what technique you use to produce it.
Bleek Magazine: But still photobooks really take a very big part in the gallery activities, don’t they?
Roland Angst: Yes, they do. My professional background lies in the sphere of Graphic Design, and for dozens of years I had been making lots of books for publishers and museums, but to tell the truth I was never happy with the final result. There had always been many compromises which we had to come to because either the author or the publisher were constantly asking for changes or some special things which, in my opinion, did not contribute to getting a better result at all. And so, when in 2005-2006 I started publishing my own books, from the very beginning I did a completely different thing.
The difference in my approach to book publishing is that I always choose the artist myself, not vice versa. The next step is our collaboration in images preselection, and then – the artist sees the book only when it is ready! So, there is no interference, no discussion about sequencing and content – all is done by myself. From the very beginning I was also very much emphasizing the quality of production, printing, binding, covers and so on. As I do everything by myself, I follow all the steps very closely, for example, I am always present beside the machine when the books are printed. Due to this I cannot produce that many books. Until two years ago I had been making only two books a year and in 2014 we started another small series which includes some sort of standard-sized editions with only book covers changing.
Bleek Magazine: What criteria do you follow when choosing the author with whom you would like to work?
Roland Angst: As I am not 25 anymore and I have a long history and experience of my own, the artists whose photographs I am attracted by are also usually in the period of the third part of their careers. Generally, at least 80% of the artists I am working with are shooting in black and white. Most of them also work analogue. And I would say that this also has a big impact on the result.
I mean, when we talk about photographers like Shomei Tomatsu from Japan and Kenneth Josephson from the Chicago School, we need to understand that they used to work with large-format cameras and in their times the price for a negative was so high, that you could not afford yourself working like many photographers do nowadays when using digital cameras. And it does make a difference - whether you make a thousand of images a day or you just make ten. Thus, they had to think very well before they pushed the button. And consequently, it had a big impact on the result. So, the point is that I prefer working with older photographers not because of their age, but because of their approach to the media.
As for the content, I can say that I am not interested in documentary photography. Surely, we need photographers to document whatever they do – they go to war or photograph protesting people and so on. It is important to have such photography, but it is just not my personal interest.
I am interested in photographers who use the media to make art work. And they will only succeed if they have the eyes for it. They can paint on the photograph or process it any way they want, but for me the most important criterion is the final quality of the image. Photography has to be inventive and really connected to the time when it was made. I am not attracted to photographers who produce images imitating “old masters” and their techniques popular in the XIX century. It just does not make sense for me. Copying what was already done in other centuries seems useless to me.
Bleek Magazine: But still, how do you feel that you would probably want to publish this or that photobook?
Roland Angst: Certainly, it has to do with my own life, my own experience, with what I have seen over these 50-60 years. Usually I encounter photographs that interest me not at the galleries but in other books and often it is even more the book and the way it is made that convince me to start working with the photographer. And then, of course, the quality of the artist. That is one of the reasons I am so much interested in Japanese photography. Because they have never had places like in America or even in Europe to show their work! In Tokyo, a city with 30 million people, they have only 5-7 serious galleries showing photography!
Bleek Magazine: Why so few?
Roland Angst: For many years there has been no market! Since maybe the last 50 years when the way of building apartments changed, it was just not common in Japan to hang pictures on the walls and photography in particular. They might hang paintings or something like that – something a society could accept. In the old traditional Japanese building you actually do not really have walls! So, where are you supposed to put a nail into? Until the XIX century they only had boxes with Japanese paintings, drawings or other art works and they used to open them on holidays.
So, from the very beginning, before they started shooting, the Japanese photographers were thinking about books. When they were about to start a project, the book was always seen as its final result. Now, of course, the situation has been changing, since there is a lot of influence from American and European photographers whose work had an impact on the younger generations of the Japanese photographers. But in the 1950-1970s the books were very rare, very expensive to make and hard to find customers. And they were really stunning – holding such a book in your hands you were turning a page and see something much more than just an image. It was about sequencing, about a story, about something you have to follow very concentrated and very convinced about the work. All these things are not easy to find even in American photobook history.
There are now so many people talking about photobooks, so many people are writing about them – it is enough to recall Martin Parr’s “History of Photobooks” is a kind of Bible for a lot of people! Now everybody is looking for the books he has mentioned in his three-volume publication – isn’t it crazy? But maybe the title he gave his book is a bit presumptuous. Instead of “The Photobook: A History” it should be “My Personal View on Photobooks” because there are at least as many photobooks which are not mentioned in these volumes, and he included only his personal choice.
