For over 20 years, London-based book publisher Michael Mack has been hard at work taking the ideas of artists and translating them into bound and printed form. During his career, first working under Gerhard Steidl and for the past seven years on his own, Mack has had the opportunity to work with many of the great photographic artists and thinkers of our time—Lewis Baltz, Paul Graham, Thomas Demand, Broomberg & Chanarin, Larry Sultan, Joan Fontcuberta, Alec Soth, and many others. Given his eye for talent, we’re deeply honored that Mack has agreed to be a member of the jury for our Exposure Awards 2018.
Behind his publishing house’s string of successes lies a person deeply committed to his craft and his principles. As he reveals in this exceedingly honesty and down-to-earth conversation, there are three core beliefs that underpin everything Mack has done: first, mentors are essential; second, human relationships are paramount; and finally, that personal enjoyment is the key to long-term success. Read on for more—
LensCulture: Growing up, do you remember looking at a particular photobook (or maybe a photograph) that started it all?
Michael Mack: Not at all, not at all. I grew up in rural Africa on a tobacco farm that my parents managed. I was completely isolated from any sort of visual culture in any way, shape, or form.
It was only when I came to Europe that it began. But in fact, I came to study law, so my exposure was not oriented towards the arts. Thankfully, my law firm had a strong interest in collecting art, which turned me on to photography. I met a few dealers through this connection and realized art was something I was very interested in.
Quickly, I felt I wasn’t meant to be sitting at a desk looking at legal papers. But it wasn’t until my two years of “work experience” that I began seriously looking for an out. Finally, I left and studied again, this time pursuing a masters in Visual Culture and Theory. I started writing and curating, and very soon after that, I met Gerhard Steidl. The rest was a whirlwind—15 years of working together on photobooks of all kinds.
LC: I’ve talked to a lot of creative people about the importance of mentors—older figures who were essential in helping them form themselves. Were there others before Steidl who were important to you?
MM: There have been many, many people. The first was Zelda Cheatle, a gallerist and dealer who I met while at the law firm. When I left law, she said, “Come and do whatever you can at my gallery. Do the bookkeeping.” This allowed me to look through all the prints and see everything. I realized certain things, such as the fact that I wasn’t interested in exhibitions or selling photographs.
Then Steidl, of course, was very much a mentor. From him, I learned everything good and bad about the publishing world that I carried with me into my business. I had the advantage of setting up a distribution structure, a press and marketing department, and all the elements of the business at Steidl.
There are two numbers I keep in mind: the number of titles and the size of the print runs.
This gave me the space to make mistakes and figure out what could work and didn’t work. Finally, in 2010, I was able to move into a structure which I felt was better suited to the changing climate of publishing.
When I started MACK, it was at a moment when things were fundamentally shifting, both as a consequence of the digital era and thanks to the likes of Amazon. That made it a perfect time to launch a publishing business that refused the old models and tried something completely different.
LC: In starting MACK, were there some challenges you couldn’t have foreseen, despite your long tutelage under Steidl?
MM: I think there are obvious challenges that everybody understands, whether you’re a freelance photographer or running a gallery or any creative business. The reality of running an independent entity; the stresses and strains of cash flow; the challenge of standing on your own two feet.
But more than that, I recall being on press with the first book that we did as MACK. It was very late at night. I had had that experience many times over the previous 15 years with Steidl, but it had always been the artist on one side of me, and on the other—a shadow, a missing presence. This was Gerhard. I had been so used to turning to him and asking “What do you think?” And now that was over. It was a bit of a shock.
But that was just the growing up part of finding my own space. One of the most important things I learned from Steidl had to do with printing. In the end, it’s just a machine and an operator. It doesn’t matter what the machine is, it’s about how you get the best out of it. Steidl himself refutes the idea that he has “the best press in the world.” It’s the people, the knowledge and the experience that make the difference.
LC: Since starting MACK, you must have had to find a balance between quality and quantity. You’ve said that you’re committed to keeping the number of titles low since you want to stay personally involved with each one. Can you say more about maintaining this equilibrium?
MM: That’s been a fundamental philosophy since the start. I’m driven by a very simplistic, life-affirming notion: I want to keep enjoying what I’m doing. I don’t want to only be running a business, because much of that is quite tedious. You could be selling widgets, if all you’re focusing on is the Excel spreadsheets. In the end, the reason we are doing well is because of our attention to detail and the specificity of each design. I don’t want to do more books. I’d prefer to produce fewer titles that are higher in quality.
