Interview with publisher Ron Jude of A-Jump Books

© Danielle Mericle from Seneca Ghosts

Ithaca, NY publishers Ron Jude and Danielle Mericle founded A-Jump books in 2006 with the release of Jude's Alpine Star. Since then they have published another of Jude's work simply titled Postcards and Mericle's simple and elegant images of the white deer of upstate New York, Seneca Ghosts. Upcoming titles The Photograph Commands Indifference by Nick Muellner (Summer/Fall 2008), The History of Photography in Pen and Ink (Fall 2008) by Charles Woodard and Big Pictures by Michael Book (Spring 2009). Ron Jude discusses their imprint in the following interview. (Cover images below from Moscow Plastic Arts by Nick Muellner and The History of Photography in Pen and Ink by Charles Woodard)

© Ron Jude from Postcards

MM: What made you want to self-publish? Have you had any experiences with publishers in the past?

RJ: I had a single, very specific project (Alpine Star) I wanted to publish, and it really only made sense as an artist’s book. Artist’s books are typically self-published. Alpine Star, like other artist’s books, was a self-contained piece, sort of like a high-end multiple. That is, it wasn’t a book that made reference to some other form of the work like an exhibition, and it wasn’t a summary of a body of work or a career. With artist’s books the book is the work. I think that’s an important distinction to make here, because this idea would come to define what we’re trying to do with A-Jump Books. I had no experience with publishing at that point, except for exhibition catalogs, and I usually didn’t have much input on those in terms of design and layout. A-Jump Books, as an imprint, began very organically. When I was designing Alpine Star I figured it would be cool to invent a pseudo publisher for the book. Danielle Mericle (my partner) and I came up with “A-Jump Books” over dinner one night, and I spent the next couple of days designing the ski jumper logo. Once we published Alpine Star, we decided A-Jump should publish more than just one title, because we really loved the process. In a way, what we aim to do is similar to what Nexus Press did in Atlanta, but instead of operating an actual printing facility where artists come to physically produce their books, we’re simply acting as facilitators. We want to help people design and realize their concepts for projects that make sense in the book format, and we also handle details like choosing a printer and placing the book in appropriate outlets for purchase. The types of books that we want to publish are small-run, photo-based books. We’re trying to create an outlet for books that have good production values, yet don’t seem at home in the more typical artist’s monograph context. (Books that wouldn’t make sense for a publisher like, say, Nazraeli Press.) Because we see these publications as artist’s books, you will likely never see academic essays in our books. (This is not to say you will never see text.) We want to help people make books that rely solely on the enigmatic qualities of the images and invite multiple, equally valid interpretations.

MM: There seems to be a trend in photography now which I started to perceive a few years ago with J&L Books, your company A-Jump, and The Ice Plant and continued with others like Hassla, Farewell and Decode Books, among others, of establishing an imprint to self-publish and then start to publish the work of others. Why did you elect to start with your own work and then why did you choose the others including the upcoming titles?

