Gerhard Steidl is considered to be the world’s best printer of art books. He himself talks about “visual books,” all forms of pomposity being foreign to him. A visit to “Steidlville” in Göttingen, where the perfectionist is also planning exhibitions of his own.
“Holger?” Pause. “Holger!!” Pause. Then, to the people standing around: “Is’e there?“ When something occurs to Gerhard Steidl, he shouts. He doesn’t stop and think. He doesn’t look up. Whether he’s in the middle of writing or scribbling, folding, phoning or rolling up a sheet of paper, he just calls out. “Ah, Holger. Look, something just came in from Orhan Pamuk, probably photos.”
The first time you come to “Steidlville,” that small, sacred labyrinth on Göttingen’s Dunkle Straße, where for years now, book after book has been thrown out, the man of the house makes a brusque, almost imperious impression. But soon you fall under the spell of the rough, but deeply genuine humanity behind it. Steidl’s staff smile when you mention it, as though it were an old friend’s quirk, something they’d grown fond of. You go a long way with someone who works that hard.
Nobel laureates, like Halldór Laxness, Günter Grass and Orhan Pamuk, artists and photographers, like Robert Frank, Ed Ruscha, Roni Horn and Karl Lagerfeld – nearly all of them made the pilgrimage to Göttingen. The first time, to develop an idea. A second time, to see it into layout. And finally, a third time, when it was printed.
Juergen Teller is over for a few days. The Erlangen-born photographer who now lives in London is famous the world over for his highly original images – in 2015, he took a portrait of Kim Kardashian in underwear and fur coat, crawling up a pile of dirt. Dressed in short sports pants and toxic-yellow cap, Teller is having a smoke out on the balcony on the publisher’s top floor. Dining room, kitchen and library are all up here in the company’s creative playground. What Steidl prints is conceived here.
Right now, three floors lower down, the “big Roland,” as the main printer is known, is churning out the pages for Teller’s book Handbags. The early shift completed their first printing job at nine – a book by Laxness. It was the cover’s turn around midday, a photo that Steidl himself shot 25 years ago in Iceland. The late shift will already be taking care of something else, a Chanel catalogue or a book of caricatures by Lagerfeld. Fifty to 60 projects are generally in hand here at the same time.
Mr. Steidl, How do you start your mornings?
I wake up and don’t give a thought to the day ahead. I let myself drift and do whatever needs to be done. When we are starting on a book, I have no idea how it’s supposed to be, each one is an individual in its own right. I would get bored if that weren’t the case.
Have you ever been bored?
No. I find working with artists who are constantly reinventing themselves exciting, people like Karl Lagerfeld and Juergen Teller. Only if the next project is good, as well, will I do it. And if not, I say goodbye!
If each project is unique, where do you find the time to prepare for it?
I never prepare for anything. If I did, I couldn’t find out what the artist wanted. I play the role of the doctor – someone comes along with a pain and I analyze: What’s the problem? How can it be cured?
And if you don’t find a cure?
Then I wait. I wait for as long as it takes to find a solution. That drives people mad, I know. But what am I supposed to tell them? That I don’t have a solution? That’s not going to get a book finished, either.
At the entrance to the library, there’s a screen print Steidl once produced for his long-standing client Joseph Beuys: “Schmerzraum” (Pain Space). It can be ten years before a book is realized – that’s how long sculptor Anish Kapoor had to wait. Others come to Steidl with a problem 25 years on and he immediately knows what to do. “I expect artists to be complicated. They have the right to change everything five times over.” But it’s also quite clear who is wearing the white coat here.
Inside the library, hundreds of books stand side by side and not one looks like the next. To Steidl, a book is a “multiple,” an artwork in its own right of which only a small series is produced. Plans for a kind of circus world are spread out on the long worktable: The traveling exhibition Mmm! by Juergen Teller, sponsored by Germany’s Foreign Office, is touring the USA. It’s Teller’s personal kaleidoscope of German cuisine.
Over in the dining room, company cook Rüdiger Schellong has put on some music. Today it’s the album Die Fantastischen Vier Unplugged. Every day, he serves up three light vegetarian courses with musical accompaniment for Steidl and his guests. After the meal, they move over to the table to select the images for Mmm!: “The sausage was delicious, but unfortunately not photogenic.” – “The green on the left is dead. But on the right, there’s that spark of ugliness!” Black bread, dill-flower dessert, his mother’s liver dumpling soup, an abstract sashimi from the Sosein in Heroldsberg. “And that,” says Teller happily, “is the result!” – in his hand, he holds a photo of his naked belly. It’s been picked to grace the back cover of the catalogue.
The telephone rings in the library. Every artist who has even been here knows that it will be for him. It is essentially the direct line to the printing shop. Teller, still engrossed in selecting the images, doesn’t move. “Juergen!” Steidl calls from the library. “Juergen, you’re wanted.”
