Gerhard Steidl is one of the world’s premier book publishers. He founded Steidl in 1968 in order to produce art books to the standards that he held in his mind and manifested with his hands. Unlike most publishers, who parcel out each aspect of the business to specialists in their respective fields, Steidl does everything under one roof. From acquisition, editorial, and design to production, printing, and binding to sales and marketing, every Steidl book access is given his personal touch. It is this touch we see and feel when we pick up a Steidl book. It is a sensory experience for the eyes, the hands, and yes, even the nose.
A book is more than a story. It is a complete world unto itself. It is a journey, an adventure, a trip into the mind of the author him or herself. This trip begins with the object of the book, for a book is more than words and images on paper; it is the very paper itself, the ink, the process of production that is at once hidden and revealed with each turn of the page. It is the collected experience of the tiniest details that make the book a thing to behold unto itself. It is this attention that Steidl brings to the art of book publishing that puts him on the same level as the artists he publishes. Robert Frank, Gordon Parks, William Eggleston, David Bailey, Bruce Davidson, Joel Sternfeld, Weegee, Raymond Depardon, Andreas Gursky, Arthur Elgort, Juergen Teller, Guy Bourdin, Ed Ruscha, Jim Dine, Berenice Abbott—and that’s just a few of the authors appearing on the new list for Spring 2013.
Steidl, like the artists he publishes, is driven by love, by passion, and by purpose. Book making is more than a profession; it is a way of life. It is a way of seeing and understanding life in order to share it with the expert and the amateur alike. Books are mystical objects, the mind forever captured on the paper we hold in our hands. Books are more than mere objects; they are repositories of soul. They are a wealth of knowledge, of expressions, of creativity to be revisited throughout our lives. Each time we visit, a deeper understanding occurs: of ideas, of style, of ourselves, and the word in which we live. The art of the book resides in the space where author and publisher meet, in the story they decide to tell and the way in which the story is presented to the world. The books of Steidl are stories put on paper, memories not yet our own until we behold them ourselves.
The beauty of the book is that it has not changed its form. It remains as Gutenberg designed it, leaves bound between covers, handy enough to be held in our arms. A book comes alive when it is opened, and it is here that the magic and mystery begin, as we turn the page and discover a new world held together by concept, content, and the quality of production itself. We are fortunate to have this opportunity to speak with Gerhard Steidl about his life’s work, as a single force who continues to honor the art of book making through his exquisite publishing programme.
The first books I designed and delivered to the printer myself but they were so poorly printed that nothing was left of the ideas I had of aesthetics and quality. It seemed impossible to obtain the results I imagined for my books. So I decided to learn printing myself in order to print and produce books
Your work as a printer and publisher has set a bar for visual books, both in terms of quality of content and production. I am fascinated by the idea that this all began with the idea of “learn by doing.” Please speak about where your passion to learn the art and industry of book making comes from.
I started photographing as a boy and had the idea of being a professional photographer. But looking at the work of others like Cartier-Bresson and the young shooting stars of the early 70s like David Bailey, I thought that I would never be as good as them. I didn’t want to end up as a third-class photographer and be unhappy for the rest of my life, so I decided that I wanted to publish books.
The first books I designed and delivered to the printer myself but they were so poorly printed that nothing was left of the ideas I had of aesthetics and quality. It seemed impossible to obtain the results I imagined for my books. So I decided to learn printing myself in order to print and produce books. I had not much money to buy equipment like a printing press so I started with screen printing, etchings, graphic technologies, and later added offset printing for books. In those years, between 1970 and 1974, it became clear that Steidl was producing books that were in a certain way special.
The most important thing for a book is the content and the intellectual idea delivered by the artists. Good printing does not make up for bad content. So I was looking for the best artists, the best writers, and the best designers to work with.
I’m of the opinion that a book is an object of art by itself, not a mass-produced item. For me, this is the key to survival on the market because I predict that the regular, poorly printed book is going to die. You can read any book on the iPad or Kindle, you don’t need to have them all in your library. But if a book is an art object of value and with a future, it is absolutely worth printing it, I believe, and this is what I want to transmit. That has always been my vision, my idea.
I never actually wanted to be a printer. But otherwise, I simply couldn’t get the results I wanted to have. Later I found that I do much more than only printing because I am so interested in its processes. In the very beginning it was not my ideal.
