Jack: “You know…fuck the New York publishers. Publish it yourself, Miles. I’ll chip in. Just get it out there. Get it reviewed. Get it in libraries. Let the public decide.”

As I began thinking about writing this article for LensCulture about my latest book, this scene from the movie Sideways came to mind. Jack is chiding Miles about a book that Miles has been working on with great agony for several years. Something about the desperate place that Miles (wonderfully played by Paul Giamatti) finds himself in, and the poignant portrayal of the mid-life crisis of a frustrated writer unable to find a publisher for his 1,000 page confessional about his dysfunctional family, resonated with me. Like Miles’s novel in the movie, my third and latest book, One Last Goodbye, was universally rejected by too many publishers to count—in Europe, the U.S., and Japan.

Well, that’s not exactly true. To be precise, four publishers—three well-known and one small—said they would publish it, on the condition that I bring them a pile of money, typically around 20,000 euros. This is nothing new for photographers. For years now, many—if not most—photography books are published with money given to the publisher by a sponsor—be it a museum, foundation, NGO, gallery with deep enough pockets to support their artists’ books, the photographer him/herself, or the photographer’s parents. In return for the money, the publishers offer two things: the prestige and legitimacy of having the publisher’s name on a book, and a much wider distribution than the photographer could achieve alone.

So I made a shortlist of potential sponsors who could support my book (i.e. give me 20,000 euros), and over a period of several months contacted them one by one. A big Hollywood producer who had bought a few of my prints in the past: no. A wealthy French woman, who also owns some of my work and is known for having one of the largest photography collections in Europe: also no.

Urged by my friend and fellow photographer Kosuke Okahara, I began to contemplate publishing the book myself. I realized that I could wait another year, or longer, to find a publisher ready to spend his own money to make my book a reality, or hope for a sponsor to come around and give me the dough. Or I could grab the bull by the horns and birth the book on my own. I wouldn’t be at the mercy of any publisher or sponsor. The book would come alive as soon as I was able to make it happen. That’s what I chose to do—here’s how it all went down…

***

Originally, the publication of One Last Goodbye was supposed to be a simple process. It began five years ago, when I was toying with the idea of making a book of my earliest pictures taken in New York from 1987 to 1990. I had thrown away most of the negatives from this period when, in a moment of youthful impetuosity, I had convinced myself that photography was not for me and that I would never take another picture again. Luckily, I had saved 200 or so frames of 6x6 and 35mm negatives before putting everything else in the garbage can. These precious frames went into a manila envelope and remained in a black vacuum for over 20 years. Five years ago, the lip of the envelope was finally lifted and I began looking through the negatives. Still, I didn’t start working on the first dummy until early 2014. The deeper I plunged into it, the more I was compelled to publish my vision of this material in a book.

One of the (many) discarded titles and covers of the book

I showed the results of my early efforts to Robert Delpire, who had published my first book, Là ou Ailleurs. Delpire, or “Bob” as he is called by people who know him, is the legendary French publisher of Robert Frank’s The Americans as well as countless other classic books from the past 60 years. Despite our close relationship, I have never known Bob to be overly generous in dishing out compliments. True to form, he was rather lukewarm. ”Too many close-up portraits…and they’re quite intense, he said. ”You need some pictures of the city, the environment you were in, to provide an atmospheric backdrop to these people you knew. Who would argue with advice handed out by the great Robert Delpire? So I kept adding and subtracting, laying the laser workprints on the floor of my apartment in Montmartre, tiptoeing over them as I put the beginning at the end and the end at the beginning and mixing everything in between, trying to sculpt a coherent visual narrative out of my own past life.

By the summer of 2014, Bob and I had finalized the maquette and the cover. At that time, Bob had just sold his publishing company to a large Swiss group and the decision-making power was shifting. He sent the maquette to the managing director asking if he would finance my book. The answer came back: another no. As disappointed as I was not to be able to do my book with Delpire, deep down I knew that the book was not ready. There was more digging to do before the book would find true maturity and presence.

