CALIN KRUSE / ON BOOKS
Interview by Léonard Pongo
11th of April 2017
This is a transcript from an audio conversation.
Leonard Pongo: At first, not knowing you, I thought you were very difficult to reach out to. Other people around me have felt the same way. How would you explain this?
Calin Kruse: I don’t think I’m not approachable. It’s just that sometimes I don’t have the capacity for being approached. For example, for the last open call to the magazine, I received 350 submissions. I need to review every single one. Some people ask for a review or feedback. Man, there’s 350 fucking submissions that I need to review! I need to decide on what I want to publish! I get submissions every day basically. If I were to write reviews, I couldn’t do anything else than that. I was really thinking of organising a paying review offer. My problem is that I don’t have the capacity. Probably up to 80% of the work I do is just admin work. Writing emails, invoices, trying to find printers to work with, skyping with idiots like you. I’m also trying to have a life, go out, meet friends…
LP: How do you choose what to publish?
CK: My publications are separated in two fields. I have on the one side the publishing section, and on the other side, the zines and booklets and my own books which are not on the publishing section. I’m a visual person, so I show what I like, what speaks to me, works that I can connect with. Maybe that’s why I don’t publish many conceptual works. I also want to show things that are rare and which haven’t been shown before, which is increasingly difficult. I’ve seen a great deal of things in a way, and there are not too many photographers presenting a new language, something I haven’t seen before, there’s a lot of trends in a way. Right now, I’m receiving many portfolios for the magazine that feature pictures of horses. Horses are the new big shit. Really nice BW pictures with humans and horses interacting. I think it’s a new trend. I’ve seen a lot that I liked and I haven’t chosen which one to feature in the next edition of the magazine yet. So when publishing, whether in book or in the magazine, my decision relies on personal preference, it’s a feeling. Sometimes I like something and I know I can’t publish it now, but maybe in a year or something. Sometimes I’m also just too late and the photographer finds another publisher. So what I’m looking for is something I haven’t seen before. I might be often associated with images of intimacy, sexuality. I think that’s one topic that’s still quite hidden in a way and there’s a lot that hasn’t been seen still. The last book I showed you was a very intimate project (**about a burnout from a woman in a psychiatric hospital (Laura Hospes.) There’s also this project by Lilia Li-Mi-Yan which is called Nausea, with this woman who photographed herself and her surroundings in an environment where you’re not supposed to do that -in Russia-. She tried getting the book published in Russia and printers refused to print it. So this book has a lot to do with the context in which it was shot. And when I look, I don’t have that many nude works, they’re mostly my old works, zines. Ren Hang is an interesting example because of the way he arranges his pictures.
LP: Don’t you think that there’s a sort of zeitgeist that’s interested in this kind of topics
CK: I feel like it’s my contribution to make the underground/marginal things normal. I want to raise awareness about them. I’m a very curious person so being an editor allows me to satisfy that interest and I’m very interested in small, marginalised and closed communities. I want to give them more visibility, make them become more accepted. It could also just be a soccer team, something that you can’t access from outside. I’m very curious about what’s hidden, seeing things that haven’t been seen and trying to understand them. It’s exciting, and I’m curious, it’s new visual and intellectual input, visual stimulation. It’s not just boobies and naked women. **Boobies have to be put in context in order to be shown**. There’s got to be something visual that I haven’t seen before and excites me in a way. For example, the Polish issue showed a picture of two men kissing in Poland. This is not very common in Poland, which is a very conservative country. Publishing and sending the magazine to Poland is my small contribution to make it a public issue, to let people know that it’s happening and that it’s ok. That’s what I do with the books I publish. Publishing allows me to show people that these things happen, and it’s ok. I don’t want to teach to people, I want these issues to be out there and to be normal. What I don’t want to do is to show these things as a freak show, as something “different”. I want the topics in my books and magazines to become part of society, part of ‘normality’.
LP: How do you make the magazine and define its content?
CK: It’s very personal. I start with something I want to show. Last issue I wanted to show Soham Gupta’s work, for example. I want to include a more documentary project in each issue, from there I try to put together a magazine that works. This usually includes: a more journalistic project, a portrait work, a landscape work and something that’s very different so that every issue is unique.
