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.


Andrew Kaufman said...

great read. really gave good insight into the thought process of his projects and goals. THANKS!

Paul Biddle said...

Great and insightful article, thanks for sharing