Interview with the Jury 2017: Delphine Bedel

by Unseen September 01 2017

Unseen Amsterdam is just a few weeks away, and the assessments of this year’s submissions for the Unseen Dummy Award have taken place! Before we announce the shortlist of the beautiful dummies, we have been getting to know each jury member in a series of conversations. This week, Delphine Bedel - the founder of Meta/Books talks to us about the photobook's transition into the digital realm.

You founded the publishing house and research platform Meta/Books. What was your motivation and main idea behind establishing it?

I founded my own platform in 2009 to promote a new generation of photographers, artists and designers. It started as a publishing house, education project and research platform. Working at the intersection of visual culture and technology, I was always interested in digital publishing, so I then founded Meta/Books in 2014. The name is simply derived from ‘metadata’ and ‘books’. Meta/books is a space for experimentation. We develop cutting-edge publications, workshops, education projects, lectures and exhibitions with art and design academies and leading art institutions. Meta/Books aims to promote a new generation of women photographers and I recently published ’Out of the Blue’ by Virginie Rebetez and ‘A Plastic Tool’ by Maya Rochat.

You teach the at the Design Academy Eindhoven and at the Piet Zwart Institute at Rotterdam. How do you see students experimenting with the design and publishing process under your guidance? Do you have any specific examples of recent experiments?

I teach publishing in various art and design academies across Europe for almost 10 years. Since self-publishing is becoming more mainstream, more and more institutions want the topic to be a part of their curriculum. We are quite privileged in the Netherlands, because there is a long tradition of experimental publishing and photobooks. Printers and design studios are eager to innovate. There is a lot of room for experimentation. Students come from all over the world to study here, and their contribution is essential. Working together as an editorial board, my students experience all the roles involved in publishing, from concept, design, production and distribution. They work collectively and on individual projects. At the Piet Zwart Institute, we just launched the first Master programme dedicated entirely to Experimental Publishing. In the first semester, the students created a board game in the form of a book, where the reader had to decide whether to preserve the book or dismantle it to play the game. I also teach at the Design Academy Eindhoven. For the Master Information Design, I developed an experimental framework for students to publish their theses. The results are stunning.

Your PhD research at the University for the Creative Arts (UK) focused on photobooks. Can you tell me why you decided to work on this subject, and the questions that you raised?

The focus of my thesis is ‘Publishing as Artistic Practice—From Print to Software Culture’. We are in a moment of cultural and industrial transition from print and paper to corporate ‘software culture’. A book, or a photograph, is no longer a page or a print—it is lines of codes. Newsprint and books are historically the prominent method for presenting and circulating photography. When the first smartphone was released in 2010, all of this changed. By 2014, more photographs were published online in one year than had been previously in the whole history of photography! Dissemination became mainstream. Everyone is a photographer, and everyone is a publisher. Self-publishing responds to this sense of urgency and limited means. New modes of production, appropriation, distribution and collaborative practices are now appearing. Communities are building online and offline, redefining the boundaries of the medium. Publishing is the new home studio - versatile, portable and accessible, providing a community in print. That is what my research is about.

You’ve given numerous workshops on various types of publishing. How do you define e-publishing, and how do you think digital publishing is affecting the photobook world?

This is a crucial question. Since digital culture has become a pervasive presence in every aspect of our daily lives, we need to invent new tools and new ways for circulating knowledge and information. Some remarkable online projects like @everydayafrica and @womenphotograph, or startups like EyeEm, are breaking new ground. Not without paradoxes, the photobook relies on the existence of both print media and digital culture to exist. Although the digitisation of the film and music industries occurred 15 years ago, the digitisation of books only stared quite recently. Digital photography is ubiquitous, from social media to images made by machines (drones, satellites, etc) but the digital photobook barely exist. Was the e-book not the right technology for photography? Will artificial intelligence provide more influential tools for publishing photography? This is the track that I foresee and is what I am working on. There is a certain irony in the fact that while Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is working on ‘space tourism’ for 2018, we are still figuring out how to publish a digital photobook!

What would you say is the most important part of the process in creating a book?

Every aspect is crucial—the project, the team, the editing, the budget, the timeline, the distribution, the readership.

As a graphic design editor and publisher, you often collaborate with artists to assist in the visual realisation of their idea. What is the most important feature of this collaboration?

Trust, and a good idea.

Is there a photobook in your own collection that you often return to?

Diane Arbus’ Magazine Work, published by Aperture. Throughout her career, Arbus was making a living as a press photographer. It is one of the rare publications of her work that reflects on her humour and writings, talking about why her work was so groundbreaking at the time. Her experience with press photography contributed to her style, technique, and her way of thinking about photography. She was, for a time, a prolific press photographer and could write the captions for her own images—a circumstance that was extremely rare at the time. It might not be a photobook by today’s standards, but it is very influential in my work as a photographer and publisher.

What book are you working on right now?

Together with the designer Noemie Vidé, we are working on a series of publications based on my own archives as a photographer, curator and publisher. We have selected 10 projects that span a period of 10 years. Titled The Live Archive, the series will be published in paperback and digital formats, in order to make it accessible and affordable, and we will present the project during Unseen. For my next photobook, we will investigate how to use artificial intelligence in publishing.

What criteria are important to you when evaluating a photobook? Is there anything significant that you are looking for?

The main question for me is always: why publish? What is the sense of urgency of a project? Does it has to be a book? Depending on the geographical or the political context where one is working, there could be a scarcity or an abundance of resources, and it matters to take this in account. Erica Overmeer makes photobooks using only one image, and they are amazing. Other artists may need a thousand images to tell their story. When a project becomes public, as a dummy or in its final form, it has the power to change the way we see the world, one page at the time. This is why we publish: to share knowledge and experiences, to come together, and to invent a future together.

Check our website for the announcement of this year’s Unseen Dummy Award shortlist