Though feeling rejected, I also saw that I had been given a new opportunity to review my work in greater depth. I began contemplating how to dismantle the maquette and piece it back together to make the book stronger and more complete. I thought about what Bob had told me: that the book needed backdrop images of the city to interplay with the many portraits. As I went through the archives of pictures that I had taken of Manhattan during my return visits to New York, I came across photographs of my father, taken in early 2013.

It was while looking at these portraits that I realized the book was not about the pictures of my youth, but really a back-and-forth dialogue between the older and calmer person that I am today and my tormented younger self.

More importantly, I understood that my underlying desire to see the book published had little to do with showing the world the turbulent life I had lived in my youth. Rather, it would be a universal tale about learning to let go of the past. If done well, I hoped it would resonate with many people out there who are having a rough ride: survivors of dysfunctional childhoods, bearers of psychological and spiritual scars that they would so badly like to leave behind them.

It is a common myth that artists are “freer” than non-artists when it comes to personal expression, as practiced in their medium of choice. On the contrary, I have found that some of the most uptight and emotionally paralyzed people I’ve ever met are artists. It is one thing to set out to bare one’s soul and aim to make a book which comes from and speaks about the heart; it is another matter to actually do it. The heart is not a unitary chamber like a bank vault, which opens with the right combination, and presto, you have access to all of the elements inside. The heart, I think, is more like a Russian doll—we penetrate to a deeper layer if and only when we are emotionally and spiritually ready to take that next plunge. Once we get there, we begin yet another cycle of acquiring the capacity to be able to go one layer deeper.

Another title, another approach, still not quite right.

This was, in any case, the experience I had with One Last Goodbye. Floating over my head was this nebulous idea of “a book,” but each time I changed the layout and became convinced that I had finally arrived at the final version, I was faced with the reality—as painful as it was to admit—that something was still being held back. I was not allowing the pure and truthful voice within me to speak unencumbered.

From June to the first week of October of this year, my daily life became an increasing obsession in pursuit of the final form of the book. As much as I could, I eliminated any and all unnecessary distractions. I began the day the same way: looking at the latest PDF of the layout while sipping tea. For food, I would make a big pot of something once a week; I did not want to lose time preparing meals. Then, the A4 inkjet prints that Mike (Mike Derez, Robert Delpire’s longtime assistant with whom I had worked on my first book, who was also generously offering his help with the layout work for One Last Goodbye) had made of all the pages in the maquette were laid out on the floor of my apartment. I moved them around and sat above them on a chair to meditate on the new sequencing.

Suddenly, I would remember a picture that might work well over here but simultaneously would realize that I don’t have a print of it. Phone call to Mike to see if he could make me a print. Metro to Vincennes to Mike’s place to fetch said print. Deal with Mike’s constant teasing that the layout was changing for the 97th time. Back home to insert the new picture. Happy with the sequence. The next day, don’t like it any more. Etc.

View of the editing process, which consumed the floor of my apartment for months.

Still, outside points of view were helpful. In particular, my friend Dorian Francois came by several times to rework the layout and the cover and offer valuable suggestions. At last, by late September, the grueling summer boot camp had paid off: I was sitting on a maquette that I knew, in my gut, was finally ready.

Now for the nuts and bolts: in August, I worked alongside Felix Fouchet (of La Souris sur le Gateau, the image production studio in Paris that sponsored the production of my book) to scan and retouch the 100+ photographs and prepare them for engraving. Wendy Paton, a dear photographer friend, spearheaded the fundraising drive, and a couple of her friends purchased prints to support the book. Between that and the copies that were pre-sold, enough money had been raised to pay for the printing.

Meanwhile, Kosuke put me in touch with a printer in Verona, Italy where he had printed his Fukushima book. Another friend, Yusuf Sevincli, connected me to a printer in Istanbul. Both offered more or less the same price to print 500 hardbound copies. At the last minute, I ended up going with a printer in France whom I was introduced to at an opening. This offered the advantage of being able to go and see the printer at his office in Paris; our proximity allowed us to directly work out all the details like the choice of paper, embossing, etc. The date had been set at the printing facility for early October, and I was eagerly and anxiously waiting for the day to arrive.

