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All images courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing

 

In conversation with Dewi Lewis

Dewi Lewis Publishing has been established for 24 years. Over that time they’ve published leading British and International photographers, we took the time to sit down and discuss how they got started, collaboration, success and the rise in self-publishing.

 

Andrea Allan: How did you get into publishing?
Dewi Lewis: In the early 1980s I started setting up an arts centre in Manchester, Cornerhouse, which has since moved and is now called Home. We opened in 1985, and in 87 I started publishing as part of Cornerhouse. In discussions with photographers it was clear that what they really wanted was to be able to publish, that exhibitions were great, but a show is up for 4 weeks if you’re lucky and then it disappears. It’s very hard to get a show touring and to get the work reappearing in different places. The book is a way of presenting the work in a coherent form, more of a statement about the photographer’s intentions. I started at Cornerhouse, and got more and more involved in the publishing side. The first book was ‘A Green and Pleasant Land’ by John Davies - they were interesting times as not many other people were publishing much.

AA: Was it primarily photographers that you were working with at Cornerhouse? Or artists as well?
DL: We did catalogues for shows etc. We worked with a lot of artists, many of the young British artists coming through. Publishing was really just in relation to photography. It never really struck me that books were so important for most artists. For me, sculpture never looks great in photographs, and with paintings you’re just providing a record. With photography you can actually create something different, the book really works for photographers.

AA: With the rise in self-publishing book how, or has it, changed your approach to what you do?
DL: It hasn’t really changed it. The importance of self-publishing is that its opened-up opportunities for photographers but there are lots of downsides to it. Its fine to be able to produce, make a book, but in lots of ways that’s the easy part. The next stage of getting out to people, that’s the challenge. We still work through the traditional model, through distributors, wholesalers etc. – there are negatives about that. Self-publishing works for the type of photographer who is willing and able to go out and sell their book. It is positive, it has developed the number of books there are, but it also has the negative in that only photographers who have money or access to money can do books. I don’t really like that as a future scenario. I think it’s only short term, if you’re young, really determined, finished college, have a body of work and you want to get a book published, you will find a way to raise the £10k and you’ll get your first book out. But two years later when you’ve got another book, can you raise another £10 – £15k? Where does that leave you when you’re 40 and still having to finance your own books. I think the model is a little broken.

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(Toy Soldiers, Simon Brann Thorpe, 2015)

AA: I think a little going through publishers, I guess in a way is similar to applying for an exhibition, you’re putting a submission in and your being vetted by people with experience, who will tell you whether or not it’s going to work or not. If you’re doing it yourself you’re just going off your personal belief.
DL: Which is fine, but it depends on the person. Its about if an individual has self-awareness and if they are self-critical enough. Why do you want a book? Why do you need a book? Why not use go and experience something and build your portfolio? Rather than try to get something simply because everyone else seems to. It is about trying to analyse the situation properly and being realistic about it. That’s the problem about self-publishing, often people aren’t realistic.

AA: How collaborative is the process of the design?
DL: It depends on the photographer. It is collaborative, some photographers have a very keen sense of what they want, and are good at editing work. Others have been told that photographers are the worst editors of their work which is not always true. The collaboration begins by saying to the photographer “give me YOUR edit”, the starting point should be what is the photographer trying to say. I want to get a sense of this and then rework it. I try to strengthen what they’re trying to say, that’s the role of an editor - to challenge a photographer. If someone provides me with an edit, I’m very likely to go through and ask “why do you have that picture in?”, “why is that there?”, its about getting the photographer to think about what they are doing. The process of putting together a book I would say on average involves preparing anything between 8 – 30 pdfs. It’s putting together varying sequences and then refining it, and moving forward. You rarely get it immediately. The process is sending pdf’s back and forwards, some photographers want to meet all the time, you have to meet and talk about things and build that relationship, but having a meeting doesn’t solve getting a sequence, its much better to send pdf’s back and forwards, getting considered responses. When I’m putting together an edit for example, I’ll do the edit and then I’ll let it sit for at least two or three days, look at it again, maybe change some pictures and put it to one side again, it can be a long process. You need to reach a point where nothing seems to jar, it flows from one page to the next, and if you took out a picture it would feel wrong. They’re important all those stages - some publishers don’t take an active role but for those who do you have to go back and forth, it’s almost like politics in a way. You must carry people with you, so the collaboration is a mix of me trying to exert my will and the photographer trying to exert their will, but in a way that everything comes together.

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(On Abortion, Laia Abril, 2018)

AA: How does that work with someone like Laia Abril’s, as her work isn’t just strictly photography, there is a lot of text that goes along with it and the design is perhaps a bit different to a lot of the other books that you publish.
DL: They’re designed by an Italian designer, Ramon Pez. The first book we did with Laia was ‘The Epilogue’ and with that I had many meetings with Ramon and Laia, it’s very much about understanding what they were trying to do. Making suggestions, getting involved in it, but at the same time checking if they are going in a way that you are happy with. Giving them the freedom to work, and that’s been the case with the ‘On Abortion’ book.

