Interview with Pierre Bessard, Part 2

Xu Yong, This Face

Melanie McWhorter: Smaller publishers in Paris are starting to come to the forefront in recognition internationally. Do you think there is a renaissance in French publishing with events like Publish It Yourself and the Offprint Paris held there and smaller French publishers attempting to break out of an older model?

Pierre Bessard: I do not know, I think a sociologist might give you the answer,  but nobody thinks it is a lack of support amongst the French photographers, or our cultural minister. Nothing is done in France, I have never seen a great retrospective exhibit about a French photographer. The Netherlands fascinates me the most outside of China, which is now taking the art world by surprise!

MM: Douglas Stockdale mentions in a piece that you had a not-so-good experience with a printer in China. What did you learn from that experience that you would use for future publishing? 

PB: As you know, I worked with the best printer in China: best trained technicians, the most well-known printer there was. This combined with a country who has the most enthusiasm to conquer the world through economics, wants to be the leader of the world (look at the example of the train in Tibet) is moved by the energy and the faith which we have lost in the Occidental European and USA countries.

When Ramadan in Yemen by Max Pam was about to be published, the Chinese printing industry was undergoing internal battles: companies were doing all they could to steal the best technicians from each other. This is exactly what had happened to the printer I had selected. His best employees had gone to work for his challenger. So I had to work with a new team that I did not know. It was a bad timing for the book! My Chinese friends – I call them friends because they come home for dinner when they tour Europe following the Frankfurt Fair – did print the book a second time, for free, since it was badly cut. We lost time, but everything fell into places… and none losing face.

Pierre Bessard, Chattanooga, the Green Factory

MM: Are all the steps in pre-production done in China or do you work with others in Europe or elsewhere before the project is sent overseas? Who does the design of your books? What are some of you considerations when thinking about the book as object? 

PB: The book concept, design, the pre-production stages, all those elements are decided individually with each project that I am publishing, and of course in relation to the topic of the book. From that point on, I pick a specific designer who will work on the book. The designer and I are working together as a team. There is huge groundwork behind making a photobook. I am getting to know the different partners one has to work within the industry. I spend a lot of time in libraries; I do design reviews, and of course surf a lot on the net and travel a lot to capture the latest trends. 

Typography of the texts in the book is also a sensitive choice. It has to match the topic of the photo work. To understand and learn about typography, I have read many books on the subject… my next book on Wang Qingsong work has a type by Peter Bilak, who is one of the world top type designer.

In China, we make the choice of material, colors, textile, boxes, shapes, finishing. For Chen Jiagang’s book, I worked with a professional from the luxury goods industry. The slipcase will be made in wood. I am thinking about the wood spices to be used, its feel, its color. I was running late on that project but do not want to make a mistake.

For that book, I went twice to China to pick the material and work with the printer on how to make this book. It is a complicated conception. The designer himself made a video to explain his choice. For my book Chattanooga, the Green Factory, I was turned down by several printing companies, telling me the book will be technically impossible to make, but it does exist today! There are always many discussions, but I have a great complicity with the printing team in China.

For the Wang Qingsong, a sculptor made a bronze carved sheet for 50 of the top covers. 

Bronze has been used for thousands years by craftsmen and artists. Techniques to produce the soft color of the aging metal, verdigris, has been the same over the millenniums: the artist paints acid on the mildly heated metal to produce the chemical process creating oxidation. When the color is right, a wax cast is melted on the bronze to stop the chemical process. For each piece, this work can take from a few hours to a few days, depending on the expectation. 

The patina changed the bronze color towards green. It would not look good anymore with the Parma of the cover anymore. The Chinese marketing director at the print shop sent me an email with pictures and examples of covers, and I had to make another choice. We went for a darker Bordeaux color. 

So far, the artists I work with have all been giving their ‘ok to print’ at the printer workshop, standing by the printing press, after we all agreed on what we want or can do. Working as a team has been a success and Chen Jiagang, Max Pam, Claire Martin -- all wish to print their next book with the Edition Bessard. Those artists I have been mentioning are extremely demanding which is good, makes me think I am on the right track.

Zhu Mo
Zine Collection N°3

The Emptiness (with signed print)
MM: The Zine Collection will feature work by a well-known photographer. Each publication in an edition of 100 copies. How will you choose these photographers and why such a limited edition and in this format?