The final cover before my dramatic, last-minute change of heart.

Except…I had a recurring doubt about the cover of the book. As well as the title. After many previous versions, I had settled on my self-portrait as an enraged 19-year-old in my college dorm-room and “Fading Fury” as the title. Aside from the fact that the cover looked like an effort to imitate a Bruce Lee movie poster, I knew that the word “fury” did not correspond to the underlying central theme of the book. I had been compelled to use that word as a reference to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, given the many parallels between the family in the novel and my own.

It is not so much the fury and rage of my youth that the book communicates, but rather a desire to say farewell to the things which make us suffer.

A week before my date at the printers, I collapsed in bed around 3am. As soon as I dozed off, I woke up in a fit of panic: I knew I had to change the cover and the title while I still could. It was 4am. I heard a voice telling me to get up and turn on the computer, so I did. The voice told me to read lyrics of songs that I love. I pored over the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye, Cat Power…I spent the next three hours reading their lyrics and jotting down words and phrases that might work. The last batch of lyrics I read was from Jeff Buckley’s “Grace” album. And as soon as I saw “Last Goodbye” on my computer screen, I knew I had found my elusive title.

Yet as I pensively studied the words LAST GOODBYE that I had written on a sheet of paper, my hand holding the pen moved, almost as if guided by a spirit, and scribbled ONE before the word LAST. One Last Goodbye. I looked at the clock. It was 7am. I returned to bed and quickly passed out, feeling indescribable joy and a sense of relief.

Three hours later, I woke up, tired but feeling the adrenaline starting to kick in fast. The right title had been found, but it didn’t work with my angry self-portrait. With a calm sense of knowing, I flipped through the pages of the maquette. The last picture in the book, a picture of a test strip floating in a chemical tray of a boy that I had photographed on a train in Holland years ago, the last picture in the maquette—I knew it to be the right image for the cover. That boy is me and you and everybody else who is gazing into the distance, through space and time, looking at all the people and memories of experiences in the past, saying goodbye to them one last time, with a certain sadness, but also with great love. It then took less than a couple of minutes to compose the last paragraph in my text, my stream of consciousness doing all the work. It just so happened that “one last goodbye” ended up being the final three words I wrote…

***

One last thought about where we are today with photography book publishing. In 1919, Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks created the United Artists Studio. The first sentence on the Wikipedia page says it all: “The studio was founded…[by the four artists]…with the intention of controlling their own interests rather than depending upon the powerful commercial studios.”

The parallels to contemporary photobook publishing are clear. There are still, fortunately, some daring publishers who produce exciting and inspiring books with photographers whose work deserves support and recognition. A few of them even have the honesty and the integrity to put their own money behind the books they publish. But there needs to be a frank and open discussion about the vast majority of photography publishers today who have essentially become welfare recipients, subsisting primarily on the money brought to them by photographers.

Artists are desperate to get their books published, and they willingly do backflips in order to scrape together the money to hand over to the publisher.

Can we envision the founding of a publishing house called “United Photographers” by the Charlie Chaplins and D.W. Griffiths of the photo world today? Individuals who could lend their clout and expertise to help deserving photographers publish their books in their own best interests, rather than those of the publishers? Can a few of these stars come together to create an online structure for distribution that can offer visibility and viability to independent photography books? With such a publishing platform in place, photographers would need only to raise a fraction of what publishers typically demand to publish their book. And an intelligent marketing and distribution system—using the combined social network prowess of these heavy-weight photographers—would go a long way toward attracting attention from the photography-book buying public.

As Jack put it, “Let the public decide.”

—Jehsong Baak

Editors’ Note: Read our original interview with Jehsong Baak, which discusses the project in greater detail.

And of course, you can find Baak’s book “One Last Goodbye” for sale—while supplies last.