LP: Why are photobook fairs so different from normal photo fairs. Why is there so little -apparent- competition there? At art fairs, gallerists really want to sell, rather than letting a potential client move on to his neighbour. Things seem very different at photobook fairs…
CK: I guess gallerists don’t really see each other all the time. At photobook festivals, you know the people, you see them all the time, some of them are your friends. You like some of them and don’t like others, but it’s very familiar, it’s a different atmosphere. Last time I had a small press booth at Paris Photo for the Magazine, so I paid a friend to be there while I was at polycopies. I actually prefered polycopies because I can see things over there, exchange books, discover things, which doesn’t really happen on the photo fairs. At a fair you need to pay a lot for a stand. So you can’t leave your stand, go around and meet people because you need to get return on investment. I think photographers and photo book sellers are often much more chilled than gallerists…
LP: Maybe because they don’t really need to sell…
CK: They do, it’s not cheap to be in Paris so you need to sell, As a gallerist you try to sweet talk people and keep them around… When it comes to a photo book, you’re just there and people either like the book or not. It’s easier because the book doesn’t get better if you talk more about it.
LP: Really? The better you talk about something you sell, the better is sells…
CK: Probably, but it’s less important if what you sell costs 30€ versus 5000€! So you don’t put so much effort into it, so that’s why it’s not so cramped.
LP: So it’s not worth the effort…?
CK: Personally, I don’t want to give people the feeling that I want to sell then something. Sometimes I give background info about a work, and how it came to be, etc. I think especially my own books are self-explanatory, there isn’t much text so it doesn’t need much explanation. Sometimes, books like ‘Chronicle’, with a more complicated story and conceptual idea behind them need more explanation. It was made in Ukraine using alternative processes. Usually, it doesn’t help much. Having the photographer present is also very useful, it makes a huge difference in how many books are sold, definitely.
LP: It seems logical but do the photographers get paid?
CK: No! They just enjoy being there!
LP: There is a very intriguing power game between publishers and photographers. The publishers usually have quite some power, the photographers almost none. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why a photographer would invest so much money, time and energy to get published, without any return on investment. It seems a given thing to publishers that photographers should give their work for free.
CK: I wouldn’t say you have no return on investment. When you publish a book, the only thing a publisher can sell is the book. For the photographer, you can use it as promotion. For example, Kim Thue got a lot of exposure through the book. He got that Freelens exhibition in Hamburg, he was invited to the lumix festival for photojournalism in Hannover… I think he got many opportunities through the book, which he wouldn’t have gotten without it.
LP: It’s like telling a writer that if you publish his book, he’s not going to make any money but that he might get a residency to publish his next book or a conference or a presentation… Certainly the book helps, today it’s like a currency, everybody wants to see your book.
CK: It depends on the kind of deal made between publisher and photographer. Some publishers want to be paid, usually a lot, to publish a book but when I published Chronicle, we split both the money and the books. Usually I pay for everything and the photographer will get a percentage of the final print run, a fixed amount of books. But as a photographer you can also say I want to pay 50% and I also get 50% of the money made by the books.
LP: As a photographer, if you get 200 books… What do you do with them? As a publisher you go to all the fairs, … That’s your job. What should we do with 200 books?
CK: That’s the reason why publishers can’t pay the photographers anymore. The books also pay for all these costs (travel costs, your 8€ sandwich in paris, your booth, sending review copies of the book). All these things cost money, which is why you can’t pay the photographer anymore today. I also pay for storage to keep the books, I carry them around all the time, …
LP: It should be that publishing a book and the work involved should be paid for. Both for the publisher, and the photographer…
CK: I get paid in books, usually… And I also get paid for design work.
LP: Is this specific to self-published industry?
CK: Photographers used to publish more, there were more publishing houses. If you have a good distribution that pays you, it’s fine, but if for example I had my books distributed, it would cost me 60% of the price. For the Magazine, I would lose money. I’m not a sales manager, so I can’t find advertisers. That’s a problem for small and middle sized publishers with no distribution.. There’s no way to get money out of it, that’s why photographers don’t get paid. I work many hours every months which go unpaid.
LP: But so far, you’ve managed to live off of making books?
CK: It’s mixed, really, books, selling my own prints, doing workshops, selling the magazine (which doesn’t make money), sometimes I do graphic design work, but I don’t advertise it and only do what I choose. Sometimes I do book design only (without publishing). I just published a couple of books for Paris photo and I don’t even know how to pay for the invoices. I’m broke all the time. We’ll see.
