Who can resist the allure of a gorgeously designed, tactile, and visually rich art book? Oliver Barstow and Bronwyn Law-Viljoen from Fourthwall Books, an independent art book publisher in Johannesburg, certainly can’t. Like most things which feel just ‘perfect’, the design that goes into art books is in-depth and meticulous, but ultimately invisible. In the case of photography books, the challenge is composing the sequence for the images which creates tension as well as meaning. In this sense, the role of art director morphs into visual editor, to create a story of images (and text). As art director at Fourthwall, we asked Oliver to tell us more about the thinking and intricacies of photography book design and publishing.
Where do art books, and photography books, fit within the overarching art world?
A common perception in the art world is that a book serves as a catalogue for an artist’s or photographer’s work. There is, now, a growing awareness that a book can be more than this. It has the potential to be an artwork in and of itself. Working with the book as a medium has created a new category of work, audience and collector. For a seminal example of this type of book, have a look at Paul Graham’s trilogy American Night, shimmer of possibility and The Present.
Despite the obvious, what are the differences between a book of photographs and an exhibition?
For the artist, since Fluxus in the 1960s, the book has been consciously used as an alternative outlet to the gallery space. If conceived in the right way, producing a book is cheaper than mounting an exhibition. In a run of a hundred copies or more, a democratic multiple, the art book or book work has the potential to reach a broader audience than the white cube. Better still, an art book can be left behind on the bus for someone else to discover, not so a signed and editioned print.
Can you tell us a little about designing photography books and what this entails?
Another common misperception – that a designer’s role is limited to the graphic qualities of the book (typography, format, production values). When it comes to photography books, a large amount of a designer’s time is spent in an editorial capacity, working on the sequence. Stating the obvious, a photography book is primarily a sequence of images. The most important part of the work is giving this sequence the right tension. It’s not dissimilar to a piece of music, establishing a pitch, a series of highs and lows.
What is the usual process that goes into publishing an art book?
We have a set of submission guidelines, which takes the form of a questionnaire. The questions are geared to give us a good idea if a project is likely to be a good fit. We then meet in person to discuss the project and establish if there is a meeting of minds. From there, we fund raise for printing and fit the book into a production schedule.
What was the first book of photographs that you published?
David Southwood’s Milnerton Market. It was a leap of faith on Dave’s part to entrust us with his project, which he worked on for over 10 years. It was a steep, and ultimately costly learning curve, but a great place from which to start.
Looking back over all the photography books that you’ve published, can you please tell us a little about the ones that stands out for you and why?
Your next project is always your best project, and there are two projects that we are currently working on that I would like to mention. A small book of photographs by Matt Kay called Losing Ground and Sometimes I make money one day of the week… by Lisa King. Without giving too much away, both of these projects illustrate the high standard of work that is being produced by young SA photographers. Also, both bodies were conceived with a book as opposed to an exhibition in mind, which has made working with these photographers as a book publisher a very rewarding process.
Do you think that photographs can tell stories in ways that words cannot?
Words and images are both signifiers of a deeper, objective meaning that exists beyond the senses. Both are abstractions of this meaning. I don’t favour one medium over the other. Sometimes they can be used very effectively in combination. Words also have the ability to function as images and vice versa.
People love looking at pictures. What value do you think a book of photographs holds for a reader?
The experience of reading a book of pictures does differ from the experience of reading a novel. The initial engagement, the feeling or punctum as Roland Barthes calls it, is more immediate. The residue of this engagement keeps you coming back for more.
Excerpts from the ‘Wake Up, This Is Joburg’ series by Mark Lewis and Tanya Zack
What are your thoughts on publishing in South Africa?
There is a lot of work to be done. As an art book publisher, our key challenge is creating an audience and sensitivity to the real value that a book contains. In a country facing so many pressing issues, a book is not seen as an essential commodity. We would beg to differ. In future, we also see the need for a dedicated art book fair, where we could host a range of independent art book publishers from abroad, an essential step in broadening our perception of what a book could be.
Which photographers’ work are you most excited about right now?
Keeping it within SA, Musa Nxumalo’s nomination for the MACK first book award is big deal. I am also a big fan of Matt Kay’s work. If he manages to navigate the gallery scene, and keeps taking the pictures he wants to take, I think he has a bright future.
Anything else you would like to add…
We are eternally grateful for those who appreciate the work that we do.
‘After the Mines’ by Jason Larkin
‘Hotel Yoeville’ by Terry Kurgan
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