Steidl publishes more than 300 photobooks per year
"I searched and searched and searched for the word corresponding the best to my friend Gerhard Steidl. I finally found it... WIZARD! We live in a magical world. And it goes tick tock, just like a watch" — Ed Ruscha
Very few publishers, let alone of photography books, are the subject of a major museum show, or average around 300 books a year while maintaining the reputation for the highest quality standards in the industry. His attention to detail is fanatical. He works sometimes from 4.30 in the morning until 11.30 at night on as many as 60 books at once. And photo graphers worship him. So who is this man in half-frame glasses and a white lab coat, this “Wizard of Göttingen”, who controls every aspect of production in his publishing house on the curiously named Düstere Strasse (Gloomy Street) that everybody calls Steidlville?
To understand the phenomenon that is Gerhard Steidl, I travelled first to see The Fine Art & Craft of the Steidl Book, Lasting Impressions, an exhibition curated by William Ewing and Nathalie Herschdorfer at the Musée de L’Élysée in Lausanne in the French-speaking region of Switzerland, and then to the medieval town of Göttingen in central Germany to see the man himself.
The exhibition is distributed around several rooms on four floors of the former villa in Lausanne that is one of Switzerland’s two major photography museums (the other, the Fotomuseum Winterthur, is near Zurich in the German-speaking region). The layout traces the history of the publishing house, but also mimics the structure of the system Steidl has developed in the four floors of the house on Düstere Strasse. From the top floor where ideas are brought out in a library and work table area, down through rooms for layout and typography, administration and, finally, at the bottom, printing and production, the curators replicate the experience of an artist coming to Göttingen to make a book with Steidl.
The artifacts on display at the Musée include some of Steidl’s earliest works, political posters from the 1960s and 1970s, images of his co-operation with his mentors Joseph Beuys and Klaues Staeck, his first book, the 1972 Befragung der Documenta (Questioning Documenta), and then moving through the beginnings of his first pure photography books 20 years later.
Scattered throughout the exhibition are artists’ testimonials and snapshots by the likes of Paul Graham, Emmet Gowin, Boris Mikhailov, Roni Horn, Deborah Turbeville and Alec Soth, among many others, that provide an informal sense of the intense atmosphere, camaraderie and devotion to work during the several non-stop days it takes to produce a book. There are dioramas – no other word will do – of Steidl’s office and workstations, including the project drawers where the artists’ materials are stored during the process.
In a way, there is something of the air of a natural history museum, or a shrine in a cathedral to a famous saint or, perhaps intended, an homage to the cult of Steidl. Finally, there is a simulated press room with stacks of print runs, a video of papers coming off the press, a thundering soundtrack, along with discarded printing blankets, ink containers, used rags and discarded palettes brought from Göttingen to add a sense of the sound and smell of the actual production of a book in the real Steidlville.
Gerhard Steidl seldom leaves Göttingen, it is said, except to pop over to North America every month or so to see Robert Frank, with whom he has had a long-term friendship, and recently released a fresh version of The Americans with all-new, high-quality scans in time for the 50th anniversary of the US release of the Grove Press edition. That said, the only real way to take the measure of the man is to make the pilgrimage to sacred site itself.
Born in 1950, Steidl aspired to be a photographer and from an early age shot and developed his own film. At the age of 15 or 16 he began taking pictures of the local theatre, and the director of the Junges Theatre suggested making a poster to advertise its performance of Bertolt Brecht’s Man ist Man. To make a long story short, the printers blew it, and Steidl blew up. “They told me, ‘Boy, you are 16 years old. You don’t understand anything of our job. Just go and let us do our work.’ I said, ‘No, it is my photo, and I am going to stay here until it comes out the way I want it.’ They told me I couldn’t do that and that it was the best they could possibly do. I had the instinctive idea to ask them to run the sheet through the press twice. I thought that two greys might make an acceptable black. So to get rid of me they proceeded so, and the result was quite acceptable.
“That was the initial moment I thought to myself that if you want to do something in photography and it shouldn’t be ruined by lousy, unmotivated printers, then you’ll have to learn to do it yourself. So, step by step, I learned.”
If ever there was a primal moment in somebody’s career, this is one. “I started with offset printing, lithography, stone lithography, and so on, all by myself. I didn’t go to university. It was learning by doing.”
This confrontation set the tone for everything Steidl has done since then. Everything must be done in-house and under his control on his own “island of self-sufficiency”. In an interview with Photography Now, Steidl likened the process to being in a “submarine” where “the artist arrives, the hatch is opened, and once aboard we make a trip submerged in the water, and we only get back to the surface when the mission is accomplished”. The artists come to Göttingen, stay in an apartment next door nicknamed "The Halftone Hotel", are pampered by the superlative vegetarian food of Rüdiger Schellong, Steidl’s personal chef, and stay put until the job is done.
