Gerhard Steidl

Gerhard Steidl

Gerhard Steidl, the German master publisher of photography and art books, delivered the annual Hugh Edwards Lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago this evening.  Toward the end of the lecture, Steidl said he is a technician, not an artist.  Most devotees of the books that Steidl publishes would strongly disagree.  He actively collaborates with the artist or the photographer whose work sparks his interest and curiosity, meaning that the resulting presentation reflects all sorts of artistic choices that Steidl was actively involved in making.  Each year, his eponymously-named publishing house produces somewhere between 150 and 200 masterpieces.

Steidl is an obsessive, who focuses on every detail and every bit of material that goes into producing a book.  He spoke lovingly of the tin foil used for embossing, as well as paper and inks types.  According to Steidl, books are no different from haute cuisine: the better the ingredients, the better the final product, which is why he is willing to pay exorbitant prices for ink and paper.   As just one sign of the effort that Steidl goes to produce the finest book possible, he is a stickler about letting the paper reach the right temperature.  Steidl told the New Yorker that he lets the paper sit in his firm's warehouse for two weeks to achieve the desired temperature, which means he is not a "just-in-time" type of guy.

Unlike an accountant, Steidl does not cost out a book before deciding whether to go forward with the project.  His goal is simply not be bankrupt at the end of year, which is highly unlikely given the fact that he does a lot of printing for the fashion industry, including Chanel.  According to an interview in the Financial Times, Steidl also does printing for Aperture and Thames and Hudson, which according Steidl, "are print jobs where I make my money."  

What I found most curious about the entire encounter was the Art Institute's museum shop.  Given all the fanfare surrounding the lecture, I was surprised that the main museum shop did not contain one book bearing the familiar Steidl trademark on its spine--the shop in the Modern Wing did contain three copies of Provoke, but that book is the catalogue from the last major photography show at the Art Institute, so that is not surprising.  There was a newspaper that was created to accompany a Robert Frank exhibit entitled Photos Books Films, but nothing else, which is surprising, given the fact that the show featured a number of books that are available from  At one time, the shop had a fairly decent collection of photography monographs, but that has been reduced to one shelf, plus a wall of books carrying the "also ran" Taschen moniker.  Note to the Art Institute museum shop:  I buy books at museums.

Steidl may be a master publisher, but he is anything but a dynamic speaker.  Granted English is not his native language, but he appears to have mastered the language.  Nevertheless, Steidl chose to read the speech in a monotone voice, at a somewhat halting pace.  There was no humor, few gestures, and virtual no eye contact with the audience.  With the exception of a short film that Steidl made as a young man when he accompanied the artist Jospeh Beuys to the United States in 1974, there were no visuals.  Appropriately, the film is a gag piece shot outside the Biograph Theatre on Chicago's northside during winter.  Beuys assumes the role of Chicago mobster John Dillinger, pantomiming Dillinger's reaction when he was shot.  That scene is followed by a largely blank screen with Beuys laughing.  

Steidl broke the speech into two parts.  The first part focused on the importance of analog/physical objects in the digital world.  The second covered Steidl's working methods and a typical day in his life.

As for Part I, I would be hard-pressed to argue with what was said.  Not surprisingly, a man who spends his life producing physical objects has a strong preference for analogue as opposed to digital, except when it comes to his production methods.  He uses the latest software and digital tools to produce his works.  Like many photographers, he complained about Adobe's two-year old software leasing model.

Much of what Steidl said is debatable.  For example, he claims totalitarian regimes have more trouble suppressing analogue works than digital ones.  While those regimes may have a "switch" to censor the Web, it certainly is easy enough to preserve works on hard   and USB drives. He did relate one story about a town that had a major fire.  The first response was to toss all the books in a well.  Although all the buildings were destroyed, the books were saved, albeit a bit waterlogged. 

Steidl also took a shot at Donald Trump--doesn't everybody?  He certainly is correct in pointing out that Trump doesn't read and that there is no evidence of books in his office.  Yet, Steidl's claim that unlike video and the Web, books are not susceptible to being characterized as "fake news."  I've seen some pretty suspect books in my day.  I think what he meant is that digital media is subject to change without it being obvious, while a physical book is pretty much fixed unless someone has very good skills.

