Mind the Gap: An interview with Joshua Lutz

Disclaimer: A publicist working with Schilt Publishing got in touch looking for a review of Mind the Gap. I don’t tend to review books, particularly if approached, but having really enjoyed Hesitating Beauty I thought this could be a great opportunity to see if Joshua was interested in a frank conversation about photobook publishing. Luckily, Joshua has given the questions posed a good deal of thought and has been refreshingly open about the publishing process. I hope this is of interest to readers here and truly I do recommend  seeking out the book if you can…

Joshua, seeing as we are talking mostly about Mind the Gap it seems that the best way to start might be in asking you why this work, and the publication, matters to you?

I wouldn’t say Mind the Gap matters so much, It’s the conversation that the work is about which feels really important. The publication functions simply as a way to have a dialog of sorts with these issues. I don’t really know how to play a productive part of that exchange in any other way besides things like teaching and making work that creates the conditions to talk about it.

And the book is a key part of this? With Meadowlands and Hesitating Beauty, it seems as though the book as a medium really offers you something as an artist — what is this?

They were all really very different processes. Meadowlands didn’t start as a book it started as just pictures I was making. This was way before book making became so ubiquitous. A book or even a show really wasn’t even on my radar. In a way Hesitating Beauty didn’t start as a book either but it quickly lent itself to the medium once I started making some small prints. I like making books because I can work small. With a book I can see this thing from beginning to end. I feel that it can say the thing that I want to. If it falls apart ultimately it is on me. With a show, I tend to work backwards where the space dictates what is included and at what size. The parameters for what I am going to say is very different. In a way I don’t hold myself to the same standard. I am ok with shows falling apart a little bit or not saying all the things I want them to.

Image from production process. Joshua Lutz

My favorite components of the book as a medium is how one reads it in such a way that confirms something that they may believe to be true and how a belief system is reinforced by something in the book itself. Basically, If you have a small hint of something that you think is true and apply it to the book that very thing becomes the glasses for which you read the entire book. A younger version of myself fought this as much as I could to make sure people where seeing exactly what I was. Letting go of this is a little scary but ultimately has ended up being really quite spacious.

Is this connected to the books permanence? Its longevity? It seems especially in a predominantly digital medium this is important to makers and readers alike?

I am not thinking consciously about permanence with the work. If anything, impermanence is the thing that drives my work. I do one day want to explore the digital realm of showing my work. Right now, the digital format for me really functions as a document for the actual print or the book not the piece itself. For now, I think it’s more connected to control. Feeling a bit unresolved about the work online I ultimately can’t control what happens to it. For example, there is an artist taking my photographs and turning them into design posters and fabrics. At first, I wanted to reach out and ask them to stop but then I was flattered that they would spend any real time with the work to consider using it in their own practice.

Joshua Lutz

This is your second time working with Schilt, something that would certainly suggest a symbiotic relationship. Can you explain a little about what the two parties put in to the production of the book and why it is that you have chosen to work with Schilt again?

We worked together again because I was extremely pleased with Hesitating Beauty. The book was produced almost exactly how I wanted it. There was very little push to change anything that was not in the original design. Although he didn’t do Hesitating Beauty I know one of the designers (Henk VanAssen) that Schilt works with very well and I wanted to work with him. Henk was great to collaborate with. These things are really so difficult. Photographers spend years looking at a project only to have them hacked away by over- design. Henk was very conscious of the work that I had done, willing to push ideas while honoring the intent of the book. In the end we didn’t land far from where we started which for this book was ultimately the right move.

Is this important to you that your intent remains mostly unchanged — not that it isn’t challenged or supported but do you see the resulting book with you as author or a co-authored project?

Perhaps this sounds smug but I do not see the designers that I work with as co-authors at all. Co-designers but not co-authors. I would argue that with all my books I came to the design process with 99% of the layout done and 95% of the design done. My designs however are never in the right format and far from print ready. I use photoshop instead of InDesign to hack my way through the process. The designer then takes my pages and translates them into a format that can be used by the printer.

Joshua Lutz

Where does price fit into the process of bookmaking? At $50 it is not a cheap publication and I wonder whether the price (or range) is set at the start or whether it is the product of all the other decisions that go into the production of the publication?

That is something that is set by the publisher. I have really no say in that stuff. I think Schilt Publishing weighs the cost of the book against the Amazon reduction. $50 becomes $35 but really not sure how any of that happens.

