Photographers in Publishing: An interview with Philipp Ebeling
Photographers in Publishing is a series of interviews, gathering insights from those who balance both making and publishing photography.
Interview by Laura Jeacocke –
Photographer, curator and photographic publisher, Philipp Ebeling, co-founded Fishbar with his partner Olivia Arthur almost a decade ago. Alongside their respected exhibition space they also publish photo-books and magazines. This interview sees Philipp discuss his personal work, curating exhibitions, balancing work and life, and the future of photo-books.
Laura Jeacocke: How did you get into photography?
Philipp Ebeling: I came to London after finishing school in Germany. The plan was to spend a few months interning and then return to Germany to study. I had a vague idea of doing something creative but no idea how or what. During an internship with a design bureau in London I discovered photography and became hooked. I applied to art school, got a place and things went from there. I remember looking at photo-books and magazines, and falling love with photography. I was, and still am, drawn to the particular mix of still forcefulness, poetry and ambivalence that are hallmarks of the medium. Then after finishing my photography degree I put together a portfolio and was very lucky to get my first regular assignments from Time Out Magazine, which led onto working for the Guardian, Sunday Times, and other editorial clients.
LJ: Having grown up in Germany, what made you want to come over to London?
PE: Well I didn’t originally set out to go to London, I went backpacking for a few months, spent time in Asia and the US as well as around Europe and sort of ended up in London and fell in love with the place and the people I met here.
LJ: Where do you draw inspiration from, in your personal practice?
PE: Reading, making and listening to music, being with my kids and family and working with other photographers mainly. All the people we’ve worked with at Fishbar are a source of inspiration too, for varying reasons and in different ways. Sometimes I’ll work with images I’d never take myself and I enjoy deconstructing what it is that I find fascinating about them (as with Lorenzo Vitturi and to a degree with Eric Gottesman). Sometimes the subject matter and approach is so fresh and unusual that it excites me, as with Lua Ribeira or the story telling and subject are just great, as with the young Magnum show and Olivia’s work in general. I enjoy the editing process too and find it helps shaping and developing work.
LJ: Your commissioned portraits are all varied and suit each subject superbly. What do you look for in the subject and how do you use this to create a portrait that matches their personality and style?
PE: Thank you! I went through a phase of a number of years of doing a lot of editorial portraits. Typically you get to meet your subject for 30 minutes or so in a hotel room and there isn’t much time or space for scouting around or setting up difficult lighting arrangements. When I met Tony Blair in Downing Street, right at the beginning of my career, there was actually somebody counting down the minutes out loud in the background. So normally I try and imagine a lighting scenario that might suit the person beforehand and then try and realise it quickly in situ, either with flashes or ambient light. Lighting is very theatrical and I find it can effectively create and shape spaces, particularly if the location I’m in isn’t great. Once I’ve settled on a light that works I can relax and concentrate on my sitter and try to make some sort of connection in the short time I have. Coming from a documentary background where context and story are important I initially found this way of working quite difficult. But I’ve grown to like the intensity of these kinds of shoots and I like that I can model the subject inside a space and be creative with lights which mostly you cannot do in documentary scenarios.
LJ: Are there any recurring themes you see throughout your personal projects?
PE: My first book Land without Past dealt with my own upbringing in a small German village and the way Germans have come to terms with their history. My second book was a kind of psychogeographic wandering around the forgotten bits of Outer London. This was inspired by my arriving in London from Germany and finding the city endlessly large and fascinating and full of unexpected stories and places and people. London was becoming my new home and I felt the urge to explore every last corner of it. So I guess the notion of home and how it shapes identity is a driving theme in my work. What defines home and how do people make it. I find the creation of homes endlessly fascinating. It lies at the very heart of what we humans do.
LJ: What was the idea behind Fishbar? What made you want to start it?
PE: It was around 2008 that Olivia, my partner, and I decided to look for a space to show photography in London. We were like many other photographers doing long term projects and felt a sense of frustration for the lack of outlets and opportunity to show work. Magazines were disappearing fast and there weren’t really any spaces in London other than the Photographer’s Gallery that were taking the kind of photography were interested in seriously. This was before Photo London, before Offprint at Tate and the self-publishing photo book wave had started in earnest. Once we had put it in our minds that we could simply do it ourselves, we were intoxicated with enthusiasm. We found a space in Dalston in 2009 and after a period of renovation we had the first exhibition in 2010. Publishing small magazines and books alongside the exhibitions was at the heart of what we wanted to do, since exhibitions are fleeting things and we felt the book was the ideal medium for what we wanted to achieve with our work.
LJ: What are the benefits of working with your partner? Do you ever have differences of opinion regarding what and how to publish, and how do you manage them if so?
