“This is before the Internet and I was living in an isolated place, so access to ‘culture’ was quite limited but I fortunately did have the
photography magazines my parents were buying as well as the radio shows I would try to tune into from the countryside to copy the music on tapes…”
BF: You run the bookshop for Le Bal which stocks important new titles, but also has an
amount of out of print titles too. I believe you took the shop over after Sebastian Arthur
Hau? Can you give me some background as to your experience in photography and how
you manage the shop in general terms? You are very active and I have enjoyed the posts
that you have been making about what is on the shelves of people confined during
quarantine. You seem to be a very passionate lover of photography and photobooks. Are
you coming from a photographic background?
EL: Hi Brad, it feels slightly surreal to answer questions about the bookshop and the everyday life
when we’re living in the introduction chapter of a dystopian novel but thank you for taking the time to do this. Where to start…I certainly don’t have a linear path. I grew up in a conservative
household in a small town in the Belgian countryside and as far as I can remember, books and
music were my main source of solace from the alienating loneliness.This is before the Internet and I was living in an isolated place, so access to ‘culture’ was quite limited but I fortunately did have the photography magazines my parents were buying as well as the radio shows I would try to tune into from the countryside to copy the music on tapes (How strange it is to write this today…). I think that’s where the obsession slowly crept in and I started researching more magazines, photos to collect, music to put on tape, references to art and photography in general, but I was still a teenager. I left for the US to study when I was 17 years old where I was really introduced to the zine culture through American friends.
Fast forward a few years later, I’m in college and I meet this girl in Paris who was starting a
photography and music magazine online and on print. I joined the team, running it with her for a
few years before we folded due to the lack of advertisement. The cover of our first print issue was
an image by photographer Chad Moore if I recall correctly and it had interviews I did with Ed
Templeton and the musicians John Maus and Ariel Pink among others. It’s the only issue I kept a
copy of physically, it was a gorgeous print work. It was very formative as well as we did it all from
conception, content, design and distribution.I also did try photography myself at the time but I
realized quickly that it would be better for me to bring forward the work of others people far more talented than I was…After that I worked many years in the very serious environment of art book publishing in Belgium for MER.Paper Kunsthalle assisting the director in the studio on artist book production, developing distribution, going to art book fairs, etc. It certainly gave me a structure and a comprehension of “the book chain” from the moment the artist walked in the studio all the way until the book reached the bookshop shelves. We did publish many photography books including those of Dirk Braeckman, which proved useful for what was to follow in Paris at LE BAL. I also did stints at the Fine arts museum of Ghent on one project (I hated it with passion) and the Kunsthalle Wien in a brief catalogue production job.
Regarding LE BAL and the curation of the bookshop, I did arrive in a place that already had a very strong identity so it was challenging to take over, to say the least, and to turn it into something that’s mine. After 4 years, it’s fair to say it’s the case. I have said that already in another interview but when I enter a bookshop I want to come to a place with a specific identity (wether you like it or not) and not a paper supermarket, especially now that almost everything is available online. That’s why I have a limited selection and I also look for photographers & publishers existing outside of the main distribution lines. My main criterion is to show works that I think are relevant in contemporary photography today, wether it’s a fanzine in 50 copies or a hardbound catalogue by Mack. It can’t be only books I like or else it would turn into my bedroom, not a bookshop.
As you know, LE BAL is a specific place with a sharp focus on questioning the image through different angles from shows to books, talks, workshops and performances. In that sense, my position is different than other booksellers because I can’t just do what I want, I also have to keep in mind what we’re programming, the way the space works, the production of the exhibition catalogue for every show, etc. It’s a tricky balance and it can definitely put you on edge if you add it to the daily hustling of book selling and bookshop running. I also focus a lot on creating a program of talks, book launches, and even music performances (!) around books and zines at LE BAL. With my colleague Chloë, we also started 3 years ago a small photobook fair (Rolling Paper) and an annual book exhibition series called Performing Books. Its last iteration was Enghelab Street, Iran 1979-83 by Hannah Darabi. This specific curation and the community I have built around here has certainly helped our sales more than simply displaying dozens of different photobook titles in the space.
At the end, when I talk with other booksellers, we all have different ways to work and it’s mainly
constructed around the person running it and their history with the medium. There’s no magic
recipe, it’s hard and you need some fire in you if you want to keep afloat and break even (…)
although I think it’s fair to say Paris is way better for sales than other cities but it’s still a crazy
industry; to work in.
Recently, I indeed started working more towards selling rare books, prints and special editions. It’s closer to what I would like to do in the future and I really enjoy keeping on learning about books, photography and their history. With rare books and prints, I feel like I can take more time to learn and read vs. the everyday hustle where I get sent dozens of books everyday. But with that’s happening now, who knows what will be next? Right now I find comfort in my collection of books and vinyls, talking to other book hoarders and bringing forward photographer’s works with our On my shelves series online. So far I’ve presented the books of Carmen Winant, Joanna Piotrowska and Milo Montelli of Skinnerboox.