It is pretty hard to see the ‘work’ that is Mind the Gap without buying the publication, or seeing the ClampArt show at the moment — is this a conscious decision to hold back and keep something limited or perhaps you are keen to really curate or control the experience of those coming to the work?

I wish it was that thought through. Honesty, it is really just about not updating my website. Most the images are either on the galleries website or other publications that have interviewed or reviewed the work.

Do you have a strategy for getting the book into specific archives, libraries, schools and so on? Does this factor into your bigger plans for the book?

No, I don’t really have plans for the book in that sense. I do very little outreach to institutions to get the book placed. As a teaching artist with kids my time is so limited. If I am not teaching or with my kids I try and devote all my studio time to making work. Perhaps in another life I would have a gaggle of assistants that could help with these things, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Who is it then that you want to see, or buy the book? Are you aiming for the book itself to primarily be read by photobook enthusiasts or are there other groups of people you are looking to reach?

That is a really important question. Often when a book comes out people ask you to come to different places to show the work and talk about it. I did a bunch of that before realizing that almost everyone coming to see these events were people that want to be doing it themselves. We end up talking to ourselves over and over again. Rarely, for many of us in the photography art world are we able to really reach outside of our own little echo chamber. That said it does become really beautiful when the work is able to transcend beyond our circles. With my first book Meadowlands that happened a little bit with people interested in the environment but more often with enthusiasts of New Jersey. Hesitating Beauty was a bit more successful in this realm and seemed to touch a note with caregivers, specifically those caring for parents or those suffering from mental illness. I am really not sure who the audience will be for Mind The Gap. It does seem to be hitting some strange notes that are trickling into all sorts of unintended interactions. The range has been somewhat disparate; from the Bernie Sanders Campaign wanting to collaborate to a warden of a Texas Prison connecting about a public works project. At this point, I am not sure where any of it is going just feeling grateful for the ability to be a part of the conversation.

What is a successful reading of Mind the Gap for you? What do you want (or do you even think about this?) people to hear when they look at the work?

I don’t really think there is a successful read as much as there is an unsuccessful read. For example, the book has about 20+ short stories in it. Some readings have taken the stance that based on my previous work certain stories must be grounded in truth while others must embrace fiction. It is not that I am bothered by the picking and choosing of real vs fiction it’s just a bit more effective if people embraced not knowing. In a way that is essentially what the work is about; our collective need to come to conclusions about things. It is about the state of being lost in confusion 99% of the time with only tiny glimpses of clarity. I like the Sanskrit word samsara and refer to it in the drawings of the wheel of samsara used in the end pages. I suppose this becomes a legend or a map for the book for anyone really wanting to dig in. Samsara translates to wandering and these drawings depict ancient and modern-day states that from a buddhist perspective prevent us from finding clarity. My favorite thing about them is that these obstacles have been updated but they haven’t changed we only think they have.

Joshua Lutz

What role does the accompanying spiel/blurb/precis that accompanies the work do for this communication between you and the reader?

That’s a publisher thing and that has to do with marketing. If I had it my way there wouldn’t be anything, but I do understand the need.

Do you think consciously of the ways in which the book (this or previous) impacts you from a financial perspective or in terms of your career —

To the first part of your question photo-books at the scale that I am making them do not contribute to any real income. My finances are not directly tied to book sales at all. My income is generally balanced through the ebb and flow of teaching, art sales, grants and the occasional editorial job. As far as career, I think they are all intertwined and support each other.

Is it important today for photographers to be making books?

No not at all. Don’t hate me for this but I think there are way too many photo-books being made. I can’t tell you how many people tell me about a book they want to make. They see the book before they see the work. What is important for photographers to be making are long term realized projects that may or may not one day find themselves in the book format. The work has to come first. A photo-book should be the end result of every possible iteration. It’s a massive undertaking that should really not be seen as the goal but if anything the outcome.

Dr Strangepub: Casey Kelbaugh

This is the last in the current series of conversations based on the future of photographic publishing that I dubbed ‘Dr Strangepub‘. If there are people you think should be  part of these conversations (and I already have an extensive list), then let me know.

– Matt

Casey Kelbaugh is a photographer and founder of the now-worldwide phenomenon ‘Slideluck Potshow

Casey talks here about the importance and need for the physical event in 21st century publishing and the challenges associated with trying to bring that experience to an online community.