My job as a publisher is to make important work, and ideas, easily accessible.
In terms of quantity, there are two numbers I keep in mind. The first is the number of titles, and the second is the size of the print runs. My goal is actually to do bigger and bigger print runs of fewer books, in order to reduce the retail price against the current environment of overcharging. My aim is make our books as accessible as possible. I feel that’s my job—to make the ideas of the author available and allow them to be widely disseminated. That means building audiences and reaching out to new people who haven’t looked at a photobook before. Part of that is the pricing structure: the bigger the print run, the lower we can price the book.
LC: Speaking of audiences, do you think the photobook market appears to be stabilizing, still growing, or does it still feel like a fragile bubble?
MM: We’ve worked really hard, especially recently, to keep away from any sense of a “photobook bubble.” In fact, we’ve attempted to focus on something a bit broader than that. I’m much more interested in having Alec Soth’s new edition of Sleeping by the Mississippi for sale at every Barnes and Noble across America than I am in the publication being lauded only by my peers. I don’t take that praise as a given, but given the contemporary relevance of his work, the pictures need to reach new readers. I think the project carries extraordinary and important messages, and I want them to reach more people, especially those who have never heard of Alec Soth. That’s my ambition: to look and think wider than we have so far.
Another example: one of my really strong areas of interest is visual artists who also write. We’ve published the writings of Allan Sekula, Joan Fontcuberta, Luigi Ghirri—Victor Burgin is next. For anybody interested in visual culture, especially young students, I really believe this is essential reading. Again, my underlying job as a publisher is to make important work, and ideas, easily accessible.
To be clear, I have no desire to become a large-scale, mainstream publisher, of which there are many. I’m talking about something different: maintaining the integrity of what we do, but doing it in such a way that reaches many more people.
If there’s any way the photobook world is a bubble, it is its tendency towards behaving as a knowing, self-referential space. Consistent production at a very limited level. The stubborn notion that if a book is acknowledged within this small milieu, it’s a success. If an author has important ideas to convey, they should be seeking a broad public for them.
LC: Books are still an exceedingly powerful way to transmit messages and ideas, but they now exist in a highly saturated media space. Every day there are more and more pictures being taken, and uploaded, and consumed. How do you position book publishing against that? Is it something of a mark of honor, a standing against the tide?
MM: I’ll acknowledge the fact that in 2010, the year we started, there was another important birthday—the first iPad was launched. At that time, there was a supposed revolution about to happen in relation to the book and ink and paper. This simply did not occur. In fact, just the opposite: the ever-expanding digital realm created the capacity for small, light-footed entities, both publishing houses and individual artists, to create their own content and market it through digital platforms. That continues to define the moment we’re in right now. It has resulted in many, many people returning to analog, physical forms for various art objects.
Throughout this shift, my focus has remained on working with authors and artists for whom the book is a destination. I hold dearly the view that a book is its own ultimate form, its own end result. Whether someone is working on the street or in their studio, we have to be sure that a book is the best possible presentation for their work. It’s never simply a catalog, a gallery takeaway.
This approach seems to chime with people, both authors and readers. They understand that there’s a particular space of experience offered by the book format. If it’s done well, there’s a combination of design, material, concept, and image that results in something very valuable. Again, this is totally separate from (or even counter to) the digital wave you describe.
LC: Is there one book that you worked on recently that you could walk us through, to help make the conception/design process a bit more concrete.
MM: Let me begin by emphasizing that I’m intimately involved with all of the books we publish—that’s really important to me. I could talk about any of them in this way. But to focus on one, let’s look at Corbeau by Anne Golaz.
Anne is a Swiss photographer/artist who grew up on a dairy farm in the Alps. She has since moved away from that life. Physically, because she now lives in Lapland; emotionally, by distancing herself from her family history. But she started the series 12 or 13 years ago and began documenting the family lineage and its relationship to the land. She used photographs, drawings from photographs, transcripts of conversations, and many other modes of documentation. The book is about bringing together all of these disparate, distinct strands.
