by Luca Fiore
The photography exhibition of the moment – and the current moment is definitely not insignificant – is “But Still, It Turns,” which opened last February 4 in New York at the International Center of Photography, managed by Englishman David Campany. Curator of the exhibition of the works of eight American and European artists is fellow Englishman, photographer Paul Graham. Galileo’s phrase “Eppur si muove”, which acts as the exhibition’s title, already provides a value judgement on documentary photography, which has fallen into the background after the splendour of the last twenty-thirty years; yet, it’s still vital to the work of those whom Graham defines as photographers interested in life “as it is”. The days of rhetoric about the objectivity of the medium of photography are certainly over. The illusion that film or image sensors can record “the” truth, without technical or cultural filters, seems to have vanished. And yet, there are still those who have not given up and have not lost interest in what Roland Barthes called “intractable reality”. Graham’s choice fell upon Vanessa Winship, Curran Hatleberg, RaMell Ross, Gregory Halpern, Kristine Potter, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and Italians Piergiorgio Casotti and Emanuele Brutti. The ambition is to write a true manifesto of a new way of doing photography, which the New York Times has compared to the enterprise undertaken by MoMa in 1967 with “New Documents”, launching three authors – almost unknown then – into history: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. The most astute observers have noticed that the names involved in the exhibition – Campany, Graham, and two of the artists in the show, Winship and Halpern – are also linked to someone else, similarly an Englishman: Michael Mack, founder of MACK publishing house, which has published work by the other four. If there were a campaign to write a new page in the canon of the history of photography, he would undoubtedly play the role of an authentic Pygmalion.
Born in London in 1965, Mack worked for 15 years at the court of the German Gerhard Steidl, undisputed king of art and photography publishing. After an interlude of a few years, in which he published under the label Steidl/Mack, he set out on his own in 2010 to set up his own publishing house. “The only regret I have,” he explains, “is that I didn’t have the patience or imagination to come up with a brand name other than my surname.” Known in the industry for his charm, Mack is considered a businessman who knows what he’s doing. His boldest move was his decision to break with Distributed Art Publishers, the American art publishing distribution giant. Today, a direct relationship with bookstores grants him greater profit margins on the retail price. Eleven years later, MACK has perhaps become the most significant organization in the world of photography publishing. In its catalogue, in addition to big names such as Paul Graham, Stephen Shore, Michael Schmidt, it also presents now established artists such as Taryn Simon, Alec Soth, and Alessandra Sanguinetti, Jason Fulford, as well as artists not exclusively related to photography, such as Thomas Demand, Tacita Dean and Torbjørn Rødland.
One of the most surprising things is that among the bestsellers published by MACK, we find two great Italians: Luigi Ghirri, whose complete collection of essays it has published – the only one in the world –, and Guido Guidi, who has produced eight titles with the English publisher. His love affair with Italian photography began in the early 1990s. “I was in Germany and there I came into contact with the German and Swedish tradition. I realised that beyond the canon of photography, which is all American, national stories have incredible depth and richness. They are very sophisticated.” The same thing happened in his discovery of Ghirri’s work: “I had the impression that he was contributing to the definition of the photographic medium as such.” And he still remembers the impression he had the first time he went to Ronta, on the outskirts of Cesena, to Guido Guidi’s studio: “Every box of prints he opened was a finished book. Incredible. It’s a privilege to be able to collaborate with a master like him. He still has an unexplored archive and very clear ideas about how he wants to exhibit his work.” Both Ghirri and Guidi, he explains, are rooted in their world that is Italy. “Even photographers under the big name of Magnum, coming from America and passing through Italy for a few weeks, cannot do what they did.” They are two artists who, in generation and interests, are very similar. But they also have different approaches. “Ghirri is very much influenced by personalities like William Eggleston, who is an absolute genius of the single image. Guidi’s eye, on the other hand, has the ability to penetrate the fabric of his environment and works more often with sequential shots.”
Mack is always on the hunt for talent and new authors. He is also looking for them in Italy. But he doesn’t just come to Italy looking for photographers. His books, in fact, are almost all printed by Italian companies. “Your printers and bookbinders have an extraordinary sensitivity and a special ability to understand what we need. And this allows us to be more daring.” His latest news, decided upon in recent weeks, is that Mack will open an Italian office to better follow work on new projects and to respond to his own great following, including sales, in Italy. “One of our two graphic designers, after months of lockdown in London, asked us to return to Trieste. This offered us the opportunity to open our own operational headquarters.”
