01 02 2015
Antonio De Luca
(Self-Publish Be Happy)
Interview by Daniel Boetker-Smith
In 2010 London-based Bruno Ceschel launched an organisation that took note of the emerging interest in all things photobook. SELF PUBLISH BE HAPPY (SPBH) was born and remains one of the few organisations in the world dedicated to promoting the self-published photobook (others are the Indie Photobook Library in Washington DC, and the Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive). SPBH started out as an attempt to create a community to support self-publishers, and to establish a library that provided an outlet for these books to be seen, and sold. Ceschel’s background working at Fabrica and Colors magazine had given him an understanding of the language of the printed image, and an insight into the machinations of publishing and distribution. Ceschel teamed up with a Canadian designer Antonio de Luca and in 2010 their first book Self-Publish Be Naughty was released – it was one of the most lauded photobooks of the year and set them on a course to become one of the most influential duos in contemporary photography. Their dedication to the photobook as a experimental and exploratory object, and their interest in unearthing and exposing new talent to the world has set them at the epicentre of what can only be described as a ‘photobook’ craze that started about the turn of the millenium with European publishers like Steidl, and Dewi Lewis, and continues to this day with dozens of new publishers (and thousands of new photobooks) emerging every year.
In late December 2014 I caught up with SPBH’s Antonio de Luca (as he was passing through Melbourne) for a chat to take stock of the progress of his and Ceschel’s organisation, and to discuss some of the most interesting aspects of what is happening in photobooks currently.
Lets start at the beginning; tell us about you and Bruno started on this journey?
This all started in New York – Bruno Ceschel had left working with Chris Boot (a British photobook publisher, and now Director of the Aperture Foundation), and I met Bruno in New York both at a point in our lives when we wanted to drastically change what we were doing both professionally and personally, it was a timely meeting! We threw some things around and tried out a couple of ideas but it wasn’t till a couple of years later when I was in Amsterdam, and Bruno was also back in Europe that we came up with the concept for our first publication Self Publish Be Naughty (2010). On the back of the recently established SPBH (with a following of about 6000 people) we simply asked our followers, our community, to send us naughty pictures, and we had an overwhelming response. We received well over 5000 pictures – and of those we pared it down to 122. The result was Self-Publish Be Naughty, the design was simple, there is no beginning, no middle and no end, and my favourite feature is its elastic binding which can be removed and the pictures can then be rearranged into a different order. And when we released the book the order of the images in the different batches of the book was varied, from the start we were interested in challenging a sense of the linearity of the photobook. The book was printed in London on magazine-type paper stock; we wanted to retain some aspects of the magazine feel of the book (which I guess was connected to our professional backgrounds). We saw the book as being a challenge also to the usual pornographic imagery with beautiful and sometimes humorous moments. This was 2010, that was the first publication we worked on, we designed it together, and we continue to really trust what each other does, we are very lucky that we respect and enjoy each other’s vision tremendously.
In fact, funnily enough, the plan wasn’t always to move towards publishing photobooks, we actually avoided publishing for a while, but eventually we realised that it was imperative that we listen to our own advice, and not just promote self-published books but begin publishing things that we like, to be a producer as well as a receiver. Publishing is obviously a lot of work, so from the outset we really tried to devise a way to make books in a different way to traditional publishing, we didn’t want to follow the same path as other publishers. For example Lorenzo Vitturi’s Dalston Anatomy (2013) has no mention of SPBH anywhere in the book, and a lot of the books we produce have nothing on the spine, no mention of SPBH Editions on them at all. This means the books become purely about the work, about the images.
A lot of our success has been down to the model that Bruno set up, similar to what you are doing here at the Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive; the resource available to us through the books that SPBH has amassed means we have developed a vocabulary informed by thousands of different books. This means that we can then base our photobook experiments on those things we have seen. We’ve also learnt that there is a new generation of photographers and artists that are interested in making pictures, interpreting and presenting images in a very different way to the way established publishers were (and still are) presenting them, this has pushed us to remain true to the goals of experimentation and exploration.
I find that so interesting that you say there is a cyclical process happening with spbh. It makes me hopeful about the archive here then, as i hope to see evidence of that happening in this region soon. I love the idea that the books you are getting are feeding into the books that you are then creating?