What is it about the Juergen Teller project that interests you?
I like this way of photographing food – especially the irreverence of going into a restaurant, having fun with the food and then simply pointing an iPhone at it. You can only do this kind of thing with Juergen.
Did you design the tent, too?
Yes, I don’t take jobs where someone tells me what to do (laughs). An exhibition is no different than a book; the wall is like a white page that you fill.
In this case, though, the wall is a canvas that will be nailed onto wood.
Instead of pouring money into expensive, gilt frames, we prefer to use it for developing content. Normally, it’s the other way around: Money is there for everything, just not for the originator. We were able to let Teller take as many days as he wanted!
Will you be taking the works to the exhibition yourself?
I just don’t like the chain of exploitation: We have an idea, produce the idea in its entirety in house – and then I push the stuff through customs in a cart myself. And if it gets damaged, we simply print it all again quickly.
When Steidl does an exhibition, the exhibits are usually scrapped afterwards. That, too, is practical because no one has to worry about taking things down, packaging or return transport. But then, the idea is not to create values. Steidl abhors the art industry, where even signed detritus is turned into money. That’s why he has a video made documenting the exhibits’ destruction: Students then turn them into clothes – or the crumpling sound into music.
These days, Steidl develops 30 exhibitions a year. The tent is new, but the idea behind it is not – it was inspired by Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, but triggered by Steidl’s collaboration with Robert Frank. His photo prints cost around 200 000 dollars, and because they are so valuable and fragile, they are rarely shown and then only for a short time. That’s why Steidl presents Frank’s pictures in pop-up exhibitions in industrial buildings – printed on newspaper.
The future of the photo, Steidl explains, does not lie in the originals an artist develops in his lab and then signs. “The old model of the art industry is obsolete.” Steidl’s standards are high as regards artists and their works, but he wants them to reach people as easily as possible. That’s why Steidl makes books instead of art prints – they’re excellent, but affordable. “Gerhard is an eclectic socialist elitist,” as Karl Lagerfeld once put it pretty aptly.
Steidl’s workplace is a confusion of cupboards, shelves, pigeonholes, files, books and papers alongside and on top of each other. Between the towers, a plate with pieces of apple carefully arranged in a circle, and also a bar stool – Steidl rarely sits down to work. You could call it untidy, but when Steidl needs something, he only has to pull out a drawer to find it – even years later: “It’s all here in this building.” Steidl himself heads every shift – from 5 a.m. through 8 p.m. “I have always been careful not to have more than 40 or 50 people on the staff because then I don’t need any heads of department.” If he has to travel, Steidl takes the first plane out and the last one back in the evening – because the printers turn up at six a.m. and want to know what’s to be done.
Could the company survive without you?
There will be no more Steidl books when I’m dead – at least none that passed through my hands. But what I would like to establish is the Steidl book culture. That’s why I set up a foundation, the Steidl Academy, and invite talented young people from all over the world to come to us.
What do they get to take home with them?
The knowledge that it’s the artist who comes to the printer and that we do everything together. Under this roof.
Why is that important?
The books have greater authenticity then. Once the artists are here, we turn into children playing from one second to the next. The last thing we want is exalted art prints! We just mess around until we have something decent.
That sounds very improvised …
What I do is like building sandcastles. The tide comes in every night, and next day, you build a new castle. Asked how he would relax, Günter Grass said that he put a lot of effort into doing nothing. What I like here is that we put a lot of effort into playing.
So that’s the Steidl principle: play in the pain space. Just before, Teller tried out a manual version of his name for Mmm! with a very long T line. “Awful. That wasn’t a big effort at playing, it was a big effort at creating art.” Steidl has his “lab corner” with 40 kinds of paper to play with on the ground floor, beside the big Roland. A few meters further on, there’s a ream of Somerset Book White, one of his favorite papers. It’s made of cotton, water and adhesive, so it doesn’t fade. Pens have a lovely way of gliding across its surface.” Lagerfeld used it and that’s why Steidl wants it for the cover of the caricature book. It costs 25 times the price of regular paper.
For the Juergen Teller exhibition, Steidl has a different solution: plain linen, 2.60 by 2.78 meters. The print test is now in progress. While the printer head serenely travels almost three meters, Steidl digs out the burnished nails he has managed to get hold of for hanging it in the tent. “We won’t hammer them all the way in,” he says, “so that they cast shadows.” When the print is finished, it is hung on the wall for appraisal. Teller is satisfied. “Get a whiff of the black!” says Steidl. Everyone moves in close to sniff at the picture of the frayed-looking roots of a leek. It smells slightly burned, a bit nutty. If it had smelled of leek, we wouldn’t have been surprised.