Thursday, January 4, 2024

Q & A with Olga Yatskevich

Photo by Anna Yatskevich
Olga Yatskevich is a photobook critic and collector based in New York City. This interview is compiled from multiple chats in December 2023.

BA: Where are you from? What was your youth like?

OY: Let's start from the beginning! My family is from Belarus, and I was born in the far east of Russia (very cold winters!). Every summer we would fly all the way across Russia to spend time with my grandparent. I grew up in the Middle East, a couple of years in Egypt and then Syria (and many trips around the region). My family moved to Belarus when I was in high school. My grandfather was an amateur photographer and we always had cameras in our family. As we were moving around and I was discovering new places, I was always taking photos. Like many families, we have photo albums on various themes, and I would always play around arranging and re-arranging photographs.


I think it is fair to say that my interest in photobooks started (and shaped) when I move to New York.

What brought you to New York?

I moved to NYC a little bit over 10 years ago for work. I got a job offer with the United Nations. I still work there full time.

Very cool. You said your interest in photobooks began with that move. Do you remember any specific books from that time which pulled you in?

It was a book by Paolo Gasparini titled Para verte mejor, america latina (English translation, To See You More Clearly, Latin America). Around that time I also got a copy of Chizu by Kikuji Kawada. These books blew up my mind!

Sample spread from Chizu (The Map) by Kikuji Kawada

Wow, you started with the heavyweights. Chizu is pretty monumental. I have the Mack mock up edition from last year. But I’ve never seen the original. How did you encounter those books? It's not like you'd find Chizu just hanging around a regular bookstore.

I think maybe I came across the video that Joerg Colberg posted. I don’t have the original one, but I bought a reprint by Nazraeli, and then the one published by Akio Nagasawa. And yes, I also had to get the most recent mock up edition by Mack.

Were you also getting into photography in other ways back then? Were you seeing shows, taking photos yourself, hanging out with photographers? Or were you exclusively in the book world from the beginning?

Years ago I took class on the history of photography at MoMA with Sarah Meister. I started going to as many photography shows as I could. I very quickly got involved in the NY photo community, first connecting online (I think via Facebook and Tumblr). I went to a photobook meet-up (I think it was also organized by Joerg). And a couple of months later I started organizing photobook meet-ups myself. It was so much fun!

Were/are you shooting photos in New York? 

I do take photos like pretty much everyone today, and at some point I played around with old film cameras. But nothing serious. 

Whatever happened to all the photos you shot in Egypt, Syria, and Belarus?

I still have photos from my childhood, slowly scanning them. Amazing to have these memories.

Do you imagine making a photobook of those at some point?

Maybe something like a family album! But not a book for a distribution.

Are you still organizing the photobook meetups?

As I was connecting with the photo community in NY, I met Russet Lederman. Russet and her husband Jeff have an incredible collection of photobooks. They are extremely knowledgeable and generous sharing that knowledge. I invited them to one of the meet-ups to talk about Japanese photobooks from their collection. It was a hot summer evening, and we had our meeting in a very cute Japanese cafe in Long Island City. There was even a write up about it in a Japanese magazine IMA. That was the beginning of our collaboration. We started working together, and created a project called 10x10 Photobooks. Today it is a non-profit organization. So, back to your question, these photobook meetups evolved into something else: 10x10 Photobooks!

Yes, 10x10 Photobooks is where I first learned about you. I love the concept. Congrats on the group and your last big compilation book. Are you saying that 10 x 10 has replaced the earlier meetings? 

10x10 Photobooks Salon with Mike Mandel and Chantel Zakari

Thank you, Blake! 10x10 is about community, bringing people together and collaborating. The format has changed over the years. Today we organize reading rooms, publish books, and also bring people together in our salons. Salons offer space for informal discussion with photographers, publishers, designers, curator in an informal atmosphere (often in people's home) over a glass of wine (or kombucha).

You said you take photos like pretty much everyone. Indeed photography is a democratic medium. I love that aspect, and that’s one thing I like about photobooks too. They are more accessible and inexpensive than gallery prints. That said, the book world has an edge of exclusivity. Certain photobooks have limited runs and go out of print quickly. The whole thing seems to run sometimes on FOMO and insider trading. That’s not really a question, just an observation.

I agree! I love photobooks because they can be inexpensive and very democratic. A great way to share ideas and even empower!

I'm guessing if you live in New York, storage space might be an issue for you? Where/how do you store all your books?