RJ: I started with self-publishing for purely pragmatic reasons as I outlined in my previous answer. That is, I had a book I needed to print, so I did it. Before that, being a publisher was never really on my radar as an aspiration. Once I did it for the first time, however, I realized how much damn fun and satisfying it is and I wanted to keep doing it. As far as how that segued into books by other people, I think it also made sense for Danielle and I to start with our own books because we were (and are) still learning the process of what it takes to competently produce and distribute a book. I much prefer the idea of using ourselves as guinea pigs. If we screw something up on our own books, whether in the design or printing or distribution, we feel bad about it, but we don’t feel guilty. We’re at the point now where we feel confident enough in what we’ve learned so far that we can start testing the waters with other artist’s books. In the case of Nick Muellner’s book, The Photograph Commands Indifference, we’ve been very hands-off in the process of getting that one done. We’re willing to offer as little or as much help in the production of the book as the artist needs. Nick happens to know a great deal about designing books and going on press, so we’re really just providing a publisher’s identity and distribution. On the other hand, we’re involved in pretty much every aspect of Charles Woodard’s History of Photography in Pen and Ink, and Michael Book’s Big Pictures. We actively chose those particular projects. We knew of the work and we thought it would work well with A-Jump. We’re working very slowly, in concentric circles, in terms of broadening who and what we’re publishing.
I’m glad you mentioned J&L and The Ice Plant. These are two great publishers who really know what they’re doing. Jason Fulford was incredibly helpful to us and very generous with information about how to get started. (Information I’m sure he and Leanne Shapton figured out the hard way.) I see these smaller, independent presses almost like indie record labels. (Can you imagine, even now, Will Oldham getting a record deal with a major label?) They’ve democratized the world of quality photography books. It used to be that you had to hustle your way into the commercial gallery world and achieve a level of pre-validation before more established presses like Aperture would publish a monograph of your work. (I don’t fault Aperture for this—photography books are incredibly expensive to publish, and of course, a publisher typically wants to have some sense that they’ll at least make their money back on the initial investment.) In many cases, by the time the photographs finally got published it was more like a eulogy to the work and the artist than a celebration of fresh ideas! On the other end of the spectrum you had Xerox copied staple-bound artist’s books that, although sometimes very cool, weren’t a viable format for serious photographers who employ at least some small level of craft in their work. I think what J&L and The Ice Plant, and now Hassla, Farewell, and Decode are offering the photography world is an opportunity to see beautifully published, quality work in a variety of book formats, by artists whose work you haven’t necessarily seen in Chelsea or at MOMA. There are few reasons publishing this type of book is now possible, not the least of which are the advent of software like InDesign, and dramatically lower printing costs. The other, more important aspect of all this, I think, is a fundamental shift in attitude on the part of serious young photographers. As conceptual art practices became less and less distinct from the concerns of traditionally-minded photographers, you started to see self-published books in the spirit of Ed Ruscha’s photobooks being produced by artists who self-identify as photographers, and who are seeking a photography audience. (Unlike Ruscha, who never considered himself a photographer.) It seems like a natural next-step that these photographers would eventually formalize this process and start publishing other people’s work.

MM: There is a relationship between you and the aforementioned The Ice Plant who is publishing your next book. How did this relationship begin? Why publish with this imprint and not your own for your next book?

RJ: I’d been working on a body of work for about six or seven years that I knew would eventually become a book. Finally, last year, I spent several months working on a basic layout and design concept until I felt like I had something coherent. I originally thought that it would, in fact, be an A-Jump book. When I stepped back from it and looked at it objectively, however, I realized that it didn’t really feel like what we set out to do with A-Jump Books. It occupies a space that’s between what we’re doing and what a publisher like Nazraeli is doing.
I met Mike Slack and Tricia Gabriel in Los Angeles in early 2007 when I was out there shooting some of the final photographs for this book, and we seemed to share a similar sensibility—I immediately felt comfortable around them. I really liked Mike’s two books (OK, OK, OK and Scorpio), and Jason Fulford’s Selling Frogs for $$$, so I thought I’d show them the mock-up for what would eventually become Other Nature and see if they were interested in publishing it. It sounds a bit like nepotism, but I really didn’t know them very well at the time. In fact, I was pretty nervous about contacting them because I liked them and I didn’t want them to think I was some sort of sleazy opportunist! We ended up having several long phone conversations about the work and how it functioned as a book and eventually we all decided that it felt right and that we would collaborate on it. A month or two later I flew to Los Angeles and, after convincing Jacques Marlow that this was an appropriate project for The Ice Plant, we spent three days really hashing out the book. It was at that point I knew I was working with exactly the right people. I absolutely trust their instincts. Having never really collaborated on anything before, I was initially very nervous, but now I couldn’t be happier. They’ve helped me make Other Nature a better book. (The three of us are headed to Korea on August 8th to go on press for the printing of Other Nature and Charles Gute’s Revisions and Queries. Jacques rarely travels by air, so he’ll be holding down the fort in L.A. for the duration of our trip.)

MM: Who designed and printed the books? How many did you print?

RJ: I designed Alpine Star and Postcards. Mike Lehman at Cohber Press in Rochester, NY oversaw the printing. The funny thing about Alpine Star is that as low-end as the reproductions are supposed to look (they’re supposed to simulate the look and feel of newspaper reproductions), they were actually pretty difficult to print. I had to find a printer who knew his way around stochastic printing, which is a process that incorporates irregular half-tone dots, rather than a regular screen pattern. It was the only way to avoid the moir√© pattern that occurs when you reproduce a previously half-toned image. An expensive printing process to produce results that look cheap! Moscow Plastic Arts was designed by Nick Muellner, and Printed by Eastwood Litho in Syracuse, NY. This is another case of a really difficult printing job for something that’s supposed to resemble faded industrial catalog reproductions from the Soviet Union. Eastwood did a fantastic job with this book. (To complicate matters, it was printed on cheap, manila card-stock.) Seneca Ghosts was sequenced and designed by Danielle Mericle, and I did the cover design. Eastwood Litho did the printing on this one as well. (We started working with Eastwood Litho because of the great work they do on Light Work’s publication, Contact Sheet.) Typically we want our books to have small runs— 500 copies of each book. Moscow Plastic Arts had a print run of 1250, primarily because it was also being used as an exhibition catalog for a show Nick did at Arcadia University in Philadelphia.

