Saturday, November 26, 2011

How to Make Book Publishing Interesting with Steidl

If there is a more dysfunctional industry than book publishing, brother, you have my sympathies. Gerhard Steidl’s house is the exception. Specializing in extremely limited high-end photography books, Steidl work is decidedly for the so-called “one percent,” but God bless them. They keep Steidl’s forty-five artisans and workers gainfully employed. His rarified brand of publishing is captured in Gereon Wetzel and Jörg Adolph’s documentary How to Make a Book with Steidl (trailer here), which is currently screening in New York at MoMA.

Steidl has one backlist title you have surely heard of: Günther Grass’s The Tin Drum. He also has extremely lucrative publishing arrangements with Chanel, Lagerfeld, and the German Metal Workers’ Union. They largely underwrite some of the world’s most ambitious art books. There is no standard Steidl template, with each new volume becoming a highly distinctive work of art unto itself.

Like Wetzel’s El Bulli, How to Make simply observes Steidl as he goes about his business. However, the publisher is considerably more talkative than Catalan master chef Ferran Adrià or artist Anselm Kiefer, seen puttering about his studio in Over Your Cities Grass will Grow. We watch him interact with some of the greatest photographic artists working today, including Robert Adams, Robert Frank, Martin Parr, Ed Ruscha, and Joel Sternfeld, who are often surprisingly witty and consistently offer up fascinating tidbits about their lives and work throughout the film.

Serving as the film’s central narrative touchstone, Sternfeld’s upcoming book iDubai will collect i-phone photos taken in an Emirates mall. They present a challenge to Steidl, because of their self-consciously gimmicky nature. Yet, Sternfeld’s sense of composition is still apparent, even when apparently shooting surreptitiously, on the fly.

While El Bulli could definitely drag a bit, the fly-on-the-wall approach works far better in How to Make, because nearly all of Steidl’s conversations are worth listening to. Ironically, it is Grass, the man of letters, who does not bring any memorable soundbites to the table, but perhaps the editing process was unkind to him. In contrast, Sternfeld and Parr are frequently rather droll, while Frank and Adams come across as quite personable and engaging elder statesmen of the art.

Steidl does the nearly impossible. He makes book publishing interesting. Yet, How to Make is really more of a film for photography lovers than book people. That is probably why it works so well. Recommended to all art patrons, How to Make appropriately screens at MoMA through Thursday (12/1).