At the beginning I was buying A LOT of photobooks, slowed down now. I still have many of them in boxes since the last move. Yes, space is an issue. Hopefully moving into a new house soon.

I seem to be going the other direction. Since the pandemic started I've begun acquiring more. Why have you slowed down collecting? Because of space limits or shifting interests? Or maybe after you've seen enough books it gets harder to find ones which surprise you? Or another factor?

Maybe all of the above. At the beginning everything was exciting and new. Every year, like, many photobook enthusiasts, I would spend my weekend at the NY Art Book Fair and come back with maybe a couple dozen photobooks. I think it helped me understand what I like. And over the years space also became an issue! 

10x10 What They Saw reading room at Boston Athenaeum

So you've collected enough books by now to understand what you like. Can you put that feeling into words? Which photobooks do you gravitate toward? I know that's a broad question. But can you put some boundaries on it?

It is probably still evolving, but yes, definitely over the years I became more picky. I don’t have any specific theme. I think for me it is first of all about photographs, how they work together and if the editing and book design reinforce that experience. I gravitate to self-published books and small publishers.

Why do you think you gravitate toward self published and small publishers? Is it because those books are more experimental? Or you want to support small enterprise? Or something else?

I think for me these books have more heart. They often take more chances with design. I love the experimental, unconventional part of it.

I'm drawn to quirky and unusual books too. My problem is I can't often find them. From the photographer's perspective I think distribution is a big problem. And that comes through on my end, trying to source them as a reader. I’m curious how you find photobooks?

I agree, not always easy to find them! I think social media used to be a good way to find and share books. A while back I started a Facebook group to share photobooks. It was a great way to connect with people all around the world and find new, often lesser known books. But that group is not very active now. I often find new books by talking to other book collectors, publishers, photographers, and trying to follow various book fairs (in person when possible or checking their websites).

10x10 What They Saw reading room at New York Public Library

I'm part of that Facebook group. Sometimes there are interesting posts but yes, for whatever reason it's not very active.  

I think that’s Facebook in general these days. I hardly check it.

The annual year-end lists have begun. Do you follow those to get book tips? Or out of general interest?

I used to follow them, but less so in the past years. I definitely look at them when they pop-up in my feed or inbox. I appreciate lists that focus on lesser known, obscure titles. Maybe 10 years ago there were tons of blogs on photobooks, but I think the number went down now significantly (or maybe I don’t follow the new ones!).

I fear that I'm missing some special group somewhere out there, a central spot where all the photobook gossip happens in private. Is there such a group?  It seemed like there was a ton of public activity and discussion online 10 years ago. And now much less. But I know folks must still be thinking and writing about photobooks somewhere. So where does it happen now? Just once a year on lists? 

I would like to know as well! If you ever find out, do let me know!

I tried to jumpstart that Instagram account @photobookspotlight a few years ago. I think you were involved briefly? There were about 15 of us who would take turns posting about certain books. It was fun while it lasted. But then it kind of melted away, like social media tends to do. 

Yes, it was good!

Anyway, some of the recent year-end lists have included some obscure/rare picks. Just depends on the person. PhotoEye posted theirs last week. And this week Photobookstore has begun posting their lists.

I like that Martin keeps inviting a wide range of people to share their favourite photobooks.

For me the most interesting lists are compiled by other photographers, and he always invites several. I think they have a different perspective than collectors or booksellers or other groups. I guess that's only natural. Actually, what really fascinates me is the difference between these lists (by "pundits" for lack of better word?) and the annual Aperture/Paris shortlists compiled by industry insiders. I've been following both lists the past few years, and there is usually very little overlap. It's almost like they're looking at two different worlds. A few books are on both, like Carla Williams’ Tender and the Japanese Magazine book, for example. But for the most part there isn’t much crossover. Makes me wonder...

Photobooks shortlisted in 2023 for Aperture/Paris Photo Awards

Loring seems to value APP as a source of book leads. Maybe because from a collector's point of view they are important? But I generally put more stock in the other year-end lists. Honestly, it was hard to find books in the APP list this year which interested me much. Most are pretty conceptual/ideological. 

I think there used to be more overlap in the past years, but now I look at Aperture/Paris shortlists and see less books I know. It also makes me wonder! Do people contact you to send copies of their books?

Yes, sometimes. What about you?

The same, but I think not as often as maybe 5 years ago, so I wonder what has changed. If people find different ways to share their books, maybe more efficient networks?