 PB: Talking about the “Zine Collection”, we use Risographie technique. The format was picked by a group of young designers, 23 years old, talented. Risographie technique is a complicated technique (printing with a cylinder pressure process), limiting the choices in paper size. I might change to another technique, but not the collection concept itself.
To print in black and white, we use the same technique and will not modify the current format. However, the paper may change depending on the photographs. But there is always an original color photo signed by the artist that can be from his latter production or older 

Pablo Ortiz Monasterio
Zine Collection N°2
Nuevos Reinos (with signed print)
This young team of designers is working hard to produce the finest work. For instance, the text on page one is laid out in a single column. They created a logo and we had to make an embossing stamp for the Editions Bessard logo applied on the cover.
The “Zine Collection” is limited to one hundred copies for each artist and I do not wish to print more. Too much inventory and I like things to be rare, LOL…

Some collectors buy each and everything I print, and I am happy to notice that this group of followers is increasing in size. On the Zine No. 1, the Print Shop forgot to use folded staples. This will be modified, for the next in the edition. I am currently working on a colored Zine. I experimented with two different techniques for printing in two different factories.

The choice of artist resembles my own photo collections: different styles, each photographer having his or her own universe, leading me to dream. I can also work with famous artist or older ones. This is the case with a future project with a Mexican photographer I totally admirer.

Sometimes, I get a call from an artist who bought books from us, so I take the time to look at their work, discover their style, visit their website, exchange mails to get to know them better. If I have the opportunity to establish a contact in between them and someone who can help them, I will.

MM: First, what do you feel is the most difficult challenge for publishing? Second, when looking to finance a book project, what advice do you have for a photographer who wishes to self-publish or to work with a publisher?

PB: While thinking about the answer to the first part of your question….each step is difficult in itself, I can draw a parallel with the challenge of climbing one of the most difficult mountains and reaching the top…. Once you start you ought to reach your goal. Each step you take going up across the rocks and the ice will give you a sense satisfaction. To achieve these goals, I have the capability to find the right people to work with. The major difficulty I have is to control books distribution. Booksellers take 57% plus 7% sales taxes. This is a challenge to me. One may see the making of the book as being the most complicated task of producing the work of a photographer while distribution is the most sensitive issue to me.

To answer the second question… If a photographer has taken remarkable images and has a good project, then is not recognized. He or she can then attempt to self-publish. I would not advise on using Blurb, the self-publishing website except for some specific projects I have in mind Andrea Schmidt and his book  -- The Lonely Christmas Tree Picture Album – for this project, doing it with Blurb was useful. 

I just refused to publish a photographer’s work. The artist came to me with the project of taking pictures of his region, having received funding from a regional Institution of 15,000 euros, and a guarantee to purchase his book. I have never received any public funding as a publisher. 

MM: There are many photographers whose goal is to produce a book. Do you have advice for those artists regarding self-publishing or looking for a publisher? Do you accept submissions?  

PB:I receive about six book projects each week. If you are always turned down by publishers, you should self-publish your project and put in the same amount of effort and enthusiasm you put into your work. 

Each publisher has his own style and specific approach, not always the same as the artist coming to see him… diversity, otherwise the world would not be so interesting.
Photographers are sometimes sending you a very short e-mail :  “I would like to make a book with you, here is the link to my website” This is exactly like if a boy in the street would try to catch a girl screaming at her face : “Do you want to fuck hon?”

What is the common ground for a successful photography book: good pictures, a good concept, a nice design and a beautiful contemporary typography. However, to me, let’s go one step further: a beautiful paper, texture, material (leather, fabric), embossing, handmade binding, green labeled ink…. All those elements are interlaced with the story of the book itself. I do not dissociate the book as an object from the book concept.

A good path to follow is to make a partnership with a designer. I am thinking about the book of Elizabeth Avedon or another one from Sybren Kuiper. And why not, tablet apps can be a good alternative to photobooks while waiting to be published.

I am always open and listen to ideas brought to me, but it is true that today, my main focus is on selling my books to generate income to finance more project for the Editions Bessard.