And I even doubt that it is necessary to have such publications. Everybody has his or her own approach, his or her own favorites. When, as a gallery owner and a publisher, I am invited to make a list of 10 favorite books of the year I always refuse, because I ask myself, “What is the point?” No book will become better in case I name it as “the best book”. Most of the recent buyers of these selected titles buy them as a kind of investment, and not because they genuinely like them. And the same story is about the artists’ lists. Who is the best artist living? And how can you know this? Is it because he gets the highest prices at auctions, or is it because he has the biggest number of exhibitions in the museums or only in the most important museums? It is just crazy!
I see as the background of all these lists the issue of money. Martin Parr did it, he bought a lot of those books before he made his three volumes of “The Photobook: A History” and then he could sell his collection for a fortune. I mean, it is ok, he is a good businessman, why not? That is the society we live in.
Bleek Magazine: And what about the situation on the Japanese art market? Is it difficult for you to work with people form such a different cultural background? To what extent is their visual language actually differ from that of the Western artists?
Roland Angst: Usually I do not work with them in a way which differs from my approach to Western artists. The steps are always the same, but the main problem is more connected with the language, because understanding can sometimes be difficult. I do not speak Japanese, many of the Japanese artists do not speak any Western language, so we need an interpreter. The interpreter sometimes can lose either what I or the Japanese artist are saying. So, there is a communication problem. But in general the way I approach the project would be the same.
From the beginning, the Japanese (and here I mean “the elite” of the generation), were using the camera as a tool – the same way they would use a brush or a pencil or whatever. And in doing this they never had limits: they would turn the camera upside down, they would use very rough film material or make enlargements without caring about sharpness. Whatever they were doing was done with a very artistic eye, they were always very inventive in whatever they would shoot. They never had limits, since in the end it is always about the eye of the person has who uses the camera. And you get the eye by looking not only at photography but also at art and other media. Most of them were very well and widely educated, they had a lot of knowledge about all the Japanese crafts and art and so they came with a very broad background to do their work.
To find two authors in whose work I get interested is not so difficult. And I have never made a book which was already existing. I do not do the second volume or the second book on the same series. For example, Gunnar Smoliansky had a big retrospective book in 2008 but for our publication we have chosen 80% or even more of the images that had never been published before. Sometimes I see it as my most difficult part, because it is so hard to sell my books anyway – they are not in the mainstream, they go in small editions and the standard of production is very high, so thus they have to be quite expensive.
Sometimes I have to come to the compromise in the selection of the images, but I never compromise in the quality of production standards.
Bleek Magazine: In what case is it better to show photography in the form of the photobook?
Roland Angst: I think, almost 80% of photographers at first want to have a book, because the benefits are clear. The book remains while the exhibition lasts for a couple of weeks or for a month. And even when your images are on the net or in whatever kind of media, it is not the same as having your book on the table – you can touch it, you can open it, you can close it. I am sure that for good photographs there is no reason to say, “This cannot be a book”.
Certainly, now there are thousands of books and images which are, in my opinion, useless to get printed. A lot of those books should never had been done. But since making a photobook is so easy today, especially more or less talking about Germany, people do use those numerous opportunities. You can publish your book even in “Aldi” supermarket! And the quality would not be too bad. Plus, there are also so-called “publishers” (who are not publishers at all in the classical definition of this word), they are printing companies with a distribution where you can go if you have 10 000 Euro or a father or a grandfather who is willing to pay for your book, and they will print the book. These companies do not care much about the content, it is just about making business! And the editions are much too high as well.
That is why nowadays, if you go to big department bookstores, you will have four, five, six tables with all sorts of remainder photobooks labelled “68 and now 9.95”. And such books are often bought by people who just look at the price, without dedication or real knowledge. What conclusion thus we can make about the photobook market? It is short of a collapse!