To me, the most exciting part of the project is the artistic thread that binds it together—the text. It’s a combination of three different elements: the transcripts that I mentioned, then her own writings about the experience of working through the subjects of mortality, family history, and the passage of time. And finally the third part, a collaboration with a Swiss playwright, in which they worked together to transform the transcripts into a stage play. All of these texts run throughout the book, tying together the visual material. A bit like the blue stitching that binds the book itself (a style incidentally known as “Swiss binding”)…
In the end, this is not a traditional photobook but a book of photographs and other elements that coalesce as a dramaturgical piece. That is why this book is exciting for me: it takes us beyond the realm of the “photobook.” It’s a performance played out with accompanying images. It’s a very beautiful, subtle, difficult object. It begins as a document and then travels into the space of fiction. In the end, it achieves that great thing that is special to photography: the work goes beyond the edges of her images and ideas, well beyond the frame.
LC: You said she worked on the project for many years. At what stage do you generally become involved in a book? Are most of them almost finished, or are they in varying states of completion?
MM: In Anne’s case, when I first received the maquette, I knew it was already something special. It was an extraordinarily sophisticated object from the start. The next two years consisted of subtle changes—expansions to the text, changes in the edit, a new typography—that helped it reach completion.
Stepping back, I work with people who come in at many, many different levels of preparation. Sometimes, somebody will begin only with a bunch of pictures and the sense they want to make a book. But more often, and especially lately as people become more familiar with the possibilities of the book form, the authors already have a very clear idea of the book they want to make. We’re happy to elicit that, to allow it to develop.
To encourage this process, we have a studio space where the artists come and work. We bring in our designers and we sit, edit, and talk. We’ll do three days of intense work together, and then they’ll go away for a month. Then we come back together, allowing things to distill further. We give things time.
We’re really creating a space where we can push and challenge the authors to think again and again about their ideas. Not simply in the editing by saying, “There are too many pictures in the book, there needs to be less.” Rather, we force them to justify the conceptual basis for their approach, to formulate precise reasons for different design decisions. Invariably, if they’re the right type of author for us, they respond to that. They appreciate this challenge because they understand that it’s improving their project and taking it further.
This is what I mean when I say I enjoy collaboration. If someone said, “Here’s my book, I want it to be ready by next month…” I would say no. I just don’t do that. We’re not just a printing press with excellent marketing and distribution channels.
LC: Where do you discover work? I know you run a photobook prize. Can you talk about your motivation for starting it and how it has developed since its founding?
MM: The First Book Award is easily the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. We’ve been running it for six years now. We feel it gives us access to the cutting edge of what’s happening, even though we can’t publish every submission. Still, we have the privilege of seeing the books in a raw state and sometimes we go on to publish books that aren’t one of the winners.
If there’s any way the photobook world is a bubble, it is its tendency towards behaving as a knowing, self-referential space.
Two recent examples I can refer to: one is Kevin Lear, a man who’s in his mid-seventies living in Kent in south-east England. The other Kristina Jurotschkin, a 22-year old recent graduate from Leipzig. Neither had ever published a book before. Yet, both their books are absolutely brilliant. That’s exciting.
LC: Last question—When you started studying art history, visual culture, photography, were there any artists who you really looked up to and admired? And have you subsequently been able to work with them? I know in another interview, you said Lewis Baltz was really important for you. I don’t know if you worked with him before he died…
MM: I was his editor at Steidl. Indeed, you could link this back to the question about mentors: from Zelda Cheatle, to Steidl to Baltz. Lewis and his work from the New Topographics was one of my original areas of interest. He was an extraordinary hero of mine and I absolutely loved his work. Then I met him at Steidl and became his editor. He was a true inspiration, in many ways. He was extraordinarily rigorous intellectually. But he was also very encouraging. When I was leaving Steidl, he told me, “Absolutely do it. Do your own thing. Strike out.” After I went off, he remained generous and supportive. I would consistently return to him and use our conversations as a point of reference.
We’re really creating a space where we can push and challenge the authors to think again and again about their ideas.
But I feel incredibly fortunate that Lewis is just one of many brilliant people who I’ve gotten to work with. It’s not only the well-known names like Alec Soth, Paul Graham, or Larry Sultan, but many others I’ve been able to connect with deeply.
In the end, most of what I do is about human relationships. That space I referred to where we challenge each other and grow—that’s the real pleasure. Many of the people I’ve published have become long-term friends. As their publisher, I feel lucky to watch their practice develop through their relationship with us. It feels like a very fruitful and positive position to be in.
LC: And is there one living artist who you dream of working with?
MM: Sophie Calle. She’s amazing, I love her work.
LC: Well, that seems doable!
MM: It is, we’re having coffee tomorrow. Maybe my dream will come true.
—Michael Mack, interviewed by Alexander Strecker