Click the image below to play the audio:

 

Dr Strangepub: The Possibilities of 21st Century Photographic Publishing

Dr Strangepub or:
How I learned to stop worrying and love the possibilities of 21st century publishing

Recently I sat down to chat with 4 individuals, all with their own different take on 21st century photographic publishing, it’s possibilities and perhaps a pitfall or two as well. These conversations were recorded and are now available to list/watch via the wee website linked here.

Dr Strangepub

These chats are not an attempt to classify modern photographic publishing or even to generate answers but instead to pose questions on the current state and value of photographic publishing from the live experience and handmade book to multi-platform outputs and print on demand technology.

As well as being able to see all the conversations now, I will post them one by one over the next month and we start with Bas Vroege below . I have also included below a better worded version of the above should you wish to share it (and please do!)

Thanks, and my sincere thanks to those involved – Andreas Schmidt, Bas Vroege, Casey Kelbaugh and Harry Watts.

– Matt

 

Bas Vroege is the Director of Paradox pictures based in the Netherlands. Paradox is a not-for-profit organization exploring contemporary issues through documentary photography.

Here Bas talks about the multifaceted approach that Paradox employs for the work it publishes and how new possibilities in publishing have helped to create more dynamic storytelling.

 

To recap 🙂

‘Dr Strangepub’ is an online publication of converstaions between Matt Johnston and a selection of 21st century photography publishers, each with their own thoughts on what publishing can offer us today and whether or not we are currently exploiting it.

These conversations are not just based on the future of digital plublishing but also the roll of the physical object in the digital age and how the breakdown of traditional gatekeeprs has liberated our options as content producers. This project is a collaboration between Matt Johnston, The Photobook Club and Coventry University School of Art and Design.

 

 

Ken Schles: Invisible City, A Digital Resource

This really should not have taken as long as it has, and for that my apologies. I often stress that accessibility is of paramount importance to me and The Photobook Club so was well aware that in publishing the Invisible City iBook I was both improving access to content for some but excluding a large audience also.

And so here I hope to rectify that by launching ‘Ken Schles: Invisible City, A Digital Resource’ as an enhanced PDF. Provided you have the latest Adobe Reader software (free and available on all platforms) you can download the resource for free below.

About:
This publication takes on a magazine-style format, inside of which you will find not only the images and text featured in Invisible City, but a variety of personal reflections, commentary on the process of creating Invisible City from Ken Schles and even original notes from a lecture given at New York’s International Center of Photography in 1990.

Download the enhanced PDF here to view on your PC/Mac/Tablet (File size: 90mb)

If you have an iPad, you can download the publication free from the link given below via the iBook store.

The complete forward featured in the publication alongside screenshots is featured below this introductory video.

Forward
I set up the Photobook Club in 2010 as a response to both my own fascination and frustration with photobooks. My fascination was born and nurtured as a student spending thousands of hours in the University library choosing books at random by the colour of their spine, or based on recommendations from my peers and tutors. My frustration was a little harder to pinpoint but essentially stemmed from my wanting to learn more about the classic photobooks, those revered and often rare books that held a sense of mystery between their two covers; everyone agreed they were classics but there was little discussion of why.

At the time there was, and still is, a huge interest in photobooks, but predominantly in the new, the self published and the handmade, and so together with partner-in-crime Wayne Ford, I decided to open out my thoughts and learning to a wider community – just as a traditional book club. As well as promoting and facilitating this shared experience online, I was keen to encourage the generative experience the photobook offers us both in spending time with a beautifully crafted artifact, and in sharing thoughts (as well as books) in person.

I certainly hope that (depending on your knowledge of Invisible City), this publication will either introduce you to, or help create a greater understanding of a hugely influential modern photobook. Inside you will find not only the images and text featured in Invisible City, but a variety of personal reflections, commentary on the process of creating Invisible City from Ken Schles and even original notes from a lecture given at New York’s International Center of Photography in 1990.

Regardless of your previous experience with this book, or whether you are a lecturer, photographer, student, book lover or just curious, I would really appreciate your comments via the email address below.

Finally, thanks must of course go primarily to Ken Schles, not only for allowing all to see his wonderful images but also for kindly lending me a copy of the book to work with, and for his enthusiasm towards this project. My thanks also to the contributors listed on the following page who offered their own, personal reflections on the book.

Matt Johnston


matt@photobookclub.org

 

Download the enhanced PDF here to view on your PC/Mac/Tablet (File size: 90mb)

If you have an iPad, you can download the publication free from the link given below via the iBook store.