Steidl also claimed that books are more democratic than digital media, an assertion that I think is just wrong.  In a sense, Steidl is an autocrat.  He chooses whose book to publish and when.  Given the expense of production and the overhead cost of setting up a press, publishing is anything but democratic.  On the other hand, anyone can--and many millions of people have-- created websites, blogs, videos, and other digital forms of expression.  Digital search and social media are very democratic marketing channels.  Marketing physical books requires access to less open channels.

Although Steidl admits he relies heavily on his smartphone, he noted that smartphones propagate isolation and loneliness.  Paper, on the other hand, offers privacy and intimacy.  In one sense, I agree, particularly after looking at people on the bus glued to their screens, but one person's loneliness is another's intimacy.

Steidl claimed that physical books sales are increasing again, as are sales of vinyl record albums and film.  True, but there is a natural ebb and flow that is somewhat tied to nostalgia and youthful interest in more organic methods.  Yet, digital is pervasive, and there is no sign of a major shift back to the old ways and methods by the vast majority of people.

Toward the end of Part I, Steidl quoted the inventor of the Polaroid camera, Edwin Land, as saying "The only worthwhile project worth doing is the impossible project."  Steidl pointed to the aptly-named Impossible Project's effort to bring back film, noting that it is succeeding, which he took to be proof that analogue was still highly viable and sought-after.  I took it be a statement of Steidl's life credo.

Shortly thereafter, Steidl shifted to Part II, which focused on his working methods.  I found this to be far more interesting than Part I, but unfortunately it was a rather abbreviated discussion.  On a typical day, Steidl rises at 4:45 AM, and is in his factory in Göttingen, German shortly thereafter, so that he can talk with the printers on the third shift.  He does not rely on an alarm clock, just the excitement of the day ahead to awake him.  He works past 10PM, then walks the 50 meters to his home, has a glass of red wine, and is in bed by 11PM.  He requires five and a half hours of sleep a night, but six are better.  During the day, he makes test prints, which are very important in developing a book, confers with the artists and photographers he is publishing, checks with the printers, and works with his 45-member staff, which he refers to as an orchestra.  

When Steidl works with an artist or a photographer, he views himself and the other party as children building sand castles, with the castles being washed away.  He didn't really complete the analogy, but I suspect that he meant that they experiment, making changes to each version of the product, until they get it right.

He concluded by noting that publishing has changed for him over the last 10 to 15 years.  In the past, he would produce 5,000 copies of a book by a well-known artist or photographer and 1,000 copies if the artist or photographer were unknown.  He wasn't entirely clear, but it sounds like print runs for unknowns now number 5,000, in large part to Steidl's reputation and the interest in anything he chooses to publish.

During the hour-long talk, I was struck by one quote in particular.  As a young man, Steidl used to ask Joesph Beuys what Steidl characterized as stupid questions.  Steidl would then apologize for asking those questions, with Beuys responding, "Every revolution starts with stupid questions."

Overall.  Not a greater speaker, but more importantly, a great printer and publisher and an interesting human being.

After the lecture, I went to the courtyard for the outdoor reception.  Didn't get to meet Mr. Steidl, but I did run into Farrad Ali, who is a Chicago photographer who is currently working in England on a two-year assignment, so I hadn't seen him in awhile.  Great to catch up, hear about England, and talk photography.  I am looking forward to his return to the Chicago.

And I managed to shock the curator when I kiddingly said, "You missed a great fundraising opportunity.  You should have sold lottery tickets, with Steidl publishing a book of the winner's photographs."  In a very serious tone, the curator said, "That would be pimping Mr. Steidl."  Well to paraphrase Beuys, "I guess every revolution starts with a stupid suggestion."  Apparently, the curator does not view Mr. Steidl as a very democratic fellow.  At that point, the curator scurried away, with Steidl close in hand.  The curator was in the club.  Everybody else was on the other side of the rope line.



V. J. Iyer

V. J. Iyer