When asked if his intention with “But Still, It Turns” really is to contribute to the writing of a new canon of photography, he answers indirectly, but the impression given is that “the short answer” is yes. “It was Paul Graham’s proposal. It is very precise and touches upon two very contemporary issues. The first is that in our time, which is dominated by moralism, privacy laws make it very difficult to create works of art based on photographs taken of people without their consent, like the greats Robert Frank, Gerry Winograd, Lisette Model and Henri Cartier-Bresson did.” The second point, explains Mack, is that in recent years, the museum and gallery world has favoured photography shot in a studio, and has been promoting heavy image manipulation. “Graham, on the other hand, goes back to offering a model of work that takes a part of life – something that actually happened – and turns it into a work of art. Having said that, I have to admit that if you go and look at the books I’ve published so far, it’s actually the kind of photography that I also prefer. My personal taste, out of necessity, greatly influences the type of books I publish. I don’t simply cater to packaging ideas by letting the market decide what works or not. I start with the artists’ thoughts and choose based on my own tastes. Then my tastes don’t always work out.” The flop that still burns him the most dates back to 2005, when he was still collaborating with Steidl. It involved “Jens F,” by New York-based photographer Collier Schorr. “It’s still my favourite book. It had no visibility and we didn’t sell. You can console yourself with those four experts who tell you it was a masterpiece… but it remains a commercial failure.” But the life of photography books is very strange and, over time, they may not improve like wine, but often increase in price – even significantly. The remaining copies of “Jens F” can today be found for sale on the publisher’s website at a thousand pounds each.
But MACK’s policy is not restricted to limited edition art books, even though there are signed Special Editions with numbered photographic prints; the ambition is to reach the general public. “Many publishers in our world today speak to a small fraternity of insiders. We, on the other hand, do produce artists’ books, but we try to do large print runs, keeping prices low and reprinting successful books, because we believe in the democracy of the publishing process.” For Mack, the photography publisher’s job is like that of any other publisher: to offer a platform that facilitates the dissemination of ideas. “We select, package, produce, promote the authors we like and try to get them out there as much as possible.” The point is that it’s not complicated to produce a book that looks good, Mack explains, “the hard thing is to find the form that best fits the content and to be able to circulate the work around the world.”
It may be the sense of challenge, but when selecting projects to produce, the publisher always tries to start from the idea. “I’m not really attracted to the famous name that hides behind its fame. The work that gives you the most stimulation is that with young people who have a fresher approach, and more direct involvement with today’s world.” His implicit reference is to the MACK First Book Award, which grants an artist the publication of their first book. “Then of course, I’ve also produced books by fishing in the archives of great photographers. Also because I end up breaking all the rules that I try to impose upon myself.” Another rule is that the design – the type of printing, the paper, the type of binding – should not overpower the artist’s work. For Mack, everything must be at the service of the idea. “I still see too many photography books that are solipsistic exercises in style. A successful book is an object that the reader holds and feels as something that was made for them. The challenge is to establish a dialogue with the audience. We try to offer content that anticipates people’s needs. In front of a great book, my consciousness meets the explosion of the author’s art. Something new is produced in my body and mind. It becomes an experience.” The success of these types of books, he explains, “is probably due to the fact that they ask you to do the opposite of what you do when you hold a mobile phone.”
The subject of print is important to Mack. “One of the characteristics of the photographic medium is its malleability. It lends itself to countless uses. But I am convinced that the book allows the artist to achieve the ideal presentation of their work. For me – but there are many others who also think so, especially among photographers – the book coincides with the work of art, more so than an exhibition.” Some books simply reproduce a series of photographs. And there would be nothing wrong with that. But the work of art is something else. This becomes clear when we ask Mack what he thinks of texts that accompany books of this genre. “There was a period in the 1980s and 1990s that I call the ‘Sontag-Berger era,’ when every photographer wanted at all costs to have text written by Susan Sontag or John Berger. They are two brilliant writers, but when they worked for photography books they wrote mediocre things.” Unless it’s for an exhibition catalogue, or in other special cases, Mack says that he flatly rejects such texts. “It’s like declaring that the work needs authentication through the name of a great writer, critic or curator telling you how the images should be read. As if they weren’t already able to speak for themselves.” From time to time he also tries to commission texts, asking authors to write about topics tangential to the content of the book, in an attempt to create connections. “I’m embarrassed to say this, but almost half of the texts I’ve commissioned, even from great writers, have turned out to be disappointments. Maybe it’s just me not being able to explain myself, but I can see that the temptation to describe the content of the photographs is too great.”
What about the future? What’s whirls around inside Michael Mack’s head? “Last year, in addition to starting to publish short essays, I began contacting many writers, particularly poets, and musicians. I would like to broaden the field in an attempt to make connections between the various artistic fields. Our field is in danger of becoming a bit of a ghetto; I’d like it to open up and create more exchange. This also means widening our public and being able to introduce authors like Ghirri and Guidi to a wider audience. After all, I’ve always conceived of myself as a publisher of art books, not necessarily only of photography.”