If you’re a fan of thoughtful, beautifully designed and emotionally resonant photobooks, you’re probably familiar with Kehrer Verlag, a publishing and design house based in Heidelberg and Berlin, Germany.
Just in the past few years, Kehrer Verlag put out such award-winning publications as CJ Clarke’s Magic Party Place, Stacey Baker’s New York Legs, Rafal Milach’s 7 Rooms and Daniel Traub’s Little North Road, among many others. Overseeing Kehrer Verlag’s jam-packed submission queue is Acquisitions Editor Alexa Becker. Having worked at Kehrer for years, Becker is widely known as a tireless advocate of photographers and the woman responsible for discovering—and publishing—many emerging artists.
Read on for more about her discovery process and a behind-the-scenes look inside Kehrer Verlag.
LC: As Acquisitions Editor, you’re responsible for selecting new photography-related projects that will be published by Kehrer Verlag. Can you tell us about this process? How do you find new photographers to publish? Through portfolio reviews, competitions, Instagram…?
AB: There are many ways to approach this process. There are submissions, recommendations by fellow photographers, curators, other experts and friends in the field. There are portfolio reviews and competitions. Personally, Instagram is a platform I don’t actively check for potential book material. I think it’s too specific a medium in a way.
To give one concrete example: I actually discovered Alain Laboile’s work on LensCulture. We started a lively conversation via email, and this interaction eventually led to his book, At the Edge of the World.
LC: You’re also in charge of submissions for Kehrer Verlag, meaning you’ve looked at hundreds of proposed projects. What advice can you offer photographers who are sending in their work for review? Is there anything they should know about format—or is there anything that will immediately turn you off to a submission?
AB: A submission should include a short, informative statement about the work that ideally outlines why the photographer is interested in this particular publisher. That part should be brief.
It’s nice to receive a personal email, and not a stereotypical mass email that goes out to every publisher on the planet. That is easy to spot and it’s a clear turn off.
Personally, I like digital material for a first impression. It’s best if submissions are in a PDF, and ideally in a sequencing that enhances the photographs. Just sending a pile of images leaves me with a lesser impression. Also, simply sending the link to one’s website is very vague; it implies that the editor has plenty of time to browse their website, think, and—at best—tell the photographer what to do. This is probably not the case and it shows little forethought and preparation.
LC: Kehrer Verlag and Kehrer Design work in conjunction with one another to produce photobooks. Can you talk about the relationship between the publishing side and the design side of Kehrer Verlag?
AB: They pretty much work hand in hand. The benefit for the photographer is that they can swiftly switch from one step of the process to another. Let’s say the photographer pays us a visit and is going to be on press soon. He or she can talk to the proofreader one minute, then quickly hop to the next room in order to touch up final images with image processing; they’re also able to choose a different kind of paper with the designer from Kehrer Design—all in the same space. In the office, we feel like one big family, and I think the artists sense it, too.
LC: Are you drawn to any types of photo projects in particular? One piece of advice we hear a lot is that photographers should get to know their viewer’s taste/perspective. Do you find that the projects you’re interested in have any common threads?
AB: I am drawn to projects that show a certain topic (any topic!) from a personal, individual point of view. But it has to be done properly. I do not wish to hear an artsy explanation for bad lighting, blurry frames or something along those lines.
On the other hand, on occasion I encounter talented photographers who simply don’t match my taste. The photographer can’t change who they are; they simply need to connect with the right person. Thus, in my opinion, figuring out the “viewer’s taste or perspective” in advance of reviews should apply to commercial photographers only. In the context of artistic work, this advice doesn’t make any sense to me. An artist’s style should not bend to accommodate the viewer.
LC: You’ve been a frequent portfolio reviewer around the world. What are a few pieces of advice you find yourself offering most frequently to aspiring or emerging photographers who are looking to break through in their careers?
AB: As I said above: be true to yourself. It may happen that your work is not interesting to others. If this is the case, you have to deal with it rather than trying to “make it more interesting” or make it appeal to someone.
That said, I do think that having a good teacher or mentor will help your voice to be heard. You have to know your photography on the technical side but also on the editing side. You should not need help when it comes to finding your subject matter. That part of photography is entirely driven by personality.
LC: In your mind, how important is the statement that accompanies a photo project? Do you place more weight on statements when you’re considering a project for a book, or is the statement equally important for reviews and competitions?
AB: Many times, the statement is equally important as the work itself. It should be short and precise. Learning the central idea of the project will help your audience see it in the right light—this holds true for books, competitions and reviews.
LC: Is there anything you’d like to communicate to the photographers who are entering the Exposure Awards 2017? In your mind, what makes one photograph (or one series) worth selecting over another?
AB: Have in mind that no matter how personal and intimate your topic may be, it should have some kind of general meaning and importance that will connect with other people as well.
This is how good poems work too: they are about the private thoughts of one person, yet they strike a chord in total strangers. In return, the viewers relate to the project’s content, transform it and carry it further into the world.
—Alexa Becker, interviewed by Coralie Kraft
Editors’ note: Alexa Becker will be judging entries to the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2017—enter now for your chance to get your work in front of Becker and the rest of the world-class jury. There are also a host of other great awards. You can find out more about the competition on its Call for Entries.