MM: How do you accept proposals? Or do you accept proposals?

RJ: As I mentioned earlier, at this point it’s pretty slow going, so we’re not really in the position to look at unsolicited book proposals. I know that sounds lame (I’m usually on the other end of inquiring about submissions), but due to time constraints (Danielle and I both have full-time jobs), and financial considerations, we don’t want to commit ourselves to worthy projects, only to have the process take way too long. We hope, however, that we’ll eventually be able to formalize a submission process and really be able to help photographers realize their projects in book form. For now, we’re seeking out the books that A-Jump will publish, and it usually involves most of the financing coming from the artist.

MM: How would you recommend a photographer get funding for his or her project aside from personal funds? Do limited edition prints help?

RJ: I don’t have any experience with the limited edition approach. I guess enough people do it that it must work to some degree. Traditional print sales and grants are my main source of funding so far. I’m pretty lazy about selling my work, but if I’ve got something specific that needs a funding boost, like a book or a shooting trip, I can usually rally and sell a few prints. Otherwise, I always recommend that people look into whatever sort of local, regional, or national grant opportunities are out there. I couldn’t have produced either of my first two artist’s books without grants.

MM: Who is your favorite photographer or one who has impacted your life and work?

RJ: There are a lot of people whose work I like to look at but there are a couple who, although they seem miles apart in some respects, have had a tremendous influence on my thinking about photography. William Eggleston (such an obvious answer, I know), whose photographs always surprise me and seem to absolutely fulfill the potential of the medium, and Richard Prince, whose incorporation of photography into a larger conceptual program has helped bridge the gap between “photographers” and “artists who use photography.” I should also mention John Gossage. His book, The Pond was incredibly important to me when I was just starting out. John, who I got to know personally years later, has also been a professional mentor and good friend.

MM: In your personal work, are you influenced by other mediums other than photography?

RJ: Anything that’s interesting, really. I try pretty hard not to be too photocentric in my tastes. (Although, admittedly, I tend to relate things I like in other media back to photography.) I love Gabriel Orozco’s sculptural work (especially the stuff that’s filtered through photography), and of course there’s David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Larry David.

MM: What blogs do you read? magazines?

RJ: I have to admit, I’m not that tuned into the blogosphere. I read Shawn Records’ 40 Watt now and again, mainly because he’s a good friend, but also because he’s incredibly smart and incredibly funny. Good combination. Of course, the Melanie McWhorter photo blog is now on my reading list! As far as magazines go, I look at the usual suspects: ArtForum; Blind Spot; Backwoods Home, etc.

MM: What is your favorite book, photo or otherwise?

RJ: Photo: Los Angeles Spring, by Robert Adams (with William Eggleston’s Los Alamos as a close second).
Otherwise: Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre (with Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye as a distant second.)

MM: Do you have an odd or funny photography related story?

RJ: Here’s a good one—it’s not that funny or odd, but it’s good trivia: when I was in elementary school in the 70s, Barbara Morgan—the teacher-in-space—taught me how to build and use a pinhole camera. It was my first darkroom experience. Beyond that, nothing funny has ever happened to me due to my involvement with photography. There has been plenty of tragedy when it comes to my career, which some people might find funny, but I’ll save that for my therapist.

MM: What hobbies or interests do you have?

RJ: I grew up ski racing in Idaho, but I haven’t done much skiing since moving back east. (The “A-Jump” was a very large ski-jump at my hometown ski hill. It scared the crap out of me.) Otherwise, Danielle and I own a 140 year-old Italianate in downtown Ithaca. If you call home restoration a hobby, well then I have a really major hobby.


Anonymous said...

What a thoughtful, wide-ranging conversation. Ron sent me the link to your blog and I'm glad to be able to add it to my reading list. All best to Ron and Danielle for a successful trip to Korea.

Buzz Spector

Melanie McWhorter said...

I forgot to mention that Ron will be doing a story about being on press in Korea. I will post after he returns.