‘There is no denying that the city is alien to us as a species. The amount of time we have lived and congregated in cities as a species is but a blink of an eye when you look at time overall.’
Recent years have seen a dramatic upswing in contemporary photography’s engagement with landscape and the built environment. In part, this interest has stemmed from the apparent ease with which these categories lend themselves to the theme of economic globalisation. The construction of massive infrastructure projects, the replacement of traditional neighbourhoods with high-rise developments, and the large-scale environmental devastation that follows in the wake of these transformations – such events provide a ready visual language for the global movement of capital. However, the temptation to present the growth of cities as visual spectacle has drawn attention away from the way that it is experienced at a grassroots level, by human actors.
The Velvet Cell is an independent publishing house, set up in 2011 by Eanna de Freine. Its mandate is a simple one: to explore how the urban, in all its forms, continues to shape our lives – creating a social document on cities and in the process. By the middle of this century, it is estimated that nearly three quarters of the world’s population will live in cities. TVC’s publications bring a fresh approach to the representation of globalisation, steering clear of the apocalyptic and the monumental in favour of a more nuanced view of the way that the drive to urbanisation is transforming human experience around the globe.
I spoke with Eanna de Freine by email in May and June of 2016.
ES: Can you begin by telling me a bit about your background and how TVC got started?
EdF: Sure. I was born and raised in a small suburban town outside Dublin, Ireland. I did my B.A. in Sociology and History – really discovering and falling in love with sociology in the process – and finished just before the economic crash in 2008. It was a very grim time in Ireland and I ended up settling in London very soon thereafter in the hopes of finding a job. My brother had already been living there for a number of years at the time.
In the first few months I found myself with a lot of free time and a recently purchased camera. I had never photographed or even thought of photography before moving to London. But now I felt the camera was an excuse for me to explore my new surroundings. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I definitely felt I was trying to use my interest in sociology, especially about big cities, and express it with the camera in some way.
Eventually I started to look for others’ work that spoke to me and inspired me. I knew what I was looking for without ever really being able to articulate it. I’m still not sure if I can. I found some, but not a lot. I was using sites like Flickr a lot at the time and I’ve always loved publications. I love how they can consolidate a project and make it real – something images on a screen just don’t seem to be able to achieve. I had the idea of creating a catalogue of projects that I wanted to have. It just grew from there.
The first publication was a 16 page zine of work by Austrian photographer Thomas Albdorf, printed digitally, in a Limited Edition of 40. I chose to do this because I had no experience printing, knew no one who did but was dying to try it out. It was a shot in the dark really – but it worked. I had published his work as part of the online magazine a year previously and I enjoyed working with him. At the time I was very swayed by work shot at night – I enjoyed the colours and the sense of otherness it created. I loved it and I wanted to make more. There was also something really gratifying about seeing other people enjoy the work you have published. I was hooked.
ES: I’m very interested to hear about your interest in sociology and the way that it shaped your photographic interests. One of the things that impressed me most about the work you are publishing is the fact that most of it is so different from the ‘Dusseldorf School’ style – the large-scale colour prints and empty, monumental landscapes produced by photographers like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, and so widely emulated by many others. The work that you publish through TVC is, for the most part, very different from this style, so I’m guessing you decided at some point that it wasn’t for you.
EdF: I was especially interested in the ideas of modernisation and particularly the belief that we have developed in a linear fashion – always going to something better. But what intrigued me the most was the rise of the city as the dominant place of living in the world. I’m not sure where my suspicion came from but I wanted to know: Are we alienated from our true selves by the city? Of course this is a big question and presumes there is a ‘true self’ to begin with, but there is no denying that the city is alien to us as a species. The amount of time we have lived and congregated in cities as a species is but a blink of an eye when you look at time overall. Is this where we want to go? Is this where we can truly be our best selves?
I enjoy a lot of the work that came out of the Dusseldorf School. In fact it was some of the early work that I found that also dealt with the urban and that encouraged me to find my own voice. One of my favourite artists from the Dusseldorf School is Elger Esser, whose work is quite different from what I publish. But I’ve never made a conscious decision to emulate them or to actively do the opposite, I just followed my own feelings about what was interesting to me. Over time this developed naturally. One of the challenges of working within a theme like this is to continue to publish work that is relevant, but that doesn’t repeat itself.
