by Luca Fiore
What interests me most about photography, and in art in general, is the ability to build the future. Artists have the ability to narrate, to make us think about a different, better future. This is the common thread that holds together what I do: books, exhibitions and teaching.” Bruno Ceschel is well aware that photography has made its fortune on its capacity for memory, of resurrecting people, things and events that are no longer there, as Roland Barthes explains when he writes about his search for an image to revive his dead mother. And yet, in Ceschel, a restless visionary, what prevails is the opposite force: art has to push beyond the limits of the known and, as Luigi Ghirri said of Daguerre, to approach the boundary of the “already seen” and at the same time the “never seen”.
In the world of photography publishing Bruno Ceschel is considered the guru of self-publication. In 2010 he founded a cultural project, which later became a publishing house and a series of popular online masterclasses, with a clever and optimistic name: Self Publish, Be Happy!. Since then, if the way in which photographers think and make books has changed, it is also thanks to the enhancement and visibility given to hundreds of independent publications by young artists who were previously overlooked by publishers and curators. The Guardian called Ceschel’s initiative “the vanguard of the self-publishing revolution.” In fact, SPBH was born as an invitation to the new generation of photographers to send in their publications so that they could be included in the collection of self-published books that, last year, was acquired by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris. Three thousand books and fanzines: a “snapshot” of what has sprung up spontaneously in the young community of artists over the last fifteen years.
Ceschel, born in 1976, began his adventure in Treviso, not far from the town where he was born and raised, Orsago, as part of the editorial staff of Colors Magazine, the cult magazine founded in 1991 by designer Tibor Kalman and photographer Oliviero Toscani for the Benetton group. After studying Sociology in Trento and London, he became editor during the period in which Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, two key figures of the new photography, were directing the magazine, projecting it onto the international stage. Three years later he found himself in London, making do with collaborations with Italian newspapers, particularly women’s magazines. But the new turning point came when he was advised to send his CV to Chris Boot, former director of Magnum Photo in New York and London, former editorial director of Phaidon and future executive director of the Aperture Foundation – one of the industry’s master minds. By that time Boot was working on his own, publishing books by Martin Parr, Luc Delahaye, James Mollison and Stephen Gill, among others. This was greatly educative for Ceschel, who began to familiarize himself with the world of photography that matters.
In 2008 he was asked to curate an exhibition for the Brooklyn Museum, with an Aperture catalog. The exhibition’s theme, at the time, was avant-garde: Contemporary Queer Photography. The project, however, fell through and nothing came of it. “But during those two years in New York, I came into contact with a community of young photographers and artists who were producing work that resonated with my interests. They were using print, books and fanzines and were self-publishers. The Do-It-Yourself culture in the United States is much more deeply rooted than in Europe, and what I was seeing seemed very valuable.” So he decided to launch an open-call, inviting people to send him their work for promotion on his blog. “I proposed an event called Self Publish, Be Happy to the Photographer’s Gallery in London, in which I showcased a selection of these books and organized meetings with the authors. They were works that were not circulating in the mainstream and people had no idea they existed. It was an overwhelming success. The principle was democratic; anyone could send us their work, then we would select what would become part of the collection. Overnight, I suddenly had a house full of books. I received as many as 15 publications a week. People talked about it, word got around. And the Photographer’s Gallery began keeping some of these books in their bookshop.”
Five years later, in 2015, “Self Publish, Be Happy” also became a book published by Aperture with the subheading, “A Do-It-Yourself Photobook Manual and Manifesto.” Ceschel’s introduction begins, “This is not a collection of recently published photography books. It is not a best-of. It is a call to arms, a rallying cry to take part, to act, to share.” The volume features big names, artists who would later become big, and others who have remained in the shadows. We find “The Little Brown Mushroom Dispatch” by Alec Soth and Brad Zellar, a series of publications in newspaper form documenting the American photographer and writer’s travels around the United States. Or “Nude” by Chinese photographer Ren Hang, which collects works that later became particularly famous after the artist’s suicide, printed by a printmaker friend. We also find “Gomorra Girls” by Valerio Spada, which recounts the story of the suburbs of Naples, alternating material from the police dossier on the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl, killed by crossfire in a shootout, and images of the neighborhood where the girl lived. Or “Afronauts” by Spain’s Cristina de Middel, which freely reconstructs, through original documentation of photographs and the artist’s drawings, the story of Zambia’s space programme that dreamed of sending astronauts to Mars in the 1960s.
“Self-publishers have shattered the rules of traditional publishing, which were very much tied to the standards imposed by big names like Taschen and Steidl. They introduced innovations both in terms of the themes that were presented and the form of the book object,” Ceschel explains. “Not only because the artists often came from minority backgrounds and, belonging to underrepresented communities, told stories and themes that were hitherto unexplored, but they had a freedom and unscrupulousness in their use of the publishing medium. The physical appearance of the publication became an integral part of the narrative. The quality of paper, graphics, binding, printing techniques. They were young people who thought about books in a different way. It was an experience that certainly ended up influencing mainstream publishing as well. Today, even if the trend is that of the book “a la Michael Mack”, which is very clean and classic, we see certain experiments in books published even by more established and official entities. The language of the photographic book has changed forever.”