“Recently, I indeed started working more towards selling rare books, prints and special editions. It’s closer to what I would like to do in the future and I really enjoy keeping on learning about books, photography and their history. With rare books and prints, I feel like I can take more time to learn and read vs. the everyday hustle…”
BF: I get the sense from your opening paragraph and mention of John Maus and Ariel Pink
that we are probably relative to the same age and the idea of always being interested in
physical pre-digital culture is one of the binding notions for people relative to our age and
older. Yes, I remember the smell of tapes myself and recording from the radio. I remember
record stores at the mall and so on. I would intimate this certainly has a lot to do with book
interest.The three artists and publisher for the “On my Shelves” are all fantastic and
gifted. I had the honor to work them or know them from London. Its a fantastic choice and
initiative. My hope is that this thing, this virus could act as a catalyst for new mediums or
venues for which to distribute our passion. I have seen many people starting new things. If
we can find a way to respect each other’s content and see how we can fund it, I see no
reason why the post-covid19 world could not be rooted in a renaissance of creativity that
employs the digital medium and Internet as the vehicle for return.
Lets hope we do not slideinto the same normalcy, but perhaps expand out ability and reason towards plausible and non-crippling dystopian futures. You mentioned one word in your last paragraph and its an important one…you said “collection”. So this is quite important to me as a collector of photographs and accumulator of books-do you have personal guidelines for your collecting? A specific area of interest or is it more what you see ? Do you have any genre specific
indulgences ? As a Belgian who has worked on a Dirk Braeckman catalogue, I am curious
where that takes you ?
EL : So far, I have not taken a conscious decision to collect only books on a specific topic like
many end up doing because I know I would never stick to that decision. I’m a ‘romantic’ collector, I impulse buy and accumulate books, photos and objects as a way of connecting to someone’s work or a specific topic/obsession I have at a moment. Personal libraries read like a map of your inner self at the end, wether you pay attention to what you collect or not. That’s also why it’s fascinating to look at other people’s shelves, you somehow enter their brains. My only guideline is that it should have an interest to me, I don’t buy the list of recommended “hot photobooks” of the year nor do I find that very interesting. At this point, there is for sure a few threads in my collection : a lot of Japanese and German photography from the 60’s to the 80’s, North American landscapes, photoworks on women’s self-representation and bodies, religious rituals,…The last books I bought were Today is the Last Day by Wolfgang Tillmans, Joji Hashiguchi’s Seventeen year old map, the re-print of Michael Schmidt’s Berlin-Wedding, Dorothea Lange/Sam Contis’s Day Sleeper and a copy of the Feminist Avant Garde catalogue so it’s fair to say I’m a little all over the place.
BF : Getting back a bit to the shop… I remember at some point in 2012 or 2013 signing a
book there. I think it was TV Casualty that I published with Archive of Modern Conflict.
Sebastian Hau was running the space at the time and I remember it was maybe on the
Sunday, last day of Paris photo. I remember all of these photographers from out of town
coming over from Offprint to unload boxes of books to be sold in the shop. I remember
laughing at the chaos and chuckling about how easyjet and ryan air would be missing a few
extra suitcases. Does that kind of bedlam still happen in November or is it much more
controlled with how the shop operates? You mentioned its a less general catalogue…
EL: Haha yes, that still happens every year and it’s fine but I try to have more ‘control’ on it now as my space is quite small. Our economic balance is fragile so I pay attention to what I take in, I just can’t have everyone coming after Offprint to drop boxes (but do come say hi, I like seeing some of you). I don’t think the shop was ever general by any means but I have less to display as I have noticed it works better sales-wise to have a restricted selection (for us at least, in our set up. It’s not the case everywhere.
BF: As it relates to the shop, how do you see prior to the current situation the market
side of the photobook ? Is it your inclination that it is as strong as ever ?
EL:I never know what to do with that question because it’s complex and I can only talk from my side. I think market is a big word given the incredibly fragile economy we’re working in with books but no, I don’t think it’s as strong as ever. It did boom a few years ago, created new publishing “communities” and brought forward interesting photographic works and publishers, but it’s certainly becoming a commodity now. The cycles of relentless production, the enormous volumes of books produced, the soaring prices on certain publications, low margins for bookshops, stalling distribution,… Often, we’re applying the current market economy logic to a medium that, historically, has never generated much money, and I find it quite absurd. Art and photography books will keep being produced of course, but maybe we could reconsider the terms of that production, slowing it down, if only for the environment’s sake. Not every project needs to
immediately become a hardbound book and I mean that.
“Not every project needs to
immediately become a hardbound book and I mean that”
BF: I totally agree with this…And one cheeky set of questions-what is a historical title photobook title that you feel is overrated and one that you feel is underrated ?
EL:I’m not sure I can answer with one title to be honest. I have many issues with historical
photography books that aestheticize and manipulate violence and suffering of others (wether
they’re civilians in a war zone or prostitutes in a brothel) for the sole glorification of one man. As
you can guess, a lot of early war photography falls in that category so that’s what I consider
overrated. My issue isn’t that these books were produced but that they keep being presented as
references without much questioning of their images content (although that’s finally changing) and it tends to endlessly perpetuate the same clichés. Historical underrated books…they exist in the hundreds : the extraordinary TV Junkie’83 by Mutsuko Yoshida, Nicaragua by Susan Meiselas, Lange Weile by Tina Bara,…I can go on forever.
BF: Thank you for your time and all the efforts in the field. They are appreciated!