ES: The zine format has continued to be an influence, particularly in the case of the booklets, and the smaller books. The small size, and relatively limited number of images gives these publications a unique feeling. As series, they are very concise – small-scale explorations of local areas rather than attempts to map or describe an entire city. Can you tell me a bit about the rationale behind the booklet format?
EdF: I suppose I found booklets interesting to start with because they are more accessible – to buy but especially to make. Someone who doesn’t know anything about book production might be put off by the prospect of making a hardback book with linen cover, foil stamping and dust jacket. But a booklet – that feels like you can learn how to make it. Plus I’ve always been interested in small projects – and booklets lend themselves to such projects easily. They are intimate, affordable – they allow you to be playful with what you publish I think.
I remember clearly when, after discovering and falling in love with photobooks thinking – maybe someday I can make something like this. It felt like a dream of the distant future. But when I discovered small booklets made by publishers like Seems and Hassla that future suddenly felt a lot closer and more achievable. Doing such books gave me the chance to experiment and learn as I went along. Only now, after a few years, have I started doing bigger books – but my goal is always to keep the book intimate. I want someone to be able to sit down with the book and enjoy it – not have to clear the coffee table and open a huge hard back book. That’s not my aim. So I think small books, whether zine format or not, are the best way of achieving this.
That said, however, one thing I’ve learnt is that you have to let the photography dictate the size, or at least the format of the book.
‘If you look at the City Diaries series we are doing with Peter Bialobrzeski we are in the middle of creating what I believe will be an amazing documentation of urban centres across the world in the 2010s.’
ES: I was thinking that as I looked through some of the books. Atsushi Momoi’s Score (#Scene1/Tokyo), for example, is a kind of poem, and it feels exactly right as a short booklet with very limited text. Kyler Zeleny’s Out West is a more extended project – a road trip through small towns in Canada’s west – and a much longer suite of images, with additional context provided by the three essays. Do most of the booklets start out as short projects, or do you sometimes produce these very concise edits out of larger bodies of work?
EdF: No, it would generally be the other way around. Although I do have an editorial role, I don’t really like the idea of producing small edits from larger bodies of work. I am interested in the authorship of the photographer as a whole. By that I mean I want to represent his/her authorship and vision, rather than fragmenting it to become my vision – something that is at odds with the original body of work.
With that said, for sure there are times when we need to edit down a project to find the strongest images. Less is always more and too much will dilute your message. But, for me, what is left should also be the strongest representation of the ethos behind the project, rather than a delineation from it.
Books like Score (Scene#1 / Tokyo) and Frameworks involved editing out some images that were not as strong, but the overall message remains the same. They were not huge projects to begin with. I enjoy small projects that don’t overwhelm. Not everything needs to be big and comprehensive. These two are still some of my favourites.
Out West, however, is a very different kind of project. It needs a context to be truly understood for what it is, I believe. Had it just been a selection of images I’m sure it would have been a great book, but the project is about more than just visual representation. Those essays enable a reader to interpret the images in an entirely new way, which I think makes it a very satisfying book. I think a lot of books today can be quite ephemeral, but certain projects needs a multitude of mediums to be fully realised.
ES: Nearly all of the books that you’ve published to date explore the theme of economic globalisation. It’s difficult to explore the sociology of cities without touching on this theme, of course, but you’ve tended to steer away from standard political and photographic narratives around ‘global cities’, instead focusing on what I’ve called (in a review for Source) ‘ground level explorations’ of smaller or less well-studied urban centers. Can you talk a bit about that?
If you look at the City Diaries series we are doing with Peter Bialobrzeski we are in the middle of creating what I believe will be an amazing documentation of urban centres across the world in the 2010s. The range of cities we are covering is fascinating – from Wolfsburg to Cairo, and Taipei to Osaka and Beirut. This is such a diverse range of different cities. Each of these cities have developed and are developing in their own unique way according to their own cultures and I strongly believe this series will become only more relevant as social documents as time goes on and more and more changes occur to our urban centres. These ground level explorations, as you say, I think make it much more relatable for the viewer. We are examining these cities are habitats, yes, but I think the macro perspective is often hard to relate to. It becomes a structure – but the way we experience cities are from the ground level.