Today, I do not have the financial means to publish, but it is interesting to be in touch with authors, to get to know their work and to know them better personally. If I like a photographer, I will keep myself updated on his or her work.


Interview with publisher Pierre Bessard, Part 1

Tipped in print from Zine Collection No. 1by Claire Martin

Pierre Bessard has a quiet but ubiquitous Facebook presence. For weeks, I would log on, see the name Editions Bessard had liked most of the posts that caught my attention. I began to wonder, "who is this Editions Bessard?" It seem that he was sincere and extremely interested in each push of the button display of his approval. He was passionate about photography. I started to investigate and discovered a worldly man who loves China, photography and mountain climbing. Editions Bessard has published over thirteen books including monographs by Bessard, Max Pam, Wang Quingsong, Xu Yong (out of print) and in the Zine Collection series, the works of Claire Martin (out of print), Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Zhu Mo and Max Pam. I conducted this interview some months back and some of the publications are not mentioned below. I welcome you to enjoy part one and two of the interview and explore the website of Editions Bessard.

Wang Qingsong, History Of Monuments (verso)

Melanie McWhorter: When and how did you start publishing? How has it changed from publishing your own work to expanding into publishing the work of artists like Max Pam with “Ramadan in Yemen” and the initial publication “Zine Collection series” with Claire Martin?  Why did you decide to start publishing other artist’s work?

Pierre Bessard: I have always had a passion towards collecting photography books and photographs, I have thousands: Robert Frank (Vintage, The Americans) Lee Friedlander (Self-portrait), Lewis Baltz, Joel-Peter Witkin…, so, it has come naturally to me to become a publisher. A book is a natural extension of all my photographic work. It is such an important part of my work, that the idea behind the book is always planned before I start shooting. My work philosophy is that pictures are meant to be published in a book rather than been seen individually. Photographs do not have a sense, an effect, or a meaning if they are not created to belong to an edition. From this moment on, I confess my goal: to materialize reality in a limited number of photographs, eventually making this reality obsolete.
However, publishing is not abandoning reality, on the contrary, techniques used in editing will translate and communicate that reality. Lead typography, phototypie, handmade paper, all those techniques are opposite to industrial publishing, and closer to human values…
To capture a meaningful image from the tangible world, to represent this world in which I wonder holding my camera, I need to find a means of communication one can read, look at, touch,hold,expose, feel, shuffle, page after page-- the book stimulates senses and pleases our needs for form and volume. My own vision of the world is precisely laid down within the space of a page and falls into place while interacting with texts originating from many places, different languages, alternative calligraphies and typographies, different textures. For instance, the collotype process producing a powder effect, perfectly illustrates the search for a texture on a photograph. This is why giving a documentary angle to my work is always linked to an aesthetic intention where the book emerges as a coincidence.

I started my publishing company two years ago. This is the time it has taken me to complete the legal work, organize logistics and production. I was only able to launch the first book six months ago. I wanted to start with the Australian Photographer Max Pam. He’s had the freedom to travel and photograph, he is young…. This makes me dream and I like his travel diary… reminds me of Jules Vernes! 

Pierre Bessard, The Green Factory (cover)

MM: The books that have been published of your photographs – Behind China Growth, Wuhan Boiler Company Workers, Journal de Chine, and Chattanooga, The Green Factory—all have common elements of working people in two different nations. What are some of the variations you saw of the working conditions of those in the US verses China? Where these projects independent or were they sponsored by others? If by others, do you think that influenced some of your decisions about which images to photograph?

There are big differences between the two nations: in the US, workers can have a smoke break on the parking lot, they have enough time to take their car to go out of the workplace for lunch, and after 5pm everybody goes home. Salaries in the US are higher even compared to France and the cost of living is lower.

In China, citizens travel with an ‘inner-border passport’, the ‘Hukou’. This system is a discriminatory measure which allows the Government to control country folks inland migration. To work and live in a city, to access to medical insurance, to get a financial help from the State for housing, to register a child in a school, to benefit from unemployment allowance, you must have a ‘city Hukou’! In my book ‘Behind China’s Growth’, I recommend you take the time to read the interviews of the workers. These take you into their realities. For example, two lovers not getting married because their boy was born out of Peking and the grandfather refusing this marriage, explaining to his granddaughter this wedding would be too expensive. 