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(The Epilogue, Laia Abril, 2014)

AA: When you’re looking at photographer’s work what are you looking for and what should photographers think about if they want to approach a publisher?
DL: The first thing has more to do with portfolio sessions, photographers should not try and show that they can do everything. A lot of photographers will have a portfolio which will have still life, portraits and all sorts. That tells me nothing, what I want to know is what you’re presenting is important to you, it may be one thing, and I may hate it but that’s fine. It allows me to find out what they are trying to say and what they are trying to do. The first thing is to commit to one thing, again there are times when I do portfolio sessions and someone shows me their work and I say yes it’s great but we’re doing something like that already, so they get out another box of prints, and I want to feel that what they are showing me is really important to them. What do I want? I have no idea until I see it, essentially you are looking for something fresh, new - not necessary in terms of the subject but in the way the subject is approached. I want to be surprised, I want something that feels coherent, is saying something new, that feels as though the photographer really believes in it. The minute it starts to feel like the photographer is trying to do something commercial, then I’m almost always not convinced. I suppose the other thing for us, about 50% of our sales are abroad, so I’m always thinking where does this sit with America, France, Germany etc. an example I always give is the Miners Strike of the 1980s, the political landscape is of little interest to people in America or Italy, what would be interesting around the same subject is how the women kept communities going. What was going on behind the scenes, and how communities were working. That’s an international, human story, the political fight between one group and another in one country is not that interesting. It needs to be the human element. We did a book with Paddy Summerfield - ‘Mother and Father’ - and its photographed over 10 years, almost all photographed in his parents’ back garden, a total of 60-70 images, 50 of which are in the back garden. It’s about his mother developing dementia, his father is looking after her, it’s about the aging of parents. It’s a very human story, and worked very well everywhere, but as I say nearly all of it was in the Summerfield’s back garden in Oxford. It’s about a shared humanity, and presented in a way, which is coherent an d fresh, so it doesn’t feel like I’ve seen it before.

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(Mother and Father, Paddy Summerfield, 2014)

AA: A lot of the photobooks that you publish come under the subject title of social documentary, is that something that you are particularly drawn to, or something that you feel works well as a photobook?
DL: Probably drawn to it. I’m interested in ideas I suppose, and I’m curious about people. Sometimes images can be really beautiful, but that’s just aesthetics. Portraits, are usually a bit boring after a few, it’s incredibly hard to do a series that keeps your attention. An example of a portrait project that works is ‘Face’ by Bruce Gilden - very tough and very hard, and with a strong social documentary element to it. A photojournalistic project can tend to be difficult in terms of sales.

AA: Do you think that’s in part because you’re sales base is international, if you were more national would work differently? Or is it due to the region where the work is focused on?
DL: A project on Syria, wouldn’t sell easily – even though the subject is very important - it’s the nature of that type of work. There are exceptions - when we did the Afghanistan work with Simon Norfolk in 2002 that was the book that launched him. But Afghanistan wasn’t the only element; it was the layers within it and the whole way of looking at war and the aftermath of war. It goes beyond that.

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(L-R: Burke and Norfolk, Simon Norfolk, 2011. For most of it I have no words, Simon Norfolk, 1998. Afghanistan chronotopia, Simon Norfolk, 2002)

AA: Do you think platforms such as Kickstarter are changing, as you’re getting your audience before you even publish the book. You’ve got guaranteed sales.
DL: It helps build profile. Some photographers are embarrassed about the idea of going to Kickstarter, but it not only raises enough money to make it possible, it also generates publicity. For a Kickstarter project to work, the photographer must be active on social media, then there is a recognition. There are lots of positives about it.


AA: Can it reach a point where design overtakes the content? Is it happening more due to the advancements in technology, I’ve seen plenty of cookery books that now have textural covers etc., is that’s having a negative effect in the sense that it ages the book more quickly?
DL: It’s interesting is if you look at mass-market books, there are interesting techniques being used, you could easily take them into photobooks as well. Cookbooks are well done, beautifully produced and using good uncoated papers. In the photo world, the design doesn’t always link to what’s inside the book. In some books there are 5-6 different types of paper used, and there is no reason other than that they can be used, it doesn’t add to the book.  All that does is push up the cost and make it even more difficult for people to buy the book, or more expensive for the photographer to produce.
There are all sorts of design issues, sometimes there are books that are too large, where will shops be able to place that? It will reduce their ability to stock the book. Which seems rather counterproductive. I don’t like flash designs, things that are too much like a magazine. Sometimes you’ll get photographers who’ll work with a designer who doesn’t really have that culture of books behind them but is very commercial and so it looks very gimmicky, that’s problematic when I see a dummy like that because its very hard to ignore the design and just look at the work. It’s not good for a photographer to submit an over designed dummy.

AA: And one final question, what do you class as success?
DL: Success for me is to look at a book five years after I’ve published it and still think its good. Its great when you get reviews, critical acclaim, obviously that’s success. Sales – if you can sell a lot that’s a guide to success. But ultimately it’s about what do you feel about it in a few years’ time. You start with an optimism about it, and every book I get back from the printers I’m disappointed by. Disappointed in the sense that “that’s not quite right”, or “why did we do that”, it never feels 100%, it might be 99% there but it’s never 100%. You can obsess over small details, because there is no right or wrong, just the mood at the time. Six months later, you might say “actually I quite like that”, and then five years on you know that it was right.

 

Find out more about Dewi Lewis Publishing on their website: Dewi Lewis Publishing