 

A Photobook Club Meetup in San Francisco 14 -16th Sep

If you are in San Fran this September you are in for a treat as Gallery Carte Blance run by Gwen Lafage has teamed up with Darius Himes and Larissa Leclair of the Indie Photobook Library to put on a great event for photobook lovers and anyone with an interest in documentary photography. I shan’t waffle on and instead will introduce Darius Himes’ framework for the event:

The early- to mid-20th century produced a handful of photographic styles with a photojournalistic or documentary vocabulary at their core. This “documentary tradition” flourished in the latter half of the century, as photographic equipment shrunk, film speeds increased and world-wide traveled became easier and cheaper. The last decades have seen an explosion in art-photography educational programs and self-publishing, coupled with a continuing desire to explore the world, near and far. As we stand in the morning light of a new century, already some 12 years old, it is worth considering the question, What of the documentary style? When it comes to approaching the world around us—its people, places, conflicts, development and intertwined societies—how have the languages within the growing world of photography changed and shaped the conversation we have in images?

Darius Himes

There will be workshops, lectures and of course a San Francisco Photobook Club meetup on the Saturday. For all you need to know, head here and enjoy!

– Matt

 

10% Off select Aperture titles for Meet-up Members

A huge thanks to the folks at Aperture publishing who have kindly offered the Photo Book Club community 10% off select titles, including Nan Goldin’s ‘Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ which we are looking at next month.

This special offer code will be sent to all members of our meet-up community at the beginning of next month. If you are not already part of this, you can add yourself below. And if you do not wish to be a meet-up member but would still like the code, please email Matt here.

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So what books are available to get 10% off?

Nan Goldin, The Ballad of sexual dependency

John Gossage, The Pond

Robert Adams, Summer Nights, Walking

Sally Mann, Immediate Family

Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places

Japanese Photobooks of the 60’s and 70’s

Fred Ritchin – In our own image

William Christenberry, Kodachromes

Rinko Kawauchi, Illuminance

Bruce Davidson, Subway


Ken Schles On: The Rare and Unique life of ‘Invisible City’

Invisible City is well known to those who know it and unknown to those that don’t! How do you feel about it being so rare, and considered one of the greats, while many who cannot afford it, have not been able to see it.

– Matt

I wish more people could see it. I feel it has never really been widely known. It went out of print soon after it was published. It was never my intention for it to be so rare. Relatively unknown and yet delighted in, maybe that’s a good definition of it being in a certain kind of club? A good thing people will be able to see it here in this club then. But books of this sort need to be held and flipped through, that I know.

© KEN SCHLES

Books take on their own lives, if they are successful, and go on to have their own histories. I have a few stories around the book. Books reflect back on you. And although this book is relatively obscure because of its rarity, it’s given me a few stories to tell. Walker Evens called his book, American Photographs, his “calling card.” For me, Invisible City was a life-line into a career as a working artist. It has gone places I’ve never been to, spoken to people I’ll never know. It’s always been underground and under the radar. Something people ‘in the know’ seem to know about—whatever that means.

It’s a small private book, and it has affected people in a personal way. But as its creator, I can’t objectively gauge its impact. And I don’t think anybody creating a work of art can ever truly understand what impact one’s work has had. It’s hard enough to know one’s own mind, let alone someone else’s. Sure, over the years I’ve gotten some glimpses. Pre-internet, I’d get the odd phone call. Sometimes people would want to visit, or even send me small gifts. One time I got a phone call from Italy, from a fashion house that said that Robert Frank had told them to call me. I found out through them that Invisible City was a favorite book of his and he was throwing some work my way (eventually there was an ill-fated gallery connection from him too. And it was through that that I eventually met him). One call was from Robert Robertson, the DP who was working on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers at the time. Over the years I found it had had a huge effect on many people in the photo and especially the film industry, but at the time it was considered too ‘raw,’ and too ‘hard’ for the main stream.

© KEN SCHLES

But the world has changed. I’d hear that some teacher was showing it to their students, or there was a lecture about it. In time, I’d be asked to give lectures about it. But not that many people contacted me early on. During that time I kept lamenting that the only good photographer was a dead one. I was still struggling to make ends meet. John Szarkowski at MoMA told me that the museum would have to support my work because it was important and galleries wouldn’t want to hang my pictures on the wall because they were too ‘difficult.’ Unfortunately, John retired soon after and the support wasn’t all that forthcoming as the photoworld and museumworld morphed into something else.

