Photography Now: An Interview with Gerhard Steidl


General Photography, Photobooks

Recently, German magazine Photography Now approached me for an interview. To give me an idea of such interviews, they sent me an older issue, which featured a long and very interesting interview with Gerhard Steidl. Unfortunately, the interview was in German and not available online - so I asked the makers of Photography Now whether I could translate the interview and re-publish it here. With Photography Now having a whole cache of such interviews, we agreed on a series of translations - which are due to appear here, every two weeks or so (depending on, for example, how long it takes me to translate them), provided the interviewees agree to it. The following is the first such interview, published in Photography Now 1.2009. My thanks to Marte Kraeher, Claudia Stein, and the staff at Photography Now, and, of course, to a Gerhard Steidl. - JMC

Photography Now: Herr Steidl, which one is your best book so far?

Gerhard Steidl: The best and most exciting book is always the one I am going to work on tomorrow, because the experience of all the earlier projects will go into it. The next best book is then the one from the day after that etc. I don’t use what I did today or yesterday as a benchmark for the future.

What is the secret of your success?

If you want to talk about success, I am sure it’s based on the fact that I have always been involved with photo or printed paper. When I was fifteen I started to produce printed materials, and I’m still doing it. Of course, as time passed the technical conditions have changed, but it is still all about paper. Unlike many other people I didn’t start my own fish shop or restaurant. Many publishing houses go bankrupt after a few years, or they get bought out by larger media conglomerates. I simply kept going, determined and knowing what I wanted. That’s why it works relatively well.

Originally, you were a silkscreen printer. How did you get into photo book publishing?

Well, I started with political non-fiction books by authors such as Bernt Engelmann, Klaus Staeck, and Günter Wallraff. Then, art books and fiction were added. In 1989, we managed to get the novels of Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness, and in 1993 - this is a highlight in the area of literature - we got the world publishing rights of our second Nobel laureate, Günter Grass.

When everything was set up safely, I started looking into photo books - lest I get bored. Of course, I printed photography before. And over the years, I always incorporated photography into books.

Was there something specific?

In the past, I had to take my own humble photography to printers, and I was always shocked to see that the printers ruined the images. Originally, I wanted to simply see my own photos printed well, instead of being angry about bad reproductions all the time - for which I then also had to pay.

After getting the technical equipment, I experimented with my own photographs to gain the necessary experience. I refined the processes until there was no competition any longer as far as quality was concerned. The idea was that you had to go to Steidl to produce a decent photo book. Only in 1995 I managed to satisfy my own expectations. After that I began to systematically expand the photo book program.

You certainly achieved that! Your books always win awards…

A book is a polygraphic delicacy, it is made for all the senses. The composition is a complicated process, and picking the paper requires a certain knowledge - not only concerning the grammage, which influences the later handling of the book, but also concerning the colours, which have to correspond with the paper in order to develop a certain smell, like a perfume.

Apart from that, the foundation of quality lies entirely in the principle of work. Apart from Bertelsmann there are no other publishers with their own printing house. Such a strict separation leads to the situation where one hand doesn’t know what the other one is doing. Here, in our company, a unified workflow is in place. Everything - from the idea to the production - is happening under a single roof.

How does this work in detail?

The artist arrives with her/his photos or her/his idea and prepares everything up here on the big table in the library. Afterwards, the idea of the book is handed down to the design area, one floor below. After that, another flight of stairs down into the image reproduction and processing area. At the end, the whole things ends up all the way down with the printers. While that is going on, there are constant tests of materials and print proofs with the correct paper, the photos are being worked on in the image processing area etc. Under my supervision, everything is being mixed up well, until the result is perfect. This process only works if it is done vertically.

My favourite image is that of a submarine: The artist arrives, the hatch is opened, once aboard we do a trip submerged in the water, and we only get back to the surface when the mission is accomplished.

It is important not to have anything leave the building. All those complicated ways of dealing with things and the subcontracting of work! Because work is getting delegated more and more, nobody understands it any longer. The only thing we don’t do here on site is the binding of the books, but it is hardly possible to run into misunderstandings in that area.

The artists all come here, to Göttingen?

It is essential to have the artists here, so that you can concentrate on the process. It helps getting a perfect result when they get an idea of the design process, of the image processing, of the printing room and the smell of the inks.

In addition, Göttingen is a provincial backwater. There are no distractions, and nobody can really escape. You only have to stay until the work is done.

Because it is hard to find us - we don’t have a sign outside on purpose - you really only get here when you have an appointment. But then you will work - there will be no small talk, no new friendships - and when the work is done you quickly go back into the world.

That sounds pragmatic. But you surely have a tight relationship with the artists you work with?