Alstom Idem in China is a company known to respect its employees, giving a lot of benefits such as meals facilities and paying for unemployment benefits. This respect does not always exist in China’s private factories. In my book ‘365 Days in China’, one can see that working condition differs greatly from one region to another. Dormitory towns are huge. Six to eight women sleep in the same room on the factory site. Conditions are even worst in smaller factories, where workers not only sleep, eat and work onsite, but never go home, for they do not have enough money to go home for the weekend to visit their families. China has a much more complex class system compared to Europe, and the less fortunate are still excluded from leisure time; however, the country is changing quickly. 

I made three ‘sponsored books’, part of the cultural policy of Alsthom. I was in touch with the VP and the President of the company, who gave me the freedom to work. The three books are totally different from each other, three different concepts, and three different angles. This corporate project had a great cultural impact, honorable press coverage and exhibits. Of course, it is important for a company to gain visibility and social recognition with the workers as well. When the book ‘Hunan Boiler Company’ was distributed to the Chinese employees, the Manager could see workers crying. This one book was telling the story of the tearing down of the factory built downtown in the 50S, and its rebuilding in the suburb. The emotion of the workers is the most valuable recognition of my work I could ever get. 

MM: Having traveled to China only once, I realize that my vision of this vast nation is very limited. You had the opportunity to visit many areas of this country. How did the project 365 days in China change your preconceived perceptions of that country?

PB: The first time I went to China was in 1986. After that, from 1991 on, I went 17 times to North Korea, and often would transit and stop in China. At this time, there were not many options to get there: the two other options being Berlin or Moscow. There is a long history between China and my own family. My wife’s grandfather is a well-known physician, President of numerous scientific societies, initiating cooperation between Chinese and French Univeristies… so China is part of our conversation at home.

After resigning from Agence France Presse, I declined the proposal of my friend Paik Soung Haig (Special Advisor to Kim Jong II) to spend a year in Pyongyang to complete my project on his country, and my wife and I decided to take the whole family to China for one year and this is the story in my book ‘365 days in China’.

Within two years, a city like Beijing will not be recognizable. Bicycles were everywhere before, but today, 40 000 new cars are on the streets of Beijing each month. In 1978, there were only 78 000 cars in Beijing; in 1985, 200,000; in 2010 4.76 million, according to the figures given by the city Municipal Commission itself. No comment! 
The Middle Kingdom achieved within ten years what took us fifty years to do. However, when I traveled to the US, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for my book Chattanooga The Green Factory, I was still totally into the ‘Chinese Dream’ and the “Be rich and shut up!”  SO, I was very surprised with the lack of dynamism in this American city. No crates, very few cars, only Protestant churches, and the Confederate Flags. I met with families living a comfortable lifestyle, what the ‘American dream’ meant to them. Reading the text illustrating the photos in my book is very important. 

Claire Martin, Zine Collection No. 1

MM: What participation did you have in the process and did this lead to you becoming a publisher? 

PB: Let me start my answer with this axiom illustrating photography: “Because it was, it is!” To print my first book in collotypie process, (300 copies (the maximum you can have with this process), using a cloth-like paper, a leading typography (from Jean Hofer). My friends pre-ordered this book to finance it so I could produce it. It was like receiving a wedding gift! The two other books are corporate books, and I imagined the design, the whole concept and the realization of it. Nonetheless, the book covers were made by George Chang, the ‘star designer’ in Beijing, the ‘Chinese’ Roman Ciesliewitz, who is a French-Polish famous artist I really like. I am also a painter and we get on well together. My friends who have galleries in Beijing introduced me to  Robert Bernell, the only foreigner owning a library on Chinese soil. Martin Parr, editor of Timezone8 always buys his books at Robert Bernell’s library when he is in Beijing. For the past ten years, Robert welcomes half a dozen photographers each week, and increasing even more since China is becoming a trendy destination. As he explains clearly, all photographers are modeled in the same way, with an Occidental image of China, and they all produce the same subjects. Depending on the years, we had work on the ‘mingongs’ who are the migrants seasonal workers in the larger towns, then the coal miners, the destruction of the ‘Hutongs’ (old neighborhood) in Beijing and Shanghai, then work on environmental issues.

