It is not too far-fetched to say that every photographer wishes to be published by Steidl. So when the chance came to attend a masterclass by the master himself, I jumped on the opportunity. Even though my book was already at the binders, it was undoubtedly the lesson of a lifetime. To listen and learn from the master book publisher in person, is to be soaked in inspiration itself.
“To create a photo book, you have to think theatre. Think about how the curtains will open… and it is important not to lose the attention of your audience.”
These were the words of renowned book publisher, Gerhard Steidl, as he shared tirelessly with a roomful of twenty plus masterclass participants in Singapore. In the four hours of intensive discussion and reviews, Steidl shared his experience, know-how and even philosophy behind his work.
Steidl publishes more than 200 books every year, and more than 2,500 in his career. Each book is a work of art, sought after by collectors all over the world.
For me, it came as a surprise that Mr Steidl decided to stopover at Singapore, and even conduct a masterclass free-of-charge. But once you come into the presence of Gerhard Steidl, you can immediately understand why this man is a master.
The night before, many of us had turned up at The Substation to watch a 90-minute film called “How to Make a Book with Steidl”, and were given a preview of the man and his ideas.
During the masterclass, Mr Steidl proved to be the same man we saw in the film – full of passion and bursting with boundless energy. Although he was due to catch a flight back home that night, Steidl took his time to go through each of the participant’s book mockups and prints with care and attention, as if each one of us was in Steidlville, getting ready to go to press. He even took time to share his views on books with the class.
“Books are democratic objects,” he said. And then he would go on to inform us about how Johannes Gutenberg changed the world by introducing the mechanical movable type printing. Prior to Gutenberg, Bibles were handwritten by monks and very expensive, and hence, only the rich could afford these books, we were told.
Despite having published the most renowned names in the photography world – William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Andreas Gursky – just to name a few, the master publisher remains down-to-earth, and was most earnest in sharing his knowledge. No question was too silly not to be answered in a detailed, meticulous manner.
It is clear that Gerhard Steidl is a man on a mission – to save the world from the onslaught of iPads and smartphones and all things backlit. As the book publishing world cuts corners and profits fall in the digital age, Steidl remains a stalwart of book publishing and is confident that the future lies in a select group of discerning publishers who see the importance of quality printing.
“Books are objects of art that are relatively inexpensive,” he proclaims.
“The industry does not love art at all. It loves its profits,” Mr Steidl said, referring to how publishers usually try to keep costs low by cutting corners – from paper choice to colour separation techniques. For Gerhard Steidl, cutting corners is blasphemous and unthinkable, because each book is an object of art, and deserves a unique treatment that is best kept away from mass market methodologies.
One of the first things Mr Steidl does when handed a book, is to smell the paper it is printed on. While he laments the closure of good paper mills throughout the world, Mr Steidl was clearly excited when he ran his fingers over a Korean-produced paper used in one of the participants’ book. He made it a point to obtain the name of the paper, because good paper is so hard to come by these days.
Still, his choice of paper is not a closely-guarded secret. For instance, when I quizzed him about the paper he had used for Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies, he readily shared that it was printed on “Fly” paper from Schleipen mill in Germany, using the tri-tone process.
And if one thought that making a quality photo book is about buying the most advanced technologies and expensive equipment, Steidl will prove you wrong. For one, he uses only one press for all his books. And the way he stress-tests his products? A cheap tungsten bulb.
“Always look at your own book in the worst possible light: does it still look good?” To make his point, he took one book from a masterclass participant and placed it under a table.
“If the book and images still look good, then it is really good.”
6 STEIDL TIPS MAKING A GOOD PHOTO BOOK
To create a photo book, you have to think theatre.
When sequencing a book, constructs an untold storyline inside your mind.
Decide on covers last, when minds are sharpened after layout is completed. Do not be afraid to try unexpected pictures – always surprise the readers.
Form should follow function.
It’s better to live with a fine art print than a badly printed book.
Always look at your own book in the worst possible light: does it still look good?
I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Gwen Lee and her team at Singapore International Photo Festival (SIPF) for making the screening and masterclass by Mr Steidl possible.