At half past eight on an unseasonably mild February morning, Yves was waiting for the delivery man: “He was supposed to come yesterday, but got stuck behind a street demonstration. As a result, I’m the one who needs to deal with this today.”
For nearly three years, Yves has worked as a graphic designer for a small publishing house which specializes exclusively in photobooks. That winter morning, he had to accept two pallets of the modest company’s latest product. As he watched the boxes being unloaded, he couldn’t help but wonder: “And to think that a good portion of these books might end up in a warehouse and then get pulped.” Sadly, there is much truth to this thought.
It’s a simple observation: unless a book hits its target, unsold copies are rarely spared. The photobook market is a niche market: the photobook is an object that occupies a special place, even among art books and monographs. The connection between photography and publishing seems obvious: paper medium which, until recently, had almost inevitably paired them together; reproducibility conducive to distribution; and a classic consumer-friendly format… Photography seems destined for the pages of beautiful books.
This is undoubtedly why the famous British artist Martin Parr devoted three historical and (nearly) comprehensive volumes to the photobook. He defined the object of his study as: “Photobook is a particular kind of photography book, in which images prevail over text, and the joint work of the photographer, editor and graphic designer helps build a visual narrative.” This rather sparing description covers a range of modes of production and distribution.
The first photobook
The first book to be printed and illustrated photographically dates back to 1843. Published by the botanist Anna Atkins, Photographs of British Algae was intended to help scientists identify certain species of algae. While the original function of the photobook was as a work of reference, very quickly it appealed to the world of documentary and fine art photography.
By their subjects, their historical importance, their capacity to capture the spirit of an art period, some publications have become landmarks. It is hard not to think of Walker Evans’s American Photographs (1938), John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye (1966), or The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) by Nan Goldin. These books are known far beyond a circle of well-informed enthusiasts.
But what is the photobook reality like today? To understand it, let’s look at the French independent publishing market. As is the case with the novel, not all publishers fall into the same category. There are well-established publishers whose know-how is no longer in question. These include the Éditions Xavier Barral, Textuels, and Actes Sud which often feature major representatives of the Eighth Art.
But next to them, we also find small independent publishers who ply their trade with as much heart and talent. The steady rise in the number of young publishing houses shows the interest in this activity. However, bringing a project from the drawing table to the bookstores is an uphill struggle.
A story of encounters
We join Véronique Peugnaud and Vincent Marcilhacy, co-founders of The Eyes Publishing, in a room above the photography bookshop La Comète in the 10th arrondissement of Paris. Created in 2013, The Eyes Publishing has three main objectives: the publication of an eponymous magazine; the edition of three to five books per year; and consulting, notably through events dedicated to photography. Both business school graduates, yet with very different backgrounds, Peugnaud and Marcilhacy found themselves almost by chance working side by side with photography.
What brought them together was a certain penchant for the humanities (in the good sense of the word) and a sincere interest in questions of society, identity, and politics. The topics tackled in their publications won’t disappoint. They address issues like Afropean identity through the images and texts by Johny Pitts (The Eyes, no. 12); violence against women, with the very poignant Faire Face by Camille Garbhi; and gender with carte blanche extended to the multidisciplinary artist SMITH (The Eyes, no. 11).
“It’s all about encounters,” explains Prugnaud. Whether we’re responding to a challenging subject, an artist, an angle of approach, what interests us is to advance thinking. This is what encourages us to tackle a problem in its entirety, rather than restricting ourselves to the book.”
The organization of meetings with the different communities mentioned in their publications, and Artist Talks proposed at Paris Photo, are part of their commitment, outreach, and mediation. In this sense, despite limited means, The Eyes Publishing manages to find the necessary resources to fully embrace the field of their research. This is why they do not see themselves as publishers: they do more than books, although they recognize that this medium remains best adapted to photography.
A tight economy
To photographers who would like to be published by The Eyes or elsewhere, Prugnaud and Marcilhacy give the same answer as others we spoke to: it is necessary, first of all, to know the work and the title list of the publisher you are writing to. This seems obvious, but useful to keep in mind. All too often, publishers receive submissions that do not correspond to their editorial line or the spirit of the publishing house.
The independent publishing sector is full of original ideas. This is true of IIKKI, a young publishing house coupled with a music label, both founded by Mathias Van Eecloo. Self-taught, Van Eecloo started out by making soundtracks to his own photo screenings. Little by little, the concept of IIKKI was born: a photobook that would be combined with music (vinyl, CD, download). Simple: yes; easy to set up: not quite.