Our angle on China was different. In the Book Behind China’s Growth, we covered inland China and looked at and tried to understand the work environment. The book includes interviews of the workers by Eric Meyer. This journalist did very good interviews because he is totally fluent in Chinese, having lived there for more than twenty years. The photos are 4x5 inches, shot with a Polaroid camera, which produces a B&W negative and some of them I chose to enlarge into a larger format to be painted. I actually painted the photo itself onto the negative.

Bob immediately organized an art exhibit in his Gallery and it sold very well, including a painting and its original photo to the famous movie director Wong Kar Wai. I was in touch with Wong Kar Wai with whom I was working on his next movie. I was travelling all over China with his fixer to shot a story on the Masters of Tai Shi Shuan.

We published two books with Robert. We had a very good understanding on a professional level so that my work would always totally fit the book he imagined.
Thanks to him I learned how to create a book, stage by stage, and to work with all the professionals implied in the production. The choice of binding, the color of the ink used for the embossing differs from the color of the ink used for the paper. For the book cover, one can choose from several types of fabrics conveying a different image for each book. I learned how to make handmade book boxes, how to make a book dummy, when to call for the final ‘OK to print’, and all the customs formalities and the shipping procedures either by sea or air.

Since I had ‘carte blanche’ from Bob, and I was hoping for a high quality of printing, I simply decided to do everything myself with all that was available to me. I have a photobook collection of thousands of copies, hence I have a good idea about where I was heading.

I also learned how to select the paper and the weight to represent the history and the concept of the book. For example, Behind China’s Growth is printed on 300 grams paper to represent the steel sheets of the iron industry. When you turn the pages you realize this is not just a book. 

Digital book on Ipad, Claire Martin

MM: I have noticed your presence on Facebook well before I had seen your books. There were many occasions where you responded to the posts of others involved in the photobook world and you seem to have more information about your publishing house on this site than on your website or blog. Do you think this has helped to promote your books and what do you see as the role of social media is in promoting Editions Bessard? 

PB: You are absolutely right, Facebook is a fantastic means of communication. Through social media, I can diversify my information and accept or create relationships with things and people that were previously unknown. I have started to construct a resourceful and an influential network on Facebook. With the release of my first book I have professional contacts, all due to the fact that I have learned to use this incredible tool. My blog is where I express how I encounter and learn about new elements and include promotional info on Editions Bessard: how I create a book, a piece by a journalist who wrote about the Editions Bessard, a video on one of our designers who filmed or created the principle ideas for the next project for the printer, a photo on the double page of the book. As well as I have sold the entire first “Zine Collection” in twenty-five days, a limited edition of one hundred copies with an original color and signed by the artist Claire Martin. Photo-eye purchased 10! I it is also a real exchange: you have nearly five thousands friends, all photographers, curator’s, bloggers. I pass the time looking at their images. It is necessary. This will allow me to strengthen the relationship with each person, in the view of everyone. I disregard images that do not show any substance or depth. For those who buy the Bessard editions, I spend my time looking at their websites, this makes the relationship stronger and I advise them and make suggestions for more contacts. For example, I started working with photographers in Spanish-speaking countries and I do hope to have more and more articles written in Spanish. That is one of my goals. Then, I went to Google, I started very slowly but I still do not manage to master the functions and to evaluate the impact it will have. Following that I tried videos, Youtube, Vimeo, Dailymotion. From this moment on, I confess my goal: to materialize reality in a limited number of photographs, eventually making this reality obsolete. Each book will have its own film, interview with the photographer, designer, typographer, etc. You can see, I am like a child growing up.


My Best Books of 2011

My list of Best Books of 2011 as posted on photoeye.com.

Mexico Roma.

Last year, Graciela Iturbide was able to actualize a long-awaited project with work she produced in Mexico City between 1974 and 2009 and Rome in 2007. Iturbide images make Rome fell like Mexico. The book is a small perfect bound object printed on a warm paper and wrapped in gray cover with simple adhesive labels that Iturbide bought in Bolivia adorning the exterior of the back and front covers. Each label displays the title and photographer's name handwritten by the photographer herself. With her multiple personal touches, each book a unique object. This book is modest, unassuming and sweet. 
Before Silence.