LP: So your life is basically sponsored by photographers…
CK: Yes.! I mean, it’s very important for this small scene to be aware that we’re all going in the same direction. When I work with a book store for example it’s important for both sides to know that, ok, he’s a publisher with nice books, and I need the bookstore to pay in time, otherwise I can’t make books anymore. For a photographer to be publishing at a specific publisher, it is advertisement, because people know the publisher, and for the publisher it’s a nice project, so we’re both supporting each other at the same time.
LP: Have you seen many people that you worked together on a book project actually getting something out of the book?
CK: I think Kim, I guess AM Project, was quite good too. It also helped me to work with them, it was a good project. They didn’t pay anything, I paid everything and they got a share in books. It was quite a big risk to take at that time. They received 6 books/person (36 books in total). As you said, what would you do with so many books as a photographer. That’s why I don’t do it. The last book I made, I asked the photographer if he was ok with receiving 30 books, and he told me: “What do you want me to do with 30 books?”. So he was ok with me just publishing the book without getting anything for it…
LP: Photographers are that desperate to publish?
CK: Not desperate. For example when I publish my own work, I just want to get it out of my head, basically.
LP: Do you feel you are in a different position having your own publishing
CK: Definitely! if I was an independent publishing house and someone like me showed up, I would not accept to publish all these books. There’s a difference for me between publishing other people’s works, where I’m much more focused, and publishing my own stuff. My own books get published in very limited runs, 20-50 copies, I know how to do it, it doesn’t cost too much, and I just get it out of my head. I’m not so focused on these. And it’s also very nice because I don’t need to deal with these very complicated photographers.
Yes, I think books need to focus on the core of the work. Good design won’t make the work better, that’s a trick.
LP: Can you tell more about the complications in working with photographers?
CK: Photographers can be too attached to that one image that they absolutely need to be in the book. I once had to cancel a project because I realized we wouldn’t get along. Photographers have their own mind, which isn’t bad. I want the photographers to be happy when publishing a book, but I also want to be happy with the final object. If I have a feeling it would eventually fail, I’d rather cancel it. Photographers are not designers. They don’t alway know what’s good or not for their own book. For example, one photographer could be very attached to some images and want to make the whole work revolve around those key pictures but I might just tell them that even though these pictures are very good, they don’t belong in the book, and this might be very difficult to settle.
LP: Creatively it’s a very interesting issue. If you work with a designer, you want them to help you see your work in new ways, to give you ideas you can’t have on your own because you don’t see things that way, it’s not your skill. Your designer needs to understand the work and provide design ideas that support the work. They may help limit your ambitions when you want to tell too many things that your images don’t tell. There’s all sorts of techniques nowadays in photo books that feel more like visual tricks. You certainly see that more than I do since you’re a designer. Photographers call themselves storytellers who produce intricate narration by using images. How do you relate to that talk. It’s a very good way for photographers to market themselves, as entrepreneurs, clever creatives, but sometimes I feel that designers use tricks to make the reader think that there is something in the work, some depth, some content even, which simply isn’t there in the photographs. You books are much more to the point, you tend to avoid these tricks quite often. How do you feel about that?
CK: Yes, I think books need to focus on the core of the work. Good design won’t make the work better, that’s a trick. It’s important not to use anything you don’t really need to use. What I try to say all the time is that you need to find a language for the work, not a packaging for something that isn’t there. Currently, you have this huge amount of photobooks, photographers, photo-consumers, but you don’t have so many good storytellers, that’s when you need to use tricks. I was watching Ukrainian dummies at polycopies, and there was no dummy that told any story. Some of the dummies looked really nice but that’s it, they didn’t do anything to you in the longer term, they only impacted you in the short term. I try to avoid making books that only blind you or trick you. I’ve seen so many books like that. In Hannover, I saw a book made of concrete, because the photos inside were about prison, but the images were so bad. I think some people would buy it just because of the design, I would but that’s just a trick.
LP: Lately I came back to a Diane Arbus book. It was very simple, a few short sequences of 15-20 images classified by simple themes. That’s very different from today. Photobooks used to be closer to a best of from a given photographer showing the images without too many interferences between the images and the viewer. Today it feels like we’ve moved on and the book has to be a statement of itself. Why are overly designed books so famous?
