Walter Keller: Beruf: Verleger. A Tribute

“So, when we consider respect in the medium, we can limit our discussion by looking at who is contributing to our world and who is not. Publishers by and large are the unsung heroes of the day”.

 

 

A friend of mine recently commented on the lack of risk-taking in publishing. I took some exception to the notion that we are in an age where great risk is not being taken for the sake of being timid, casual, or without urgency to perform difficult topics and materials. He is a publisher himself and with all on-line platforms, the comment sounded flippant, even arrogant to a degree. I was handed the social media equivalent of a “there, there” when I challenged him with “what are you on about”, his response being “You’re cute”. I remember being somewhat offended as he and I share a very similar timeline/age and his audacity to speak down from some exalted and knowledgeable position took the greatest restraint not to combat in my usual form. And I did this out of respect.

 

Respect in any industry is not the easiest function to perform. In the photography or photobook world, which is much smaller than we lead ourselves to believe, respect is not earned by sales or status per se, but can also be earned by dedication or singular bodies of unsung, but quietly acclimated bodies of work. You may reference a number of photographer’s and artists whose work has never achieved the status that it perhaps should. I can think of Joachim Brohm, who is known and does share a certain finite celebration of his work, but in reflection deserves much more attention. Hannah Collins,  James Fee, Terri Weifenbach and a rather large and uncomfortable slough of female and minority photographers who have not been given the exposure necessary. And yet, each of these players and many others have garnered a severe respect from other artists or practitioners of photography. If one were to condense the issue, it would certainly fall on the shoulders of institutions and the market whose constant repeating of the same material over and over belies an inherent truth to our problem-the market is lazy and institutions by their very inception have to follow the market via donor and acquisition money or other means by which they control the historiography of photography. There is no grand cabal in the artist’s circles who opens and closes the gates in the same ways as most are too self-absorbed or busy making work to sit around designing hierarchies.

 

 

So, when we consider respect in the medium, we can limit our discussion by looking at who is contributing to our world and who is not. Publishers by and large are the unsung heroes of the day. If you have ever worked with an artist closely on their projects, two things become clear quickly…

1. Artists are inflexible creatures with high estimations of their work until it goes public. Once public it’s all nail-biting and tears

 

2. Artists are a pain in the ass and know very little about how books function.

 

The higher up the artist in the hierarchy is can dictate how difficult they would be to work with. Some are quite callous and their demands must be met even if it makes an inferior book and some are too busy getting paid to concern themselves with the order and intricacies of a book. In effect, the hungry artist, though sometimes a bit green may be the solution to a great book. He or she needs to feel some slight intimidation or importance to the act of securing their career and therefore can be somewhat thankful and humble before a publisher that knows his or her craft. And that leaves us to discuss one of the most important publishers of our times who is sadly no longer with us-Walter Keller and his publishing house Scalo.

 

 

In thinking over what my friend and colleague had mentioned about the loss of Walter Keller, his vision and his legacy, I believe I was confounded by a sense of generalization about Scalo and his assessment about our contemporaries in publishing. I remember having purchased a decent amount of Scalo books, but still could not find the key to what my friend thought was special in risk taking about Keller’s legacy and his vision and outright fortitude to publish books that were trail blazing. This was until Edition Patrick Frey’s superb elegiac tome Walter Keller-Beruff: Verleger came in the post. I immediately tucked in to try and remedy or further argue my feelings about there being no publishers pushing boundaries like Keller.

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“What I am reminded of with Scalo is firstly the density, the sheer number of books and the quality of artists involved. I am also reminded that several of the books I have not parted with…”

 

What I found was that I was incorrect in my assertion of Scalo. I did not think Scalo to be anything less than one of the best, but I did not reserve their place during the 90s and 2000s as being exceptional or risk taking until I re-read the titles featured in the Scalo back catalogue and saw just how many books of their that I had purchased over the years. Some I had sold when moving to and from the five countries that I have lived in over the past fifteen years or so. I remember doing so begrudgingly. I can also assert that my feeling that there are still publishers pushing the boat out holds true, but that I do not own as many books of theirs apart from perhaps Steidl and MACK, the former to have recently decided on safety and the latter pushing the boat out a bit further, especially this year.

 

What I am reminded of with Scalo is firstly the density, the sheer number of books and the quality of artists involved. I am also reminded that several of the books I have not parted with for all those moves are still with me and that between customs and shipping container fees, I could have probably started my own publishing imprint with the duty paid. In the list of books I still possess from the Scalo, those itinerant titles that have cost me to hold and whose value is near impossible to specify, is a small but irreplaceable list of titles that are dear to me.

 

 

-Larry Clark. The Perfect Childhood. I looked at this no less than one week before the Editions Patrick Frey homage arrived. It still holds incredible power and seeing Clark’s collages was a game changer for me early on. This is without a doubt one of those books that my colleague meant about risk taking. Not sure someone would have the audacity to publish this now.

 

-Richard Billingham Ray’s a Laugh. A strange exposure to English domestic life when I bought this as a youthful American. Cats, fags, and a woman you would not cross. Still relevant and though it could be published now, there is a certain gravitas about it that suggests it came from a very particular time and place.

 

-Bill Henson. Mnemosyne. Dark, lush and bizarrely creepy. Henson’s work plays such a strange game with our memory and collective consciousness in images. The way he oscillates his vision between the slick cinematic and the oddly coerced snapshot panders to the obvious, but hits at us from under the skin creating a world that resembles our own, but is more indebted to manufacture. Obviously with all things Henson or Sturges, youth is king and in this environment and though we cannot lump these two in one category, I find it strange that these books were published at all if it weren’t for Keller escaping knee jerk reactions. I find Henson more palatable, but both artists really tend to bring images to the edge of certainty.

 

-Michael Schmidt. Ein-Heit. Its Schmidt. For me there is only lesser great Schmidt. Ein-Heit tends to be a favorite in his ouevre and it is here that Schmidt pushes the envelope with found imagery. He had already set aside his desire for photo journalistic humanism nearly a decade prior, but this title is the title in which Schmidt confronts history, not the condition of history. That is a huge challenge as a German. So much time spent brooding, finally becoming activated enough  to confront the war. Brave, perhaps. Shocking at the time, certainly given its release date of 1996, though produced between 1989-1994. Those years 1989-1994 make perfect sense and this is probably a book that could be made again, but the gravity of which, especially as a German would have less effect.

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-Nan Goldin. I’ll be Your Mirror. Continuing the strength of Goldin’s career from Ballad of Sexual Dependency. In a way, this is possibly a better and more mature work. Nan’s world is all about sequencing emotion and this is an exemplary testament to that as it gives some distance from the earlier classic.

 

 

-Seichi Furuya. Memories, 1995. This book really shook my ability to empathize with its back story, which by now is part of Furuya’s mythology. Its about loss, but the end result is governed by uncharacteristic love and caring, not only for the lost but also for the future of a child in Komyo. We never get to hear stories about decent men these days or their hardships. We sequester these stories because of what we believe is the repression of all other stories. I am not arguing that they need jostle for space, but Furuya’s story seems poignant and necessary today. The image of Christine, cast in golden light, sitting legs pulled to chest, head shaved and cardigan mounting her knees is still one of the most beautifully harrowing images I have beheld.

 

-Larry Sultan. The Valley. I remember hearing Larry talk about this work before it was a book. I attended a series of lectures in Minneapolis around 2000 and Sultan came to speak and showed the work that would become this book. He was so unsure of himself regarding the images and yet Keller was not. He would publish the title a few years later to great acclaim. It is definitely a departure from Pictures from Home, but there are strange similarities about homes, intimacy and distance.

 

-Roland Schneider. Zwischenzeit. A fairly unknowk but profoundly regarded work for those who come into contact with it. A strange look at the asylum from a very first person pov. Whereas the theme of asylums and psychiatry are no stranger to photography, this is the book in which its position of authorship and the images themselves allow the book to breathe in a more natural discourse for such a heavy topic. The excess of shock value is reduced for the quality of content and concept. A brave title no doubt.

