Thursday, June 25, 2020

"The work is our history and should be seen"

Back in early May, I echoed Teju Cole's comments on the joy of photobooks, and particularly "the aesthetic appeal of their materiality". I did also note, however, that these qualities inevitably make building up a library of such publications an incredibly expensive business, as well as one that demands a lot of shelf space.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Cole is Craig Atkinson, the indefatigable driving force behind Cafe Royal Books. The prolific publishing house, whose praises I've previously sung, celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion Creative Review's Rebecca Fulleylove spoke to its founder about his mission and philosophy.

"I've never liked fuss or decoration, or embellishments", Atkinson told Fulleylove - what is infinitely more important to him is simply ensuring that the images are widely accessible. British Culture Archive has developed a significant web presence and reached out through social media, before trialling a physical exhibition and developing plans for a permanent gallery. Atkinson, by contrast, felt that the best means of achieving his objective was through publishing zines, which are "cheap, easily postable, multiple, disposable and collectible".

His focus on "getting the work seen" is motivated by a passionate conviction that documentary photography "is one of the most active, important, underrepresented and forgotten genres of photography", having been "pretty much neglected by galleries and museums". Here in Cardiff, the establishment of a permanent space for photography in the National Museum Wales following a sizeable bequest from David Hurn's personal collection, and the subsequent development of a Photography Season, suggest that things might be changing for the better locally, at least - but the efforts of Cafe Royal and British Culture Archive are nevertheless much needed,

In most cases, Atkinson publishes work that has been submitted to him, rather than reaching out proactively, which means that he is regularly discovering new and exciting photographers and images. Don't be tempted to send him the fruits of your lockdown project, though. In another recent interview, he said, "I'm not interested in those right now. In 15 to 20 years, if humans still exist, they will be more important."

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