Gerhard Steidl is the best photo book publisher in the world. This may even be an understatement – there is no one quite like him, and the moniker did not arrive lightly. Steidl is fastidious with his attention to detail. When a batch of paper first arrives at Steidlville – the compound in Göttingen, Germany, that includes Steidl’s printing press, office and hotel for visiting artists – it is placed in a special climate-controlled warehouse for a few weeks, until it reaches the perfect humidity and temperature for printing. “If you notice a book with even a slight bend in its pages, you know the paper was not used at the right temperature to hold the ink,” said Steidl.

When Steidl calls, artists and photographers drop everything to reach Steidlville, which has been described as “a submarine: [where] the door closes irrevocably behind you, and there is nothing to do but descend”. A pile of small note cards marks Steidl’s desk and seat at the lunch table, custom-made by a 19th-century paper mill in Sweden. He likes his artists to use scissors and glue to cut up images and paste together mock-up layouts. He strips everything down to the essential. “My work requires very personal, subjective skills, which are those of an analogue being,” said Steidl, during his closing talk at Chobi Mela X, an international festival of photography held in Dhaka in February. “Intrinsic to me is the ability to make mistakes, and this is the best way to acquire knowledge and discover the unexpected.

Steidl, 68, grew up in Göttingen and has lived there all his life. The University of Göttingen possesses a book of which only fewer than 20 copies remain: a Gutenberg Bible. It is entirely handmade and is one of four printed on vellum, not paper. Steidl, whose father was a cleaner at the presses of a local newspaper, places himself in the legacy of Gutenberg. He cannot be away from his press for too long, he says, and often travels only for a few hours – rarely a day – at a time, despite an enormously hectic schedule. Steidl publishes over 200 books a year, all of which he oversees personally.

I met Steidl in an emptying auditorium after his hour-long lecture to a group of students and visitors. He was dressed in jeans and a close-cropped shirt, and was in Dhaka for just over 15 hours. We sat on chairs facing each other. Steidl first removed his glasses and wiped them carefully before placing them back on. He then settled his focus on me. I was struck by his curiously intelligent eyes, which waited patiently for me to begin.

Gerhard Steidl at Chobi Mela X in Dhaka. Photo courtesy: Chobi Mela.
Gerhard Steidl at Chobi Mela X in Dhaka. Photo courtesy: Chobi Mela.

In our ensuing conversation, Steidl spoke about the connection between images and text, the relationship he shares with the photographers he has worked with, what makes Asia an important centre for photography, and how to deal with the current climate of artistic censorship. Edited excerpts from the interview.

Some of the most interesting writing I have read is about photography or uses a literary method in reading images. I am interested to know, as a publisher, what do you think the relationship between writing and images is?
When you are an experienced reader, both are connected: as you read a text of literature, it forms images in your brain. The people, places and objects the writer describes come alive in your imagination. It is the same with photography.

When you compose a serious book of photos – and I am not talking about anthologies of photographs by various artists – but a conceptual book that is made on one subject, there is a clear story behind the photos that does not always require words. For the first edition of his book, The Americans (1958, published in Paris by Delpire), Robert Frank insisted that the book should be published without any text. He believed that the photos – 83 black-and-white images of post-war 1950s America – spoke for themselves.

Photo credit: Steidl/Facebook.
Photo credit: Steidl/Facebook.

Frank’s idol, the photographer Walker Evans, was the first to review the book. “It must be said that the pictures speak for themselves, wordlessly, visually or they fail,” he wrote. I think that literature and photography have a strong connection, but they don’t have to necessarily go together.

Do these stories deepen when you work with one photographer for a long time? Perhaps there is an intimacy that is bred between you, where you find trust and new ways of communication. Could you speak about this relationship, which I imagine is special, but also quite rare?
It is a relationship, but I would not call it an intimacy. I have my private life and the photographer has their private life – the two are not connected. I don’t go out in the evening with an artist to a bar and we don’t spend holidays together. For me, it is a working relationship, and that is precious.

There is a very deep understanding of what each of our roles is. I work hard to understand the artistic purpose of the photographer. Sometimes, I ask the dumb questions knowing I will get serious answers in return. I then educate the artist in production, not just with physical printing, but also with theoretical matters. I want them to recognise what happens when, say, you print black twice, increase the contrast or choose a certain type of paper.

We work together at the same eye level, so to speak: a level that respects that the artist has to understand the physical reality of bookmaking, and that I have to respect and understand their artistic values. This balance is what, at the end of it, makes for a good book.

