TBW Books is one of the leading publishers of photobooks in the United States, putting together publications that cleverly walk the line between tradition and experimentation. Based in Oakland, California, their obsession with their craft is palpable in each of their releases, and the conversation they facilitate between book form and content is always careful and compelling.
I first discovered TBW Books when a friend introduced me to the founder Paul Schiek’s photographic work. His images are filled with energy, and they pushed back against the wave of formulaic-feeling documentary tropes prescient in the early 2000s. After looking into his photography a bit more, I learned that he founded the publishing imprint house. TBW’s first official release was in 2006, and included a book of Schiek’s own work along with three other books by Jim Goldberg, Ari Marcopoulos, and Mike Brodie. You could only buy the four books as a set, and the package’s intriguing title, ANNUAL SERIES NO.1, prepared me for future releases. TBW has now released six series of these annual sets, and have included artists like Gregory Halpern, Susan Meiselas, Mike Mandel, Wolfgang Tillmans, Katy Grannan, Viviane Sassen, Mark Steinmetz and Lee Friedlander. Each edition is compiled with its own set of parameters, and all are exquisitely crafted.
By 2014, TBW grew to include full-time director Lester Rosso, and the imprint began releasing monographs. They work with both established and emerging photographers, and the process between artist and publisher is closely intertwined. Perhaps an overused term in the photobook industry, the “punk ethos” is alive and well in TBW Books’ releases. They have one foot in the museum world and one foot in the zine world—they don’t hesitate to stamp book covers by hand, if necessary. Still a relatively young imprint, Paul and Lester have made an impact on the photobook world that has been nothing short of enormous.
I was able to talk to the duo soon after they returned to their home base of Oakland, California after traveling throughout the country for book fairs and photo festivals. In this interview, they explain a few of TBW’s goals, the power of publication, and the importance of community.
Dylan Hausthor: I’ve heard quite a bit of lore about the name “TBW.” If you don’t mind dispelling the mystery, what does it stand for?
Paul Schiek: Lester is definitely best suited to answer this one.
Lester Rosso: At this point, the origins of the name are a bit of an inside joke, but I think they’re true to the beginnings of TBW as a dark horse in the publishing world. Flexibility is something we work hard to put on the front burner of our approach, so on a full-steam-start-of-the-week Monday, TBW could mean “Total Body Workout” and by Friday, chasing an 11th-hour change to the text in a book’s introduction, it could mean “Tired But Wired.” Ideally, it would stand for “The Bahamas Weekly.”
DH: It’s rare that your trade edition monographs exceed $45.00 USD, with many titles less expensive than that plateau. As a broke photographer who loves spending hours with photobooks, I really appreciate your ability to keep costs low and accessible for people like me while still producing something exquisite. Is this space between affordable and collectible the sweet spot for TBW?
PS: We actively try to include anyone who is interested in our books. It would be a huge misstep for us if we knew of people who wanted to collect our books but were priced out. So with that, we really do all we can to make titles affordable and collectible. For example, with the Annual Series, we currently charge $125 for a set of four hardcover and beautifully printed books by interesting artists. If that’s all you buy from us annually, we think that is a fair starting price to build a solid library. As you mentioned, our monographs hover between $45 and $65. And of course, we produce extremely limited editions at a higher price point for people who enjoy collecting on that level as well.
LR: This sweet spot speaks to TBW’s intent on building from the ground up. Something we are always discussing is how we can do the most with a material, how we can exploit a production technique a little further in our favor of creating something interesting, visually striking, and tactilely engaging without throwing money at it to find a solution. Keeping in mind that the images are the core of the books, we want those images to be as available as possible to those who might want to add them to their libraries.
DH: How do you find photographers to work with?
PS: It’s a bit of everything: submissions, reviews, introductions from trusted friends. For me, the bottom line is that I’m a photo junkie. I’m always looking at everything I can get my hands on. More often than not, I don’t look for books to publish through the normal channels.
LR: We’re always looking and continually inspired by what’s out there. Paul has almost 20 years of involvement in the Bay Area’s photography community, and the fact that we’re often just as surprised by what comes to us from the far corners of the world and Internet as who and what we find in our own backyard speaks to the area’s rich photographic history.
DH: Your process for working with artists is incredibly hands-on, and consists of far more than simply sending images to the printer. Your love of sequencing and bookmaking as an artistic process is obvious. How does your communication and working process with a photographer usually go?
PS: I think TBW is very different from a lot of other publishers in that we work directly with the artist to craft a book. This means that the edits and sequences are prioritized after the artist takes the actual images.
LR: Agreed. Working closely with our artists is really central to the feeling of community that makes the process of making a book so special. While Paul and I relish in the duties of design, editing, and sequencing, we keep a dialogue open throughout. Whether it’s luck or a subconscious aim, we also happen to really enjoy the artists we choose to work with as people. It really comes back to community.
DH: Speaking of community, the current photobook world seems to be growing remarkably fast. Small presses are everywhere, book fairs are expanding, and it seems like books are how many photographers want their work to be seen. What do you credit this to? And how does TBW exist in this expanding space?
PS: Well, there’s been a huge shift in the past ten years. When I was studying photography in the early 2000s, very few photographers envisioned their work as a book. That was for a very top tier, elite group of photographers—ones who already were in the museums. The exact opposite has now taken hold.
LR: Though photography is increasingly democratic, access to work in the arts has historically been a challenge, especially if you don’t happen to live in one of the major art hubs. I think this shift is profound. We’re just returning to the office from back-to-back photo and book fairs, the last of which was the LA Art Book Fair. The energy, care, and thought it takes to produce printed and bound objects is significant—it’s amazing to be in the thick of it, across so many demographics, experience levels, and working methods.
DH: Consistency seems so important in TBW releases—especially in the Annual Series. They don’t necessarily seem to have themes, but there are rules that all the books in the set must abide by. For example, they must all have four-letter titles, or have one image on the cover. How did this start? Is it important to have a conceptual through-line throughout the books?
PS: This is really just an outpouring of my core belief that having parameters while creating anything—be it a house, a meal, a record, or a book—will inevitably force you to continually challenge the creative process, stay engaged, and ultimately reduce bloat in the final product.
LR: That loose through-line also enables an artist in the Series to quietly acknowledge the other artists taking part without forgoing their own individual needs and processes. As curators, we hope this trickles down to the collector in a way that deepens each time they pick up that year’s set, so that the original obstruction settles in as subtle companion across the four books.
DH: Before we wrap up, I’ve read that one of your goals for TBW is to sponsor a little league team. Has that happened yet?
PS: Well, that was sort of this goal and gesture towards trying to be an active and good member of our community here in Oakland. It comes from a working-class mentality. If I was a plumber, I would sponsor the local little league team. And while I’m not a plumber, I am a book publisher, and people need that too. It comes from a feeling of wanting to be of service. The truth is, we have found other ways to do this: to be of service to our friends and family within the art world. To publish books in 2019 not only feels radical, but also of service.
LR: This goes back to community as a backbone. Without it, there’s no scene—arts or otherwise. It sounds silly to say, but a daily parallel goal is to contribute something of value to the Bay Area. I never played ball, base or soft, but TBW Junior Cycling has a real nice ring to it!