But there is another dimension that, according to Ceschel, has been brought out by this phenomenon. “Traditionally, photography has always been a parallel reality to the world of contemporary art, for various historical reasons, so much so that in museums it has always been considered a thing apart; paradoxically certain institutions have not even collected it. And the same has happened with photobooks, which have remained separate from the history of artists’ books”. In the last fifteen or twenty years, he notes, there has been a fusion of photography and contemporary art. “This phenomenon is not only seen in museums, but also in publishing: all these experiments do not come from nowhere, self-publishers did not invent them, but it is something that has matured from the experiences of the artistic avant-garde. Some scholars believe that the artist’s book is the form that expresses the quintessence of 20th century art because it has the characteristics that shaped the last century: the adoption of the industrial process, conceptual experimentation, the democratic, social and revolutionary impulse.”
And it is no coincidence, Ceschel continues, that many of the artists of the last generation were trained in universities where photography is taught in the Contemporary Art department and not in the Design or Applied Arts departments. “These photographers thus have a different way of thinking. Their mind is different from the previous generation, and that has always attracted me. But not because I am interested in contemporary art itself, but what is being said through it. In the end, what I am looking for – in general, in life – is to confront myself with new ideas. To be able to live better, to understand who I am and where I am. That is why I am always looking for something unprecedented, for what is being told and how it is being told.”
To explain what this means, Ceschel gives the example of his collaboration with artist and activist Carmen Winant, which he says is based on questioning her preconceptions and ideas about gender identity. SPBH published “My Birth,” the book of a project in which Winant collected almost 3 thousand images of women in the period of gestation and childbirth – a completely taboo topic in Western society – which was exhibited in the same year in the exhibition “Being: New Photography 2018” at Moma in New York. “That book had a visceral impact in the community of people I met at museums or fairs. We received so many messages of gratitude for that book. And for me, from a personal point of view, a world opened up that I did not know.” Another of Ceschel’s partnerships is with renowned American poet Claudia Rankine, with whom he collaborates regularly and with whom he is working on The Racial Imaginary Institute Biennale 2022, titled “On Nationalism: Borders and Belonging.” “Her radical work on the political and social construction of the white race has inspired me to embark on an incredible emotional and intellectual journey about my own identity.” Or his friendship with photographer and writer Nicholas Muellner, who explores the potential of the relationship between photography and literature. “He, too, opened up a world to me that was unknown to me. But the moment one gives you the key to enter it, you have the opportunity to discover how much is hidden behind that. These are all relationships that give me tools to open myself up to new ideas. As time goes by, I find that I am increasingly impatient with what gives me the impression of having already been seen and heard.”
It is from this impatience that, in 2018, the idea of organizing an event entitled “Photobook: RESET” at the C/O Berlin museum blossomed. “I had the impression that contemporary photography was not taking seriously certain topics that today, fortunately, have exploded into public debate. Why is it that museums only offer collections of works produced by men? Are there alternative voices to the heterosexual white man? But there were also the challenges posed by the acceleration of technological progress. These were the questions that I had and that I felt that no one was trying to answer seriously.” The idea was to invite photography’s elite – academics, curators, editors, critics, artists, designers – and ask them, rather than an ex-cathedra lecture, to get involved through the workshop format. “I did not expect solutions to be found. These are huge problems that cannot be solved in a weekend. But I wanted that, through very personal work, everyone would go home with a set of new questions to continue to reflect upon.” What have the results been three years later? “I do not like grading colleagues. But Lesley A. Martin of Aperture and Michael Mack came. Are their books now different than before? To some extent, yes. Things are moving along. I am not saying that event was decisive. Some things were already in the air. A lot of ground is still to be covered. But every now and then we see some jolts. Like what happened at Foam, the Museum of Photography in Amsterdam, where Jane’a Johnson, a thirty-year-old African-American, was appointed creative director. She is the first non-Dutch woman to hold that position.”
In recent months, a new chapter in Ceschel’s life has begun. After a decade spent between the United Kingdom and the United States, mostly in London, he returned to Italy and has settled in Milan. “Reaching 40, it seemed like the right time to think about something new. Brexit provided the impetus. London is a place I love and has given me so much. I had incredible opportunities there, but now by returning to my country I hope to bring back my experience and a way of thinking about this work and photography that is probably different. I have not yet found a way to do this. But things have always worked out for me by experimenting in the field. I am not going to change my method. We will see.” In the meantime, four new SPBH books have been released in recent months. Two monographs, “Promise Land” by Gregory Eddi Jones and “Say So” by Whitney Hubbs, and two short essays on topics – as is typical of Ceschel – that are anything but obvious, “Instructional Photographs: Learning How to Live Now” by Carmen Winant and “To Be Determined: Photography and the Future” by Duncan Wooldridge.