In a certain way, I was totally independent, and it was by experimenting and by trying out different things in close collaboration with the artists that I found the right form for my books. My idea was to make highly individual books. Every Steidl book has a different format, uses different paper and a different kind of binding—all those things that are not easily accepted by ordinary publishers because these processes are very expensive. I am trying to do the opposite. I never worry about how much a book costs. A book is like a child that you raise and it makes its way through the world.
The five-volume survey of Gordon Parks’ oeuvre is a treatment worthy of a king of the medium. Parks’ breadth of subject matter, combined with his ability to inject the images with a sense of both immediacy and history, makes him one of the foremost photographers of the mid-twentieth century. How do you, as a publisher, envision the scope of an undertaking this definitive?
A lot of my projects happen by accident. One day I received a letter from the Gordon Parks Foundation asking me whether I wanted to come by and have a look at their archives. I happened to be in New York, so I went. And was really surprised. I knew about Gordon Parks and had seen his work in LIFE Magazine but I was really overwhelmed by the richness of his life’s work. So I agreed to publish it.
There are some highlights every year that stick with you forever and this year for sure it is Gordon Parks’ box set and William Eggleston’s three-volume box set of the Los Alamos photos. For a publisher, books like those are an enormous investment and I am really proud that we can do it without any financial help of bankers or private investors. The Gordon Parks box set was a project that cost over eight hundred thousand dollars.
For approximately five years I was carrying suitcases of originals with an unbelievable value to Germany in order to scan them. When we had everything together I invited Peter Kunhardt, one of the Foundation’s directors, to start with me on the design and the layout of the book, and we were just playing like children in a sandbox. We simply wanted to conserve the art of Gordon Parks in an acceptable way. In the end, the box set came out. I think it will preserve Gordon Parks’ oeuvre for the next generation and will create a lot of exhibitions around the world.
As I said, a book is like a child. You see it grow up and are proud when everything goes well. I do approximately 120 photo books every year and every book is really like a new child being born, and as their “father” of course I am proud of them all. There are some highlights every year that stick with you forever and this year for sure it is Gordon Parks’ box set and William Eggleston’s three-volume box set of the Los Alamos photos. For a publisher, books like those are an enormous investment and I am really proud that we can do it without any financial help of bankers or private investors. The Gordon Parks box set was a project that cost over eight hundred thousand dollars.
Please talk about the Robert Frank project. What was the inspiration to create a long-term publishing program that will showcase Frank’s complete oeuvre?
When the Swiss publishing house Scalo went bankrupt a couple of years ago, I asked Robert Frank if he wanted to continue publishing books with me. I was the printer of all of his books published with Scalo since 1987. The publisher Walter Keller always told Robert to come to my premises at Göttingen to supervise the printing. We set up an editorial plan in 2005 which was based on the following ideas: To keep in print all of the books that were really perfect; to make reprints of books which were out of print and had to be redesigned by Robert Frank, like The Americans; to release projects Robert Frank had prepared all his life but which had never been published; and to release all his films.
When we started we did two or three projects every year. We now have approximately twenty-five books in the program, which provides a very good platform for scholars and students to study the photographic work of Robert Frank. By the end of 2013 we will be done with the digitalization of all of his analogue films and will be able to present a complete DVD box. Robert Frank is now 88 years old. At his 90thbirthday, we will have published his life’s work.
I have been working with Karl Lagerfeld since 1993 and over the years he has given me plenty ideas for new books – both literature and visual ….. I found that all the books he brought to my attention were of a certain interest and reflected his work so it was obvious to offer him the imprint, 7L, and in this imprint we are publishing all his visual book suggestions.
I have long admired the relationship between Karl Lagerfeld’s 7L and enjoyed seeing your collaborations as publisher and printer. How has partnership with Mr. Lagerfeld inspired/influenced your approach to book making?
I have been working with Karl Lagerfeld since 1993 and over the years he has given me plenty ideas for new books – both literature and visual – and suggested a lot of our translations. I found that all the books he brought to my attention were of a certain interest and reflected his work so it was obvious to offer him the imprint, 7L, and in this imprint we are publishing all his visual book suggestions.
Two years ago we founded another publishing house in Germany together called LSD. LSD stands for “Lagerfeld. Steidl. Druckerei. Verlag”. LSD is publishing literature books that Lagerfeld reads in English or French, and we publish those books in German in our literature program. The 7L books are distributed worldwide in English and the LSD books are printed for our German market only.
