Reason 3: Not Fitting In

Here’s the third post in the series of unknown length and duration, around reasons why I started publishing.

I’m not sure where to start this, so I’m going to write and see how it goes. Here are some terms, or genres I’m involved in/with. Each very different. Each a different crowd, generally. A different market, in a business sense. A different process in terms of making, and certainly different reasoning. Often, a different outlet or final place for the work to ‘be’:

Genres — Artist’s Book / Zine / Photobook

Sections — History / Culture / Photography / Gift

Reasons — Nostalgia / Collection / Archive / History / Dissemination /Presentation

Fitting in. I’ve never been a conformist. I’m not sure why. I don’t think it’s rebellion, although at times possibly it is. I think it’s more that I like to question things as they are. I’m never comfortable accepting that ideas as they are, are the best way. For example, procedure, hierarchy, method, answer…I never like to take a set of rules and agree, ‘that’s how it’s done.’ I’d rather find my way of getting it done. I don’t like the term, ‘creative’, when applied to a person, but I think artists, designers, photographers, ‘creatives’ generally, question rules. Often get accused of disobeying, quite negatively. Questioning, I think, is better.

When I’m not in the office/studio, editing, sourcing, replying to emails, packing post etc, I’m at book fairs, talking about the books and selling the books. Artist’s Book and zine fairs are the ones I started taking part in, 13 years ago. The first was Manchester Zine Fair, at what was then Urbis. Leeds, BABE in Bristol, Small Publishers, London Zine Symposium…Fairs in Lithuania, China, Korea, Japan, Australia…When I can’t go, I send a box of books. See previous post about ease of transporting.

More recently (past seven years), I’ve taken part in photobook fairs. Bristol, London, Glasgow, Paris, Rome, New York…The mindset is different. Not better or worse. Perhaps more focussed, because the subject is tighter. Photography includes photography. Photo books include photographs. ‘Artist’s books’ is perhaps a vaguer term, which is useful. Artists work in a multitude of ways so I think the term artist’s book refers more to the book as a container, the function and form of the book, as well (or can be) as the content. Photobooks can be more fetishised, more ‘collected’, more valuable and in some ways seen as more ‘prestigious’. A word I don’t like much. There are cross overs though, Ed Ruscha’s photographic books, for example. Artist’s will discuss them as artist’s books. Photographers as photobooks. There is, of course, a problem with categorising anything, but things do get categorised so I’ll go with it.

The bookshops that sell Café Royal Books vary in terms of the shelf on which the put the books. Photography is an obvious and appropriate one. History, Culture, Gift, are others — all just as appropriate. They have been exhibited, cited and discussed as examples of artist’s book, photobook, archiving, re/presenting work, zines, collections, cultural/social history…

Each term, in every case, has its own audience. The more terms one crosses, the wider the potential audience, and in this case, the more eyes that can see the images I publish. So that’s good. More people who perhaps didn’t know the photographers or their work, or a particular series of work, now do.

The main thing with all of this, is that the books (if that’s what they are…) don’t fit in. They float around a bit. Today, I have sent books to a gallery in New York. A library in San Diego. Someone in the UK, along with a note to say ‘Happy Birthday’ from the person who bought it. A biker on the Isle of Man, a playwright in London and a lawyer in the USA. The years I spent painting and exhibiting in a fairly formal way, I think has put me off sticking to one thing or place. So Café Royal Books helped me to make one thing, but be a part of several ‘networks’ (another word I don’t like.) I’m easily bored, and although ultimately I do just make one type of thing, it’s useful to be able to discuss it as several things, depending on where the books are, or where I am.

Image: One of the last paintings I made, 2005.

Interview for RRB Photobooks

I wrote this for RRB Photobooks, it was published on December 14th 2014.
Café Royal Books is ten next year. As happens in a decade, a lot has changed; some planned changes, some happenchance. The reason I started CRB was to enable me to disseminate affordably my own work, quickly, internationally, and to many places at the same time. I had spent the previous decade painting large abstracts which were prohibitive due to their size and weight, so decided to return to drawing for its simplicity and speed. ‘The book’ worked as exhibition spaces, and ‘the multiple’ as a ‘rapid fire’. The content of the books was unfocussed and production fairly DIY, but considered. The excitement was in the making and in using the book as a container.

