Photographers in Publishing is a series of interviews that aim to gather insights from those who balance making and publishing photography.
Brown Owl Press work with photographers to create small runs of affordable photobooks. This week I spoke to founder, Al Palmer, about his own practice and what he’s learnt running the company.
Harry Flook: What is your background in photography, and how did you get into publishing?
Al Palmer: I studied fine art at university, predominantly focusing on painting. In the second year of the course I visited Barcelona. While there I saw a retrospective by a photographer whose work I didn’t recognise. When I left the museum I knew what I wanted to do. The photographer was Robert Frank.
After graduating I started making work, exhibiting, blogging, taking some commercial work – trying to make it as a photographer. Around this time I discovered the small photobook boom that was occurring. Publishers like Little Brown Mushroom, Cafe Royal, 14-19 etc were putting out thoughtful, interesting work in relatively small formats. Another eureka moment. I’ve spent all of my adult life in the punk/hardcore DIY scene so doing it myself made perfect sense!
HF: There are no people in Soliloquy, though it seems to be about them. Could you elaborate on your ideas in relation to the project?
AP: It took me a long time to realise what Soliloquy was truly about. I was under the impression I was mapping out an area, documenting the edges. In reality I was city building. Creating a familiar, fictitious city from my explorations of various cities and urban areas. Walk ways, entrances and exits, roads, sign posts… it’s a city that doesn’t exist created from cities that do.
The only person in Soliloquy is me. And I’m out of shot.
HF: What other recurring ideas or preoccupations come through in your work?
AP: World building is the common thread in my work. My ego is definitely apparent within my photographs.
I think all photographers have a repeated language or bag of tricks they return to. I’m trying to avoid them for now, before they re-appear with vengeance. Trees and tyres and pallets. A deeper vocabulary has got to be a good thing, not that it all needs to be used at once.
HF: How, if at all, has working with photographers on their work affected your own practice?
AP: I think I edit my work a bit tighter now, being aware of page counts and seeing how other photographers sequence their work in greater detail. I also tend to be a bit clearer in requests and feedback, breaking things down into simple bullet-points rather than convoluted paragraphs that are open to misinterpretation.
HF: What have you learnt from setting up Brown Owl Press?
AP: Some positives, some negatives. Positively, it’s given me a much greater knowledge and appreciation of design. I’m very design conscious now, especially with regards to book design. My people skills are better, I don’t mind being a bit pushy when it’s required. Negatively, I went through a time of agreeing to publish things without considering how much work I already had to do. So, my time management for about 18 months was absolutely terrible.
HF: When deciding which photographer/project to publish next, what are you looking for?
AP: There isn’t a list of requirements. I just want to publish work that punches me in the gut. Some work I see just doesn’t interest me in book form. Sometimes I’m just not interested in the story being told. Sometimes it’s just better suited to something Brown Owl Press can’t provide, for instance some work aimed at being housed in an expensive clamshell box. The budget just isn’t there.
HF: Can you talk about your publishing process? How much input to you have in the shooting, sequencing, design and production of the books?
AP: It varies. Most often the photographer submits a synopsis about the work and a series of photographs. With their assistance (generally into terms of sequencing) I start to edit the work down, I then send the edit to the photographer, they can make adjustments and then the process starts again until we’re both happy. I handle most of the design. Again, I design something, send for approval/critique then redesign based on their notes. Only one book to date couldn’t reach consensus. It was never published.
Three books came almost ready to publish. Junrei by Jennifer Haley needed a small amount of assistance with contrasting images, Hard Work by Ameena Rojee needed a little help with the sequencing. Old Domino by Jackie Roman was all Jackie’s work. The opposite to that would be Life is Full of Possibilities by Trevor Powers – he gave me his diary images for a calendar year and let me work with them as I wish.
HF: You price your books affordably compared with many publishers, which seems a democratic approach. What’s the thinking behind this decision?
AP: I’ve never wanted to publish titles people can’t afford. I realised phonebooks and zines are a niche item but pricing people out just makes things less inclusive. It also stops people being too precious. These books and zines are there to be read.
HF: What’s been the most rewarding part of Brown Owl Press?
AP: Giving a larger audience to all the photographers I’ve worked with. Some of these stories might not have ever been published. I’m very happy that the world got to see them all. I’m very proud of all fifteen titles we’ve published.
Also, I can’t take any credit for it, but I’m extremely pleased that three of the photographers I’ve worked with have set up their own small-press photobook publishing concerns too – Iain Sarjeant’s Another Place Press, Lauren Zallo’s Matchbooks and Darren O’Brien’s Acacia Press.
HF: And finally, what are you working on at the moment, both personally and through Brown Owl?
AP: I’ve taken some time in my own practice to experiment and figure things out. I don’t want to keep repeating myself. I have three series I’m working on, they’re at various stages of completion. One is a collaboration with a sound artist, we’re hoping to exhibit the work in NYC this year. Another is in book dummy form and should be ready to be seen around September time.
As for Brown Owl Press, there are three books currently in the works by Jenny Riffle, Brian David Stevens and Grace Ann Leadbeater. Hopefully organising a zine fair in Newcastle later this year. And possibly some kind of join event with Meanwhile Press a little later. Beyond that, it’s a secret!