It is said that Karl Lagerfeld spoke of the importance of the smell of a book and this inspired you to create the fragrance “Paper Passion” in collaboration with Geza Schoen and Wallpaper* Magazine. Please talk about your ideas regarding this sensual experience, the scene of the book. What is it and how does it make you feel? For the record, I am with it. A new book smells like heaven to me, the fresh ink as each page unfolds…
Two or three years ago, a German TV channel released a documentary film about Steidl. A TV team followed me around the world for one year as I visited artists, set up projects, and printed books. We visited Robert Frank on Bleecker Street in New York and I brought to him a freshly printed book. I opened it, held it under his nose and said, “Please smell it. This is the smell of a freshly printed book.” He looked at me and said: “Yes, this is your perfume.”
A friend of mine, Tony Chambers from Wallpaper* Magazine, saw the film and came up with the idea of making a perfume smelling of paper. The perfume comes in a bottle which is housed in a book. Tony Chambers connected me with a genius perfume creator, Geza Schoen in Berlin, who is highly experienced with synthetic smells. He composed this perfume which quite adequately captures the smell of my printing shop and of my books. The idea was not to make a conceptual perfume, which is just interesting for book lovers; it should be something that everybody could wear. “Paper Passion” is a unisex perfume and the fragrance we created is very successful. It was immediately sold out and is seeing various new editions.
I notice that you have left DAP and are now handling distribution directly. What was the impetus to do this?
The idea was to have a direct relationship to the retailers, to the independent bookstores, and to be closer to the book market. I was always very happy with the services of DAP and couldn’t complain but I preferred to have a more direct face-to-face contact with the shop owners. When I left DAP I knew instinctively that the book market was shrinking. It is a one-to-one business and you better know the people you are selling to. For us the independent bookstores around the world are the key to the customer. The way a book is presented in a bookstore is very important and that customers have a contact person, the bookseller. They have to be able to touch the books. Our business is highly individual. It starts with the book.
…..the focus is on the perfect printed and bound book which is an object of art and will have a higher value in a couple of years. This is also the message of the watchmaker Patek Philippe for example, whose advertisement puts forward that whenever you buy a Patek Philippe watch, you buy it for the next generation
How do you find the larger shifts in the book publishing industry have affected the illustrated book market? What is your response as a man of print in a world that is increasingly fixated on the digital?
I think it positively changes the world of publishing. There is always a difference in needs. A student who just wants to find a few key sentences should be able to download a book as an e-book and read it. Also, when you are on a long-distance flight and want to take some criminal fiction with you, you load it onto your Kindle and read, and later you delete it. I think that is a wonderful development, easy to do, inexpensive, and judging by the bad quality of a lot of printed books today, there is no need to keep them in your bookshelf.
On the other hand, the focus is on the perfect printed and bound book which is an object of art and will have a higher value in a couple of years. This is also the message of the watchmaker Patek Philippe for example, whose advertisement puts forward that whenever you buy a Patek Philippe watch, you buy it for the next generation. That is something that I like very much being projected on to books. You buy an art book and it is in your library and the entire library is given at the end of your life to your children and they keep it as a value of the family. Fine books are in libraries for hundreds of years and you can still read them, just take it from the bookshelf and open it and you are in the actual contents which have been created hundreds of years ago. Impossible with the digital book which has a different target.
I think this is a healthy development. A lot of publishing houses and printers will die but those who have the know-how to do fine art books with the best artists and the best contents, they will survive and have a future.
What makes a great book? I know, a sweeping question. But your intuitive response intrigues me.
It is the symbiosis of the creative process of an artist with the designer, printer, and publisher. When Gutenberg founded the technologies for modern book printing, he wanted to publish the Bible. He designed the Bible, he created the technologies to print the Bible, and he bound it and sold it. It was all in one hand.
In the modern industrial world, the business was divided into several business sections. Today, they are combined again. This idea that you are the creator, the artist, and the publisher overseeing the printing and production is, I think, the future. Unfortunately, not many publishers and printers think that way. So far, I know that Steidl is one of three or four publishing houses in the world that is still doing book design, book production, and printing under one roof. I hope that others will take up my ideas, and whoever is interested in learning this business is welcome at Steidlville. I love giving my knowledge to others so that my idea of making the ideal book can survive.