Photobooks Revived

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Errata Editions has been publishing its Books on Books series since 2009. Jeffery Ladd, Valerie Sonnenthal and Ed Grazda are the publishers. Ladd now lives in Cologne, where he had been traveling often to attend photobook festivals (and where he made several friends connected to the “photobook world” over the years). His wife also works with Walther Koenig, the legendary artbook publisher and bookseller, “so it seemed destined for us to be together.” Here, Ladd talks about his passion and publishing program.


How and why did you become a book publisher?We started the company because of my idea for this educational series of books that examine individual photography books that had been very rare and out of print for decades.

Photobooks have enjoyed a strong resurgence of interest in the last dozen years, partly due to three volumes of reference books called The Photobook: A History by the British photographer Martin Parr and writer Gerry Badger. These volumes examine most all of the great photobooks that the medium has produced worldwide since the medium’s inception, and Parr and Badger have set the bar for establishing a written history of the photobook form. Unfortunately, of the 764 books they cite in all three volumes, only about 46 are still in print or available to a photographer starting out today. This is why we think our series is important by enabling younger photographers or students to see these great works.


Did you have editorial or photo experience?I am a photographer, Ed Grazda is a photographer and Valerie Sonnenthal has experience as an editor. We all love photobooks. Much of my education and photographic work has been influenced by looking at photography books, so my passion for books starts there. Book publishing however has been an entirely different education. None of the three Errata partners had much experience as far as book production. I handle Errata’s production yet I am completely self-taught and have had to learn on the fly how things get done. Personally, I have my hand in just about every step of a book, from editorial decisions and concept to design, overseeing output on-press, as well as promotion and working with our distributors.


How did you develop this format for “recording” significant photobooks?

For several years long before my idea of Errata Editions, I had had dozens of conversations with artists about reprinting their books and I was surprised to find that a great many of them were against their books being republished. Or, if they did republish, they’d change the new edition significantly from the original. With this in mind, I conceived of the series being in this format and over time, to amass a reference library of the most important photobooks ever published. In 2007, I made a couple mockups of what I had in mind and I started showing them to artists and surprisingly, they were receptive to the idea. In their minds since these weren’t reprints but rather studies of books, it was less making something new of old work but showcasing that older work within its place in history. I found many artists all of a sudden agreeing to have, and in some cases, approaching us to have their books appear in our series.

What books began your list?In the beginning we made a list of about 35–40 books that would be our “dream projects.” We started the series with the French photographer Eugene Atget since he seems to be the grandfather of much of the photography I admire and inspired a great many other photographers. The series will attempt to explore all areas of photographic practice from documentary and social documentary, experimental photography, abstract work, photojournalism, political statements, personal artistic work, and even photography used as propaganda.


Photographers are notoriously rights-conscious. Do you have to do a lot of convincing to get the properties that you want?Obviously we need to acquire the proper copyright permissions to do our books and this extends also to any texts that appeared in the original editions from multiple authors. Some people have said no to our books, mostly because they are not opposed to a facsimile reprint, but we haven’t faced much opposition. The artists want to be in the series and they oftentimes help us contact the other authors.

Some people who do not understand what the point of the series is have mistakenly thought our format was some gimmick to get around copyright permissions. In fact one of the most interesting aspects of our books is having everyone possible who was involved in the original edition to give us information for our essayists and researchers. In our essays we often describe the genesis of each book and this often includes information, not just from the photographers, but from graphic designers, from the original publishers and production people who were involved in the original edition.

What is the goal in formatting this way? Is it a history book, critical book or other kind of record?The goal is to simply provide access to this material for future study or inspiration to newer generations of photographers. What is interesting to me about the series is that I have had young photographers tell me that they had heard a lot about a particular book, about “how great it was,” “how important it was,” and yet after they saw it they didn’t think it was so great or important. I think this is extremely important for people to be able to make up their own minds as to what constitutes a “great” book. As it stands much of the history of “the photobook” is written by a small handful of people and the history that they’re writing is very subjective to their tastes. Although I believe 80% of the time they get it right with which books they pick to highlight as “important,” there are matters of individual taste and bias.


As you are putting your list together do you have themes in mind or similarities that develop?For the first several years doing Errata Editions we were publishing four titles per year in the series. Since we were not doing a chronologic history, I did want the books to have connections to each other as we published them.

For instance I mentioned we started the series with Eugene Atget; the book that followed was by Walker Evans. Evans was very influenced by the work of Atget, and in 1930 he even wrote a book review of Photographe de Paris, the book we included in our series. But more importantly the connection I wanted to make between those two books was that Atget’s book was published posthumously so he had nothing to do with its production. By contrast every aspect of [the Evans book American Photographs] was carefully planned and managed by Evans himself. So with the first book, the artist had nothing to do with its production, and the second book the artist was deciding everything to do with its production.

For other examples, we published four books on “cities.” Two of the books [were] more artistic statements (William Klein’s New York and Yutaka Takanashi’s Toshi-e) and the other two books were overtly political (Koen Wessing’s Chile, September 1973 and David Goldblatt’s In Boksburg). In another four books we published two take on the vastness of the world as a whole (Ed van der Elsken’s Sweet Life and KeldHelmer-Petersen’s 122 Colour Photographs) while the two others describe small microcosms. Nobuyoshi Araki’s The Banquet is a book of macro photographs of plates of food shared between he and his dying wife, and Krass Clement’s book Drum is comprised of three rolls of film shot on a single night in a pub in Ireland. We like to find and stress tangential comparisons that haven’t been explored or pointed out in the written history of photobooks.


You’ve done over 20, including (for me, the prized) Brodovitch Ballet book. What’s in the future?

We’ve just published two new books which use photography as propaganda tool: Long Live the Glorious May Seventh Directive, published as a celebration of the Cultural Revolution in China under Mao Zedong, and A La Plaza con Fidel from Cuba, which describes the crowds attending speeches of Fidel Castro.

For the next books we are looking to include several titles specifically by women photographers. These will hopefully include books from Latin America, Japan and Germany. We are still ironing out the rights issues on those so we’re not announcing them yet, but will hopefully in the spring of 2017.

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →