Chris Pichler is the Founder and Publisher of Nazraeli Press, a widely respected publisher based in California. Founded in 1989 while Pichler was living in Munich, Nazraeli moved back to the United States in 2002.
Besides publishing the books, Pichler personally edits and designs many of the titles that are put out by Nazraeli. He has worked closely with some of the most important living photographers: Alec Soth, Robert Adams, Edward Burtynsky, David Maisel, Stephen Shore, Martin Parr, Michael Kenna, Daido Moriyama…and many others. We were honored that Chris agreed to be a member of the jury for our Emerging Talent Awards 2017. Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at photobook publishing.
LensCulture: To start, what advice would you offer to photographers who are eager to publish a photobook? Are there questions they need to ask themselves about their practice and work that can help them determine whether or not they’re ready to publish their work as a book?
Chris Pichler: It’s important to ask why there exists the eagerness to publish this particular group of photographs. Is “book form” the intended culmination of the work itself, as opposed to being a sequence of images exhibited on a wall? Is the eagerness really a desire to see your name on the front cover? Or would you be just as happy to do it anonymously, as long as you were able to tell this story to the world?
There is nothing wrong, by the way, in wanting to see one’s name on the cover of a book. That’s probably a universal desire, and publishing can be an important stepping stone in one’s career. But it’s important to be honest about it so that the book can be everything you want it to be.
LC: Besides artists you work with on a recurring basis, like Michael Kenna, how do you find the photographers you publish?
CP: I rely a lot on chance and intuition. I don’t go looking for work at galleries or art fairs, or keep a list of people I want to meet. If I see something that I want to publish, even randomly, I know it almost instantly.
We don’t accept unsolicited proposals, just because there aren’t enough hours in the day to do them justice. But I do go every year to the Palm Springs Photo Festival as a reviewer, and I always see a lot of interesting work there. Also, there are some gallery and museum curators who know my taste very well, and sometimes they show me work that they think I might be interested in publishing.
LC: Have you ever come across an artist and thought “not yet,” but then returned to their work later on? If so, can you identify what changed in their practice that cued you to move forward with a book?
CP: I’m not much of a nurturer, though I really respect people who are. I don’t watch a photographer’s career and decide when they are “ready.” If somebody has a group of photographs that resonates with me and aligns with my interests (or better yet, sparks new ones) and that I can imagine would make a good book, then I might approach them about publishing it.
LC: There are lots of interesting modern trends in the photobook world—self-published and handmade books have been getting a lot of play in recent years. A lot of artists are also publishing digitally. What do you see as the next step in photobook innovation, and what do you think it says about the industry as a whole?
CP: I think that the trend of self-publishing was a natural response to the way things were before. For too long, a really small group of editors and publishers decided what books would be published, and therefore what work would see the light of day.
We are now experiencing the opposite end of the spectrum, where everybody can decide what gets published; the result being that it now seems like everything does get published. I’m sensing a little bit of a pullback recently, though. It may be easy, and certainly very gratifying, to “publish” a book—that is, design it and print it and bind it. But that doesn’t mean that anyone is going to buy it.
As the number of bookstores and book buyers decreases and the number of books being published increases, basic math rears its head! At least, publishing is certainly more democratic now than it was before, and that’s a very good thing.
LC: Setting aside the photobook perspective: when you’re considering entries for an “emerging talent” award, what are the criteria you have in mind? What can someone do to stand out from the crowd in the context of a competition?
CP: Whenever I jury competitions, one body of work stands out for being the most interesting, original, thoughtfully-made and authentic. By “authentic” I mean that the photographer obviously has a deep understanding and passion for their subject, and feels a need to share this with others.
That core is something very different than a photographer who feels a need to publish a book, win a contest, or stand out from the crowd simply for the sake of it.
LC: I read that you have interests that are completely distinct from photography—like gardening, or architecture. A lot of art-world professionals have told me that they like to be 100% immersed in their field, but I definitely see benefits to having diverse interests. What do you think your outside interests add to your work with Nazraeli?
CP: I can’t imagine being 100% immersed in art or photography or publishing; it would feel claustrophobic. For me, these things are only interesting if they have to do with real life. I naturally publish books that reflect my own interests, and because I’m a living being, those interests twist and change over time, and lead to new ones. But one constant is my love of the outdoors, and of good food. We were able to buy some land in Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast several years ago, and planted olive trees. We’ve since moved Nazraeli Press here (our office and warehouse), and when I’m not inside working on books, I’m outside with the olive trees, or working on building a guesthouse or cow shed or something like that.
Soon we will begin selling our own olive oil, so in addition to Nazraeli Press books, we will have Nazraeli Cold Press Olive Oil. I wouldn’t be surprised if they cross-pollinate, and we publish a few books about olive oil, and have some special edition olive oil labels featuring work by excellent photographers!
LC: What is your favorite part of the photobook process? Finding an artist, finalizing the edit, smelling the freshly printed paper…?
CP: Honestly, I love everything about it. Photographs and books are a match made in heaven—like olive oil and bread.
—Chris Pichler, interviewed by Coralie Kraft
Learn more about Nazraeli Press and see a list of their recent publications.