Modes Vu: Designing publishing

Recently, we’ve had the chance to present our publishing model two events: Paper Voices at Art Basel Hong Kong, and as part of the launch of JAM (Green) by Jeff Yiu at Closing Ceremony in Shanghai.

Since the start, our working model has been the same but our way of explaining it has changed. It’s come as a result of making more and more of the plan reality, and seeing it work in the real world.

Here’s the best version of our model of publishing that we’ve come up with so far, as told at Closing Ceremony.

Modes Vu is designed as a structure for exploring the new types of expression in photography that we’ve seen and subsequently become intrigued with.

Cameras embedded in each and every phone coupled with digital distribution networks (Instagram, tumblr, etc.) have led to photography evolving from a restricted art or a profession to an everyday means of communication. Just as with language, we talk in our own special ways, about different things, make jokes.

As we look at photography as a means of communication, we’re interested in how and what people express with it. We call the resulting images 21st century sentiments.

To make it a little more clear how we see the evolution of the photographic image, we trace changes in the medium back to changes in photographic tools, though technology itself is not our focus.

The rangefinder, manufactured by a number of companies but today often associated with Leica, was the foundation of street photography, and the work and careers of some of 20th century greats like Cartier-Bresson, Frank, and Winogrand. Its compact size and comparable light weight let it be easily hung around a neck or stuffed in a pocket, or held ready in hand.

The second order effect of this mobility is obviating the need to plan. If planning and setup of equipment is required, no decisive moments can be captured. Pictures become pictorials, staged portraits or higher-resolution landscape paintings. With the always ready rangefinder, instead, fleeting moments can be frozen in a snap.

The third order effect of mobility is this new aesthetic and a change in subject matter. An example is Robert Frank’s The Americans, with which the “Swiss-born Frank set out with his Guggenheim Grant to do something new and unconstrained by commercial diktats. His aim was to photograph America as it unfolded before his somewhat sombre outsider’s eye. From the start, Frank defined himself against the traditional Life magazine school of romantic reportage.” (The Guardian)

The book was controversial and scarcely popular in the United States, because it captured life as it happened and it wasn’t always pretty, in regards to both subject matter and its aesthetic of “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness” .

A couple of decades later another improvement in mobility and spontaneity emerged: the point and shoot. Even smaller, often with a collapsible lens and autofocus, taking a photo was something anybody could do, though not necessarily well.

Like Frank’s sometimes blurry photos and its subject was a revolt against the good taste of its time, the unframed and out of focus photos that became the signature of the inexperienced tourist photographer eventually became a new style, in response to this exact sentiment.

Daido Moriyama on the Ricoh GR1

Examples of this include the short-lived Japanese publication PROVOKE, which started Daido Moriyama’s career, who sometimes used the snapshot camera par excellence, the Ricoh GR1.

Decades later, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the snapshot aesthetic became even more of a style and eventually a cliche, in response to the more and more capable and fail-safe digital camera.

In the 2010s, embedded phone cameras increased in quality and started on a path to ubiquity, but it wasn’t until new networks for distributing images taken on phones that change would once again start.

This is where we are today: We take photos for so many different reasons, for so many different purposes and in so many different ways that they cannot even begin to be listed. Personal diaries, public diaries, visual puns, as words and sentences in a language of visual communication, out of boredom, as a way of keeping alive in a boring everyday, dreaming of becoming someone else.

Playing with photography is a gateway into becoming a photographer. Many, most, of the people we’ve published so far have never been published before and likely wouldn’t get published. Not because they’re not good, but because they don’t think of themselves as photographers and wouldn’t pursue getting published.

You could say that they, like we, are products of the network.

_hok_ whose book is shown above recently graduated from an art school in Wuhan and moved back to Xiamen where she hopes to open a clothing shop. She’s a great photographer but has not made claims for the title, yet.

Realizing that we are in the midst of a transformation with new people taking new types of images, we cannot really fix ourselves onto a certain idea, but need to remain adaptive and impressionable, reacting to what we see.

This, in turn, requires an experimental way of making books. And that means finding a new way of producing books.

From having taken photos ourselves and trying to figure out which ones make a good book, we know that the only real way to know is to try.

We set up an iterative publishing process where there are two experiments, Workbooks and Greens, that come before the actual photobook.

Having worked with this process for a while we discovered something while clicking around on Wikipedia on a slow day, called learning cycle:

  1. Doing something, having an experience
  2. Reflecting on the experience
  3. Concluding from the experience, developing a theory
  4. Planning the next steps, to apply or test the theory

From both the side of us as the editors and publishers, and the photographers on the other hand, the first edition Workbook works as a prototype which can be reflected on and learned from. This learning is then used for the next edition, the Green.

Each Green is based on the previous edition and contains a new edit with new images, a new layout, a new design and a new format. The larger format of the Green in addition to it being staple bound rather than perfect bound calls for a new design, which requires reconsidering the photographs. This in turn gives us a new perspective on the work.

The Greens will eventually go through the same process as the Workbooks and be made into the third and final, as of yet unnamed, edition.

Working iteratively with relatively unknown photographers wouldn’t usually be possible. Offset printing has high start up costs meaning that it only becomes economically feasible when doing print runs above 300 copies. Printing so many copies would mean a high cost per book, and a need to sel large quantities to make back that investment. (See: Digital publishing, economic calculation, creative work.)

By using digital print we are able to completely eliminate the set up cost with the effect of being able to make as small quantities as 2 copies — if nobody buys it, the only thing that’s printed is the author’s copy and our publisher’s copy.

Working this way we’re free to publish anybody whose work interests us, without the necessity of selling hundreds of copies. At the same time, the process of publishing, re-editing and re-publishing the work gives the photographer a way of developing their own work over time.

The result is a work process that starts and ends with the internet.

We get to know the photographer online, work over email or WeChat, upload the files to the printer on the other side of the world, order the proofs, press OK, and the book is published.

We scan the book and publish the scans to our website, which is a tumblr, and look at the reactions each spread gets. This process both become a feedback loop for improving the next edition, and its own marketing campaign when spreads are reblogged.

Finally, what the process creates — Workbooks and Greens.

Modes Vu

as minds meet matter feelings evolve