Dayanita Singh & Gerhard Steidl
on the High Art of Making Books
is arguably one of the most progressive photo artists in India and
intends to exhibit only books from now on. He is a publisher who views
his art and photo books as haute couture. They both love paper. It
sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
||Gerhard Steidl: When
I first started working, my ideal was to have the photography printed
in book form and the book be the gallery. That would be a very easy way
for photography to be consumed all over the world. A person in
Australia or South America might never have access to a gallery in
London, but it’s easy to order a book and look at photographs of the
same quality as the ones you’d see in a gallery. With today’s printing
technology, this has become entirely possible. Many photographers say
that when a book is printed, some, or most, or sometimes even all of
the prints look better than the prints they show in galleries.
Dayanita Singh: In a few months’ time I’ll have a show at the MMK
in Frankfurt, and they’ve asked me if we could make an artist’s book. I
think we've really managed to crack something with File Room
and its imbedded photo on the cover and the different colors of the
cloth. It’s a beautiful book, but it can also be seen as an object. And
because of the very inexpensive paper we’ve chosen, it has a feel that
no other book of photography has. So if we can have different colors
for the cloth, can we also have different images on the cover?
is much more than just a chronicler of contemporary India. With
her book projects and “portable museums,” Singh probes the limits of
the medium of photography and its modes of representation. An entire
floor of the Deutsche Bank towers
is devoted to the photographer. A lavish show of her work called Go Away Closer
opens in September at the Frankfurt MMK
has been working since 1967 as a book designer and printer, with Joseph Beuys
as one of his first clients. Since the mid-eighties, all of Günter Grass’s
books have been published by Steidl Verlag. In 1993 Steidl began a
close collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld. Steidl publishes books by
internationally renowned photographers and artists such as Ed Ruscha
, Juergen Teller
, and William Eggleston
GS: Yes, we can do that.
That would give us endless possibilities. Instead of prints, I could
show the books in my exhibitions. My idea is that you can create an
entire exhibition of, let’s say, 35 images for about 1,500 Euros. That
would be incredible. What I would like to do is to no longer show
photographs with a mat and frame. Instead, I want the book to be behind
each photograph. I thought about calling the book Go Away Closer Two.
GS: That’s not a very good title.
DS: Then how about Museum of Chance?
GS: That's much better. Go Away Closer Two sounds like Mercedes S and Mercedes E Class, like something industrial.
DS: We’ll call it Museum of Chance. And I want a Steidl/ Singh shop in my show.
GS: A pop-up store? Just with your books?
DS: No, I think it will come with a selection of Steidl books.
there’s somebody selecting the books and it’s a personal choice, we can
call it a curated bookstore. That's a concept for the future of
bookstores. Companies like Barnes and Noble
no longer have educated booksellers, only people who can scan the
barcode. Nobody is able to say anything about a book anymore. The
opposite concept would be to have a small bookstore, with everything in
it the taste of the person who owns the bookshop. People don't buy just
the books. They also buy the knowledge and the taste of the shop owner.
DS: I will sit in the shop; I hope you come visit once a week.
GS: Yeah, that's a very good idea. I'll fit it into my schedule. (laughs)
DS: Shall we call it Steidl/Singh? Or Singh/Steidl?
GS: I wouldn’t make it a word game. I always say I have no business partners, and then people would think …
DS: I’ve already told people that I’m married to you. (laughs)
GS: Oh, excellent. Where’s the wedding ring? I would call it the Steidl pop-up store, curated by Dayanita Singh. Then everyone would understand what it is. Will there be text in the book?
DS: Not as yet, but there can be … By the way, what kind of paper is this?
is a very special paper that I created with the German paper mill
Scheufelen in 2000. It’s a paper made with recipes for paper coating
from 1890. Normally, the coating on paper is high-tech chemical stuff,
but this is organic material. And it has no optical brightness. So the
books printed on this paper will never get yellow edges.
DS: You’ve designed paper? I didn't know that!
also designed an uncoated recycling paper especially for literature.
It’s 80% post-consumer fiber and 20% secondary fiber from the paper
mill. So in the end it consists of 100% recycled material. I printed a
Günter Grass book on this paper.
DS: But no photos yet?
just literature. And then a certain Ms. Rowling was here in Germany.
She bought a book by Grass, discovered this paper, and said to her
publishing house, “I want to have this exact paper for my Harry Potter
books in Germany.” Actually, her order helps this paper mill to
survive. Of course, it was the largest order they’ve ever had.
DS: Fantastic! Can we print photos on that?
course ... Today, we have a crisis in paper manufacturing because the
print runs of newspapers and books are decreasing. It’s very hard for
paper mills to survive. But I believe that small companies like
Scheufelen are far more innovative than the giants. Somebody actually
listens to what you want, and these paper products make beautiful
objects. That's why I use paper specialties for all my books. When
people say Steidl books look different, it's true because of the
specialties I use. They’re more expensive and are produced à la carte.
