The Living Library
Markus Schaden on the Opening of the PhotoBook Museum
On August 19, 2014, the PhotoBook Museum, Cologne, opened the doors to its temporary Carlswerk space, a former industrial site now filled with containers full of photobooks; a smorgasbord of exhibitions of individual “PhotoBook Studies”; a book research lab run by Dortmund University; workshop areas; and even an almost-to-scale replica of Café Lehmitz, made famous (or infamous) by Anders Petersen’s book of the same name. (This first version of the Museum closed October 12, but it is looking for a more permanent home.) Markus Schaden, photobook evangelist and museum founder, reports back on the opening events, his inspiration, and its future.
There were approximately five thousand visitors to the PhotoBook Museum in the first week—a lot of photobook and photography fans, but also local people interested in an exciting event and people who have nothing to do with photobooks, which, for me, is the most exciting.
My experience with photobooks comes out of the book trade, as a bookseller and buyer. I missed being in touch with the average reader, not just someone already immersed in the field. Every photographer wants to make a book, so they are interested, and then you have the collectors, the freaks, the nerds; they love to have a book all signed, editioned, etc. But I think we need readers outside of these niches to make the market healthier. As Wolfgang Tillmans said a few weeks ago in the Guardian, pictures are replacing words, for young kids especially. We have to take care to educate, to show kids and others the possibilities of good visual culture in book form. I think we have to develop this kind of visual literacy—not just fetishize the book by discussing paper, special bindings, whatever.
A good example of this can be found in one of the PhotoBook History sections of the museum: Chargesheimer: Köln 5 Uhr 30. A Book-History Reconstructed: Photokina 1970, in which a 1970 exhibition is reconstructed. This exhibition—and the book it accompanies—presents the photographer’s manifesto and statement about Cologne, and the changes the city landscape was undergoing at the time. Using this work, I want to have a discussion with people from the city about traffic patterns, post-war architecture, and living in Cologne today. If a book can really get into life and change it, or at least change your view of the world, that is the best a photobook can do. For sure, everyone has to take care to think about the form, the production. But this is not the real item. The real item is the story, the message. For me, a book is an idea in a physical form.
Another of my goals was to explore a new relationship between a collector, a collection, and a museum. As I was planning, one of my questions was: do I need to buy a collection? Maybe not; maybe it would be nice to partner with others who are already building specialized collections. They could continue to collect, and we could make an agreement for how best to use those collections. For example, Hilla Becher has an amazing library that she and Bernd created. The great thing is that it’s not just about photography, it’s about their research: books about steel and about the German construction industry and architecture. I think this is the real library for Becher studies! Or, for example, one of the first collections of Japanese books I ever saw, in 1999, was in the bathroom of the Kodoji Bar in Tokyo, where Araki famously hung out. In this tiny bathroom of this tiny bar were all these masterpieces of Japanese photography. The bathroom also had pens on hand, and the books were all inscribed by other photographers—Tomatsu writing something to Moriyama, for example! I thought to myself, wow, this is the perfect research library.
In the long run, we want to find a permanent residence for the museum. I would love to be here in Cologne, but it is not absolutely necessary. I know how difficult it is to set up a museum in terms of money, of funding, and finding a building especially, so my whole strategy was to turn the planning steps around to start with what is basically a dummy version of the museum. After this site-specific manifestation, we’ll put everything online and make documentation of it available to more people. Then we can go on tour with a shipping container, the cargo version. We can pack up parts into individual shipping containers; it can travel to festivals, other museums, fairs, wherever. Maybe other people will take over the idea. The dream is that in ten years, we might have three or four PhotoBook Museums around the world. Even if I can’t do it, and other people take over the idea, it would be great.
Markus Schaden is the founder of the PhotoBook Museum and the Schaden.com publishing house. He is based in Cologne, Germany. The PhotoBook Museum’s first catalogue is nominated for a 2014 PhotoBook Award. thephotobookmuseum.com
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.