For those who work in the photography industry, physical access to photobooks seems boundless. Book markets are a substantial presence at most major photo festivals, and the photobook has increasingly become a necessary medium for contemporary image-makers to dabble with. Independent publishers are creating a dynamic range of publications all over the world, and major collections of the photobook are now just as important as collections of original prints. But the truth is, our photo-world is quite small, and this crucial art form can often be an exclusive bubble reserved for those who are organically integrated within it, steered by those who have the resources to continuously fund a collection of their own.
Troubled by this gap in accessibility, Jesse Lenz set out to eliminate its exclusivity. By harnessing the distribution models championed in industries outside of photography publishing, he founded Charcoal Book Club, the world’s first photobook-of-the-month group. The result is an expansive online community of subscribers who are sent a curated selection of new releases and signed monographs throughout the year. By creating a massive network of photobook lovers, the cost of each photobook is subsidized, allowing more people to engage with the important art form on a regular basis.
In this interview for LensCulture, Lenz speaks about the industries that influenced the creation of Charcoal Book Club, why photobooks are important for artistic inspiration, and why accessibility is crucial in the world of publishing.
LensCulture: I think photography’s most interesting personal stories start with what came before a full immersion in the medium. What did your personal history look like before you ventured into the world of photobooks?
Jesse Lenz: I grew up travelling because my dad was a missionary. I was born in Montana, and when I was six we moved to the Soviet Union, about nine months after the Baltic Republic of Latvia declared independence. We moved around a bit more until we settled down in West Virginia while I was in high school, and I didn’t really fit in there. After graduation, I ended up going to a very small, cheap state college called West Liberty.
LC: What did you study in college?
JL: I actually went into graphic design. In the rust belt of America, if you say you want to pursue art for a living, graphic design the only thing people think you can make money from. But a couple of months before I graduated from the program, I realized I hated every single thing about graphic design. I met this guy who was an illustrator, and realized the only thing I actually liked doing was making images, whether through collage or photography. So I trashed my entire portfolio and made a new one, and pursued illustration for about six years.
LC: Did you begin to feel restless in that role as well?
JL: Definitely. Near the end of that run, I was basically working seven days a week in my basement on my computer, and I really wanted to get back into traveling. I decided to start a traveling art publication called the Collective Quarterly, and every 200-page issue we created was always based in a different area. We would go on the road to these obscure, hidden locations, and we would stay there for a few months and create a publication about the place. We developed a ton of human interest topics about the people and the setting, contextualizing it for readers.
That was what really started me on the path to where we are now. I did that for about six years, and towards the end of that, my family and I went on the road full time. We lived in an airstream with our three boys and our puppy. We travelled for a little over a year before we realized that it was like the seventh layer of hell in Dante’s Inferno, with a one, two and three year-old. So we decided to move to Ohio, where my wife is from, and put roots down on her family farm.
LC: It’s interesting that you went from such a minimalist lifestyle to a collector of pretty significant material objects: photobooks. Did that come about after you grounded yourself in Ohio, after being in the mobile airstream?
JL: Yes! When we moved here, it was the first time I realized selling all my things to be on the road actually affected by own art and photography. It was suffering because I didn’t have any good inspiration around me—I had nothing to feed myself with when I was on the road. I just had Instagram, which is not good for discovery—it’s more of an echo chamber. I decided the only thing I wanted to spend money on again was books, rebuilding the library that I used to have. I started buying a ton of photobooks, trying to take it seriously, but found myself constantly disappointed. There are so many books out there, and I was spending so much money buying them, only to be disheartened when they arrived.
LC: It’s hard to wade through the masses.
JL: Exactly. A pattern formed though, and typically the only books I was happy with were the ones that I would talk about with some of my mentors. These often weren’t books I understood right away, but I kept them because people I respect told me I should really spend some time chewing on the material.
LC: When do you think you began to appreciate the difference between photography and the photobook?