I think we should use an uncoated paper for the Museum of Chance book. And maybe we can use a recycled paper. This could add another idea to your book.
DS: Yes, because the feel of File Room is also something people are very drawn to. Just touching it conveys so much more than a regular photo book.
problem is that those types of paper are beautiful, but most of today’s
printers don’t have the knowhow to work with them. You need to run
material tests and you have to try out various inks. But most printers
don't want to experiment. Most people working in the graphic industry
have no taste or vision. That’s why they’re all going bankrupt. But if
you have the knowhow, you can survive in a wonderful, comfortable niche
and you can even make money. My vision is that young people from all
around the world will learn from you and me how to make a beautiful
book and will then do that in their own country. Maybe someone will
follow in our footsteps once he or she has finished studying fine arts
DS: Absolutely. I don't think I told you,
but I’ve left the gallery in India. Because I only want to make books
now. I’ll take these books to small towns that never get to see a photo
exhibition. Museum of Chance will work as a book, but it’s
also the exhibition—without insurance and with very low shipping costs.
And if something gets lost, it's not a problem. It could change the way
people think about an exhibition.
GS: I really think
that you’re going back to the idea of Gutenberg. He had the idea to
publish the Bible, and in doing so he revolutionized printing
technology with his moveable type. Gutenberg designed, printed, bound,
and sold the Bible. Previously, it had only been available to rich
people because a monk had to sit down for years to write it out by
hand, and that cost a fortune. Gutenberg was the one who made the book
a democratic object. In a way, we’re continuing that. Photography is
shown in museums and galleries, but a normal person can’t afford the
prints. But a beautiful book is available to everybody.
know, making books is just like being a chef who cooks in a restaurant.
When you have good ingredients and you’re creative, you can cook a good
meal. It’s the same with books. You have to possess knowledge about the
materials you’re using for printing and binding. It’s the knowhow that
makes the difference. But the problem in today’s printing industry is
that this knowledge about good products is largely gone. Everything is
dictated by money. Like when somebody in the car industry plans to make
a catalogue for a new car—they’re actually called catalogues, sales
DS: And that's what art catalogues have become.
and it’s all dictated by money. Where can we buy the paper a little
cheaper, where can we get the printing a little cheaper, where can we
get the binding a little cheaper. In the end, when you scale it down to
the lowest possible price, very often you wind up with a product that’s
not worth being printed. And then it’s better to make the whole thing
Internet only. But if you want to go the other way, to physically print
on paper—then I think the only possibility is to go for haute cuisine.
That means to go for the very, very best. I am in the luxurious
position of being the owner of a press. I know where the switch is that
starts the machine. When I decide to run some print tests, it’s on my
time and it’s my fun. But if you have to go to a company, it costs a
fortune. They don't want to interrupt the processes they run every day.
It’s very hard to make extraordinary printed material unless you’re a
well-known art director or buyer of paper. So for young people this is
very hard. But I think it’s our duty to bring the knowledge to them.
DS: Do you invite students to come here?
Young people from all over the world keep asking if they can do an
internship here. I select maybe one person from India for three months,
or a person from South America for a year. That’s very interesting for
us, because we also learn from their culture and their aesthetics. It’s
very simple: a designer from Sweden will make totally different color
choices for a cover than a person from Spain. Someone from Sweden
chooses cool bluish or greenish colors, while someone from Spain
prefers yellow or red.
In the end, our message to young people
is to produce everything you need for a book in your own country. It’s
possible. 50, 70, 80 years ago, there was no tourism of paper palettes
around the world. If something was printed in the USA, the paper came
from the USA. That’s why it was interesting for book collectors to
bring back books from different countries, because they were all
different. But now, due to today’s globalism, it’s all the same. A
printer in the United States or in China buys the same paper in
Finland. I think the future of printed material is to bring back the
individuality of manufacturing. It has to be haute cuisine—or haute
couture. Why do people buy high fashion, from Chanel? Because they know
that the drawing is done by Karl Lagerfeld in Paris. He takes care of
the fabrics. In the Chanel studio there are 200 tailors working on one
piece of haute couture. In the end, the fitting is done by Karl
Lagerfeld. So when the model is ready, you really know that this is a
product that has been designed and created from the idea to the final
product in Paris, France, and that there’s a person behind it who looks
after it. With other fashion houses, you don't really know if it has
been produced in Bangladesh or wherever. My idea for my books is that
they should be haute couture. So when a book has the name Steidl on it,
it’s been designed and created together with the artist in Düstere
Straße 4, Göttingen, Germany. And the artist and the printer had their
hands on it. That’s the difference to all the other stuff around.