Yes, but no personal friendships. I have always defined my relationship with the artists as a work friendship. I don’t maintain a personal friendship with them in the sense of going on vacation together or going to the pub. I strictly separate work from the private. That way, you can talk about the contents unemotionally, and there is no space for chumminess. Work is work, and your private life is your private life. For me, producing books is hard and tiresome labour.

What does the collaboration look like as far as the contents is concerned?

The books are always made having a dialogue with the artists. I prefer it if the artist is still at the beginning of a project, when s/he only made a few test photos, and when s/he then shows me those and tells me about the idea. Like, for example, Fazal Sheikh, who just discovered a new idea in Africa and who will arrive in January to create a book out of it.

On the other hand, I find it terrible when someone sends me a PDF or an bound dummy made from crummy digital prints. I’m not interested in that. Those are all the same: The same paper, the same printing, the same binding. I’m not old-fashioned, but it is going into the wrong direction if the bookmaking technique orients itself towards the contents on the screen. Because making books really means to take the information out of the contents on the screen, and to rework it in a physical way.

For example, Robert Polidori - whom you just met in the library - wanted to create a 700 page, large-format book out of his Versailles project. I advised against that, because it would not have ended up as a book that you could appreciate, but instead as a great tome for your coffee table, which you couldn’t even handle. During the editing we finally found that the work separated into three parts. So our collaboration yielded the idea to produce individual volumes in a slip case.

This doesn’t mean that I’m sitting with him at the table. I simply rush in to see him in between doing other things, to see what he is doing, and if I don’t like it I’ll intervene. He then either listens to me, or he convinces me that he is right. That’s a long process. Sometimes, there are thousands of hours in a book! There is no other publisher or printer that will do that. But we consider the process from the idea all the way to the book as part of the artistic process and not as part of some industrial production.

But still, the presses are running around the clock…

Yes, 24 hours a day - including weekends. I took that philosophy from the airlines: Jets only make money when they’re in the air! A printing press only makes money when it’s running and delivering perfect results.

But it needs to be taken care of properly, which usually does not happen elsewhere. Twice or three times a year, our printing press is being disassembled completely, into its various components. It is being cleaned, and every part that does not work exactly as intended is being replaced. Furthermore, every five years we afford the luxury to replace the entire press. There is no other way to maintain our quality claim.

It is remarkable to see that even your own catalogue satisfies this claim.

The other day, I bought back my first catalogue at a flea market in Paris for seven Euros. In publishers’ catalogues you can see what is being produced within a year. That is publishing history, and even in fifty years it will be found in libraries and private collections. Because we get ideas from all over the world - we are not engaged in local history - this visual knowledge is reflected in our catalogues. So it’s a little bit representative.

I think books are objects with long life spans. They are not made for a day: They gain value with time. Because of that a publisher’s catalogue announcing the books has to have the same value.

It seems to work out financially.

Even though I make books because it’s a passion and obsession - and you have to be careful not to go crazy over it - of course this place is a business. We are not receiving any government hand-outs. We have to crunch the numbers to avoid getting into trouble. The whole endeavour has always been a mixed calculation. There are books with which you make money, and there are books with which you lose money.

Robert Polidori claims that if a publisher expects to make money with a book usually s/he is going to lose money with it. If a publisher expects to lose money it is likely s/he will make money. There is some truth to that.

If you create a book in such a way that you spend all the creativity, energy and money you have, then it will be such a good book that people will buy it. But if you minimize costs by using cheap paper, by not working on the images, by reducing the number of pages, and by having a cheap cover, nobody is going to be interested in it, and it will end up on sales tables after a few months. Our books become more valuable with time; that means if they become rarer the price increases instead of decreases.

In the end, doing a mixed calculation is easier for me than for other publishers, since we have all the technology here. If I had to add the image technology at a rate of 3,000 Euros per day - an industry standard - I wouldn’t be able to produce a single book any longer.

And of course we also have made money easily through, for example, Günter Grass’ books. You make money via editions and subsequent licensing. That money always ends up in new books, so we are able to get by.

What are the different parts of your program?

My program is a mix of 40% passion, 40% necessity, and 20% sheer profit. We do some books because we know that we can sell ten or fifteen thousand books. However, I would never produce a book only because of the money. It has to be attractive for me. Necessities comprise books by artists, with whom I have been working for decades. If for example Richard Serra said he would produce a book only with me or not at all, then it is my duty to do it. The first 40% really are where I am having fun and where I am being enthusiastic.

And you decide spontaneously and on your own?

Yes. And I am really proud of the program, because there are not only superstars, but also unknown artists in it. I really do what I am interested in. High quality books can be sold, even if the artist is completely unknown.

How does it happen that you often do several books by an artist at the same time?

Usually, that’s because of the artists’ impatience, who produce too much and then need a release to get things done. I also am working with quite a few artists who are 70 years or older. Those artists urge a faster pace, which for a publisher is not ideal. But if they have the desire to finish certain projects, before they kick the bucket, that’s OK with me.

I prefer working with the artists instead of with widows, children, museum curators, gallerists, or archivists, because the result is more authentic. For example, that’s why right now I am flying to Canada every few weeks to meet Robert Frank.

Of course, sometimes a two or three-part edition has to be made because of the contents. Right now, I have a very nice project with Bruce Davidson, who a few years ago started to compile a selection of the photos taken over the course of sixty years, making new prints. With those photos we will produce an about ten-volume edition entitled “Journey of Consciousness”. It is great to be able to finish an artist life’s volume with the artist - before he dies. As long as he is alive of course I will add more volumes.

How do you deal with this contractually?

With photo books, we work on a book-by-book basis. Otherwise, it will get too complicated, if galleries get involved or if in case of death the rights are transferred to a museum or foundation. Usually, we print 3,000 copies, and if they sell out we discuss with the artist whether to do a new contract for an additional edition of 2,000. That way, everybody keeps their freedom.

With literary authors, however, we have an exclusive contract so that the works stays with one publisher. Since I have the rights for Güter Grass’ first book, I will also have them for his last one.

How did you come up with the international orientation of your publishing house?

That just happened. At some stage I pursued it purposefully because I want to work without interruptions. Because of the international business you don’t have to deal with the people all the time. Furthermore, it sharpens your senses, since you notice more.

For a few years, I almost have been collecting employees from different countries. The reason being that, for example, a Swedish image operator will notice and interpret colours in a different way than a Spanish one, since the light in those countries is very different. Because of that they develop photographs on the screen in different ways than, say, our Northern German employee Judith, who for Karl Lagerfeld created perfectly cool Hammershoi colours.

I find it exciting to bring the whole world into the company this way. In the past, while I was still driving to Berlin by car, I used to come by a billboard of a shipping company near Braunschweig that said “We are based in Braunschweig, but our workplace is the whole world.” I worked very hard and purposefully into that direction.

Especially in the area of culture it is important to make certain ideas available internationally. You get a larger range of influence and criticism than if you just meddled with your local neighbourhood. Movies, after all, are also made available to the whole world. Why should it be any different for photo books?

For example, we produce English language books for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and we sell them internationally. That way, you can buy a book of a great exhibition in Stockholm and in Los Angeles!

Is that why you produce so many English language books?

In general, you have to think about circumstances. If you do a Robert Lebeck retrospective it has to be in German. After all, he is a German photographer, who worked in Germany his whole life, and many of his topics are simply German. It would be a pity if the publishing house couldn’t afford producing a German language edition.

It is a cultural decision the French, for example, are even more rigorous with. Of course you can overdo it, but sometimes you have to remind yourself that we are a German language publisher.

In the area of literature, traditionally you sell licenses for foreign-language editions. It would be too much work for us to produce books with Korean or Russian fonts. Countries such as Japan have a highly developed book culture, and it is exciting to see how books are done in different countries.

However, I never sell licenses of photo books, because I want to keep quality under control. We never print elsewhere. Whatever has “Steidl” on the cover has been touched by Steidl. If there is a shortage of printing capacities, the book simply is queued.

Which type of photography do you think works least well in book form?

Fashion photography. It’s mostly made for magazines, and it usually does not work in book form. There are very few fashion photographers who can make their photos work in book form. Only those are able to do it who are obsessed with books, who collect books, buy them and love them.

But still, you work with Karl Lagerfeld…

If photographers like Karl Lagerfeld or Jürgen Teller want to produce a book with me, of course there’s the thrill - if I can work with the artists themselves. But they are photographers who love books and who understand how they are being made. With an advertizing agency I’d have a harder time making beautiful books.

What is the future of book making?

The object ‘book’ has to be desirable as an object! Most books in the area of literature are simply not good any longer, because the paper is crap, the cover is cheap, and the binding is bad. It would be no loss to replace them with ebooks.

I personally prefer reading a novel on paper, provided the paper is nice and the typeface is pleasant.

For me a photograph, printed in a book or hanging on a museum wall, remains a special experience. This is because a photograph on paper, which reflects light, makes for a different experience than a photograph on a screen, which transmits light. But everybody has to make their own decision.

Concerning the production processes you are always very much personally involved. Aren’t you getting tired of that?

No, on the contrary - I find it very satisfactory. I am very disciplined, I don’t go to the pub at night, I don’t go to parties, I don’t drink or smoke, for the most part I’m a vegetarian, and I go to bed early. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. But I also enjoy my freedoms at the same time, because I plan things the way I like them. If I had obligations all day long I wouldn’t enjoy it!