Somehow, online mainly, word spread and I ended up collaborating with other artists, illustrators and some photographers, publishing their work as small editions of around 50 copies. Around 2006 my practice began to shift from pen to lens based, partly because I could work faster and more simply without as much ‘interference’ as happened with a pen / pencil; also because I started to value more the recording of information, possibly for the future. We had our first child around the same time which probably had an impact on my way of thinking. Of course, as my own practice and interests changed, so did what I wanted to publish. It wasn’t until around 2010-11 that I started to become more focussed and direct about what I was to publish, and about what I wanted to make in terms of my work outside of Café Royal.

There has always been a bit of a clash, time-wise mostly, between the things I do. I’m a full time lecturer on three separate degree courses. I make work, exhibit etc my photographs – generally focussing on Brutalist estates and the urban environment. I have two children, 3 and 6. Café Royal has become a full time business, still run out of a small room, and only me…It’s hard work but really enjoyable and it’s a privilege to work with so many artists and photographers.

What I do now is publish a book each week. I can’t possibly publish all the work I’d like to, so have to remain pretty focussed in terms of subject. The subject tends to be work that documents an aspect of change; social, architectural, geographical…I don’t know what drives people (or me) to take photographs of things. It’s a strange compulsion, but somehow there is a need. ‘Now’ is happening – people know ‘now’, so the photographs, to my mind at least, become something else when the ‘now’ has passed and is no longer accessible first hand. They gain historical value or importance perhaps.

My experience of working with photographers is that generally they work for ‘the now’ for various reasons. One is financial. We all need money and work and so are focussed on ‘the now’. Others, who have perhaps had their commercial career, may have other interests: books, travel for example. In most cases there are vast archives of work that are untouched, mainly because the photographer has no reason to touch them. Feedback from many collaborators has been that CRB has offered the photographer opportunity to revisit their much forgotten archives. This has sometimes led to a rethink of current work and to other opportunities for sales and exhibitions of older work. None of this is intentional, it’s not why I started Café Royal, but knowing that this occurs means a lot and has become an aim of what I do.

My books are inexpensive, both to produce and to buy, in comparison for example to a coffee table hard back. They are limited run, generally of 200 copies. The conflicts with my desire of getting this forgotten archive work seen by many. However, many galleries and museums now collect my books. They are in a lot of ‘special collections’, photobook collections, artist book collections, exhibitions and so on. This makes them publicly accessible, looked after, ‘locked in’. So essentially anyone can gain access to them without
owning them. This has become a strong element of what I do. To have the work collected by galleries is important, if for no other reason than to fill the gaps in UK gallery photographic archives, which are fairly slim. Of course there are other reasons. To know MoMA, Tate, V&A and other major international galleries want the books enough to collect them means a lot. To have many shops stocking them and to have so many customers from the website is priceless. To meet Peter Mitchell, Ken Grant, Martin Parr, Daido Moriyama and discuss books, their work, their past work is amazing. I think publishing has allowed me to do a lot that perhaps otherwise I wouldn’t have done.

I once lost all of my own books, collected over 30 years – about 800 books, in a flood. I now have a strange relationship with books – I make lots of them but am still fearful of buying too many. Publishing allows me to make the books I’d like to collect; albeit a strange way of going about it!

The future. I’d like to start a PhD but need to fine-tune the question. It might relate to some of the above. I want to continue to publish small affordable well produced books / zines showing moments of change. I see Café Royal Books as a kind of meeting point. I don’t just publish the work of well known photographers but I do only publish work that I like and often subjects or times that I couldn’t get access to myself. As long as it’s enjoyable I’ll continue. There’s a lot of important work that needs to be seen! In many ways I see what I do as a long term project, cataloging the not too distant past.

Recently I’ve started a new project, ‘Notes’, which will hopefully become a reference tool and work as contextual support for the books I publish.

The original article can be seen here.