CK: Maybe because people shot more and worked on series before ? Designers have become like a trademark today. It’s a trick. Maybe you’re tempted to think that because the designer is great the book is great. This is part of the economy: you get your book sold because you’ve worked with a famous designer, they get famous because they make best sellers and win design award. Buyers tend to think that because books are well designed, it’s also good photography. That makes those books design objects, not photobooks. I see how people watch photobooks. And because there are so many of them, people don’t really have time to watch everything so they’ll just come to your table and look at all photobooks for like 5 minutes and open a page to see an image, and then leave. Maybe I’m sounding very conservative, but everything got faster and faster and maybe you need great design just to keep people watching and to attract attention. You need something that pops up from the mass but the foundation of bookmaking is to understand the photographer’s work. You can always try to translate work into a good photobooks project. In order to make a good photobook, you need to be a good photo editor. I’m used to editing images because of working on the magazine and the publishing projects. I think designers tend to cover their lack of editing/sequencing skills with design elements…
LP: Is the photobook market entering a more conceptual era? CK: I think it makes sense to transform a photo project into a book that is more abstract, less direct and more conceptual when the images are not good. To make them look better than they are. When I first saw the images from the book Cette Montagne c’est moi (http://aperture.org/shop/witho-worms-cette-montagne-c-est-moi-paris-photo-aperture-photobook-awards/) I thought they were totally crap. Then I saw the book and really liked the way it is made. It’s not about the work, but about the object. The photographer didn’t take those images for what they are, but to make something with them, to create an object with them. Printed they look completely different. I’m probably the worst person to ask about these kinds of tricks because I’m also not using them so I don’t know how to explain why. When I want to show an image I want to show the image and that’s it. I would do things I’ve done before differently, for sure I’ve made mistakes but when I make a book I want to find a language for it. In terms of paper, of cover.I also did more classical books, when I thought too much design wouldn’t help the book or the images, like Nowhere which is very simple: a cover, then only images. I try to do a book if I think that the images are good enough. You start with the images. I think the art of design is to be subtle in photobooks and not just BAM. it’s the same thing with graphic design. When I studied, I was probably the only one to do zines and to research independent magazines. I would research and write a lot about that. I know many people who had great form but pulled their articles from wikipedia. Their form didn’t follow function, they only had great form but nothing inside. And that’s how you learn in design school. You’re a designer but you don’t really learn how to follow the content. You make great packaging but not according to the content. LP: What do you see when you look at the photobook world today?
CK: I don’t see so many photobooks actually. I’m more tired with personal diary stories that I look at, sometimes look good but I don’t know what to understand from them. When it’s totally random and it doesn’t tell me anything. Sometimes it’s just completely random, there isn’t any poetry even, it’s not edited, nothing. I also have books that I use as negative examples of making photobooks, where I like the images but I don’t like how the book is made. This book is about a road in italy, just landscapes, but in a portrait orientation so you always have the cut in the middle. And you can’t even open it flat. The paper is actually quite good. I don’t understand why you would print like that. I actually ordered the book to review it, and eventually asked to publish the images in the magazine instead of featuring the book.
LP: What do you see as tendency in the self-published world?
CK: To produce as much shit as possible, probably. Because everyone calls himself a photographer and every photographer wants a book, there’s a lot of production. I’m not even sure if publishers produce because they enjoy doing it, or they think they can make money out of it. I don’t care about trends. I really don’t try to define myself in reference to that world, it doesn’t really interest me. I don’t really buy many books or spend too much time researching what’s being published. I look at what’s being made when I’m at a festival, but otherwise I don’t really follow anything.
LP: Do you see problems in the industry which you’d like to solve?
CK: I don’t care about the publishers. It’s about whether I like a book or not. It’s like in music, I like an album, not a band for its name. I’d have no problems quitting bookmaking if I couldn’t find anything to publish anymore. I could really move to woodworking. I’d love to build things from recycled elements.
LP: Do you still have people with more documentary works who come to you to be published? Are you still interested?
CK: Definitely I’m still interested, it just has to look new to me. Now I’m focusing on selling and I’ve been working on my own stuff for a few months. I really have no plans for now, right now it feels good, but maybe at some point I won’t publish anything anymore, you don’t know… I have no plans, I go with the flow!