I am a sucker for photobooks, so I almost always say yes. For a while last year I somehow got on the Mack review list. So they sent me a bunch of free books which was great. Manna from the book heavens. But then something happened. Maybe I gave a bad review or something? They cut me off without explanation. Easy come easy go.

Oh interesting, had no idea they did that.

The other thing with free books is it can devolve into payola. When someone sends you a book there's an implied assumption that you will review it positively. Quid pro quo. If the book is good I don't mind., because a few hours of writing is like my way of paying for the book. I'd rather spend time than money. It's the mediocre books which create tension. Sometimes it’s best to just say nothing, but that can feel weird too. In all cases I try to keep the "free” aspect from interfering with review content. 

Yes, I guess that's usually the intention. But you can also hear from an artist you might not discover otherwise!

Very true. I've discovered a few good books that way. But honestly I find more through my own efforts, digging around on sites and such. It's hit or miss, no real rhyme or reason. Kinda like photographs in that way. They just pop up on the film when they want to, regardless of what I do.

I also prefer to find books myself, and I always enjoy the process, it is part of collecting.

What did you see this year that you liked? Do you have a list?

I was looking at the books I bought this year earlier this week. One of them is PASACO, 1996 by the Guatemalan photographer Luis Corzo. He used the format of a photobook to document events around his own childhood abduction. He was six at that time. I like that he presented it as dispassionate investigation.

Another one is I hide myself within my flower by the Norwegian artist Mariken Kramer. It is very simple, just photographs of flowers she picked around the family mountain farm. Those flowers are used to make the paper for its cover. It is really lovely!

I also loved Paradis by Oriane Thomasson, it is quite exciting as a photobook. The visual flow is unpredictable, and all elements work together. 

And my friend Maria Lago who started her own publishing house a couple of years ago, Familia Editions, published a really beautiful book, Bem-vindo (ao Rio) / Welcome (to NYC) by Marcos Chaves. As the title suggests there are photos of two cities in a conversation.

Boy Crazy by Elizabeth Clark Libert was also a great discovery. I found it at the ICP book fair. And, another epic book is Glad Tidings of Benevolence by Moises Saman. It is complex, deep, clever, and very thoughtful.

I remember most of those from your Collector Daily reviews. But I must admit I don't have any!

Yes, I wrote about all of them. Hope it helps people to discover photobooks I am excited about.

I always wonder about who, where, or what audience those reviews reach. Loring basically does zero promotion, and I rarely see Collector Daily linked or cited by others anywhere. I'm guessing the book reviews have a regular audience but I just can't get a good read on it. Hopefully it helps people discover books. Even if not, the site is a huge resource for artist information and criticism. There are thousands of articles on there at this point stretching back more than a decade. It's like a private photography Wiki. 

I hope people read it! But I also not sure about the numbers. I always recommend it to people who interested in photography and photobooks, I definitely see it as a great resource.

How did you get started with Collector Daily?

Our common friend Bryan Formhals introduce me to Loring. We already knew about each other. He followed my blog photolia and I read CD. We met for a coffee and he asked me if I was interested to contribute. I started by suggesting photobooks for review, and a couple of months later started writing too. I always enjoyed working with him, and talking/sharing photobook ideas.

Do you still see him in person sometimes?

Not as often, but occasionally yes. He also on the board of 10x10 Photobooks.

Are you still in touch with Bryan? I lost touch with him after he moved to Minnesota. I don't think he's very active in photobooks any more. I just checked out photolia, which I'd forgotten about. Last update was in 2012. I guess that's the photobook blog crash you mentioned.

It is hard to stay in touch once people move to a different state/country. I do read his newsletter! I think Bryan did a lot for a photobook community!

It's interesting you use that phrase “community”. Because I don't really feel there is much of a community. There's a lot of activity, yes. But it seems scattered and provincial. And there’s not much dialogue or camaraderie. But of course that might all happen in the secret book group I don't know about. Maybe that goes to the question I asked earlier about CD review readers. They might be a loose form of community in theory. But there's zero interaction or awareness. It's like a black hole. 

I think there is one in NY, and I hope 10x10 helps to bring it together.

Of course 10 x 10 is an exception, driven partly by geographic proximity. Maybe it's a regional thing? And since I'm in Oregon I feel disconnected. There's this artificial expectation with social media that all humans can be connected at all times. That communities can form digitally. And that's not always true.