BF: Photo Book Corner has just taken up new quarters, new premises in Lisbon. Is this the first shop that you have had for the Photo Book Corner? Can you perhaps give us a little insight into when you started working with books? Did you come through photography or was this started from the book side? Are you a photographer?
RR: Brad, first I’d like to thank you for inviting me to do this interview. My interest in photography and photobooks in particular came through my love of cinema. In the mid-1990’s I enrolled in a photography course after coming across a copy of The Lines of My Hand by Robert Frank at a used bookstore, very unusual to see such a book around here. I was transformed by Frank’s autobiographical, and even confessional approach to photography in book form. It was a revelation to me. I had watched some of his films and I knew only The Americans until I joined photography school. During that period, I spent my evenings at the old Portuguese Cinematheque, and I think I watched more movies then than I will for the rest of my life. It was a very formative time for me.
The first book that I bought though was an exhibition catalogue by Ralph Eugene Meatyard that also had a huge impact on me. Meatyard’s work influences a lot of young students because of his enigmatic, sometimes cryptic style. Learning the basics, and especially how to print in the darkroom was very rewarding and inspirational, but I was going nowhere and eventually lost interest in photography school. One day I got a job interview at a record shop, and ended up working in the music business for 15 years, until free-streaming came in the way of records full force and my label nearly went bankrupt.
The decision to leave my job was difficult and I couldn’t even listen to music for a whole year. Then I remembered a conversation I had one late night in a short taxi ride through the empty streets of Lisbon with composer Rhys Chatham where he told me that after his daughter was born he couldn’t compose, so he just improvised, and how that led his music to new directions. That’s when I decided to shake things up professionally and apply my experience in selling records (the way you relate to labels on a daily basis and place orders and arrange shipments and so on), to selling photo books instead. I relied on my photographic taste, and feeling. I was of course aware of what was being published and written about, and for a whole year I contacted publishers and artists, ordered a roster of about fifty titles to start the web-shop, and on December 1st 2012, when all the year-end lists were starting to come out, I sat on a chair, created a Facebook and Twitter account and launched Photo Book Corner. Several titles that had been published that year were already sold out, so orders started coming in from day one.
BF: I can think of a few sellers that have an almost unparalleled grip on the market. I check in frequently with you and think your site is wonderfully designed. I suspect 2020 has offered a number of complications regarding posting books etc. and yet it seems as though it might have also been a good year for people to return to buying books as we have been trapped more in our homes. What have you seen so far in 2020?
RR: Even though most of us are now familiarized with quarantine or confinement, everybody is still dealing with the daily struggles and fears of the current global situation. I praise this gesture of generosity on your part, it allows photo book buyers and booksellers to connect in a positive and relaxed way, especially after so many months of dread. And like you, other artists and professionals of the medium have found creative ways to share their work, their opinions and feelings. We move on. I believe creativity to be the highest form of intelligence, and it’s been interesting to watch how people are coping with this challenging period of their lives.
Many artists are beginning to assemble and show the work that they did during the first months of the pandemic and the politically charged times that we have all been living. Everybody is struggling for clarity and understanding of what surrounds us right now, of ourselves also and our freedoms, so hopefully some great books will keep coming out of this. As a bookseller I can only speak of my own experience and, given the grave circumstances, this has not being a disappointing year for me. After a long time operating online only, I guess that the decision to open a physical shop was my way to move forward, to face the pandemic and it helped to remove the ‘online mask’. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but for the moment it’s keeping me busy and happy, and it gives me great satisfaction to watch people step inside the shop and look at these wonderful books. Yes, posting orders abroad these days has definitely been a real challenge, the delays are nerve-racking, and it takes a lot of patience from both the clients and the sellers to stay calm. But I guess that at the end of the day, people need to keep buying books, are even taking more time with books, and are maybe more than ever finding a safe shelter in books.
BF: Are you also operating the second hand market? Do you go to fairs outside of the photography-centered ones when it isn’t 2020?
RR: The economics of the second hand market is such a complex issue to the point that, and we’re talking photo books here, its existence has an important impact on the strategies of publishers serving the new books market as well as on the overall performance of the sector. Just look at the number of second hand dealers selling inside the Grand Palais at each edition of Paris-Photo, or the number of signed books being offered. Although I occasionally buy and sell books which are sold out or are out of print and that by the logic of the market increase in value, I am definitely not operating on the second hand market, and I do not wish to have what it takes to be a second hand bookseller. Plus I’m content to sell new books because that’s when they’re still affordable, and that is crucial to the average buyer.
I rarely go to fairs outside of the photography-centered ones, and I wish I had more time to attend the photography-centered ones, but time-wise it’s nearly impossible. Most people may not know this but Photo Book Corner is a solitary venture, and it takes a lot of time to run this business alone. I could hire someone to help with the packing and handling of orders, but that’s such an important part of the business that I just never found the courage to entrust another person to do that job. Plus, with three children in the house I can’t find enough energy to travel professionally. I wish I could though because that would help me get a better grip on the market, understand certain things that alone, maybe I can’t…
BF: What have been the biggest changes that you have seen in the market in general terms? Have you seen less books being published or more? Do you think the collectors have grown in number of are there less presently? Of course, I would ask you to think about these questions in relation to 2019 and perhaps not 2020…
RR: Not so long ago many collectors liked to own almost every single book that came out, but as soon as so many books started flooding the market, a great deal of those buyers shifted their will and now focus on specific themes or epochs or regions of the globe, either Japanese or Latin American publications for example (Japanese books in particular are more accessible in Europe now, so that may have played a big role for some of them). Are there less serious collectors? Maybe, I don’t know. I tend to associate a ‘serious collector’ more to the second-hand market, which is not really my thing. What I can say is that I used to have regular clients who suddenly vanished, while it’s also a fact that everyday there are new clients, and some of those new clients become regular clients also.
