The way society consumes information is shifting. MACK, the London-based independent art book publisher, foregrounds the enduring conceptual importance and tactile materiality of their volumes. The Art of Publishing, an exhibition at Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, tracks its history, bringing together over 200 works. Founder Michael Mack discusses the show, unearthing a unique working process and the future of art publishing.
A: Can you give a brief history of the publishing house?
MM: I began working with Gerhard Steidl when he was primarily a printer. I spent 15 years working with him, and in that period we published nearly 1000 books. I learnt everything in that time. In 2004, when I was Managing Director, I was concerned to have the books that I was more interested in distinguished from the longer list. We created an imprint, SteidlMack, and the history of the house – and the show at CCP – commences there. I still work with some of photographers from that time, like Paul Graham and Torbjørn Rødland. In 2010 I left to independently work on a very subjective, curated list of books which became MACK. To have the freedom to just make a small number of books which I believe in is something of a luxury.
A: What is it about MACK publications that stands out in particular?
MM: We approach our work through a couple of distinct strands. The first is to ensure conceptual rigour in terms of the author’s ideas. Many of the stories we are interested in are highly politicised and personal. They come into this space which – in the age of Trump – is really important. Practice is engaging with issues that are important to a much wider audience, and often they are told through personal histories. It is a combination of the strength of the author’s original idea and our role as a translator, clarifying those ideas in a formal sense and creating objects which are distinct. The design is moulded around those ideas and serves rather than leads them. We’re very anti design-led projects. Publishing is about creating a platform for ideas: to present the author’s work to as wide an audience as possible. I think traditionally the role of the publisher is to extrapolate ideas and spread them as wide as possible, and that we take really seriously.
A: How does The Art of Publishing exhibition showcase these unique qualities?
MM: The fundamental thing about it is that it includes some now very expensive objects that people can go and touch. There’s nothing behind glass. Lots of exhibitions of this nature tend to remove the contact, yet these things are very tactile – people need to touch, hold and read them. Another thing that excited me when putting it together was seeing the progression of artist’s work through the series of books they have made with us over the years. The exhibition also tracks our First Book Award, which is about to enter its seventh year.
A: With the rise of online platforms and easier access to images, what does the future of art publishing look like?
MM: The revolution which everybody jumped on – including myself – was this notion that there was going to be a fundamental shift in the nature of reading. The consumption of visual material was no longer to be done through printed ink on paper, it was going to be done through screens. I think in a sense that has occurred – and it’s definitely the way a lot of knowledge is assimilated – but the digital revolution has also thrown up the distinction with analogue objects. Whether it’s vinyl or printed books, there has been a return to analogue which is really at the heart of contemporary art publishing’s success. For me there is a coexistence between analogue and digital. What it has allowed publishers to do is to reach across geographical boundaries. It allows authors and publishers to build their own audiences – that is the greatest significance of the revolution.
A: With this in mind, what is it about the experience of reading a photobook that differs from other forms of literature?
MM: If books are well made and crafted, with a physical and formal substance to them which successfully translates ideas, their first adopters are digital natives. These are people for whom much of their consumption and communication is digital. Yet for them there is such a distinction – the permeance of ink is so significant. It is the best medium for the translation of ideas and no new media ever replaces this.
A: Do you have any personal highlights from this exhibition?
MM: Paul Graham’s A Shimmer of Possibility is an obvious choice. It was an entirely genius idea to take the form of the photobook – and traditional street photography – and explode it through 12 volumes. He unwrapped the notion of what a book can and should be. Graham liked the idea of the books being spread across somebody’s shelf. The artist thinks in books as a distinct part of his process, apart from the gallery or online platforms. He starts making decisions – even in the process of making and photographing – based on this. The artists I cling to most closely are those for whom the books are not simply catalogues but works of art.
A: What notable publications will be released by MACK in 2018?
MM: It’s important to note that we’re a small team focused on controlling the number we release – no publications are secondary, every single one is so important. One I’ll mention is by the West Coast American photographer John Divola. Vandalism is an extraordinary series of black and white, square format photographs. In 1974-1975 he went around abandoned houses in LA creating and photographing sculptures made with spray cans and wire. Another would be the catalogue resume of Thomas Demand. The third is by an emerging Manchester photographer called Phoebe Kiely. She has a great future and we’re involved in a lovely process of making her first book with her. Supporting emerging artists is a very important part of what we’re doing. I also have a very strong interest in practitioners who write important texts – Luigi Ghirri is an example. The next one we’re releasing is Victor Burgin’s The Camera: Perspective and Virtuality – he is a very important theorist.
The Art of Publishing runs until 20 January. Find out more: www.mackbooks.co.uk.
1. Gregory Halpern. From the series ZZYZX , 2016. Published by MACK. Image courtesy Gregory Halpern / Webber Gallery Space.