INTERVIEW WITH MARKUS SCHADEN
Journalist Markus Weckesser in Conversation with Markus Schaden (*1965), on the phenomenon of photography books. The Cologne resident owns a bookstore specializing in photo books; he is also a publisher and curator, and known as one of the most expert authorities on the scene.
Do you know exactly when the boom began?
The decisive moment was when there were suddenly books about photo books. That was around the turn of the century. Unexpectedly, people were collecting photo books as never before. Titles, such as The Photobook: A History I + II by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, and 101 Photobooks by Andrew Roth, were suddenly being used like shopping lists.
Isn’t there a danger that people will simply speculate in photo books?
Considering the rapid increase in their value, it’s probably impossible to avoid that kind of development. Peter Bialobrzeski’s Neontigers sold out almost immediately, and these days it sells for far more than its original price.
What makes photo books so attractive?
In comparison to expensive prints, photo books can be acquired for relatively affordable prices, between 40 and 120 euros. Also, they are easy to handle and transport. Photo books are, for me, the quintessential medium for photography. Compared to exhibits—which are assembled by individual curators who choose the pictures—photo books never change their form.
Is it the author’s hand that distinguishes a photography book from a catalogue?
Not necessarily—just as a photo book is not precisely the same as an artist’s book. It is crucial that the content be rendered in a suitable form and design. It doesn’t always have to be on super high-quality paper. Ed Ruscha printed his first books for three dollars, and Daido Moriyama started out using cheap Xerox prints. Or just think of Hans-Peter Feldmann’s photo books—they are mainly about the content.
Do younger artists pay attention to things like haptic characteristics?
Yes, of course. Oliver Sieber, for instance, who produces many of his own books, always manages to find the balance between small design objects and books.
How do techniques such as print-on-demand affect the photo book market?
Print-on-demand has contributed a great deal to the popularity of photography books. All at once, there is a way to print one or two copies of a book. That’s why far more dummies are being produced. Up until the eighties, around five hundred titles were printed in editions of five thousand; today, the numbers tend to be reversed. At the same time, the Internet has improved distribution.
Doesn’t that raise the question of how to produce good photo books that stand out from the rest?
Lack of knowledge is a big problem. That’s why I offer Photobook Studies, which not only includes university workshops, but will also soon involve portfolio reviews at the Lichtblick School in Cologne.
What is that, precisely?
Young photographers are evaluated by professionals, who tell them where their work stands, artistically and technically. What are their strengths, what are their weaknesses? How can I continue to develop a visual vocabulary of my own? How do I turn a collection of individual photographs into a photo book? To me, working with the photo book as a medium ultimately means understanding photography, as well.
Who collects photography books? Is there a particular type of collector?
First of all, we can see that interest has grown immensely and is continuing to increase. There are different types of buyers. Most people evaluate the content of a book before deciding to purchase it. Many young collectors start with photo books, because they offer more for the money. The photo book is an art form on its own. But the big collectors haven’t caught on to that yet.
Unfortunately, not there, either. In France and the United States, photo book museums are being considered, in order to preserve the memory of photography, to create access to it. Here in Cologne, right now, they are thinking about closing the art and museum library. The collection of eighty thousand photo books would be broken up. That leaves me speechless. There is not enough support for photography books in German libraries. You can tell, because almost all of the purchases here are made exclusively by foreign libraries, such as the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, where photo books are neatly and carefully preserved. An exception in Germany is the library at the Kunsthochschule für Medien (KHM) in Cologne.
But wouldn’t it be less expensive for museums to acquire photo books instead of prints?
Yes, but museum budgets continue to shrink. As far as this is concerned, I can only keep referring to the author Ulf Erdmann-Ziegler: “But who says that a museum’s collection has to be based on photographic prints? It would be just as well to start with books. With a collection of perhaps a hundred books, museum employees, specialists, consultants, and curators would be able to see for themselves first-rate examples of work from the history of modern photography.”
Are there different kinds of buyers in different countries? Are there national preferences?
There is not much difference between German and foreign customers. Purchases tend to go a little bit in the direction of our program. The smaller the edition, the greater the demand.
For a long time, your bookshop was within sight of the Cologne Cathedral. What made you decide to move into a smaller space in the Albertusstrasse, about a year ago?
First of all, we’re in the midst of things here. There is more going on here; there is simply much more foot traffic, because there are more businesses here. For instance, we are very close to two photo galleries and two other bookstores. For customers, especially for window shoppers who want to poke around a little bit, that’s very attractive, of course. We restructured our assortment of books when we reduced the amount of floor space. Before, we had a very large backlist. Now, the emphasis is on new releases and contemporary photography. We always have the top two hundred titles on hand.
You also altered your business strategy when you moved.
From the first twelve years, we learned that we could use our existing network for other things besides just selling books. Apart from the core focus on sales and publishing, we’ve established a series of “projects.” One of these is called Marks of Honor. For this, we asked photographers to design an edition based on their all-time favorite photo book. Another project is The La Brea Matrix, which is based on a photograph taken by Stephen Shore in 1975 in Los Angeles, on La Brea Avenue; the idea is to have six German photographers looking for references there, at the site.