The stark blacks showing everyday moments remind me of black and white films. They are not as disquieting as the work of Ingmar Bergman or photographs of Anders Petersen, but Grate's work is buried in that of his Swedish predecessors. I want to live in the quiet moments of Before Silence

Jim Krantz's Homage is a benefit project for the Natural Resource Defense Council and houses essays by novelist Askold Melnyczuk, scientist Scott Clearwater, NRDC's Henry L. Henderson, blogger and recovering alcoholic John King, and Krantz. The publication is a well-rounded advocacy book project plus really well composed and produced images. 

I guess this is something that I should not truly admit, but I was never in love with the previous publications of Josef Koudleka's Gypsies work. This newer edition contains many more images than originally seen in the older editions and shows Koudelka as a master craftsman of imagery and visionary in book editing. 

Donald Weber's Interrogations illustrates Weber's love for his temporary home of the ex-Soviet Union and the bureaucracies and inequalities that still exist and often impede "progress." It is presented in three chapters: Prologue, which shows some images of daily life; Interrogations, portraits of confused, distressed and scared citizens being questioned by the authorities; and finishes with Epilogue by Larry Frolick and Weber, a text which further illustrates Frolick and Weber's love for the Russian citizens and their role in this project: "letting the denied tell their stories through you." The book is wrapped in a textured printed paper which mimics one of the wallpapers of the interrogation rooms and is stitched with one thread in the center. The uncut text block allows a play on design; the "creep" extends way beyond the cover. This element is clever design, but feels as though it may also be commentary on the character of those unseen in the second section. It is finished with a cardboard slipcase. It is so simple, but so intense. 

The conditions of the assassins and those living in Guatemala make up more of the story of Sicarios than just the killings. Many images are violent and disturbing because often the victims have committed a minor injustice, if any at all, and the assassins are often young men who see no future, men for whom killing becomes a job motivated by simply a need to make a living, often a meager one at that. This book Sicarios is a vehicle for Javier Arcenillas, with the help of his friends at El Periodico de Guatemala, to tell a very real story. Included is an introduction by the director of El Periodico, Juan Luis Font, and an interview with Arcenilla, and complete plate listing with detailed captions. This book was the first FotoEvidence book award winner. 
A Living Man Declared Dead & Other Chapters.

Another big book of 2011 showing Taryn Simon's obsessive need to catalogue, document and categorize. Unlike other books that are comparable in size—James Nactwey's Inferno which was reminiscent of an ancient Bible or John Gossage's Berlin in the Time of the Wall which felt much like a slab of the deconstructed Berlin Wall—Simon's monolithic tome is more of an attempt at a themed census of the human population. The design (size) is perfectly suited to the subject matter and Simon's strong images are a varied mix of portraits, environmental portraits sans humans, and related supporting materials. 
One to Nothing.

A friend of mine told me a story about traveling across Europe and running out of money in Spain. He was with another young man in his early 20s, and they decided that they would take up wrestling on the beach in their underwear to make money for the rest of the journey. The plan seemed to have worked as he told me this many years later in Santa Fe. So, One to Nothing had me at the cover. Upon opening the book, I found that the big square images laid side-by-side made for a wonderful journey through Israel using diptychs as my guide and many of the singular images are brilliantly conceived: I really love the "headless camel." 
The Half-Life of History.

Mark Klett's newest book, like his previous publication Saguaros, is designed and printed with the Santa Fe-base publisher Radius Books. It is housed in a wrap around hardcover binding and also tops my list as one of the best designed books of the year. It successfully incorporates historical pieces with Klett's color and black-and-white images to create a look back at some of the locations relating to the first atomic blast inflicted on a human population. It finishes with a personal story of how writer William L. Fox and Klett experienced and documented the current Wendover Air Force Base, which housed the bomber that carried "Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. 
Redheaded Peckerwood.

Redheaded Peckerwood is Christian Patterson's revisiting of the brief period of activity of an infamous criminal couple. Patterson looks back at many of the locations associated with the murders that caused 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate to go on the lam in the end of 1957 and shortly into 1958. The essays by Luc Sante and Karen Irvine included in this book are reproduced in a typewriter text pamphlet inserted in the back cover and contextualize the two teenagers in time. It is an understated book for such a sensational topic.