Self-publishing: DIY photography books are the rage

When Cristina de Middel quit her job as a photojournalist on a Spanish newspaper to take a year-long sabbatical, she could scarcely have imagined how momentous that decision would prove to be.

In 2011 De Middel started work on a project inspired by Zambia’s 1964 abandoned space programme. De Middel took up the little-known story, constructing surreal scenes of would-be astronauts in the arid landscape of her home town, Alicante. It was a low-budget affair – the astronauts’ helmets were fashioned from the domes of old street lights, and she commissioned her grandmother to make the spacesuits. The images were published in The Afronauts, a charming, low-key book that she designed with friends, funded herself and promoted for €28 on her Facebook page.

Later that year it became one of the most talked about books at the Arles photography festival and, after photographer Martin Parr reportedly picked up five copies, the 1,000-print run sold out within two months.

The following year the The Afronauts was nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and received the ICP Infinity Award. Copies now change hands for up to £1,000. In just over one year she had reinvented herself as a conceptual artist, her new career launched by a single book.

By then the world of photobooks had changed dramatically, from a realm run by powerhouse publishers to a marketplace where anyone with access to a computer can put images to paper.

Last year was important. Belgian-born, Manchester-based Mishka Henner was also nominated for the Deutsche Börse Prize for his self-published No Man’s Land, a series of images produced using Google Street View. And of the 20 books shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture first book award, 14 were self-published.

“It seems that every photographer now needs to make a book, it’s like a calling card, and many important careers have been launched from the first book,” says Gerry Badger, who, alongside Parr, co-authored The Photobook: A History Volume III, published earlier this year.

“One of the key drivers behind self-publishing is that the arguments for add-on value by traditional publishers are slowly being dismantled, such as better marketing, distributing or editorial expertise,” adds Rudi Thoemmes, who runs RRB Photobooks and organised the inaugural Photobook Bristol festival held earlier this month.

Mishka Henner’s ‘No Man’s Land’ (2012) (Photograph: Mishka Henner/The Photographers’ Gallery)

The self-published photography book is by no means a new phenomenon. American artist Ed Ruscha pioneered the practice in 1963 with his seminal Twentysix Gasoline Stations, produced on a photocopier. In 1974 Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama hand-stapled 100 copies of his homage to American counterpart William Klein, Another Country in New York, in the same low-tech manner, which now commands a staggering £40,000 on the collectors’ market.

But with the availability of cheap digital printing technology dovetailing with the rise of social media-led networking, photographers are now able to design, print and promote their work with relative ease.

Naturally, prices are determined by supply and demand. Editions of self-published titles tend to be small so you have to act fast if you want to buy them. London-based photographer Andy Sewell helped fund his critically acclaimed The Heath by selling a pre-order edition of 100 signed copies for £100 on his website, a formula he replicated for his forthcoming book Something Like a Nest which will be on show at Arles next week. First editions were priced at £30; it’s now difficult to find copies for under £200.

More recently, Eamonn Doyle’s superb i Photobook was available for €30 but sold out within two months and is now changing hands for £150.

One title that received a lot of attention at Photobook Bristol was Belgian photographer Max Pinckers’ second self-published book, Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, a beautifully cinematic collection of images about honour-based violence in India. Pinckers’ book has already sold out at London’s Photographers’ Gallery bookshop and looks set to rise in value.

There are now various competitions that award self-publishing, the trailblazer being the Dummy Award at Fotobookfestival Kassel. This year’s 48 shortlisted “dummies” will be on show at next week’s PhotoIreland in Dublin (the winner will be announced at Kassel in October). It means judges and critics are no longer simply looking at published work but the stages leading up to it, and photographers are increasingly aware that attention to detail will not go unnoticed.

As a result, the photobook has never been more inventive or eclectic. A trend is emerging for what Badger describes as the “layered” photobook, whereby several narratives are interwoven, with inserts adding complexity and emphasising the tactile nature of the photobook experience. In his self-published Concresco, a strangely compelling book about Albanian war bunkers, Dutch photographer David Galjaard inserted booklets of information and interviews that merge with his printed landscapes.

One of the UK’s best known self-published photographers, Stephen Gill, makes books that are beautiful works of art in themselves, produced in such a way that would be impossible to replicate by a mainstream publisher.

“I will often take the long route and make a wood or lino cut or drawing to latch on to the spirit of the work.”

Stephen Gill’s ‘Coming Up For Air’ (2010) (Photograph: Stephen Gill/Nobody Books)

While producing Coming Up For Air (2010) with his imprint, Nobody Books, Gill chose to hand-paint the 4,000 book jackets using leftover printing ink. “I love the idea of man against machine,” he laughs. Signed copies and limited editions of Gill’s books sell for around £450.

Ironically, the books that initially couldn’t get shelf space in bookshops are now among the top attractions. First editions are rarely available on major bookselling websites, and independent bookshops are taking advantage of this. London’s Foyles has a section dedicated to self-published titles and small imprints. “I get a sense from customers that they have a real connection to this type of book and they’re curating their own collection of original artworks,” says Mohara Gill, Foyles’ art buyer.

So what can we expect next? There has yet to be a significant contribution from photographers using the Ebook format and, according to Badger, there’s every chance that the first publication of this type will be self-published. “I wonder whether this emphasis on physicality – the tactile aspect of the book – is signalling a last hurrah before the book as app takes over,” he says. “The electronic photobook hasn’t taken off yet, but someone, somewhere will make the breakthrough work.”

Should there be a digital revolution in the field, the flurry of three-dimensional books currently being produced will only become more rare and prized, and therefore more valuable.

PhotoIreland, Dublin, July 1-31,

Les Rencontres d’Arles, July 7-13 (exhibitions until September 21),

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