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A conversation with Joachim Schmid


By Olivier Cablat - Nov 12 – 2015

PhD : Digital influences on photobooks



Olivier Cablat

Joachim Schmid, we are in offprint Paris, one hour before the official opening.

You are artist, photographer, curator, editor, bookseller, founder of the ABC’s cooperative books, one of the most prolific self publisher specially with Print On Demand publishing systems … for me you are the perfect witness on what digital changed on photobooks..

When and how did you entered this publishing world?


Joachim Schmid

First of all I think I am not actually interested in photobooks. Many of my books involve photographs but I think the term photobook is actually a pretty useless term. Because there is no clear definition of what the photobook is or not, I prefer to refer to the tradition of the artist’s book.

When I started making books, I didn’t know anything about books. I had not seen one single artist’s book. I made my first books as a student and maybe I did think I invented something like artist’s books. I did not think about the term ... but I just made books ... and then slowly I got introduced what people had done since the mid of 20th century, starting with Ed Ruscha, Dieter Roth and similar artists. That became a frame of references, where I would like to place my work. Nobody talked about photobooks at that time, there were photography books but they were more like trade books and of course a number of catalogues. What nowadays is called the photobook is a new phenomenon, for the past 10, 15 years or so people tried to establish this. Of course things are overlapping, there’s no sharp borderline between artist’s books and photobooks and trade books. It’s often hard to tell them apart; but I think it’s still important to keep in mind that we come from different traditions.

For me the crucial point is that people who make artists’ books insist in doing something themselves, they decide about all aspects of their books, they are self-determined product. You will hardly find an artist’s book made by somebody who worked with a designer. Sometimes artists work with a publisher but nearly all the decisions, how the book looks, are made by one person, by the artist whose book it is. It is not a collaboration or a commercial product done by a publisher involving as designer where the photographer just provides the raw material and then an industry starts working on it and turns it into a marketable product.


OC

Actually, the term photobook is for me the most appropriated to speak about printed photographs on books, which includes art books, catalogs and some artists’ books using photographs. It’s mostly an opened definition than a closed category.


And is there specially an art book which convinced you to engage yourself in this way?


JS

Yes there were a number of books. I always was a book person in the way that I grew up in the province where there wasn’t any gallery, and when I got interested in art my closest way to get information was going to the bookstore in the next town and there I got art books. I did buy a lot of art books, very erratic, without any knowledge at all.

One of the early books I bought was in a second hand box of a bookstore, a copy of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, and this was absolutely mind blowing ... I had just finished high school and did not yet study. I found that book and thought « What is this? » my brain was completely re-wired within one day after reading this book, and it left a tremendous impact. It was the most powerful book I ever saw, where imagery had the same role as writing, it was a perfect collaboration between Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore who designed the book; I haven’t see anything like that before and not after... It worked in a perfect way and definitively left a very powerful impact in my brain and also probably defined that I never had that kind of attitude in photography : do not crop, keep everything as it is, bla bla bla .. Photography is a material, you can play with it, work with it, get the best out of it, place it in the right context, make it an operational tool. That’s what I got from the encounter with this book, and it was certainly one of the most powerful books I encountered in my years of formation.



OC

What do you think about the explosion of self published books for the last 10-15 years?


JS

I think it’s fantastic what is happening ... The economic basis of publishing has been shattered by new technologies and that’s good. Of course it’s a dangerous game to play but I think it's wonderful that more people have the opportunity to present something in a decent form. Before that the situation was like that: a few powerful publishers and editors were the gate keepers and dictated what is published and what is not published. This is over and that’s good. I think it’s important to keep that in mind. Of course this implies that a lot of rubbish is being produced .. It’s normal : most of journalism is rubbish, most of TV is rubbish, most of radio programs are rubbish .. and maybe that’s necessary. In every field only a certain percentage is interesting and that’s probably necessary as a basis, but something interesting can pop up out of it.


OC

Remy Faucheux from RVB Books recently said that there was the same proportion of rubbish in the self edition than in the classic way…


JS

... And with literature and with everything, absolutely.. If you go to any bookstore, more than 90% of the books are rubbish, it’s only material produced to make money and nobody will talk about it in one year from now, only a few books will have a chance to continue their life after the first edition or the second edition is sold out.


OC

Did you feel an important change on art book forms as soon as they were conceived with digital software?


JS

Yes absolutely. The moment I discovered that something like print on demand was available, things changed a lot. Before we had access to these cheaper production techniques like printing in small editions with digital technology, books were already produced digitally, all the layouts were done with computers. There was something like a transition period of 20 years when the industry changed. I’ve been working in that industry so I’ve been watching that : I think you can see a big difference in how books are designed and how other ideas are applied when the restriction of traditional technology were no longer there ... This has good and bad effects, but of course things have gone completely wild when the printing technology changed, so that it became doable to publish small editions of 20, 50 or a hundred copies which before was economically not viable, and that has a major effect.

