Book Market Statements: Sebastian Arthur Hau

by Unseen September 15 2017

Since the 2017 editions of Unseen Book Market and Photobook Week Aarhus take place during the same weekend, we are launching a joint discussion on the role of the photobook market today. The project Market? What Market? is kicking off with a series of three entries on Unseen Amsterdam’s website, written by guest contributors Gerry Badger, Olivier Cablat and Sebastian Arthur Hau. Conversations surrounding the issues raised by the authors will continue during the roundtable discussions in Aarhus and Amsterdam, and all content will be made available to download in an online booklet after the main events, including additional unique materials by Natalia Baluta and Carlos Spottorno.

Details for the simultaneous roundtable events are as follows:

Photobook Week Aarhus
Getting It Out There: Publishing and Distributing the Photobook
Fri 22 Sept
11.00-12.00

Unseen Book Market
Making, Sharing, Selling: The Photobook Market Today
Sun 24 Sept
16.00-17.00

In our last discussion, Sebastian Arthur Hau takes the stand and shares his views on founding major photobook markets Cosmos and Polycopies, and his perspective of today’s photobook community.

Market

When Olivier Cablat and I set up the first Supermarkt as an offspace at the Rencontres d'Arles in 2009, it was an exhibition of 12 photographers and 5 independent publishers. We certainly didn't imagine it would soon become Cosmos - the primary photobook market in France hosting more than 90 publishers each July since 2014. We also never imagined there would be an emergence of a wave of new book publishers, or a renewed interest in different forms of photography from all over the world.

Over the years we have shifted the focus of the market, from wanting to present publishers that bring the best and most experimental books to actively discussing and promoting diversity and inclusivity. The reason for this shift is rooted in the fact that we have become less interested in our own filters and more interested in unexpected and challenging exchanges.

In the beginning, it was important for us to bring the best books to the Arles Photography Festival, and event that initially had no interest in them. But it evolved into Cosmos - a very dynamic event that includes exhibitions, talks, performances, participatory online projects it's own pdf award and a photobook market that is the largest of its kind in Europe.

New questions arise - since most of us are not what was once called a professional in their respective fields, everyone is constantly confronted with challenges resulting from competence, knowledge, sociability issues, things that are constantly discussed among our peers and in the so-called photobook community, on social media, and during the festivals and events we attend and organize. 

After this year's edition our partner, the Rencontres festival has observed that we are indeed institutionalizing ourselves, but it certainly doesn't feel that way. Every book on the tables, every book sold or discovered counts for us, and we're still trying to be attentive to every little detail. And it's also true that Cosmos is obviously conceived in the way we idealize photography, without barriers nor separations, as an open space shared, where roles can change and shift, exchanges are non-hierarchical, where the creation of art is privileged, where forms of photography exist next to one another, also able to shift and change when necessary, where form is just a question and a temporary solution. With all of the confusion this entails.

Polycopies, a book market during the Paris Photo week that I have run with Laurent Chardon since 2013,

is more privileged. We share the interest in books as collectors and makers, and Polycopies again is the kind the place conceived according to our own ideals (by which I mean that it might also confuse the average visitor with a complex layout that has something of a blown-up bookshop). But for Polycopies, due to the set-up we chose, the boat, the selection of publishers is still the guiding principle.

We are not alone, we have never considered ourselves to be alone, separate from other institutions, but we consider first and foremost the books and works, and we know that collectors and passionate book and photography lovers follow us.

But a market place dealing with such a complex material as photography books and art books for us is not a calm place concentrating on the transaction only. The music we play, the food and drinks we sell, the discussions, collaborations and presentations are all based on principles of participation (that is - people professionalizing themselves -seeking ways to realize projects together) and exchanges of knowledge.

We do like a certain nervousness which is in great contrast to the calm with which you enter into your house, open the one or two books you're bringing back, settle down into your seat and slowly dive into them and they into you.

Community

I am of the generation in which community plays a prominent role. A sense of belonging is strong for us – be it in politics, social media, and social or artistic projects. The post-WWII generations were different – they idealised quitting, running away, and cutting ties. Our generation wants to belong and be a part of something. I wholeheartedly buy into the rhetoric of the photobook community, but I can say very little about it. Do we have principles, ideals, or shared interests? 

Because when there is too much talk about book prices and prizes, values going up and down, best-of lists, I lose hope, because everything feels quite empty and commercial. Is it not true that we share internationalist, inclusive, pacifist, pro-european, democratic ideas? Does the open-mindedness that each book requires, the world-views, complex narratives, stories in all of those books not necessarily require an open-minded community ready to exchange ideas and engage in difficult topics at all times? But that is my reductionist mind-set, and over the years I've learned to give (a little) more time to things evolving. I'm adding these questions about community as a second part of this little text because my mind shies away from the more complex economical questions. Each time a reporter asks me, what about the "photobook-bubble", self-publish-boom, "are there too many books?", my mind goes 'blink' and I have to hold back on my emotions. People using words like ‘boom’ and ‘bubble’ seem to think within the economics of Silicon Valley, but applying these macro-economical questions to photobooks doesn’t work and doesn't provide the tools for an analysis that's necessary.  And yet we do, many of us, search for ways of living with our crafts and arts, as organizers we have to work out new and better ways for books to find a public, and analyzing the market can certainly not be a bad thing. Both Polycopies and Cosmos have always felt the tension between being a place that works for affectionati and people who are interested in discovering while also showing a slight disregard to a new public that needs a helping hand and to be guided through the amount of books and works presented.

I place to much of my trust in everyone just liking what they like, being interested in what's interesting, talking about what they need to talk about etc etc. But do I live by these principles? Can I afford to defend them and carry on reproducing them? Is this what is needed today?

Books

I remember the director of a big fair once telling me that the cultural program of an event is like the lights on a christmas tree, I remember a gallerist once telling me that photobooks are just vehicles for selling physical prints or works. Countless people have told me that there are already too many books. I'm sure my fellow book dealers, publishers and artists have suffered from this disregard of photobooks, and it has taken me a long time to forge my high-brow booklover's attitude into something more supple and invisible. And yet, here I am, writing those quotes - the books certainly need no one to defend them in times of affluence and peace such as ours, do they? Maybe what we are in fact defending is the possibility of such a community as ours, open-minded, ready to exchange in unexpected encounters, meeting the other, finding out about the world, however utopian that might seem. The books are just one part of this, and their business-model is a complex and difficult as it ever was.

I'm hoping with however abbreviated and personal my thoughts are my fellow-bloggers and the organizers and participants of the talk to take place at Unseen, aswell as the readers of this blog will find something to hold on to, to critizise or correct. Thank you for your attention!

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Sebastian Arthur Hau worked at the Schaden Bookshop for ten years. During five years he has written the photobook reviews section of Foam Magazine, and has contributed numerous articles to international magazines. Hau has founded the bookshop at Le Bal in Paris, running it for six years. He has organised and curated a number of exhibitions on photography and books, and directs the photobook markets Polycopies and Cosmos. He teaches a regular Masterclass on Photography Books for the Magnum Agency.