PE: I’ve always felt there are huge benefits in having a partner in the same field. Since we spend a huge chunk of our time involved in what we do, it’s great we can share that. On a practical level, we’ve always edited each other’s work and bounce ideas off each other all the time. Occasionally we even do photography projects together. As far as the publishing is concerned we have no set process to decide on what or who to show. We seem to arrive at decisions together. I can’t remember ever strongly disagreeing on a potential show or photographer. I guess we’re quite in tune about what sort of photography we find interesting.
LJ: How do you balance your personal and work lifestyle, given that you work so closely with Olivia on Fishbar? Do home and work tend to blend into one or do you have ways of separating the two?
PE: Well of course we work and live in the same place (above Fishbar) so naturally there is a blending of the two. We’ve always tried to have some degree of division, like keeping the evening free but naturally that only works when we are not near the deadline for prepping a new show or publishing a book or meeting some other deadline in our photography work/travelling etc. Since we’ve had children however there’s a natural division between work and family life because of the needs of young children, and the simple fact that work becomes impossible around them! We’ve both noticed how that’s impacted our work in general; we have to be very well organised and there are few indulgences around making work at the moment. What’s important in life has shifted a bit, family life is very important to us, but slowly we are also emerging from this intense fog of childrearing to shifting work more into the centre again… or rather both are similarly important and we are juggling more!
LJ: When curating new exhibitions, what is it you are looking for from photographers?
PE: Well exhibitions are a huge amount of work that take very much of our time and resources to realise, so we’ll only do them if we truly think the photographer is unique. Like with Lorenzo Vitturi, Eric Gottesman or Lua Ribeira. We look at a lot of photography all the time and there’s so much repetition and re-hashing of old ideas going on, it’s really very hard to find something unique. I mean there’s a great deal of good photography, but we don’t need to fill a calendar of shows with our space. We only do shows if we think there’s something so great, it really needs showing. That’s the big advantage we have with our space. If there isn’t anything we want to show, we are simply shut.
LJ: What impact has Fishbar had on your own photography practice?
PE: It’s hard to say, I’m sure that I’ve become a very good editor which benefits my own work to a degree. Also working with interesting photographers is always an inspiration. But on a practical level, the amount of work we put into Fishbar is also a distraction. I’ve never seen it as a drain on my time though or I wouldn’t be doing it. I’m very proud of all the shows and publications we’ve done with Fishbar and in a way that’s become part of my practice as a photographer.
LJ: Aside from your focus on unique work, what sets Fishbar aside from other publishers/galleries?
PE: We know a bunch of people who do similar things to us now. But I think when we started out we were the only photography space in London run by photographers that was showing and publishing other photographers’ work as well. And one of our big privileges has always been to have a physical space in London to showcase work and have openings and most importantly for us to create a sense of community. One of the things that we enjoy most at Fishbar is to do our annual market, where we bring loads of new work from many photographers and publishers together and throw a big party for everyone to meet and hang out. Usually around Christmas. Of course, long before us there were Gigi and Hannah at Trolley who were doing wonderful books and also had a little gallery in Shoreditch and I’ve always loved what they were doing.
LJ: What’s the future for Fishbar?
PE: Right this moment we’re taking a few steps back. Our second daughter was born half a year ago and between two small children, Olivia’s commitments at Magnum and earning a living as photographers, it’s a bit of a squeeze. But more widely, we’re also feeling right now there’s a bit of a glut in the photo-book world. Things have gone a bit mad, with every two week project being turned into a self-published photo-book and photo book festivals popping up everywhere but with no sense that there’s an adequate marketplace or audience for all these objects and projects. But on a whole it’s of course great that photography is finding new forms and is creating new platforms for itself and Fishbar will continue to be part of the conversation in the future.
LJ: How is this glut affecting your own work and Fishbar? Do you think an adequate marketplace for photo-books will grow in the near future?
PE: I think the audience for photo-books is growing all the time, it’s just that in recent years the offering in photo-books has far outgrown the audience. The thing I am always looking out for is the moment when, and if, photo-books stop being a niche-item and percolate into the real book world. That might of course never happen, but if it did it would confirm everything Olivia and I have been working for with Fishbar. If photo-book authors could sell tens of thousands rather than a few hundred it would allow authors to be paid and make a living off photo-books; I think ultimately that’s a crucial piece that’s missing from the photo-book world at the moment. On that note, I would also really like to see a collated list of best sellers, if that was at all possible. For instance I find it really useful to look at Martin Amis’ list of what sells best at any particular month. But the problem is that everyone is guarding their numbers with jealousy, I suspect to hide the fact that lots of books don’t sell very well at all. As far as Fishbar is concerned, we will continue to promote the work we love, but we are currently holding back on book releases. That said, there definitely will be more books in the future, simply because we love the process of creating books too much to stop doing it!
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