There has been a trend of late to study the urbanisation process as something specifically Indian or Chinese – and without doubt there is merit in this – but less well known places have their own stories to tell. Places like Taipei – who knows of this place and its urban makeup?
ES: This leads into my next question, which relates to the ongoing collaborations that you are doing with several photographers – as well as Peter Bialobrzeski, you’ve done several books with Isidro Ramirez, and I understand you’re going to be working with Greg Girard as well. The serial approach seems perfectly suited to the idea of the books as social documents – chapters in an ongoing narrative of urban development rather than one-off volumes that simply record such development as spectacle.
EdF: I agree, and I hope we are right! The City Diary series with Peter Bialobrzeski in particular works great as a series. They are all the same size and follow the same format and style. I think individually they are great but their real strength will come as a series.
The collaboration with Isidro Ramirez is simple; he continues to do fascinating projects that have a sociological perspective. I think he is a hugely under-rated photographer who is doing great work, so for me there is always a desire on my part to bring his projects to life through print.
I think collaborations are a great way to work and a way to look beyond the individual project to something bigger. Personally I’ve always been a sucker for series. There is something about the way they can play off each other. Also I’m interested in photographers with strong philosophies inspiring their work and it makes sense in this regard that these philosophies cannot be expressed solely in one publication. I love the idea, and always have, of creating a publishing platform for such photographers. That’s always been the idea behind The Velvet Cell.
‘Photographers that I admire with amazing projects are starting to recognise The Velvet Cell as a solid platform for their work to be seen because of the strong thread that I believe ties our publications together.’
ES: What’s next for The Velvet Cell?
That is a very good, but difficult to answer question to answer. My quest, if you like, with The Velvet Cell has always been to create a publishing platform for work that is connected by discipline. Over time that discipline has consolidated itself and I believe that The Velvet Cell is now known for its work regarding urbanisation, cities, modernisation and other similar themes. This is much more interesting to me than a publishing house that is connected by the ‘fame’ of its artists, but where each book is completely different when it comes to subject and style.
As I result I have slowly begun to attract exactly the kind of projects that I love. Photographers that I admire with amazing projects are starting to recognise The Velvet Cell as a solid platform for their work to be seen because of the strong thread that I believe ties our publications together. At this moment in time I have about 5-6 projects that I think are exceptionally strong, ready to go. What’s holding me back? Money, of course, but also demand.
At this point in time The Velvet Cell is a passion project. I work another job and I devote almost all my free time to TVC-related work. However, I am 28 and relatively free. This may not always be the case. If circumstances change, I don’t know if I will continue to work in this vein.
Which I believe brings us to the main problem; market and audience. Especially with TVC, where we straddle that line between fine art and sociology, I don’t believe we have really found our fullest audience yet. Photobooks are much easier to make these days, but in my experience the market is very small. Most books are published in editions of 500 and let’s not kid ourselves; the reason even 500 are done is because of pure printing economics, not because the demand is always that high. The fact that publishers are struggling with editions of 500 says so much about the current industry.
I love making books and I live for bringing projects that I feel passionate about to a wider audience, but I don’t want to make books that are not wanted. I believe a new model needs to be sought. In that sense Kickstarter is so powerful because it says “we only make this book if the demand is sufficient”. If we look at the magazine industry today, while it’s hardly booming (it is experiencing a renaissance but I don’t think anyone doing it will say it’s a walk in the park to publish, and nor should it be) there is a much bigger support network when it comes to advertising, sponsorship and potential retail markets. None of these exist with photobooks which are generally far more expensive to produce than magazines.
Self-publishers today are having more success than ever and I put that down to the fact that people like to do business now P2P (person to person) rather than B2C (business to customer). Self-publishers have that chance to really express the thoughts and passion behind their projects, whether this be at a fair or via a website. We are often best when we are explaining, rather than letting someone else do it. But very often, self-publishers lack resources, knowledge and experience to complete projects. I believe that there is some form of hybrid publishing that could work – publishing with someone rather than publishing someone – to benefit all involved and ensure that books are not simply being created because we can.
So, what’s next? That very much depends on what day you ask me. Very often I am hugely excited about future projects, but many days too I feel like I should face the inevitable music and make different plans. Hopefully we can go from strength to strength and continue to make projects that are relevant.
Eanna de Freine
(All rights reserved. Text @ Eugenie Shinkle. Images @ Eanna de Freine.)