JL: It took me about a year of really focused looking and studying books. It’s like the 10,000 hour rule at work: the more books you look at, the more you see the difference between books of photographs and photobooks. To me, great photobooks create a special world for you to step inside of. It’s not always about the specific image or the subject matter, but it’s a feeling of magic, like going to Disneyland as a kid and seeing magical worlds brought to life. If the book is all about the subject matter, it just feels like an editorial story, and if it’s all about the individual photographs, it feels like a portfolio.
LC: I wonder, how did you jump from collecting photobooks to publishing them? You were publishing the Collective Quarterly, but photobooks are quite different.
JL: It’s different but surprisingly similar, and often much more complicated. For example: you have to work with multiple writers and photographers for each issue. You have to create the content yourselves from scratch in a couple months, and then you have to sell it for 1/3 of the price, even though your printing costs are almost identical. I learned a lot of behind-the-scenes aspects of publishing that have really benefited us at Charcoal Book Club.
One thing I realized very quickly when turning to photobooks was that most bookstores and publishers weren’t actively connecting with people outside of the photo world. Since they were in that world already, they could sustain themselves without looking for new customers. I knew that in our visually-centred culture, there are plenty of people who would love photobooks, but don’t know they exist. I also knew that once they discovered them, they would need guidance for how to grow and discover new work.
LC: Do you feel like there’s a sort of disenchantment that comes with the need to find and purchase most books online?
JL: The problem with buying stuff online is that you don’t get that aspect of discovery you do in a bookstore or library. You can really only find the stuff you already know about. There’s too much out there, and there isn’t really good curation outside of things like photobook reviews or best books of the year lists. And by the time you see Aperture’s selected list of books, it’s a mad dash to get them before they are already sold out.
Additionally, you are asking a lot from a potential customer. You expect the customer to know about you, keep up-to-date with what you are making, and then trust you enough to spend $50-$100 on a book after only seeing the cover and 3-4 spreads inside. And then they have to spend an additional $20-30 for shipping. There are too many obstacles for people who are not ‘insiders’.
LC: And like you said, people who live in areas that don’t embrace this romanticized idea of book browsing need a source and an outlet, and that’s what Charcoal provides.
JL: Exactly. But even for people that do have a local bookstore, we offer a deeper investigation and discovery. Many of our members are people who live close to and utilize bookstores, but with Charcoal they get something each month that they might not find or look at in a store. The book is signed, they get a surprise print from our guest curator, who also gives them their thoughts of why the work is interesting. So even if you visit and buy regularly from a shop, it’s still a fun and useful experience once a month.
I think it’s important to say that the Internet can never take the place of browsing books in person. But the fact is, browsing just isn’t a reality for a lot of people, and that shouldn’t exclude them from finding great work.
LC: Then how do you go about breaking that pattern? It seems like an impossible system to crack.
JL: I started thinking about it when I was getting fatigued as a publisher trying to get people to purchase another new issue of our publication. You really see the effects of your customers’ attention being spread too thin. Some people I know started a company called Vinyl Me Please, which is a vinyl record-of-the-month club. They had a membership system so people only had to commit once and then sit back and enjoy. When I met them, they had a membership of somewhere around 9,000 people—now, it’s well over 40,000 worldwide. They completely turned all conventional wisdom on its head. Most people thought vinyl was dead or just a novelty, but they are showing the world that thousands of people internationally want a fantastic vinyl library—they just don’t have the time, access, or knowledge to build it themselves. They appreciate the experience vinyl records offer, but need support and access. They need a music nerd and best friend who shows up with a new record each month and tells them why they are obsessed with it.
LC: It’s so important to step outside of your given industry’s bubble. There are many models out there that we can map onto publishing and the photography industry in general.
