Lesley A. Martin – An Interview

New Black Avanguard

by Luca Fiore

They call it the ‘golden age of the photobook’. And we are right in the midst of it. Over the last two decades, photo publishing has experienced a real boom – both quantitatively and qualitatively. In complete contrast to the print market, the interest of authors and the public has only grown. The number of publishers has multiplied and the practice of self-publishing has spread. And the goal of many photographers, rather than exhibiting their work in an exhibition, is above all to see their images take the form of a book.

The onset of this phenomenon was made to coincide with “Fotografía pública. Photography in Print 1919-1939”, the exhibition curated by Horacio Fernández in 1999 at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid – an unprecedented attempt to consider the photographic image from a publishing standpoint. In the meantime, first attempts were made to historicise the phenomenon, giving it a centrality that had never been acknowledged. Andrew Roth started with his “The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century”, published in 2001. This was followed by the three volumes of “The Photobook: A History”, edited by Martin Parr and Gerry Bedgere, published by Phaidon between 2004 and 2014. But the revolution had already begun in the early 1990s, especially with the books designed and produced by the Swiss Martin Keller who, with Scalo Publishers, had shaken up the field with masterpieces such as Richard Billingham’s “Ray’s a Laugh”, in which editorial form and content reached unprecedented standards.

In the late 1990s, Lesley A. Martin became an intern at the Aperture Foundation, the most prestigious photography institution in the United States, founded in 1952 by Ansel Adams, Minor White, Dorothea Lange, Nancy and Beaumont Newhall. Today, having become the creative director of Aperture, having founded and directed The Photobook Review and having established the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award, Martin is the most powerful woman in the world of photobook publishing. A female figure that stands out in an environment dominated by men, even if, after all, it was a lady who produced the first photography book in history: English botanist Anna Atkins, who in 1843 published a collection of images of the algae she was studying. Martin has lived and worked in Japan, but makes use of Italian book printers – her favourite is Trifolio in Verona, which also serves MoMA in New York. This allows her to brush up on her Italian, which she learned in Casal Palocco, between Rome and Ostia, where she lived with her family between the ages of 5 and 13 (her father was employed by Firestone).

Lesley A. Martin

If you ask her what the purpose of publishing a paper book today is, in an age when images are the engine of the digital world, she employs a culinary metaphor: “I love junk food. So do social networks, to which I am as addicted as anyone else. I read books on my smartphone and, for certain content, I think it makes sense. But slow food is something else. The paper book experience manages to bring together images, text and graphics in a way that best conveys the photographer’s intentions.” And it’s also a matter of quality: “For music, vinyl is back in vogue, which has a better sound quality than streaming. The same applies to photographs on paper. It’s true that nowadays most images are created digitally on a screen and it’s changing the way we approach visual storytelling. Some people may be working on discovering new ones, but I have yet to see technologies that can show complex narratives in the way that the traditional book can.”

For Lesley Martin, when it comes to photography exhibitions, however, the matter is entirely different. The metaphor she uses is again musical. “When it was allowed, I loved going to concerts. You listen to live music in a certain place at a certain time. And you can do it with others. But then, back home, I want to listen to the record once, twice, a hundred times. The recording is the ‘canonical’ form of the musician’s work, to which we return as a reference, in contrast to all the variants there may be in a live performance.” In this sense, she explains, the two forms of presentation of the work are complementary and necessary. “There are cases in which, even for books that I have edited, it has happened that, looking at the images on show, I have noticed details that I had not noticed during the editing process. Then, however, the photographers tell me that for them it is the book that matters. But maybe they just say that to me just to please me… [she laughs].”

Aperture is a publisher with a long history and has contributed to building the canon of American photography. Books such as “Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph”, Steven Shore’s “Uncommon Places”, Joel Meyerowitz’s “Cape Light” and Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” are must-haves and best-sellers. But the challenge today, Martin explains, is to revise this canon and fill in the gaps. “We are working hard to right certain wrongs done in the past. The main objective, therefore, is not so much to find the new artist to publish, but to look back and introduce our readers to figures who have so far remained on the margins.” The most important example is Kwame Brathwaite, an African-American photographer who worked in the 1960s and 1970s. Fiercely independent, he set up an agency to distribute his images and only worked with black models. “He made really extraordinary portraits. He was an expression of the Black is Beautiful movement, which is also the title of the book that came out two years ago and was edited by Tanisha C. Ford. We had a travelling exhibition and the book, which cost 50 dollars, was reprinted several times.”

