The Photobook

Brittania Coco-nut Dancers: An interview with Craig Atkinson of Café Royal Books The Photobook

1. What, in your view, do photo books contribute to the culture of photography?

A gallery is easy to walk through. It’s easy to glance at and sometimes dismiss things. It’s easy to miss something, to misunderstand something, or to not give something the time it deserves or requires.

A photobook pauses the reader. While looking at a book – even if flicking or simply browsing through it – it is difficult not to be caught by something; not to be drawn in. A book can be picked up again the next day, week, year and so on. It’s always there, it isn’t ephemeral; it has a lasting effect. A book offers people time to consider, time to learn and some privacy. Books are personal things. I don’t think there’s a simple answer to what they contribute to photographic culture but I think they encourage learning in many ways.

2. How do you define your role within the growing and changing field of photo book publishing? What are you trying to achieve?

I take pictures, I publish and edit, and I’m a lecturer. I don’t really have a fixed role but all I do fits within being a ‘practitioner’ I suppose.

If I had aims and long term ideas, chances are they wouldn’t happen: I like spontaneity and I like making quick decisions, so that makes ‘trying to achieve’ anything difficult. I lost my personal collection of books in a flood a few years ago, so I have a strange relationship with books in that I rarely buy them but I frequently publish them; one a week average last year. Maybe I’m trying to publish the books I’d like to collect. Really I do it for myself; I only publish work I like. The books become a series, they are each made to the same format, it’s become a kind of ongoing project.

I like to create affordable, limited edition, well-finished publications. Generally they document change in one way or another, and often social change in Britain. The books are collected by many museums and galleries, and are seemingly popular with individuals. This makes me feel I’ve achieved something because the books are often discussed, exhibited and cited. This, along with the gallery collections they are part of, makes me feel they’re locked-in somehow – it gives them historical value, at least in my mind. I think that’s what I’m trying to create.

I don’t care so much about top ten lists, of which there seem to be hundreds, or about making overly designed and decorated books. I like to make honest things where the only real focus is the image.

3. Do you publish online books and what might the future hold for this method of digitally distributing books?

I don’t publish online. I might one day, I’m not against it, but I like the feel of paper and the smell of ink too much. I’m sure in a few years there will be little in the way of printed media. Probably just niche publications with more attention given to paper stock, ink type and the book as an object or container of information. Digital is the way forward for newspapers, novels, general reading; it has to be. In terms of the photobook though, it feels too sterile at the moment.

4. What kind of a relationship do you strike up with the artists whose work you publish?

I only meet some of the artists I work with. Often we bump into each other at events but usually well after the books are published. Because the books are simple, pretty raw and fast things, and because there is no real money involved, research trips and business visits are out of the question. We speak online, on the phone etc. There’s a lot of trust involved on both sides. Because I generally work to the same format people know whet they’ll get, the tones, the quality, the paper etc, so once the book has been edited there aren’t many ifs or buts.

It’s always nice to finally meet the artists and slow the conversation down a bit compared to the speed of publishing – John Claridge, Homer Sykes, David Levenson… All great blokes with many stories. I’d sooner meet them to talk about their stories than talk about a book; the books just seem to happen.

Craig Atkinson is an artist, publisher and lecturer based in Southport, UK. He founded Café Royal Books in 2005 as an experimental way of exhibiting and disseminating his own work in book form. He now publishes roughly 50 titles a year, including collaborations and his own projects; most of which document an aspect of social change. Café Royal titles are collected by many major international galleries and museums, including Tate, V&A and MoMA.

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