In the light of the seminar at c/o Berlin, Photobooks: RESET, this September, which started from the premise that the photobook is in crisis, Objektiv asks artists’ book publisher Aron Mörel, is the field really in trouble?
Aron Mörel: As much as there are small independent publishers out there like Mörel, Oodee, Trolley Books, Akina, Self Publish Be Happy, it still seems as if the business or culture at times is more geared to the mainstream. Admittedly it is at times a bit frustrating as there is a celebration or interest in younger or fringe artists or independent publishers yet when you look how this scene is represented in some bookshops or libraries you don’t get that impression . It’s like the music scene: there’s a lot of music, but at times it feels like everyone’s selling Guns’N’Roses... or Ed Sheeran. There are a million other bands or labels out there that are far more relevant now - you just need to scratch below the surface.
In regards to the theme of ‘crisis’, I’m not so convinced. Maybe I’m in denial. At some point ‘Television killed radio’, ‘Photography killed painting’ and ‘Digital books are killing print’ - the latter being a question asked to every publisher! Television didn’t kill radio. Photography never killed painting. Painting is still just as relevant as it ever was. What there is at this point is a proliferation of publishing. When you look at the industry over the last 10 years there’s been a massive surge - from kids doing zines to major galleries opening up publishing offices. There’s definitely a lot of growth. But one also has to look at which books are written about? I get the feeling most broadsheets are In general not adventurous enough. Most Journalists/editors to be frank, are like dinosaurs. Having said that - there are still a few journalists that push their editors or do make efforts to write about material that’s a little off the beaten path. And then you have to add into that bookshops are at times not being innovative - you see the fall of some retails - but then others are flourishing - like Yvon Lambert or Photobookstore.co.uk.
There is still a strong market for books – at fairs the buzz and sales are there – but maybe bookshops aren’t thinking of new ways engage their audience.
Nina Strand: Wouldn’t it be more interesting to feature the books we don’t know? To learn something new?
AM: There are one or two institutions that I think really make an effort to showcase more emerging work. When Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian were at Tate Modern, they made an effort to engage. I can imagine they had the opportunity to work with bigger publishers, but they wanted to bring in young blood and brought Off Print to the Tate - having an institution with a public square (essentially that is what the turbine hall is) have its audience engage in a whole culture of artists and small businesses is essential. The amount of people that ended up buying books and saying they had no clue about the event was wonderful!
NS: Speaking of the commercialisation of photography, I was just in Stockholm, where there’s a big retrospective of Lars Tunbjörk at Fotografiska. The pictures are amazing, as always, but they were installed really weirdly: on a dark grey background, with a spotlight on every image and there was even background music. It was disturbing. And I thought while I was walking through it, ‘Is a strong piece of art not enough?’ Also, with really fantastic, independent, self-published books, people don’t dare to trust that the general public want to read it. Or buy it.
AM: I was just speaking about that with Asger Carlsen and Genesis P’Orridge. There are a lot of books and publishers out there that make really clean, safe books. At the same time I recently re-published a surrealist facsimile by Jindrich Styrsky. Genesis mentioned that the current generation just don’t do that sort of art any more...I get the feeling a lot of work/books are relentlessly anesthetize and aestheticized...I suppose there are so many factors - a generation using social media a their main social space and platform - while at the same time that platform being infiltrated by commercial purposes and censorship... to the degree they ban 18th century paintings...Also, I get the feeling a lot of younger artists are in a Neutral space between creativity and commercial work...
NS: What makes a good photobook and what’s the purpose of the photobook?
AM: It’s so elastic and flexible. There are so many variables that make it interesting - but I guess once the strong content is present - it’s about the relationship between content and design. There are iconic photobooks that aren’t designed very well, and yet they’re absolutely fantastic. I think over-designed photobooks aren’t as interesting photobooks - over designed as in the classic Photobook - tipped in image, clean fonts etc... or just books with too much funky design...
NS: When the design takes over, that could mean that the photographer doesn’t think the images are good enough. On the contrary, the images suffer from the design. You don’t see them because they’re blurred by all the design.
AM: I don’t really care to have the book perfected or refined in that way. I think it’s nice to have something that isn’t obsessed with designer detail. That being said, everything should be produced really well. I guess I like a DIY approach. It’s also that way with a lot of music: music that isn’t over produced sound wise or even with covers when you look at certain album covers, where the artist has got into the whole design, I think it’s really interesting. A good example is Black Flag, where Raymond pettibibon would design all the covers and flyers. I think simplicity is really important.