And its also happening in a more straightforward way, we are publishing books by people who have sent in dummy books to us. Johann Rosenmunthe’s Book Tectonic (2014) is a product of this; Johann showed us three or four generations of his project in book form over a number of years by submitting them to the SPBH library, and then Bruno and I liked the work so much, we were keen to work with him, we could see the potential in it. This process has developed organically, and the great thing is that each project leads into and influences the next book we do. There are elements that carry over into different projects, similar concerns that are manifested differently; there is a link for use between each book and the one before and after it. In a sense we are creating, inadvertently, a lineage where each object is dependent on its past for it to work, and to represent the present for us. Its like a micro version of society, learning from and building on previous experiments and models, building upon artifacts.
Bruno’s skill, through his experience of working with Chris Boot and at Fabrica, is an understanding of the art and commerce of publishing, and my expertise is as a designer and art director. We fuse these skillsets together, and we work together well because we both know that the key to making a good photobook is that not only having high production values but that the design choices we make are logical – they make sense in terms of the object we are producing; the work we are presenting and what we (and the photographer) want to say. And the important thing to note is that it doesn’t have to be expensive. When we make books we gather together money from many different sources and we work strictly within the budget. We do what we can to interpret and challenge the traditional set of rules a printer would apply … we love printers who allow us to work outside of the norms, and who also help us with the creative process too, some of them will suggest certain things during the production of the books, specific things that make the book that little bit more unique or special. If, in the production of our books, we can reinterpret the traditional rules that are applied to photobooks then we know our books will stand out. Thinking about Lorenzo’s book, each one is handbound with a hardback cloth cover, with a range of different African prints. His book looks beautiful and unique but it wasn’t that much more expensive to do than finishing the cover in a traditional way; taking these steps marks us out as different from other publishers. We are operating in a different sphere to the Steidls and the Taschens, but funnily enough our books have entered into that world anyway. We realised this when Parr and Badger included Self-Publish Be Naughty in their The Photobook: A History Vol.3 (2014).
When you think about those larger publishers too, even though each project of theres is different, and each book is unique – there is the sense of a house style, but with spbh im yet to get my head around a house style, each books seems totally original and driven by that collaborative project youre talking about- i notice the same with spectre books in holland – they are totally unpredictible in what they’ll produce next, or how they will produce it.
The collaboration between Bruno and I means we keep each other in check making sure each of our books is special. And the ‘SPBH Book Club’ emerged out of this desire – resisting the idea of being a ‘publisher’ in the traditional sense – we put together a package where people paid a certain amount per year to be a member and this gave us a freedom to produce work that we loved, and to engage with photographers we really admired. People knew about SPBH, and knew about what we did, and so we had an established network, people paid their money, but didn’t know who they were going to get, only that they would get three books a year. The first book (SPBH Vol.1 – 2012) we produced was with Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. The book traced their 15-year collaboration (1997-2012) through a selection of Polaroids they had shot on their various documentary projects, both personal and for Colors magazine. They actually just had this drawer full of 21/4, 4×5, and 8 x10 colour polaroids gathering dust, and we made a selection thinking about how we wanted the SPBH Book Club books to look, thinking beyond the first volume, how the books in the series would be different or similar etc. Then, Adam and Olly got involved and we had a back-and-forth exchange about the design and sequencing of the book. I have always been a big fan of Adam and Oliver’s work, and I think Bruno was working as a junior at Colors magazine when they were Creative Directors there, so we all had a great working relationship, and it was easy to work with them, and I really respect what they do, and their processes. The book was just a manifestation of this.
Now we are onto our 7th volume of SPBH Book Club, with a book by Lucas Bialock!!!
Whats the next exciting thing coming up for you?
2015 is going be big! I’m working on something that will be the ultimate celebration of the SPBH collection of photobooks; using the thousands of self-published books that have been submitted to us over the past few years. I am working on a book, a large 700-800 page that will highlight dozens of different types of self-published photobooks based around a series of criteria – different chapters will engage with the full range of themes, genres, and subject matter that is represented in our collection. This will be the ultimate SPBH book! The other component of the book will be a ‘how-to’ section, dealing with different types of printing, binding, and construction that will hopefully make it appealing to the mainstream (those yet to really discover photobooks), as well as to the photobook community. This book will talk to people who are at that stage of just beginning to think about doing their own photobook. Photobooks have entered the mainstream little by little, and I think this new project is about demystifying self-publishing for those outside of the established photobook community. This new book is about expanding photobooks further and expanding our audience.