Interview: Lothar Schirmer by Eva Gravayat

 

Done in Munich in June 2012 for Le Journal de la Photographie – published on June 27th, 2012 with a special focus on Schirmer/Mosel Publishing.

 

Eva Gravayat / Le Journal de la Photographie:

Mr Schirmer, you have been collecting photographs since more than 40 years, which is an activity you began before creating your own publishing house. What can you tell me about the first photograph you bought ?

 

Lothar Schirmer:

At this time I was somehow familiar with the Düsseldorf’s art scene and there were three photographers who attracted my attention.

One was Bernd & Hilla Becher of course, which I thought was a sort of conceptual art. I didn’t see so much the documentary idea behind it. I was curious about their work and I visited them. I was conviced by their personnality and process. They didn’t have clients to work for so they were doing their work on their own passion. It was of course a huge task financially as well as physically, an endless task, to document all the 19th Century industrial structures before they vanished. In a way it had an heroic approach. They had to make some money for living in between and to get the funds to cover the costs for this work, so it was a very passionate and also a dogmatic way of looking at the world. There were few other photographers that they regognized as being serious, except August Sander, Walker Evans and Diane Arbus, basically no one.

That was one thing. Then the other thing which was in the same city was Hans-Peter Feldmann. He was the son of a drugstore owner and he collected all the photographs that all the clients brought and didn’t take back. This was his beginning and he developped with this amateur photography his own fascinating world until today. This was a totally opposite thing (to the Bechers) and interrested me.

The third one was Ute Klophaus, a woman who recorded photographically all the performances and happenings of Josef Beuys. Althought many photographers attended these events, she had developped a unique style. She did nothing but this and she couldn’t do anything else as she was obsessed by the man and also by photography. She died last year, she was very special.

It was three totally different approaches to contemporary photography at the same moment and in the same place (Düsseldorf). I though it was very interessting that photography can cover so many fields. I was attracted, I visited them all of them and I started collecting a bit. Then I thought after few years that I should think about publishing. The other choice would have been to become an art dealer or to open a gallery, which I rejected.

 

EG

Why did you decide to become a publisher rather than an art dealer?

 

LS

If you visit an artist and tell him « I want to make a book on your work », he shows you everything. If you come to him as an art dealer and say « I want to buy something to sell », he shows you only the five things he wants to sell. I realised that I could suddenly have the full information when I came with the serious job of doing books. I also think that in photography, in order to get interesting, it has to be about a large number of work, rather than only one or two pieces. Even the print collectors feel this, that one print is not enough, or five or ten… Basically you need eighty, or whatever : enough to make a book !

 

EG

Is there a right amount of photographs in order to make a good photo book ?

 

LS

Books on photography could have a wonderful diversity. It could be a big photographer’s monograph, as a big autobiography in pictures and it could be twenty images like a poetry volume. In between you can find any quantity of images, any format of book, depending on the photographic material.

I sometimes compare it with jewellery. From gems and stones you can make a huge variety of different pieces of jewellery. Some photographers are aware of this and control this process of editing afterwards, like Henri-Cartier Bresson or like Bernd & Hilla Becher did. But other photographers are like journalists, they shoot and they don’t care what happens with the gems they have generated. By making books, I understood that some of them knew exactly what they wanted and some others needed advice, so I could make proposals.

 

EG

By publishing photo books, was it your first aim to help the photographers in doing their work and becoming known, or was it to bring photography to a larger audience in the 70’s?

 

LS

When making a book, you have to bring a product into the world which somehow respects the point of view of the author and the artist but then of course, you have to take care of the public’s wishes and needs too… Before I convinced my public, I convinced some other publishers, to become my competitors. Things developed faster than I had expected!

 

EG

Who were your first collaborations with in the mid 70’s, participating at the same time and  probably in different ways in the development of the photography book market – in Germany or abroad ?

 

LS

There was a young French man, Claude Nori at Contrejour who always was at the Frankfurt book fair, then Thames and Hudson (London), and an old German jewish immigrant who did the list of art books for Rizzoli in New York : George Aldor.

 

EG

How was the realisation of your first book  « August Sander – Rheinlandschaften » in 1974-75?

 

LS

To work with old people from the previous generation was very easy basically. When somebody wanted to make a book on their work they knew it was one of their last chances to do it. The only thing that they checked was if I could pay my bills and that I could produce good quality. Good quality prints were more important than money. They didn’t wanted to be disappointed and I didn’t want to disappoint them. We worked with Reinhold Kölbl in Munich for the lithography and Passavia in Passau was the printer. The book was in three colors and a varnish and it looked almost like a facsimile.

Over the years I changed to people who were my age. It was more difficult, as there was always some kind of subconscious competition with the old generation. Now I do books with people who are 20 years old. For the youngest of them, the ones with whom you are doing their first book, the project becomes like a pregnancy, it becomes so important.

 

EG

What are the qualities you need in order to work with an artist when publishing his book?

 

LS

If the publisher should have some skills I would say : first the patience, the second one is to have experience, and the last one is to be able to give advice.

To exercise all these virtues you have to be independent in relation to the time. If you have to make a book quickly because you need it financially, it needs a high acting capacity to give the impression of being under no pression at all and having any time in the world to be able to discuss!

There is one book we have now been working on for five years, which is Anton Corbijn’s book on Tom Waits…  But after many steps of changes, it seems that in September this year, the big Tom Waits’ book is going to happen.

 

EG

What has been your longest project?

 

LS

One of the longest project was to work on the photographs of the paintor Wols : « Wols Photograph » which was finally published in 1978 (with text by Laszlo Glozer and 305 illustrations).