Honestly, even though the majority of publishers and sellers experienced a decrease in sales during the last couple of years – me included, I believe that the market is still strong. Actually the current implications and limitations of the Coronavirus are boosting online sales. In my opinion, the amount of books that were being published say three years ago was a little disconcerting, at least that’s how I felt. Maybe this is because I opted from the very beginning to showcase a limited number of titles. But I feel that there has been an adjustment because shops can’t buy all the books that are out there and many artists began to feel insecure about self-publishing. To me that’s good news, because even though a lot of new work is incredible, there is also the other side of the coin. And I strongly believe that shops play an important role in that selection.
BF: Do you personally collect photography books? If not, why not? If so, could you give us some idea as to what your focus if any might be? Japanese books? Portuguese books?
RR: I don’t collect photography books, or any kind of books. When I started Photo Book Corner, I was spending a lot of money on photobooks, and it was great when I managed to get professionally involved with them. Over the years, my need for these books changed, so these days I tend to keep some which I like the most, and try not to accumulate too many. This is the most basic formula, and it works for me. Being professionally involved with photobooks plays a huge part in my personal decisions, of course. Note that this is, as Michael Kominek put it very well in his interview with you, a ‘pure passion kind of thing’.
If I would keep for myself all the books that I want, I would probably not be answering these questions to you by now. I really love what I do, and the freedom and independence that comes with not having a boss, but this business takes up a lot of time and energy and the monetary gain is disproportionate in comparison. But as Edward Newton wrote in ‘A Magnificent Farce and Other Diversions of a Book Collector’ – and he was speaking of booksellers here – “there are still some people willing to scrape along on comparatively little money for the pleasure of following an occupation in which they delight.”
BF: Is there a healthy scene in Lisbon for selling books? I am only acquainted loosely with the Pierre Von Kleist team whom I think are great. I suspect there are some great art institutions there. Do you work with any local museums to have your books in their shops?
RR: You know, my son says that I’m the Hermit Bob of photobooks, like the character Tom Waits plays in Jim Jarmusch’s ‘The Dead Don’t Die’. Unlike Hermit Bob I don’t have an apocalyptic vision of the photo book world, but I accept my solitude as a moral stance. Let me put it this way, I don’t go out often. As I said, the online business is very time-consuming. In my country overall, I think that the general public is more informed about the medium, but there’s still a lot of work to be done here. There are not enough exhibitions by well-known contemporary foreign photographers, and art institutions and museums are simply not doing enough. I don’t have to leave home to fact check this.
You stated above that you can think of a few sellers with an unparalleled grip on the market, yet I was never approached by any Portuguese institution to sell books to them. I’m not stating that they are not buying photo books, but they are definitely not buying them from me. On the institutional level, I wouldn’t call the scene ‘healthy’, quite the contrary (narrow-minded or biased might apply), except for who’s sitting on top of the pyramid, and it’s a very slim one, only for the chosen few. Not just with photography. The arts are very badly treated by our politicians. It never crossed my mind in 2012 to open a physical shop without selling steadily online first. But even though the vast majority of my clients are still abroad, today I have more Portuguese online buyers then in the first years in business. That’s a sign that things are gradually improving. And make no mistake: I strongly believe that we have a lot of talent.
The guys at Pierre von Kleist grabbed the bull by the horn but they’re not alone. We have several small publishing ventures here. There are many people involved with photography. I can think of Encontros de Braga up-north, or the guys who organize Lisbon Photobook Festival every November in Lisbon. But they always face the same problem: political cultural agents are not contributing enough. Add the constant fragile economic condition of the country to the equation. Students cannot afford to buy these books, much less producing and publishing. Without unbiased and generous funding only a minority can afford it. It’s a complicated affair, I’m not sure that I can explain this clearly without sounding too drastic. As I said, there is a lot of talent, so maybe some established publishers abroad should consider this, just a thought.
BF: Have you ever considered publishing?
RR: In 2017, I created a ghost imprint to publish a book with Japanese photographer Emi Anrakuji. It was launched in Paris, with two-book signings, one at Luigi Clavareau’s wonderful gallery In Between, and another at Emi’s New York gallery stand at the main fair. It was the right time and the right place to launch it, most of the copies were sold then, and of course afterwards I courted with the support of Martin, Andrea, Misha, Clément, and a few other booksellers in Japan. MISHO was designed by a very talented team, As Ilhas – Margarida Rego and Catarina Vasconcelos -, but the printing process wasn’t easy. It was silkscreen and later offset printed with a photoluminescence ink that allows the images and text to be seen in the dark, after intense exposure to light. We had serious issues along the way, but with persistency and some sleepless nights we managed to produce the book. It was an experiment and so it’s a fragile affair. A lot of hand craft involved also. I don’t have the ambition of becoming a publisher though, but I wanted to try the process as a form of understanding what publishers go through with each new publication. Emi was tremendously generous in accepting my invitation. She handed me dozens of images, and with the help of Paulo Nozolino, we edited those down to less than 20 photographs. It is a simple book, with an understated design, but I think that it feels raw and sophisticated at the same time, at least that was the initial idea. But I don’t think that I’ll publish another book anytime soon. I’m focused on the shop for the next couple of years, then maybe I’ll retire and become a real Hermit Bob, who knows…