Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Q & A with Josef Chladek

Photo by Martina Draper
Josef Chladek is the founding editor of the virtual bookshelf, an online archive of photo books.

BA: Can you tell me how you first became interested in photo books?

JC: Well, long before the term photo book existed for me, some time in the mid/end 80s Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, and Bill Brandt were the first monographs I looked at, long before I realized (sometime in the mid 2000s) that they belonged to the then newly created genre of photo books.

Are you a photographer?

No. I started out with shooting/developing in the mid-80s. As I said books were an inspiration. But ended up studying Physics as I found out I would never reach the perfection or masterly execution of the photographers I just named.

What sort of photos did you make when you were shooting in the 80s?

Nothing special, experimenting in the darkroom with b/w and some color, it was fun but nothing to talk about.

So you began in the 1980s looking at monographs. When did you begin collecting them? At the same time, or later?

I have to confess that I've been always into books. But back then I was focussing on literature and politics. Eventually I bought books with photos in them without noticing them being a genre. They were and still are just books to me. But as my main interest was and maybe is the 30s I bought books from Bauhaus, Tschichold, typography, all very close to the beginning of photo books.

A Brief History Of The Amerpsand, Jan Tschichold

Do you still look at those earlier books from your collection?

Yes, maybe more intensively than at the newer ones!

What is it about the older ones? What do you see in them that's not in the newer books?

Hmm, not so easy. Give me a minute...The printing, often photogravure, was and still is stunning, although the recent printing techniques are often superior. The older books are easier to oversee. You don’t need too many books —maybe 50-100— to have the best ones. Today every week an endless number of books are being published and it’s getting harder to follow the scene. And having to look at screen images only is not very attractive.

Yes, it's hard to keep track!

But I don't want to give the wrong picture. I always come back to look at the old ones, but also spend a lot of time with Japanese books from the 70s and also recent ones. So it's not only the old books that get me looking.

Do you collect anything aside from books? I think that photography and the pack rat instinct tend to go together so I'm always curious about the deeper impulse.

Hmm, I always prefer to say "I build a library" than I collect books. I don't collect anything else. I love music but don't buy records/CDs anymore. Spacewise the room to store the books is eating up everything else here. But I've slowed down with books the last 2 years a lot. Too little kicks with new acquisitions.

Can you elaborate on "too little kicks"? What do you mean?

A time span of about one minute going through the book and put it on a pile of others without any sensation or fascination for the story (if I get it) or the images. It used to be better for me a few years ago but worsened the last two years or so.

How do you store and organize all the photo books?

Shelf after shelf, but there's no more room to put up more shelves in the flat. So my slow down may be just a consequence of running out of space. No organization on the walls at all. Nobody would find anything here. That's the reason I made the virtual bookshelf, to find books by spine (color/size) more easily in real life!

Message to photo book makers: Use a brightly colored spine.

Yes, take yellow - you'll be the winner in any bookshelf normally.

Josef Chladek's Virtual Bookshelf

Your shelves are completely random? Mine are the same. I put the newer acquisitions in one area so I can usually find them. But older stuff is pretty random, organized by size and where it might fit on the shelf. Message to photo book makers: Use a brightly colored spine.

More or less, yes! Some are in chronological order from about when I bought the book. But there's no order in genre/country/color whatsoever - only the more expensive ones are "under glass" but without order again, just about your "concept". 

What are the "concepts" you use to categorize?

No concept, no categories - even chronological is only right for a few meters,  then it mixes again, then sometimes I put older ones together, sometimes a few ordered by country. Most of the books I am able to find within a few minutes, some are harder and can take a few days :-)

And you're running out of room. Do you go through and weed out books to sell to make more space?

Not really, there should be space for another few hundred for sure —I will think about it then— but at the current rate this should be a few years away. But I try to hold the library together.

When did you first begin to scan and put them online? How did that idea start?

Sometime back in 2013 I guess I was thinking of how to organize the books. I have always had a Filemaker database with text entries only. But that was not very attractive - a single line of text for so many beautiful objects. It just didn't fit. So I started scanning the front side of the book. It looked nice but still nothing compared to the real thing. Then I added correctly sized images and dimension calculations to have them scaled proportionally so they felt more real. And then it was a short step to scan the back and spine and put all together. It took me about 7-10 days to develop the site, and then it went online with 200 books (and about 20-30 showing spreads as well)

Have you scanned every book you own so that it's a mirror of your library?

Yes, each and every book, literature and other fields front only, but every photo book with at least 3 scans. Box sets have far more sometimes.

Do people send you photo books in the hope you'll scan and upload them to your site?

Oh yes, they do!

So your library has become a sort of public resource, not just a personal one. I'm not aware of other online sites like it.

It's a public resource, yes, with my own books and acquisitions enriched with books people send in.

Does scanning books sometimes damage them?

No. Scanning the front/back/spine is easy and maybe the fastest job. Shooting the spreads (I never scan spreads) is the more tricky part. I use only daylight at the window to shoot them, camera in hand, so there is always a finger in the shot. No time to make that more perfect, it takes sooooo much time anyway. Regardless of size, pages, price, scarcity, every book/zine/whatever takes approximately 1-2 hours to put online. I've done 2000 done so far, so you can calculate the madness.

So it's not a flat scan, just a photo?

No, it's a flat scan. An A3 office scanner does them all. I take photos of spreads only, the rest are scans.

Sounds like a labor of love and lot of work. Why do you do it?

Why I do it? I love to share my joy I have with some books. The less loved ones are maybe loved by others who can't afford to buy. But I've gotten lazy the last few months. I'm thinking the whole project over. It's so time consuming and I don't have too much time with family, work, running, etc. It's not over but maybe it will get less frequent updates. There are still 2000 books to choose from (and not the worst ones).

How will you know when it is over?

Time will tell I guess. But I find less and less books that really fascinate me, and without this fascination it will be hard to maintain the project, but let’s see…

What's your favorite photo book you've gotten recently?

My favourite of all time or just some from the short past? 

Both. Short past, and also alltime favorite?

For A Language To Come (via the Virtual Bookshelf)

Favorite all time: Takuma Nakahira - For A Language To Come. Favorite recently added - the books by Nobuyuki Wakabayashi and everything by Krass Clement - to make it short. But so many others as well. It's always hard to make a cut.

I know. It's an impossible question. But your answers give me a sense of your taste. What about least favorite? 

To be honest, I don’t have a negative scale for books (and most other things). There are books that don’t get me but there is no need to make this public.

I tend to judge and say my opinion only on the ones that attract me. There is often so much love, labour and passion that goes into making a (photo)book so I find it unfair to say I don't like that one or this one's shitty. Maybe I don't get it. Maybe I've looked at it in the wrong moment or whatever…

It's perfectly fair to have an opinion.

And you never know if bad ones rise after time, through public opinion or giving them a second chance years later...

That's a related question. Which books have changed the most for you over time. Which ones did you not understand or like at first, but grew to love? Or vice versa?

That rarely happens I have to say. It's mostly love at first sight. I more or less immediately like a book or not, and I can’t remember that this changes over time, really.