Beyond Words managed to speak to The Velvet Cell founder Éanna de Fréine, to find out more about why he started publishing photobooks, his inspirations and what the future may hold:
What motivated you to set yourself up as a publisher?
Good question. I think what motivated me the most was the idea of having a collection of books that looked at cities through the window of photography in a way that was both artistically engaging and critically. At the beginning I couldn’t find enough books of this ilk, and later I was really inspired by small indie publishers that waited for no-one before releasing small editions and intimate books.
What are you looking for in a book you are considering publishing? How much is it a matter of your taste/enthusiasm and how much does it depend on the marketplace?
For me I’m always looking for work that fits our manifesto; ideally this is work that looks at modernity, urbanism and, more specifically, cities. Each new book I make should be an extension of this conversation about the world that we are making for ourselves in recent decades. How do these places reflect us as a species and our inherent qualities?
Because of this, it is completely a matter of taste (as long as it falls within our range). Many a great project I have had to turn away because it just doesn’t fit in with our focus but that is my prime interest in publishing – to create a platform for this specific kind of work. The marketplace also does figure – it is easier to sell the work of someone who has a reputation already – or should I say it’s very hard to sell work by someone who does not have a reputation no matter how great I think the work is – unfortunately. This is a sad fact I’ve discovered in recent times.
What do you try to do that is different from what a mainstream art book publisher is trying to achieve?
In many ways not much – I think we are all trying to represent work that we admire and
respect and want to stand behind. But I suppose we differ in the sense that we are often not motivated by money first, and we like to give a platform to more obscure projects, I suppose, as I mentioned before, that for me The Velvet Cell is a very narrowly-focused publisher whose work you either like or don’t like, and I think that makes us different from most mainstream publishers who publish an array of different styles and genres.
What do you know now that you most wish you’d known before you started?
To put it bluntly – that no one cares like you do. For a long time I felt the books were underappreciated and I wished for more financial success with the books – but after time, and speaking to a lot of other publishers, you come to the conclusion that is very much a niche thing, you do it for the love of it and you can’t expect others to have the same enthusiasm for all your books and projects that you do. It’s easy to feel disappointed but remember, no one promised you anything!
You started your own publishing enterprise at a time when digital and social media is transforming the landscape for photography. What do you feel is the distinctive contribution that books continue to make to the development of the medium?
I am yet to see anything like a book that can show off a project in its full glory. Social media is ephemeral and photographs on a digital screen just don’t hold the same sway. Some of my books have come from me seeing work digital and just needing to put it into a more finished and final form: the book.
Which other publishers do you follow with most interest?
Oh too many to speak of. I really admire the work being done by other publishers like TVC, even when the work is not to my taste – I appreciate the difficulties involved – both mental and otherwise. One of my favourites is Peperoni Books, Hartmann Books and Hoxton Mini Press.
But in recent times I’ve stopped looking at other publishers – it’s easy to see a website and for it to conjure images of grand success and prestige from a few nicely laid out pages. Nowadays I prefer to just stick to what I am doing and not got distracted by others. But I wish them all success!
Which photobooks from the last couple of years have impressed you most? Looking further back, which earlier photobooks do you find yourself going back to for continuing inspiration?
Funnily enough I find myself going back to a lot of books by Hatje Cantz in the early 2000s. Books by Peter Bialobrzeski, Sze Tsung Leong and others. Having spent the last 4 years moving between 3 different countries I’ve had to keep my book collection to a minimum. I’m really enjoying a lot of independently published work coming out these days – it’s great to see artists being in control of what they make instead of reliant on publishers always.
What new titles or initiatives can we look forward to from you over the next year or two?
At the moment I’m working on a few separate projects that I’m hoping will see the light of day before the end of 2018. My hope is that they will inform and expand on the 60 books we have already published since 2012.
More generally, what are your hopes and fears for the future of photobooks?
My hopes are that it can become more sustainable from a publishing perspective, but also that a more critical culture arises that discusses these books. Look at music and film – there is a whole industry dedicated to just talking about the work, but in photography, and particular photography books, it’s hard to get critical voices reviewing the books.
My fears meanwhile are that everyone loses interest in the work I’m trying to make and disappears! Either that or it consumes me until I have to pull the plug. Drastic I know!