 

-Joel-Peter Witkin. This was my introduction to an early now lost hero. I still, despite having come to odds with Witkin carry this title across borders with me. Germano Celant’s excellent essay is but one of the better reasons. Publishing Witkin has always been a chore it seems. I listened recently to the magichour podcast with Jack Woody of Twin Palms who spoke about how difficult it was to get printers to deal with the work. His books are still made, but the outcry has died down a bit, but to have published this in the 90s still shows bravery.

 

-Eugenia Parry. Crime Album Stories. A dark and twisted tale where document, history and story-telling intertwine into a very blood weave. I remember anticipating it months before I bought it from photoeye and now presently for some inexplicable reason own several copies.

 

-William Eggleston. Los Alamos. Another pre-order when it came out and that cover still blows me away. I don’t know that it pushed a huge amount of envelopes with the work, but the way in which the fictitious title spoke about a post-wart and post-atomic America gave me inspiration about how a title can turn the whole of a book on its side, no matter the content. Powerful, beautiful and well conceived.

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-John Water’s Director’s Cut. This for the sheer audacity of placing Water’s still images into the context of his directorial work should be given an award for perverse ecstasy in image-making. Such a strange title and yet powerfully evocative of one of my favorite people to ever wield a movie camera. It takes a certain clarity of vision to make a book like this and sell it.

 

-Juergen Teller. The Go-Sees. A title that always fascinated me when I picked it off a shelf. The thickness, the gold cover, the repetition and the general not having any inclination to why it spoke to me, I believe I caved in quite early and bought a copy. When I look at it now, I am reminded of so many great things coming out of Britain in the 90s and early 2000s and leafing through it as I type this, I am reminded nostalgically of a time and a place that I fancifully reflect on though I did not enter those waters until 2005. This is powerful. I do not think in todays climate of #metoo and cancel culture that this may get made again somehow. And yet, its nothing but a strange lookbook. Authorship is easily damnable these days.

 

There are literally about another Twenty other “keeper” titles on my shelves from Scalo, but some have been added since moving from America and though I count them heavily, I think if I keep this up, I won’t finish. I also feel like absorbing the back catalogue at some point.

 

 

In presenting an elegy of epic proportions such as this book, Edition Patrick Frey and Urs Stahel and Miriam Wiesel show the ultimate humility in honoring another publisher’s work with a fitting and beautiful elegy. It shows respect to all concerned, the publisher, the artists and finally the people who bought the books who grew up on Scalo in the days before there was a rush to publish. When my colleague, whom we will call Aron speaks about how publishing is without risk now, he is incorrect. That being said, I will concede that Walter Keller and Scalo certainly operated in a space and time in which only he could have made a good many of these inspiring titles happen. It cannot be underscored enough that Keller was also a very important proponent of gay rights and covered some very uncomfortable aspects of the AIDS epidemic with his books. His desire for artists reflecting on the subject to be seen and heard when the movement was severely at odds with 90s governmental and religious interest, in America in particular places his efforts at nearly activist levels. It shows a rigid, intelligent and forthrightly concerned company and company head that took risks for his beliefs. I think it would be fair to say in terms of photography, Keller was a trail-blazer on this topic. When I speak about the Scalo titles featured on this article, it is also important to point out that Scalo was one part of the many thing’s that Keller had his hand on. This is a summation of an in depth and long career. I am referencing the Scalo material as that is what I wish to respect as it is what I had access to.

 

I would point out it’s a slight shame the book is German only, but I understand as it’s a very big book full of mostly text handled by Urs Stahel, and a few others and very important to the Swiss and German scenes. My hopes are that it is successful enough to print an English version. Apart from that, for its level of respect and addition to the field of publishing on publishing, this deserves my highest recommendation.

 

 

Walter Keller

Walter Keller- Beruf: Verleger

Edition Patrick Frey

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Edition Patrick Frey.)

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