The artist is involved in the process from the beginning and works with Steidl to select the inks, the paper, and the kind of binding as well as the layout. The process of design is entirely analogue and strictly hands on, and Steidl maintains that is an absolute necessity. “One of the mistakes that occurs with sequencing and designing books is that they are done totally digitally. The physical, haptic aspect is missing. The physical nature of a book means that you have to turn the pages. I love the touch of paper! It is the weight and touch, the quality of the ink, and so on [that makes the book]. The main argument is that when you have a book laid out on a screen, you have backlight as with a slideshow, but when you have a book in your hands, you see the images in reflected light. That is different. At the end of the day, having a book in your hand is an experience that you can only create when you have the physical object. You cannot get it on a screen.”
The process is intense, with Steidl racing from project to project to oversee things. He adds that this in itself has become part of the aura. “Everybody knows that a book with the name Steidl on the cover is created in this house on Düstere Strasse. It doesn’t matter if you are a book collector in Canada or Japan or wherever, you know that there is a crazy place here in Göttingen where all the artists go. There is a printer and a publisher who takes care from morning to evening so that the book looks like it should. There is no other marketing or management. There is only the artist and Steidl, and that is in itself a great marketing tool. I don’t buy any scans. I don’t buy any printing. Everything must be done here in this house. The capacities are limited, and we can only produce a certain number of books a year.”
Steidl’s aim is “to provide the technical support for an artist and to follow his intuition and his own will”. He adds: “That does not mean that I am mute. I mean, if an artist asks me to do something, and I am 100 percent sure it is a mistake because I have made the same mistake before, there is no reason why I should make the same mistake. I will tell the artist that I don’t want to do that. If the artist has better arguments, then I’ll follow his lead. Otherwise, my position is that I am to listen to his wishes and then, as a technician, I try to fulfil them. This is another concept. The magic of what Steidl is is that the soul of a book is the soul of the artist and not the soul of the publisher.”
As a technician and a fanatic for quality, Steidl replaces the presses every five or six years because they get worn down by being in constant use. He notes: “You can see the smallest changes over time when you are there on a daily basis. The little things can be repaired. We replace all the blankets once a month, and we take the entire machines apart once a year and replace what is necessary.” Nobody else does this. It costs €80,000 and takes three weeks. For him, “it is the same thing as with an airplane. The plane only makes money when it is in the air, and any mechanical failure must be replaced immediately”.
The attention to detail that Steidl is famous for carries over into the personal. In his white lab coat and scruffy beard he looks like a mad scientist or an alchemist. His discipline is legendary. In addition to being mostly vegetarian, he neither drinks nor smokes, and avoids bars. For him there is a clear distinction between the personal and the professional. “I strictly separate work from the private,” he has said. “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.”
Steidl is fully aware that the changes in economic realities – the demise of newspapers and magazines – put publishing at risk. “The Golden Age of publishing is coming to an end,” he says. Yet, still as driven as ever, he continues to invest in technology. New scanners and printers have made books like Frank’s The Americans and Mary Ellen Mark’s Falkland Road better than the originals.
Although he claims that market calculations seldom enter into his concerns, he belies that somewhat, once telling Photography Now that “my programme is a mix of 40 percent passion, 40 percent necessity, and 20 percent sheer profit. We do some books because we know that we can sell 10,000 or 15,000 copies. 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 percent really are where I am having fun and where I am being enthusiastic.”
Some of these projects, various special editions of Karl Lagerfeld, Jim Dine and Ed Ruschá, earned him the sobriquet from Le Monde of being a “Haut Couture” publisher. Steidl denies this, stating, “I like those things, but my real passion is to make ‘democratic books’ or more ‘Prêt à Porter’ books that are not produced for the art market but which are produced for the book market. For me a real book is an industrial product that is not limited. After a print run is sold out, we will make a new one with the exact same quality if we think we can sell it. I like to produce things and to send them out into the world.”
Summing up, the man in the white coat says: “I think the first reason that separates this company, this printing house, from the others is that it is operated by me. I have no partners. I don’t have to ask anybody if there is a budget for it, I just do it. I think it makes a difference when you have total freedom and you don’t have to ask anyone. The other thing is that everything is done in-house. I don’t have to buy any outside knowledge or manpower from others. We use just what we have in here. Then maybe the last thing is that, thank God, we do not have to make financial or marketing calculations for books, so that it doesn’t really matter whether it costs this or that. We do it as best as we can, and we hope that we can sell it and make some money with it.”
What Ed Ruschá saw in Gerhard Steidl is true. In this day and age he really is a “WIZARD”, whose magic is that the soul of a Steidl book is “the soul of the artist and not the soul of the publisher”. It takes a special kind of alchemy to pull off the stunt of producing 300 titles a year that almost always sell out without selling their soul. For as long as Gerhard Steidl is around, people will buy his books and photographers will sell their grandmothers to come to Steidlville, stay in The Halftone Hotel, throw in their ideas, and after a few days watch their book tumble out below…
The Fine Art & Craft of the Steidl Book, Lasting Impressions was shown earlier this year at the Musée de l’Eysée in Lausanne, which produced an accompanying catalogue that appears in French as Steidl Impressions en Continu, L’Art du Livre (ISBN: 978-3-86930-061-0), priced CHF 69.
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