“Originally, I came more from a sound background,” recalls Van Eecloo. “Let’s just say, that’s where I felt at home. Then I wanted to get into publishing. The idea of combining a label and photo edition came quite naturally, especially since it allowed me to expand my audience and to open up worlds to them they may not have known existed.” To do this, the editor brought together a photographer and a musician. Oftentimes, alchemy does its magic.
“It is a question of feeling. The phases of development are emotionally intense,” he admits, “we go through a range of emotions.” It is at the cost of personal concessions and painstaking labor that Van Eecloo manages to produce three books/discs a year. A regular routine has allowed him to find some financial stability. Because an independent publisher usually operates on a shoestring. Taking into account the characteristics of each photobook (images, paper, format…), the costs are much higher than for a “traditional” book, and the income proportionally lower.
An object, more than anything else
Given these conditions, just to stay afloat, many photobook editors must combine their passion with a side job that allows them to simply earn a living. Few are able to avoid moonlighting, even when they’re not new to the publishing world. This is the case of David Fourré, creator of the Lamaindonne publishing house.
“Basically, my background was children’s books. I became interested in photobooks after I was gifted a Jacob Holt photobook. So, together with a friend, I made my first photobook. But it was just for us, a handful of copies. Then, I gradually began to build a sustainable economic model.”
Little by little, an editorial line of Lamaindonne crystallized, focusing on intimacy. “I invite the photographers I work with to spend a few days at my place. There is a lot of talk, reflection… From there, things begin to come together. Then we can concentrate on building a discourse, on the layout, on mockups.”
It is clear that a photobook is an object more than anything else. As such, it has a form, and where form is concerned, anything is possible. To return to Martin Parr’s definition, a photobook is the joint work of the photographer, editor, and graphic designer.
As Céline Pévrier, founder of SUN/SUN publishing house, affirms, the graphic designer plays a key role. “It was by chance,” she said, “that I met the creators of the graphic design studio Typical Organization in a street in Athens. We talked for two hours, and they gave me advice that I follow to this day. For example, to stay sharp and not let go of my originality. Sometimes, the designer turns my initial proposal on its head. And it often works.” Becoming an editor means sort of taking on the role of a conductor, a stage director; in short, it means knowing how to surround yourself with people, make decisions, and delegate.
France Photo Book
Unable to gain access to publishers that possess a certain know-how and are attentive both to the artist and the object, photographers are increasingly taking the route of self-publishing. To meet this demand, the market has seen the arrival of more and more companies presenting themselves as publishing houses, but which are in reality mere service providers.
David Fourré underscores: “I don’t think it’s normal that someone who calls themselves a publisher charges the photographer for the book. I understand this is a fragile economy, but that is not what publisher’s job is about.”
Vincent Marcilhacy adds: “In any case, we produce too many books. This economy means that if a publisher wants to survive, they must constantly feed the market. I think that some books, which may not exist out of an intrinsic need, have been designed with the market in mind.”
We get it: the life of an independent photobook publisher is not all roses, and there are many pitfalls to navigate. Aware of this, and to assert their individuality, some publishers (including those we have mentioned) have joined forces as an association: France Photo Book. This entity, created in 2019 and supported by the Ministry of Culture, currently has twenty-nine members. It has set itself the goal of having photobooks recognized as full-fledged editorial choices, boosting the visibility of small publishers, and promoting French production abroad, particularly during major international events such as UNSEEN in Amsterdam.
Hold on to your integrity
France Photo Book is a welcome initiative, one of whose mission is also to train and educate current and future booksellers about the specificities of the photobook. Anna Karine Robin, the association’s coordinator, explains: “We work with universities and technical colleges that offer book-related courses to help them understand the particular economics of photobooks. Some of our members, that is the publishers with whom we work, are also educators, so we try to raise awareness that way.”
If you want to become a member of France Photo Book, however, you must meet some basic criteria: your publishing house must have a corporate office; have been minimum of three years in operation; release at least three titles a year; and to have a distributor.
What stands out in our discussions with independent publishers is their goodwill toward their partners and the artists they publish. Their view of the industry may be harsh, but it is realistic. And they never begrudge advice, whether to photographers or future colleagues.
Most often, all you need is to ask. As we have seen, it is highly recommended that photographers familiarize themselves with the publications and the philosophy of the publishers they want to approach. Being selective about images and concise in correspondence is an asset.
Publishers of tomorrow, remember, patience is gold: be prepared not to make a living from your passion right away, and gauge the risks you are taking and launch into this adventure with a security net. Everyone, mind the editors’ advice and do not despair: nourish your originality and, above all, hold on to your integrity.