There was a split in the family : one part owned the negatives, the other part owned the rights. In order to make the book we had to wait until the rights expired. It took a number of years, but then it happened. Sometimes, it is just about waiting, waiting and waiting, like for catching birds.

 

EG

In a more personal point of view : what are the books which have remained very important in your mind or  which hold the strong memories, considering how the project was made and considering your collaboration with the artist(s)?

 

LS

The Becher’s project was the most extensive (20 books published until now) and strong. They made me aware of this tradition in photography : August Sander, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus… And then they made me familiar with all their students.

 

EG

How is the publishing house going now in term of book production ?

 

LS

Well, we do about 50 books a year : one third of the books are some productions, one third I buy from foreign colleagues for making a german edition, and the last third corresponds to remades of some old books in a different shape.

 

EG

Which of your books was the most sold until now ?

 

LS

I would say Helmut Newton « Portraits ». We did it in 1987 and it is still in print.

 

EG

I understand that are you re-publishing your books quite often ?

 

LS

Yes. I mean one third from the total of the books we have published is still available at this time. 2000 books have been published in total since 1975. This corresponds to a production 50 books per year, but for sure the first year we did one book, the second year two… Some books are now in the first printing and some are in the 5th, 6th or 7th printing !

 

EG

In how many countries of the world are now the Schirmer/Mosel books sold ?

 

LS

Everywhere ! Everywhere there is somebody who can pay for it and wants it, but I have no idea how many countries.

 

EG

You opened a gallery in Munich, can you explain when and why ?

 

LS

The gallery started in 1998 and it was first an advertising tool for the publishing house ; now it is supporting the publishing house financially. It has made a nice turn ! We sold nicely throught the crisis. People were more encouraged to buy art works than books from time to time. But it is basically not a « gallery », I will call it more a « showroom » because we do not represent the artists. The only artist we are representing is Cy Twombly for which we have the exclusivity for the photographic work. For  all the other works, we just sell and share the price. It works quite nicely in the price range from 3 000 to 20 000 euros per piece.

It is easy, you don’t have to think about supporting the life of an other person, of an artist. This is also a bit playful : if somebody comes, if I want to show his work and if the space is available, I can say  « let’s do it now ! ». We are indeed not following a two years’ planning and this is basically why it has been created. I asked Munich galleries’ owners sometimes before, wether we could make a presentation of a book and a show together and they said « I am fully booked for two years and I can’t confuse my corporate identity with a work which I don’t follow ». I understood this and I decided to make my own open space.

It happened when we did this wonderful book with Isabella Rossellini (« Some of me » in 1998). She came after the book fair (Francfort), we had a huge publicity stand and we sold  and 10 000 copies in three months. I said to myself « if you have Isabella you can make a press conference in every place and it works well, but if you have somebody you need to show the work to get the audience’s interest, you need your space ». So I took the money I made with Isabella’s book and rented the gallery ! Then we gave her an exhibition too, for the second book.

 

EG

You seem to have a strong professionnal relationship with Isabella Rossellini ?

 

LS

Yes we did several books together and we are now preparing a very big book for next year on her mother: « Ingrid Bergman : Her Life in Pictures ». A visual biography made with 500 photographs, notes and documents, a big book which is our biggest project ever and we are doing it with all the four kids together : Pia Lindström and Roberto, Isabella and Ingrid Rossellini.

 

EG

I guess that you are travelling a lot…
What was your last professionnal trip abroad and what will be your last professionnal trip abroad ?

 

LS

The last trip I did was a trip to New York City for Cindy Sherman’s opening at MoMA.
My next trip will probably be Düsseldorf… or Paris. Who knows ?

 

EG

Could you explain us the story of your relationship to Helmut Newton as being his publisher and the ongoing conflict happening now ?

 

LS

Taschen wanted to publish a big retrospective book of Helmut Newton (« Helmut Newton’s SUMO ») including pictures that we had previously published with Newton. We agreed on some pictures, on a price for the rights and I gave him the authorization for 10 000 copies of this book. Then Taschen and June Newton always wanted to do a cheaper version of this book, which I denied saying that it was not in the deal and that the cheaper version of this book will damage the other ten books of Helmut Newton that I have in my catalogue.

They didn’t do it for ten years and then June Newton suddenly agreed with Taschen to do a cheaper version (2009). The worst thing they did was that they exchanged a number of images with other images from same shootings. So basically they destroyed the old cast and made something like a fake selection. For this reason we have a court with Taschen at the moment because we think this is a copyright infringement. This is a still pending court.

Basically the question that has to be sold is wether there should be a new contract if you use second choices of images from a shooting. For me it is necessary, because if not you can sell a book to publisher A, and then you sell a book to publisher B with second choices, but it would like out of focus images. For the future of publishing it is important as it is a new crime, there is nothing in he texts about it.

 

EG

Is there a book that you are still dreaming to do ?

 

LS

My dream book would be on Jean-Luc Godard’s film stills: his film imagery.

 

EG

About a particular film ?

 

LS

No about all. First we start we a summary !

 

EG

He is still alive.

 

LS

Yes, I wrote to him but he didn’t answer at the moment and I wouldn’t do it without his approval.

 

EG

One last question : Who is Lothar Schirmer ?
Few words about your personal life ?

 

LS

Who are you ? Who am I ? I have no idea !
I am building a house at the moment, a house of stone, in Munich, after having built a house of paper…

Schirmer/Mosel Publishing
Widenmayerstr. 16
80538 München
www.schirmer-mosel.germanartbooks.de

Cover photo: © Schirmer/Mosel



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Currently lives in Berlin
Born in Paris, 1985
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