Photographers in Publishing: An Interview with Martin Usborne

Photographers in Publishing is a series of interviews that aim to gather insights from those who balance making and publishing photography.

In this refreshingly honest interview, Martin Usborne discusses his photographic practice before sharing his experience founding the popular publishing company, Hoxton Mini Press.

Harry Flook: What’s your background in photography?

Martin Usborne: Not much of one. I worked in children’s TV and trained as an animator. So I had visual training, I suppose, but didn’t properly pick up a camera till I was 30. I got made redundant, travelled and, crucially, took a digital camera (new-ish at the time) which allowed me to quickly see and learn from my mistakes with my laptop. I often wonder if I’d be a photographer had I bought the tantalisingly attractive Leica film camera that cost as much as my Canon 10D + mac laptop. Probably not. Although I do now shoot on film too.

HF: I have to ask about the dogs, what draws you to the subject and do you have any more related projects in the pipeline?

MU: I’m trying to – how shall I say – ‘move on’ from dogs. They’re a muse that I’m very attached to but surely there’s more to life. But the reason for photographing them is that I’m super interested in our relationship to animals (both the good bits and the bad bits of that relationship: how we are animals too and yet how we dissociate from animals on a daily basis in the way we eat, act and think). Dogs are my way into the animal world. I’ve always had dogs, I understand dogs, they are so expressive and open. I suppose photographically they are low hanging fruit of the animal world, if that doesn’t mix too many fruity metaphors.

Spanish Hunting Dogs ©Martin Usborne

HF: Who are you biggest inspirations photographically?

MU: Todd Hido predominantly – it’s that lyrical, painterly darkness. Bill Brandt, again for that darkness in which he seems to find silver whispers of beauty (that sounds pretentious but it’s how I think of his work after I heard an interview in which he spoke so quietly and sparingly it made his images seem loud by comparison) and then the images that we see all around us, I suppose, whether photographed, painted or constructed. The background ambience that seeps into our eyes, heads and come out of us in strangely mutated ways.

HF: Humour occasionally sneaks into your work amongst more serious and challenging projects. I find Spanish Hunting Dogs deeply sad, and then looking at East London Fox Goes Wayward I can’t help but smile. Will the humour be coming back?

MU: Yes! I’m reshooting that book about the fox for children. It’s sort of confusing me because it’s a story that is funny but also becoming a bit sad. But I suppose many children’s stories are. And I’ve sort of accepted now that I’m full of both humour and depression and that the two are deeply intertwined. Not that I laugh when someone gets hit by a bus, but I can’t help but be drawn to narratives that dance along that strange line between those two extremes. The dogs in cars is really about my experience of depression, but it’s also funny, those big dogs sitting in small spaces: in the same way, depression can draw the mind into ridiculous confines.

Dogs in cars ©Martin Usbornev

Dogs in cars ©Martin Usborne

East London Fox Goes Wayward ©Martin Usborne

East London Fox Goes Wayward ©Martin Usborne

HF: How did you get into publishing? Tell us the story behind Hoxton Mini Press.

I grew up with books. My father is a publisher, my mother a writer and my older sister a bookworm. Consequently I decided from a young age that books were awful and stupid and I refused to read one until I was about 18. I guess it was a youngest-child rebellion. Then, gradually, the bookish DNA that must have been in my bones, began to seep out when I was a photographer much later in life (and I guess being a photographer was the ultimate attempt to deny the world of words but clearly it didn’t work). Like many insecure, egotistical artists I decided that making a book of my own work would be the ultimate self-affirmation. So I did. Then, after sniffing the pages and stroking the spine of said book in a dark room, I decided I really did love books after all and wanted more of it, so I made a book of my project about an old man, called I’ve lived in east London for 86.5 years. That did rather well, so I thought, why not tell more stories about East London but, hey, why not let go of the ego and have other people tell those stories.

And so I got into publishing.

And so my attempt to rebel against my family came full, pathetic circle, and here I am practicing the same literary obsession I so detested as a child. Ultimately we become our parents.

I've Lived in East London for 86 1/2 years, Martin Usborne ©Hoxton Mini Press

I’ve Lived in East London for 86 1/2 years, Martin Usborne ©Hoxton Mini Press

HF: What are looking for when deciding which project to take on next?

MU: I collect many of those big beautiful photobooks that sell for around £60 and which have no title on the cover, or it they do, have such obscure titles that they essentially tell you to piss off when you try and pick them up. I love those books. But I loathe them too. To buy them, can at times be like entering a room of freemasons and doing some weird handshake – ‘yes, I too buy books over £100 that are made in editions of 5’. HMP is an unashamed attempt to make books that draw on the best of the tradition of photobooks: niche, collectable, beautiful, sniffable books – but which don’t alienate the average reader. That means we want quality that is popular – a hard mix to find. It means that we have many wonderful submissions by photographers far more talented than myself which we ultimately have to turn down because we are not prepared to ask for £20K to help sell 1000 copies. So, that’s a roundabout way of saying we look for projects that can sell.

HF: So affordable pricing is important?

Yes. If you price affordably and sell titles which appeal to a wide-ish audience you can make print runs of 3000 and above – and that’s when litho printing becomes affordable.

HF: Aside from pricing, what separates Hoxton Mini Press from other publishers?

MU: We are aiming to create a brand – which means a lot of our books are self-similar: the spine, the titles, the font, the format. That works for some projects and doesn’t work for others. But it means that our books are recognisable. We also limit ourselves (mostly) to books about East London and other urban themes. Of course we can’t do that forever so are branching out. We have just released our first book on New York, New York Waterways.

Sisters, Sophie Harris-Taylor ©Hoxton Mini Press

Sisters, Sophie Harris-Taylor ©Hoxton Mini Press

HF: How does your own photographic experience impact on how you run Hoxton Mini Press?

MU: I see it from both sides: as a publisher and as a photographer. It helps me to understand the full picture which is powerful. It also means I’m passionate about the work we publish.

HF: What piece of advice would you give to your younger self, starting out in publishing

MU: None, really. Not because I knew what I was doing but because following my nose was the best direction to go in.

On the Night Bus, Nick Turpin ©Hoxton Mini Press

HF: In our recent interview, Maxwell Anderson said that Launching Bemojake had negatively affected his own photographic practice because picture editors associate him with publishing more than being a photographer. What impact do you think Hoxton Mini Press has had on your photographic practice, and how do you find the balance between shooting your own work and publishing?

MU: It’s been f***king disastrous. Publishing takes over your life and soul. There’s little time left to do my own work. But it’s all good. You can’t have your cake and eat it. I’ve never totally understood what that phrase really means but it seems apt.

www.martinusborne.com
www.hoxtonminipress.com