JL: Totally. I saw them doing their thing and I thought, this is really where it’s at! You didn’t have to be a fan of a specific band, record label, or even a genre of music. You only have to be a fan of music in general and want to expand your palate. The customer was committing to discovering and appreciating new music, and they’re excited about the journey. It’s a way to make sure both consumers and artists grow together. It’s good to create a dialog with your members based around a shared journey. They trust you are going to give them something worth their time, and you are able to give them better access and value because they are committing for a set period of time.
LC: That lateral knowledge is so important, and it’s important to use it to create access to art.
JL: Exactly. It’s crucial to find ways to disseminate these things to as wide of an audience as possible. Because of our members’ commitment, we can support projects that we know they will love, even if most publishers think it isn’t commercially viable. We can also plan ahead and distribute books to our warehouses internationally to keep shipping costs down. This is a huge obstacle for publishers, and always prohibits access to the art.
LC: So what types of photobooks do you personally like? Has your taste changed over time?
JL: I like all kinds. My real requirement for a book is that it has to make me feel magic. I love books that help me remember that magic in the everyday. I was never into that kind of poetic, romantic photography years ago, but as my life has changed, I’ve resonated with work that establishes a world that I can enter and be contemplative inside of. I think this kind of work will continue to come back as my generation reaches the stage of life that I am currently in.
Although the first books that blew my mind were The Mennonites by Larry Towell, On the Sixth Day by Alessandra Sanguinetti, and Gypsies by Josef Koudelka, nowadays I like work that is a bit more subtle and focused on the everyday—but not so subtle that it becomes too conceptual. Junjin Lee, Mark Steinmetz, Rinko Kawauchi and Raymond Meeks have been staples for me in this period.
LC: I feel like making a book is now an integral part of being a photographer today. Why do you think there’s been such a boom in photobooks recently?
JL: I think people are making photobooks now because there aren’t many ways for a body of work to be seen. Editorial publications aren’t commissioning their stories like they used to, and photographers still need an outlet to share them. It seems like now you have to do a book first to separate yourself from the other millions of people who have a camera, Instagram account, and website. This means there are many more people self-publishing books or paying publishers to publish their work. That’s why curation is so important: to help sift through the huge amount of books and pull out the ones that are going to last and age well.
LC: I also think that opens up a lot of room for new forms and experimentation. You mentioned you like romantic photography, but are there any other forms that stand out to you in particular?
JL: Oh yeah, when you see people like Max Pinckers, he’s taking that idea of editorial photography and turning it on its own head. He’s not making books to be objects, printing on luxurious paper or anything like that. He’s playing with the idea of narrative and objective storytelling. He’s telling truth through fiction, all told through true events and real photos. To me, that is exciting. He is special because his photos remain interesting and still hold their own weight with the concept.
LC: It’s true, there are so many different avenues you can take with the form. I think a big part of having a resource like Charcoal is educating people about those different avenues.
JL: It’s so important! Education is key! If you discover you like wine, the worst thing that you could experience is walking into a wine shop, being excited about trying something new, and then being either overwhelmed and disappointed with what you pick, or feeling belittled by the workers because you don’t know what you are looking for. It turns people off to feel vulnerable like that. It’s about helping people grow and feel empowered. And helping them discover what they like and don’t like. It’s a journey.
LC: I want to finish up by asking why it’s important for you, on an ethical level, to create such an intricate system of curation and culture that is accessible to the general public.
JL: I think that in this age, we need to be more and more aware that it is still our job to make things that are pushing people, but to also help them appreciate it. I feel the art world has been caught between the ‘give people what they want’ model or the ‘if you don’t get it, I can’t explain it to you’ model. I think both are wrong and damage the thing I love. Knowledge comes from being pushed outside of your comfort zone by people who also pull you up to the next step. That’s what we want to do with Charcoal Book Club: increase access to the world of photobooks, and help our members discover their own tastes while challenging their palate. Inform the mind and inspire the soul.
Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out our interview with Raymond Meeks about Halfstory Halflife, which was selected for inclusion in Charcoal Book Club’s monthly selection this year. If you’d like to know more about Charcoal Book Club, check out their website here and their online book shop here.