This leads me to the books that you have made with Dayanita Singh. I remember the first time I came across them and how they changed so much for me. I’d never seen anything quite like them: the form especially, and the manner in which photo and book are in such thoughtful, almost perfect dialogue.
Yes, I know what you mean by this. Dayanita Singh and I started making photo books together almost 25 years ago, and our relationship explains exactly what I said earlier. We have built a working friendship. She understands printing and I understand her artistic practice. She is a chronologist of the things that are going to disappear from our world, and the things that are not anymore the main focus of our lives.

'What We Have Seen' by Robert Frank. Photo credit: Steidl/Facebook.
'What We Have Seen' by Robert Frank. Photo credit: Steidl/Facebook.

Her books have been realised in the offset printing technology, which is the reason why she calls herself an “offset artist”. There is a particular beauty to analogue printing, and she is the master of it. She understands perfectly my mission, and her vision and my mission are in perfect communion.

You announced tonight that you will soon conduct a workshop at the photography school Pathshala in Dhaka. This is wonderful news, and I could see many excited faces in the audience. This seems to me part of a much-needed shift toward non-European or American centres of photography, Dhaka being one such centre.
In the very beginning, when photography was still a new technology, the focus was on artists who had enough knowledge about it. Making daguerreotypes was very complicated and only a few had the money to procure the equipment and to survive as a business. Some took the technology further – for instance, British artist Anna Atkins began making total masterpieces with cyanotypes, and she was the first one to start making photo books.

But with the industrialisation of photography – starting with the 35 mm film, the Leica camera, good lenses and digital photography – it was globalised. Photography became accessible to creative persons who previously did not have the money to set up daguerreotype photographic businesses. Today there are no limitations and it is quite easy to handle the technique. It doesn’t matter if the photographer is American, Russian, French, Bangladeshi or Chinese – each has the technical know-how.

Photo courtesy: Chobi Mela.
Photo courtesy: Chobi Mela.

But then there comes another thing into play, which is the cultural background and the cultural history of the certain country and nation, and I have to say that there is a lot to be discovered in Asia. We have to bring this to life and make photo books and distribute them worldwide. In the coming years this will be the most exciting of all – to further develop these encounters and conversations.

That is an interesting word: “encounters”. Do you hope that your workshop at Pathshala, and perhaps at other institutions in South Asia, will be an important manner by which to develop more complex and nuanced relationships?
Yes, of course. I want to see more and, more importantly, to learn more. I want to contact the bright new generation of photographers coming from countries that are not yet big enough players in the museum, gallery and photography world.

Over the last few days in Dhaka – and I don’t live in Dhaka myself so I feel as though I have plugged into something – the most pressing conversation has been about the tightening veil of censorship and the near-constant threat of incarceration faced by many photographers, journalists and even ordinary citizens. This is true not only in Dhaka or Bangladesh, but all of South Asia. I wonder whether you have thoughts on how to resist this climate of persecution.
This is now a global concern, in which this kind of backlash is primarily from conservative people who think it is a fight to not forget the traditions of a certain country or nation. But an open society has never been about destroying traditions. So, we need to focus our energies on bringing new things in, and in developing new ways of living together in what is now a globalised world. It also means that we have to develop cultural ideas in a different way. This requires time and a good education, so that people can individually judge how they want to move forward, and accordingly equip themselves with the tools to do so.

On a slightly different note, what you are reading now? A little peek into your current interests, if we may.
As I get older, I am going back to books I have read before, to challenge my existing knowledge. I am current rereading Michael Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which I first read in the 1970s. A young translator from Russian has newly translated the book into German.

Photo courtesy: Chobi Mela.
Photo courtesy: Chobi Mela.

In 1970s Germany, when the book first came into print, it was censored by Russian Communist literary organisations. It was no longer what Bulgakov had written. I know this for certain now, as I have compared the version from 1970 with the version today: they are two different worlds, two completely different books. This explains how censorship – and ignorant Russian politicians in this case – can destroy culture.

New translations are fascinating. In 2010, I read a new translation of Madame Bovary by Lydia Davis, one of the only women to take the book on. It wasn’t just a question of a fresh feminist reading, but also of language: many said that Davis got closer to Flaubert’s rhythm and prose than anyone had done before.
Yes, this is a good example. This same translation was just translated into German recently, and we are having this very discussion in Germany right now: how this translation by a woman makes a huge difference in understanding Madame Bovary, and her inner life. This is why I think it’s very important to question what we already know or may have read before.