Alan Rapp in Conversation with Hans Gremmen
Contemporary photobooks that treat ephemeral, elusive, and subtly unsettling subjects require designers who can work beyond familiar conventions. This extends from obvious design issues such as the sequence of images and the composition of pages into production factors, where the craft tradition of books resides. Amsterdam-based designer Hans Gremmen combines proficiency in these fields with critical inquiry. Books he has designed do not exude the air of authority normally associated with the printed document, but instead convey contingency, ambiguity, and disjuncture. Whether in the compilation of test, prep, and misprinted posters by renowned artists and designers (Serendipity), a book bound in office grip clips (Singular Beauty), or a silkscreened bookwrap that is damaged by its removal (Libero), many of Gremmen’s projects question the status of the printed book itself. In our interview, Gremmen used the word unheimlich to describe the alluring and repellent qualities of Cara Phillips’s images of cosmetic surgery spaces; one way that this freighted German word is translated is uncanny, which is the twilight zone where these works reside.
Alan Rapp: When approaching a book project, do you try to get at the core of the work alone, or with exposure to or input from the photographer?
Hans Gremmen: I never instantly have an idea or direction for a book. To get to the core of the work asks for a different approach with every project. But there is a valuable moment that I am always very careful with: the moment I first see the work. I prefer to go into this stage unprepared, not knowing what the project is about (except maybe for a title). I do this because it mimics the experience of many of the book’s future readers and viewers. As soon as you have background info, you look at the work differently. [The first look] is a unique moment. I try to get rough prep material, contact sheets and things like that, and I need time to digest all the information. In the next meeting with the photographer (usually after a few weeks), we begin to talk about how I see things, and whether that is in line with the ideas of the photographer.
AR: What are the main design and production techniques you employ? Do you think of yourself as a designer with a consistent approach, belonging to a certain school or tradition of design?
HG: I have a printing background. Before I went to an arts academy, I trained for four years to do graphic production work: printing, typesetting, prepress, etc. I understand the printing process inside out, and—as a designer—look for ways to use and influence that process to get what I want. My designs stay close to this practical and physical part of the production: paper, ink, print sheets, and binding are my main tools. For me this connection between design and printing is logical, but it also fits in a design tradition in the Netherlands, I think. In the 1950s and ’60s designers such as Otto Treumann and Willem Sandberg made very print-based work, as do my own teachers, like Jaap van Triest, Karel Martens, and Roger Willems.
AR: You have said that in making the photobook you create a “new autonomy.” What are the conditions today that permit this independence of the medium? Given the complex streams and flows of visual culture, what does this autonomy mean to you?
HG: What I meant by that is that a book follows its own rules. The basics of the book (cover/front/back/spine/pages) are given, but you can choose to change and manipulate these, which will affect the work and how people will experience the work. Within visual culture this is not a strange phenomenon. Just think of the movies: if you go to a movie you accept that you are entering a world for a few hours, one that will follow its own logic. Maybe plants will begin to speak, maybe a dwarf will sing a song in a red room; it is all possible.
AR: What did you respond to first when formulating the design concept for Cara Phillips’s Singular Beauty? Clinical spaces where female beauty is manipulated are the subject of the book, and Phillips’s images of them are coldly dramatic. Why employ an all-type cover and bind the block with grip clips?
HG: When I saw Cara’s work I was instantly drawn into these strange rooms and machines. The way she uses the light makes the work unheimlich; it gets under your skin. But what is actually in the photographs is very hardcore medical equipment. So I instantly knew what kind of book it shouldn’t be. This book shouldn’t be a coffee-table book, with perfect paper and perfect binding. That would focus too much on the surface layer of the work. I wanted the book to also have a slightly uncomfortable feeling. Therefore I chose this rough binding, something you could also see as very clinical: staples. Stainless steel at its best. On the front I placed the title very large simply because I needed a counterpoint for all the fragile decisions I made (thin paper, see-through captions, regular typography). The back cover has a large image. For me a cover is a three-dimensional object, with a front, a back, and a spine. A cover should be part of the total concept of the book.
AR: Another example is Petra Stavast’s Libero, in which the design concept extends to the production and packaging. At what point do you as the designer really start calling the shots in fabrication? And how often do you have the budget latitude to do this?
HG: I am always very much involved in the fabrication of a book. By doing so, I can often produce the book more inexpensively than initially budgeted. In the case of Libero I used the maximum number of pages that fit on a sheet of a mid-size book. I found a way in printing that I could push the normal page–per–sheet ratio up by half a centimeter on each side. This may sound like a marginal difference, but it makes the book more in the mid-size range, without losing the intimacy of a small(er) book. And it does not cost any extra money because no extra plates and paper are needed. It is the same process, only used more economically. I work with printers that I know very well, which allows me to get into these kinds of discussions. The puzzle of making it all fit is something that both I and they enjoy. And in the end, it makes for a far more engaging photobook.
Alan Rapp is senior editor of architecture and design at the Monacelli Press.
The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.