In general I always push the artist to do their own designs - Alix Marie did her complete book and Antony Cairns has a history in making artist books - so their input is essential... or at times we’ve had no conventional approaches - like Rene Ricard doing our David Armstrong cover - or Pablo Ferro doing our Corinne Day cover after the film titles he did for Stanley Kubrick Dr. Strangelove.
NS: Simplicity and also the purpose of the book: what we want to say with it.
AM: The photobook is such an integral part of photographic practice – it’s not separate from it. It’s not a catalogue. It’s not a derivative. Photography has this incredible elasticity, vertically and horizontally. And it’s happy on a mug, or a t-shirt, on a flyer, on a poster or a billboard, on a cushion. It’s happy everywhere. And also, it’s socially really elastic. It’s happy to be on an advertisement, in an art gallery, in a newspaper, on a document, in a scientific instruction manual. And the artist’s book is as original as an original photograph.
But this thing of ‘Oh photography is in a critical place’ is a very dramatic way of thinking.
Publishers like me are seeing a crunch, but that’s because there are 800 other publishers out there. We’re not lacking an audience we’re just saturating an audience!. As for the the question ‘What is the role of the photobook?’ Maybe I’m lacking a true philosophical insight - it is strange, because there are a million different publishers with a million different messages. For example, Trolley Books had a very political message. It was founded in journalism and it was grounded in a very left-wing ideology. On the other side, Mörel will never really do a book like that because we’re grounded in a more sort of culturally humorous direction - I’d like to spill into dadaism. Retrospectively, dadaism is this perfect moment of absurdity in the middle of a historically absurd era.
NS: It might wrong to say ‘crisis’ or ‘in trouble’, but, there are too many books. And for some, it seems the launch at the New York Art Book Fair is more important than the content of what they’re launching. I receive numerous review copies from different artists, and with many of them, I don’t understand what they want to say with the book.
AM: One realisation I have is that when my generation was younger, when we were in our early twenties, a lot of my friends who are photographers, or artists, their main ambition was to have exhibitions. They were making and framing art, and at that time in London, we had a whole bunch of independent galleries. It was sort of like the publishing wave that’s going on now. I feel A lot of young artists today look towards the book more then the gallery... maybe there aren’t enough small and wreckless galleries as there are publishers...
NS: The seminar at c/o Berlin looked at the economic aspects and the prospective future of photobooks. How can you survive? What will Mörel books do? What’s the future?
AM: Financially, the landscape has changed. When I did a large book on Lucas Blalock in 2013 I was really putting a lot into production, I was able to sell most of them through bookshops and actually break even. Nowadays, I wouldn’t expect that, so I’ve started to do special editions. At the NYABF we launched a big Jeff Mermelstein book. We sold prints for a hundred dollars - only for the duration of the fair.
If the bookshop is your main outlet, then you’re going to go bankrupt - that model doesn’t work anymore. We now have access to direct clients via the internet, and via book fairs. I’ve been playing around with eliminating the the 40% bookshops get as a discount - but cutting it from the print run. Make 300 books instead of 500 - sell them at the same retail price and only sell direct to clients. A lot of publishers also as the artist to directly bring money into the book. That’s not how Mörel works.
NS: I’m curious about the aspect of not taking money from the artists, because here in Scandinavia we have good funds for making books – we can get the book partly funded – whereas in the UK you don’t.
AM: London is in a really fucked-up place. New York has private philanthropy. people put money into projects. And when they do I the case of non-profits, they also get tax breaks. They get benefits from that. In Scandinavia you have a lot of strong public funding. In Britain, we don’t have either: the public funding is diminished, so funding smaller things like publishers or books doesn’t really exist, there’s nowhere you can really go for that. Plus, there’s no private philanthropy culture.... we’re sort of in limbo.
NS: So how do you do it then?
AM: To be honest, a lot of my books are two years late because I’m trying to figure out where to get the money. As I mentioned, part of the idea now is to make a special-editions. With Jeff Mermelstein’s book, which is 300 pages, we’re making a special edition, a 1,000 page version, and we’re offering a copy to a Public Library. For Chris Shaw’s book, we sold an original maquette to a collector. For Alix Marie’s book, we sold a print to a collector. For Antony Cairn’s book, he printed ten special editions, which we sold. By all means These don’t pay for the full production, but they pay for part of it.