So the book didn’t have a direct impact on my career, not at first anyway. It took a few years. Over time though, it’s been cumulative, and it hasn’t abated. Not in the least. I’d hear of creative meetings in all sorts of creative industries—after the fact, where the book was referenced, but rarely did anyone bother to call me. In that, the book had a strange trajectory. Immediately upon publication, the New York Times selected it as a notable book of the year, but there were not many copies yet in distribution because of a decision to sell most of the copies abroad. Copies were slow to surface in US bookstores and it was considered out of print within a year. When first published, a local favorite bookstore, St. Mark’s Books, had it on their hip new arrivals table. I was really proud of that, but within a week it was hidden behind the cash register because so many copies were being stolen.

© KEN SCHLES

You had to know that it was there and you had to ask for it. To me it was frustrating. How were you to know about a photography book you had never seen? I worked so hard to make it happen, and when it did, immediately it went into hiding. Peter Galassi at the Museum of Modern Art put it on display for the More Than One Photography exhibition, but left it in a vitrine, so nobody could leaf through it or even touch it. Somehow, the book was out there, but it was also hidden. Early reviews came with some caveats. I don’t think the book was that well understood at the time when it first came out. The Times review said I was making obvious connections to Weegee. Others thought I had copied Ed Van der Elsken’s Love On The Left Bank—Susan Kismaric at MoMA showed me that book after she saw mine. I love that book, but I had never seen it before.

© KEN SCHLES

Because of its rarity (it sold out really fast) the price went up quickly and it was lost to a more general public. I couldn’t even afford to buy copies on the secondary market. It stayed hidden away in collections. How do I feel about that? It’s funny, you want something to be successful, but you think that it being a success would cause certain things to happen, which isn’t necessarily the case. I guess I was naïve. When Jack Woody published my book, he also put out that same year Joel Peter-Witkin’s first book and Herb Ritt’s first book. Personally, and in the long run, I think my book is as important as theirs, but they got the museum shows and they got the fame. The attention my book got was pre-internet word of mouth. I see now that it is people of a certain age and from a certain milieu who mostly know of the book. There were no photography book geeks to speak of back then. There were lovers of photography books, but it wasn’t such a vocal and distinct appellation to like photography books. And of those that did their voices had little impact in the larger photographic community.

Not that long ago I was in the office of Phil Block, the director of the school at the International Center of Photography, and while he sings the praises of Invisible City (he was an early and ardent advocate, an early champion of photography books as well) he says that younger people just don’t know about it. To test this, I asked students walking into his office if they’d heard of the book. Most all said they never heard of it. With less than two thousand copies in a world of seven billion people, I think that’s quite understandable. But then again, you just don’t know its impact. In 1999, I got an email from the Dutch photographer and curator, Machiel Botman. He and the curator Wim Melis of the Noorderlicht Foundation for Photography wanted to make my work the center of a festival that included a slew of some very impressive photographers (I don’t want to leave any names out, so please look at this link). They said, “We love Invisible City, what have you been doing lately?” That exhibition led to the publication of my second book, The Geometry of Innocence, published by Hatje Cantz, in Germany, 13 years after IC came out.

© KEN SCHLES

I hadn’t a clue that there was an audience of people that knew of my work outside the U.S. I felt like one of those old forgotten jazz musicians who had to go to Europe to find their audience. So, in that sense, I wish my work wasn’t so obscure to people. It’s been a long and somewhat hard road. I’m lucky that I can still work and explore new avenues of ideas. By and large, Invisible City was my passport to entry. I’m proud of its successes. From all the responses from people over the years who have sought me out to tell me what impact the book has had on their lives, I would think that more people would like to know about it. But with few copies about and people being so precious about them, I can understand why more people don’t know about it. I wish Invisible City more luck in the coming years. More is hard to say.

– Ken Schles

 

One half of the photo Book Club at London Design Festival

As already announced last month, I will be speaking at the London Design Festival’s ‘Story of Books’ event this September in London. The event has some great speakers lined up and will promote discussion around the future and changing form of the book.

I will be looking closely at the photography book in particular and ways in which I see it developing, as well as the huge support we have had for the Photo Book Club, and for the physical books and stores that we all love.

I would be keen to hear Photo Book Club readers thoughts on the state/future of books and so you can get involved with discussion via the twitter hashtag #storyofbooks or in the comments section below.

If you would like to attend, you can get your tickets from this website. The talk takes place on September 17th at the Department of Anthropology, University College London from 10.30am – 3.00pm.

– Matt