Awards

IPA judge Michael Mack on the permanence of the photobook and what he’s looking for in this year’s entries

Portrait © Torbjørn Rødland, Courtesy of Mack Books

Michael Mack, one of the judges of the British Journal of Photography’s International Photography Prize, grew up in Zimbabwe and was educated in Yorkshire. He worked at the top of Steidl for seventeen years before launching his eponymous independent publishing company.

It’s a career that probably makes him the most important independent photobook publisher in the world right now – certainly when it comes to new work.

Mack’s First Book Award is among the most coveted photography award any emerging artist can bag, for the winner not only has a premium photobook published of their work, but an exhibition at Media Space in London’s Science Museum.

Past winners include Anne Sophie Merryman (2012), Paul Salveson (2013) and Joanna Piotrowska (2014).

Mack has agreed to bring his expertise to the judging panel of this year’s International Photography Award, curated by The British Journal of Photography.

Mack says of judging the IPA: “Having the opportunity to review a wide range of work by emerging photographers is always the most enjoyable part of what I do when I get the opportunity because invariably it offers a view into the roots of contemporary practice and occasionally you can perceive prevailing currents.

“But judging is always difficult as it involves applying subjective taste to work made out of people’s blood, sweat and tears – it can feel arbitrary because, in the end, it is just my own opinion.

“I am attracted to work which has a clarity in its ideas, from concept through formal presentation, whatever the particular genre. Sounds straightforward but actually it is pretty rare.”

Mack has a history of awarding series that work primarily in print; not hung on a wall, or shining from the screen of an iPad, but bound in ink and paper.

This is an integral concern to Mack who, after a few years of spending a lot of time, resource and money on digital publishing, has returned to his core strategy – publishing photographs in books.

But a Luddite he is not. A former lawyer who was cold-called one afternoon by Gerhard Steidl and ended up becoming the publishing giants’ Editorial Director, Mack is a gilt-edged businessman.

There’s a temptation to believe that everything cutting edge exists in the online space. So, when Mack talks about the permanence of ink over the ever shifting realms of digital publishing, it’s worth taking him seriously.

Mack’s business is built around the premise the book is the best way for a new photographer to explore the boundaries of their work. It’s in line with a new wave of independent book publishers to have emerged across the photography scene in London.

“I see young publishers that might not have a practical model, but they’re nevertheless incredibly inspiring,” he says. “Online publishing platforms are fascinating, but I think digital media also acts to reinforce the importance and possibilities of what we can do with physical books. There’s clearly and distinctly still a physical space in publishing.”

Mack’s route to this stage was circuitous. After graduating, he trained to be lawyer, and, despite completing the training, realised “pretty quickly” it wasn’t right for him. As with a lot of legal companies, his firm bought a lot of photography, and so he was able to meet the renowned photography dealer Zelda Cheatle.

“I told her I was desperate to move on, so I started to work for her for a day a week,” he says. “She gave me my start. I spent evenings by myself going through her original prints, trying to understand where they came from.”

It took him time to understand what he was good at it, he says. “I was really crap at selling prints. I wasn’t very good at making people invest in prints. But I knew was interested in the relationship between photography and the page. I developed the conviction that, for a lot of photography, it’s natural place is not behind an oak frame, but in a printed book.”

From there, he had a bit of a moment. “I got lucky, essentially,” he says. He authored a book about contemporary photographic practice, titled Surface. It featured the work of 72 photographers, from Andreas Gursky, to Nick Knight, to Paul Graham, before these household names had developed their compendium.

From there, he was asked to judge the first Deutsche Börse prize, then won an arts council grant to do an exhibition, and a book, on photography and architecture in German history, just as Gursky and Thomas Struth and other denizens of the Düsseldorf school were breaking out internationally. “That set me up,” he says.

“Then I got a typical Gerhard phone call,” he says of the man that founded Steidl. “This guy called me up with a strong German accent and told me he wanted to come and see me. I cooked him lunch at my home in London, and I ended up working with him for 17 years.”

After setting up the distribution network and the marketing strategy for the world famous publisherMichael Mack became the Editorial Director of Steidl.

But, in 2011, he broke away from the nest to set up his own company. It was a wrench, he says. “I learnt everything about print, production and business at Gerhard’s knee, so to speak. He really has always been my guide.”

The move was motivated by a very clear sense of what is interesting in photography. “In a publishing house like Steidl, we published 120 books in a year,” he says. “That’s more than two a week. And so I felt the books I was interested in were undervalued; it was difficult for them to rise and gain traction. That made me realise my own tastes didn’t suit Steidl’s more mainstream work.”

So the decision came to set out alone, with a business model that diverges from the top dogs of the industry. “I’d learnt the process of distribution, marketing, of how to make a business viable, from Steidl,” he says. “But the truth is almost all big publishing houses operate on the premise that the individual titles are not sustained through their own sales. They’re sustained through external revenue streams; commercial work, or the photographer’s personal funds, or Kickstarter campaigns. I’m not interested in that; I’m interested in things that can sustain the cost of making that individual book in the marketplace.”

This is evidentially an existential question for Mack. “We don’t take money from the photographers,” he says. “That’s vanity publishing, and it skewers the market. Publishing has to be based on a completely subjective choice. Life is short, and I won’t work on projects that I don’t feel strongly about; not just financially, but emotionally.”

What are his other working principles? “That it’s about developing good working relationships with people,” he says. “I’ve said ‘no’ to projects before because I’ve thought: ‘You might be really famous and successful, but you’re going to be a nightmare.’”

The fastest growing part of Mack’s market, he says, are young people – the supposedly digital natives, who apparently spend all day engaging through screens, are actually the ones buying Mack’s printed products. “That proves the photobook remains a very attractive thing. We’ve actually seen a return to some analogue processes as a result of digital media, a reinvestment in the permanence of ink. And I, for one, rather welcome that.”

Mack will be judging the British Journal of Photography’s International Photography Award, which gives a winning photography the chance of a major solo exhibition in central London.

For more information and to enter the award, visit here.

The closing date for entries is Sunday 20th November 2016.

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