It allows us producing many more books, many of which are fantastic, but there’s of course also a lot of rubbish.


OC

And did you choose immediately the Blurb solution for your print-on-demand process?


JS

When I saw there was a new possibility, I did some research, and then I tested all providers I knew like myphotobook.com, mypublisher.com (I don’t know how they are all called and whether they are still existing) and I was not happy with one of them. None of them was perfect but Blurb was the one which came closest to what I needed, it was the best compromise. I could not work with myphotobooks, because they make so awful things, they use awful papers, they make many mistakes in binding ... it’s just impossible. Blurb was the smallest evil.

I was willing to make this compromise because I knew that no publisher would be willing to make the books that I wanted to make. It was more important for me to get them published than to get them published in a perfect form.


OC

I also used Blurb for my first self published book (A typological study..) in 2009. The standard form of the object fitted well with this project but after a time, I had enough with the object and its standardized form…


JS

The situation has changed. 5 years ago, Blurb was be something usable. Nowadays, I don’t use them any more. If I would start the same project now, I would produce the series of books differently. The situation was different at that time, there are many more printers now, digital printing has becoming cheaper, you can get it everywhere, there is no reason to use Blurb any more. That was different 5 or 7 years ago, there was no alternative.


OC

Yes, and you can use the HP Indigo system by yourself and with any publisher. There’s a kind of generalization of POD system, allowing editions in short quantities with affordable price.

To which level do you locate the bigger influence of digital on photobooks or art books? On the content, on the graphic design, the printing, the binding, book forms, the distribution..


JS

It’s what we were just talking about, the tendency of standardization... If you look around, many books look pretty much the same, something like a new industry standard ... There’s something like a default, the Blurb books all look the same.. In the beginning you had to use their design templates that you couldn’t modify, which was awful. Now there are more options and there’s more diversity but the printing is all the same, with the same over saturated colors, the binding is absolutely dreadful .. That’s because everybody can have as many pages in the books as they want, so printers don't work with signatures any more that are folded, but work with loose sheets, and so we books that are bound in a way that they will never open properly. That’s one of the problems I am not happy with..

We have a lot of standardization which helps people who are more or less beginners in bookmaking and who don’t pay enough attention to what they are doing …

On the other side we see a tendency towards a lot of extra little draft things to make books special objects. I am suspicious about this, it’s nearly another form of standardization, a book bricolage culture that’s emerging, I am not very fond of this. I am more in favour of the book as an industrial like product, I don’t like these bricolage books very much. And quite often there is no reason to do this or that, little inserts here, little extras there, the handmade little box around it, there’s a lot of this kitsch, a lot of bad stuff.


OC

And is there a specific reason that make you use many pictures found in the Internet inside your books made with the Internet?


JS

It’s just continuing my artistic practice that I have been doing before there was digital photography. I have been collecting photographs from flea markets and from newspapers. The work was always reflecting the photography that’s out there and it was a comment about popular photography both by amateurs and by professionals. I am continuing this work with more recent material and today’s channels of distribution. The difference is that I can get the images I work with hot off the camera, more contemporary than before. When I went to flea markets I found snapshots that were only available after somebody died.

Now I can grab pictures from Facebook ten minutes after they were taken, and I do have unlimited access now. That makes a tremendous difference: even if I got one hundred thousand of pictures from the flea-market, that’s nothing compared to millions of pictures I can get every day with Flickr, more than I can ever look at.


OC

Will digital books finally find a place in the future of publishing?


JS

I shall generally never say anything about the future. It’s completely unpredictable, I have no idea. I may have assumpions about the direction of publishing … but I may have a different opinion if you ask me next year.


OC

And have you a wish for this future?


JS

I hope I can continue for some years to do the stuff that I am doing and I hope to be up to date with more technologies that I probably did not dream yet about. I am looking forward to what people will invent and I am looking forward to be in dialogue with that.


OC

A last question, do you agree if I claim that digital technologies allowed the creation of a new contemporary history of photography and on photobooks in the last 15 years?


JS

Absolutely. I think with online photo-hosting and similar phenomena 99% of the photo theory was turned into trash, all these things people thought about and thought they were important … If you re-read all of those essays that were written in the past century about what photography is and what photography does, they are trash now,. They were trashed in no time. Let's take snapshot photography for example: the key concept until ten years ago would have been "memory", but that doesn't play any role at all any more, because nobody looks at photographs any more, and they are not meant to be looked at, they are only meant to be there for the moment, then they perish, they are somewhere in a digital nirvana, but nobody will look at them ever again. Before we had these modern tools people would have a few photographs that they would cherish, "ok this is my grandfather" - you had one photograph of your grandfather, but this will be completely different for all future generations, there is no way back, that is an immense influence I am talking about, and let's talk about it again in ten years time, I'm sure the changes will be even more radical ... People who grew up now will never think about what they could have lost because they only live in the new situation. The future is going to be fantastic. The first one hundred and fifty years were preliminaries, photography starts now.


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