The visibility of black photographers is a topic that, according to Martin, applies to the past as well as the present. “Voices like Brathwaite’s are still there today. And, perhaps, with social networks, they have more tools to make themselves known. But I am very interested in identifying certain phenomena and going to meet them. Thus in 2019 The New Black Vanguard was born, a collection of 15 young black artists from the UK, Nigeria, South Africa and the US.” When you try to point out that it is a very ‘American’ topic, Martin replies, “No, it’s not. So much so that we will take the exhibition that was born from this project to the Arles Festival this summer, but we have asked the curator Antwaun Sargent to add European artists as well. For example, Silvia Rosi, Italian of Togolese origin, will take part.”

In addition to her work with books, Martin is also in charge of the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards, which she helped found in 2012 and which has now become the world’s leading award for photo publishing. It is presented every year at the Paris fair held at the Grand Palais. “It was like a second degree for me. Every year I have the opportunity to look at about a thousand books from all over the world. Of course, I don’t get to look at them all with the same attention, but over time you start to notice patterns, genres, trends, both from the point of view of themes and production choices.” It is not the Prix Nadar, which rewards the best book published in France, but has the ambition of monitoring the global market. The prize awarded to Paris Photos is divided into three categories: best PhotoBook, first PhotoBook and best exhibition catalogue. The short-list consists of 35 books in total, which are exhibited during the week of the Parisian fair attended by 70,000 people each year (“At the end, the books are completely worn out…”). The selection then tours several festivals in eight cities in the United States, Japan, Australia, Lithuania and Ukraine. “This gives great visibility to these books, which usually end up sold out. It is a great opportunity for their authors to take important steps in their careers,” explains Martin. “But above all, the prize serves to give an idea of the higher level at which the game of photography publishing is being played. And, as the rules prohibit the participation of Aperture books, it also allows me to see what standard of quality I should be aiming for in my work.”

Lesley A. Martin’s other creation, born in 2011, is the PhotoBook Review, the magazine that comes out twice a year as a supplement to Aperture, the flagship magazine of the Aperture Foundation. Circulated in 15,000 copies, it is the only trade magazine in print and with international circulation. “It is a fascinating space for debate on the ecology of our world. It is interesting because we try to bring together the various people involved in the production of photobooks: photographers, graphic designers, editors and book printers.” In recent years, Martin has chosen to present monographic issues with guest editors. “They are a plunge into a particular area of interest related to the key themes of our work. This happened, for example, with the issue on the relationship between text and image, which we entrusted to the Italian Federica Chiocchetti, founder of Photocaptionist”.

And how has the publishing world handled this year of the pandemic? “We learned a lot of things. For example, that people still love books, especially if they can’t go to museums and galleries. I myself, not being able to go to Paris Photo or the New York Book Fair, was able to order books I was interested in online. It was beautiful and important. But now we also know how dependent we have become on internet communication. What does this mean? What legacy do we take away from these months?” This is a question that many people are asking themselves, and no one seems to be able to answer it yet. “But I am optimistic because I see many interesting and intelligent people who are working to find new ways forward. I am confident that we can find the right balance between real life and digital life. If only for the fact that the photobook boom would not have happened without the advent of the internet. It would be unimaginable without digital processes, which have lowered production costs and thus consumer prices. Many questions remain open.”

“But Still, It Turns”, the exhibition curated by Paul Graham at the International Center of Photography in New York, which tries to propose a new canon for documentary photography, has been the subject of much debate in photography circles. According to the British photographer – and not only according to him – this type of research has been penalised in museums and galleries in favour of images shot in a studio or heavily modified on a computer. But the issue, according to Martin, is what is meant by “documentary photography”. “I am old school and I love photography because it captures something that is in the world. Between me and reality there is this medium, film. It is something wonderful and poetic. That kind of research, if done well, is the best you can ask of photography. Yes, many photographers, like Graham, feel marginalised by the space given over to more experimental forms. But I think the world is big and there is room for everyone.” Many artists, she explains, are reflecting on that part of our lives that takes place in the digital world. “I think photography made in the analogue world is just as important as photography that investigates digital reality. If we didn’t take both aspects into account, we would have a much poorer understanding of the world.”

Il Foglio, 20th June 2021

Dana Scruggs, Nyadhour, Elevated, Death Valley, California, 2019, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019) © Dana Scruggs
Arielle Bobb-Willis, New Orleans, 2018, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019) © Arielle Bobb-Willis
Daniel Obasi, Moments of Youth, Lagos, Nigeria, 2019, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019) © Daniel Obasi
Nadine Ijewere, Untitled, 2018, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019)© Nadine Ijewere, for Garage magazine
©Kwame Brathwaite
©Kwame Brathwaite
©Kwame Brathwaite