And I would really like to see the fourth volume of Martin Parr’s! It is easy to pick books from the 20.th century, but much more difficult to pick from the last 3-4 years. There are at least 30 competitions a year everywhere. Aperture Photobook Award, Kassel Photobook Award, Brighton Biennale Award and many others. And then some publishers are starting to introduce their own book awards now, too. And thousands of photographers want to be in those selections! Photographers are ready to pay 50 Euro or more to take part in those contests and they do not understand that they are actually being used. These contest boards receive between 100 or 500 dummies and thus the organizer already makes money just by collecting the entrance fee from their participants! The winner would ultimately get the book or some thousand Euro and then for several months everybody would be advertising him or her saying, “This is the winner of the photobook award in London, or Bristol, or Berlin, or wherever!” But does it mean that the book is of high quality, that the select is a good artist?
Bleek Magazine: So, in what direction do you see the development of the photography market?
Roland Angst: The future of artistic photography is more in the art market than staying exclusively in photography circles. It is too narrow, it is just turning in its own circles and there is so few really creative coming up! When you visit these events, you meet always the same people. On a long term as a gallery you have to approach the traditional art collector, not just photography people. You need to show them that a stunning photograph has the same quality as a painting! You have to place a painting and a photograph next to each other for those collectors to get them to understand that their value can be equal.
The second thing we need to do is to place important images in important collections and museums. And this approach is totally different from all these photo festivals or months of photography. We also have “The Month of Photography in Berlin” and it is not about class, it is about mass!
Every participant of “The Month of Photography” has to buy 35 copies of the catalogue and with around 150 galleries taking part in the Month – imagine how much money they make just by selling them to the participants! But then no visitor wants the catalogue – even for free! We do not even get a chance to get rid of them! And for me it is clear that this year is the last time my gallery is taking part in it, because I feel to be in the wrong surrounding with my work. And I can see it from the people coming to the gallery in this period – the most part of the younger generation visitors stay for a minute, they walk quickly through two rooms and then they leave. They do not even take their time to look at the images. There are very few people who take their time, stop, look at the images and try to understand for themselves, “What do these images mean to me? What do they say to me? Is it something I do have a connection to or not? And why is it so?”
There are just not enough people who can tell the difference between a photograph of high quality and nonsense. The quality, the standard of people looking at images, not only photography, is just going down. Now people aspire to finish education and start making money as fast as possible. 30 years ago most of the gallery customers were doctors, lawyers, architects – they represented more or less the cultural, or intellectual, elite of the country. Nowadays the majority of customers in the art market are from the money or real estate business and they only buy “with their ears” not with their eyes. They buy art because it is trendy or scandalous, they have read about Andreas Gursky and other superstars in the press, about someone’s love affairs. and thus they decide to purchase an image. But it is not anymore about the quality of the work! The problem is about the culture of seeing itself. People have money but they do not buy art. They have no connection to art. Neither to books, they rarely read them.
Bleek Magazine: So, no future for real art lovers and collectors?
Roland Angst: Well, you should never loose confidence. Yes, there are many things that have to be changed, much work should be done to educate people. And if you succeed to find one or two a month then it is a good result. But that is very difficult. History has always been in a kind of waves, it changes and then changes back. When I was young my father used to ask me when hearing some of my ideas, “Are you crazy?” But nowadays I am more concerned about the upcoming generation preferring to remain more as their parents are, which is completely crazy, because you have to oppose your forerunners.
On the other hand, you cannot do inventive things if you don’t have any clue about the history. When I sometimes see photographs made by today’s young photography students, I feel like saying to them, “Oh, boy! Or, oh, girl! Have you ever seen Moholy-Nagy’s or Robert Franks work?” What many of these students show me are just boring copies, nothing new, nothing individual. On the other hand, they have so much self-confidence, that these – I call them “Selfies”– coming every day seem to be endless. But what can you do?
One of the best and most active photobook publisher, Michael Mack, told me not long ago that he was already collecting images for digital photobooks. He is now buying stock work for future virtual photobooks. When I heard him saying that, I talked to myself, “Good luck! But I do not think (or just hope) you will succeed”. Because there is a real difference if you have a printed image that you can touch and even smell. This is by the way why I always take so much care about the paper and doing so many tests to get the natural feeling of paper I do want for my books. I am sure that publishers have to stick to their concepts and continue showing what kind of quality could be in a great book. And not like some public libraries today which digitalize their printed books to fit even on mobiles, to attract the younger generation coming back in their spaces. No, It’s all about teaching them about these quiet, contemplative moments, sitting in the library and turning the pages of a great book…
But… who knows, maybe in 50 years nobody would be taking care of photobooks anymore.
© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich