Making photobooks: Advice and insights from Bruno Ceschel

By Rachael Steven

Above and lead image (top): Carmen Winant’s book My Birth weaves photographs of the artist’s mother giving birth with found images of other, anonymous women undergoing the same experience. The book was published by SBPH Editions in March 2018 and costs £35. © Carmen Winant / SPBH Editions

Bruno Ceschel founded Self Publish Be Happy in 2010 to provide a platform for self-published photo books. He has since founded Self Publish Be Happy Editions, which publishes monographs and artists’ books, and runs photography workshops and events.

CR: The photobook scene has really grown over the past few years. What do you think is driving this?
BC: Generally there been a kind of overarching cultural shift in terms of the desire of people to relate with physical objects in an environment where digital has become way we interact with photography.

I think the book and the magazine have become this kind of complimentary way of seeing photographs. If you think about buying vinyls, there is a real desire for engaging with objects, and a book is probably the best way to see a photograph. You have control over how it’s reproduced and the sequence [of images] and you can play with the relationship [between images and] typography. [On digital devices] you don’t have that control over the size of images or the colour of the screen.

I think there’s also a social element to it. If you think about Photo London and Offprint [the photobook fair], it isn’t just about buying books or prints, but about seeing people and hanging out and being part of this community. It becomes something not just related to the books or prints themselves.

I’ve seen careers that have been shaped or established by one publication

CR: And why do you think so many photographers are investing their time (and in some cases money) into making photobooks now?
BC: The interesting thing about photobooks is that they’ve become for photographers what editorials for magazines used to be. Especially for fashion photographers, the investment of doing editorial for magazine which they invest money in becomes a way of having a portfolio that is available for people to see, but in a completely different economy and with completely different kinds of magazines – editorials are much more controlled than they used to be – I think photographers have found in the book a kind of liberating and free space to really craft their own vision…. Often even gallery exhibitions are much more controlled now, so a lot of photographers have seen in the photobook a way to experiment.

Spread from My Birth by Carmen Winant © Carmen Winant / SPBH Editions

There has been a real advance in indie magazines in the past couple of years … but definitely the traditional [fashion] magazines and those budgets are gone so what you’re left with … is a situation where photographers have to find their own stories and they don’t find the right partners in those kind of magazines and suddenly the books become [a vehicle for that].

Also, the book is less ephemeral. I’ve seen careers that have been shaped or established by one publication and I’ve seen that happening over and over again. It doesn’t mean it happens to everybody but I’ve seen it enough times to have proof of the effect of one single book. Suddenly, museums and galleries are familiar with [a photographer’s] work, and they start having conversations, and also commercially, agencies and galleries feel more assured to take on photographers to represent. It becomes this really tangible tool in the photographer’s career.

Maybe our councils should look at publications and publishing as a serious tool for distributing culture

CR: So is it a good time for photo book publishers?
BC: I do think we’ve got to a point where all the business models have to be looked at and evaluated in relation to having something that is sustainable in the long term. I think there’s been a lot of young publishers that get into the business with a lot of energy and risking their own money to produce books but you can only go so far with that type of energy. I had this conversation recently with a librarian and a curator at SF MoMA – he’s a kind of scholar, a historian [specialising in the] history of artists books and he was telling me you often see waves when it comes to this cultural moment. [You see] proliferations of books and a lot of people coming in who do so many different things and then they sort of die out because of exhaustion.

So I do think we’re having this moment of all these younger people bringing a bit of energy – thank god – but you also hope there will be a long term sustainable model to carry on producing interesting books.

Spread from My Birth by Carmen Winant © Carmen Winant / SPBH Editions

There’s a parallel I think with bands or magazines – magazines that go on for a couple of years and then just can’t carry on. Maybe that’s fine, maybe it’s just the nature of things, but it would be good if actually some of this wave of publishers and bookmakers could [develop a sustainable business model].

I do wonder what the model is. I’m doing OK but in other countries, for example Holland, there’s always been a kind of publication sustained by public funding, so maybe our councils should look at publications and publishing as a kind of serious tool for distributing culture. The fundraising model that I embrace is very much reliant on private funding – I do get some public funding, never from England but elsewhere – but generally speaking, it’s collectors, people who want to see your publication made, and I don’t think that’s a reliable system.

CR: Have you ever tried raising money through Kickstarter campaigns? Or by taking pre-orders?
BC: Usually how it works is we publish books by photographers who we have a relationship with. It’s never really happened that somebody pitched a book to us. It’s a very collaborative project from the very beginning which also involves the funding.

Most photobooks economically need to be subsidised because producing art books is very expensive: the unit cost is very high, which means that with the cost involved in distribution etc etc, you’ll have to produce huge amount of books to start making substantial profit which you just don’t do with most art books because the print run is usually quite limited.

We’ve never done a Kickstarter, but I do think it can be very effective. I think in a book that has a kind of social or community theme it seems to work really well because you can rile people up into buying the book in advance, or the book plus a print.

We do sometimes take pre-orders – we have a vast community so often we’ll offer them book in advance or offer special covers – but mostly, our books are supported by collectors and grants.

Posturing, edited by Holly Hay and Shonagh Marshall, features work from 21 image-makers and shows how fashion photographers are using the body to tell stories. It also features interviews with photographers, stylists, set designers and commissioning editors. The book was published by SBPH Editions in April 2018 and costs £35. © SPBH Editions

CR: What kind of work stands out to you as a publisher? And what kind of work do you think is well suited to the photobook format?
BC: It’s hard to say. To me the interesting part of the job is when you’re surprised and when you see something new. I’m working on a book of street photography. I would never have thought in my life I would be doing this – I have nothing against it but it’s not really my thing – so it’s amazing sometimes to come across something where you’re like, ‘oh this is interesting’. But it isn’t just one thing or another.

In this Brexit/Trump era, I think photographers feel again the need to look at the people around them and their community

CR: Are there any particular trends you’re seeing emerge in the world of photobooks?
BC: I do think we are moving towards not the form, but the content. Generally, photography is going back to a more humanistic approach. There’s been few years in which the form of photography itself what we call process was at the centre, so going back to the darkroom and experimenting with materials etc … and I love that kind of work, but I do think we’re moving towards thinking about human identity because we are endlessly challenged by this notion of who we are.

In this Brexit/Trump era, I think photographers feel again the need to look at the people around them and their community. Not so much [through] documentary photography but explorations of identities and the politics of art, and I think we will see a wave of that kind of books. At least I hope we do.

Spread from Posturing, featuring images by Coco Capitan © Coco Capitan / SPBH Editions
Spread from Posturing, featuring images by photographer Charlotte Wales © Charlotte Wales / SPBH Editions

CR: What advice do you have for photographers who are thinking of making a photobook?
BC: Maybe it’s silly advice, but I do think embarking on making a book needs to be a pleasurable experience. I know it sounds obvious, but when people come to me and they talk about books, and the kind of things they have to do to get their photos out in the world to get jobs, I understand what they’re talking about but I think it’s the wrong attitude. Making book should be a pleasurable experience – not a simple or easy one, but pleasurable. Even in the struggle, you need to have a push and desire to see your photos turned into an object, a book that will be there forever.

[Making a book] is done mostly by yourself but I recommend sharing that experience with other people … working with a designer to lay out images or working with an editor or publisher if they want one. [Making a book] is a group effort and it should be a group that has an interesting time doing so.

A photographer is not the best person to edit their own work because they have a personal, emotional relationship with the images

CR: Why do you think that collaborative experience is so important?
BC: Partly it’s because of skills. Photographers aren’t designers! And also because it’s a complex thing. You think from the outside it’s a kind of simple venture – putting together photo on page – but [it’s also about] the sequence of images, the editing, the relationship with the text.

Also a photographer is not the best person to edit their own work because they have a personal, emotional relationship with the images and that’s where, as an editor, my job is often to have a kind of outside view of those images. This kind of romantic notion of artist and photographer making their own visions into books, sometimes it works well but most of the time it doesn’t because it’s just like one idiosyncratic take on things.

Spread from Posturing, featuring images by Johnny Dufort © Johnny Dufort / SPBH Editions

CR: So what’s the process like at Self Publish Be Happy?
BC: I guess my approach is pretty hands-on. Generally, we’ll have a conversation with a photographer and they’ll come back with whatever it is … and then I often go through this process which is really quite a long back-and-forth [about what the book should be]. I have done it enough times to know it’s a really important process – even if you just end up where you started – because you have to explore all the different possibilities.

Once we have the framework [of the book], we start talking to a designer. To me the work of the designer is key – it might not be visible in some of the books I’ve done but it is there and it is very much a key element. I’m not personally a fan of [things like] quirky type … but I do rely on the designer to kind of make the book take shape. The designer will come in and it’s a real process of thinking about the size and the cover and the paper and also the kind of hidden tricks [in the layout].

Basically, it’s a three-way conversation [between designer, editor and photographer] – or a four way if there’s a lot of text and we have to get a text editor involved. And because my background is in magazines, I’ve always been in the tradition of sharing the final layout with everybody involved and everyone can write notes. I think it’s important in the group of people I work with that everyone has a voice. As a publisher, you take the final decision, but I really value the inputs of everyone involved.

Spread from Posturing, featuring images by Brianna Capozzi © Brianna Capozzi / SPBH Editions

See selfpublishbehappy.com for more info on SPBH’s library, books and events.

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