Another relatively new project is the Photobook Studies course, which you’ve already mentioned. What is that about?
Last year the Kunsthochschule für Medien in Cologne asked me to teach a course on photo books. Instead of teaching a survey course, the students and I concentrated on analyzing the history behind Ed van der Elsken’s Liebe in St. Germain des Prés. We spent a semester examining the background of the book and dissecting its contents. We traveled to the places where the photos were originally taken, interviewed the models, and visited archives. We discovered, for example, that there are different final versions of the book in Germany, England, and the Netherlands, and that the models in the photos were not actually part of the jazz milieu at all.
Do you plan to publish the results of your research, so that the public can have access to it?
Yes, at the Photokina Cologne (September 21-26, 2010). We’ll be presenting the results on a kind of wallpaper at the Visual Gallery. A couple of previews are already on Facebook, under “KHM Love.”
Which photo book project interests you the most right now?
I am totally excited about A New American Picture, which I’d really like to publish in collaboration with Hatje Cantz. Doug Rickards edited pictures from Google Street View, which were taken with a monster machine. That is, not by a photographer, but automatically, from the roof of a car, which systematically drives along the streets of American cities.
And now in Germany . . .
Yes. The special thing about Rickards’ project is that the pictures that have already been shot represent street photography at its best. All of the different kinds of American street photography can be found here, from William Eggleston to Todd Hido. It’s extremely disturbing to realize that the pictures are not taken by classic photographers, but by an artist sitting in a suburb somewhere, who doesn’t even have to leave the house.
That sounds like a Ruff concept. Does the actual act of taking a photo lose its significance, then?
No, I don’t think so. But I agree with Alec Soth, who says that editing will be the big theme in the future. How do I make individual photos important again, how do I create durable projects? It is becoming more and more important to make an effective, lasting artistic statement. Customers treasure those kinds of books.
Can you name a couple of examples?
New Topographics, the catalogue of the reconstructed 1975 show, sells well. Stephen Gill, Rinko Kawauchi, Alec Soth, Cuny Jansen also do well. In short: books by artists devoted to the medium.
And from the Hatje Cantz catalogue?
Tobias Zielony’s Story / No Story is a best seller, a real ray of light. Same with Abisag Tüllmann, a good photographer who is being rediscovered right now. Members of the Ostkreuz Agency produced a very high-quality book dedicated to the theme of the city. Informational classics are also big sellers. For instance, one book that has the potential to become this kind of classic is Starburst, in which Kevin Moore introduces the first big names in color photography from the 1970s and ‘80s in the United States, and examines their influence on the following generation.
What is the situation of books by established artists?
We still sell a few, from Gregory Crewdson to Andreas Gursky and Hiroshi Sugimoto, but not as many as before. We tend to work more like a gallery, curating and selecting work, tempting the customers. The number of photography books has grown immensely, so you need to have a good assortment.
Given the crowd of new releases, how do photo book collectors stay informed about new books?
Ways of distributing information have changed radically. The photo book community is quite compact, and the core of about five thousand people is very active when it comes to spreading information. A lot of information is communicated via social networks and blogs, for instance, “5B4,” by Jeffrey Ladd, “Eyecurious,” by Marc Feustel, and “Foodforyoureyes” by Nathalie Belayche.
Does that mean that photo books are mainly sold through the Internet?
We make a third of our profits through the Internet, a third from the store, and another third at fairs and festivals. Besides the famous photography festivals, there are two festivals in Germany that specialize in photo books.
You’ve been a regular at the photo festival in Arles for a long time. What makes that event special?
Yes, that’s true: this is our tenth year there, because it’s not just about selling. The notion of rencontres, meetings and gatherings, is clearly in the foreground. Customers who normally follow our activities through our website, Facebook, and Twitter visit our stand. A face-to-face live chat. It’s also nice to work with a collaborator, like Hatje Cantz. That was a lot of fun, because you can discover things together and exchange ideas.
The new location, however, led to some discontent.
The conditions were rather unfavorable. The bookshops were in a tent that was much too small, and not air conditioned, either. The crowd was huge and our stand was constantly filled to overflow. They have yet to make enough room for the photo book community.
What do you recommend for new collectors?
Collecting photography books is a passion. Anyone interested in photo books should follow his own preferences, which will naturally change during the course of his life. Everything that addresses your emotions and inspires you to think is good. That can apply to very different themes, artists, and styles.
What are you interested in, personally?
At the moment, I’m back to Stephen Shore, because I’m working on The La Brea Matrix, and my brother curated Der Rote Bulli (The red van) show, which is about Shore’s influence on Düsseldorf photographers. Also, I’m fascinated by anything that has to do with Los Angeles, as well as the book Las Vegas Studio, in which the original color photographs from Learning from Las Vegas have been reprinted.
Do you actually take photographs yourself?
Just for fun, with my iPhone Hipstamatic.