Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor, and a founder of Errata Editions, an award-winning independent publishing house. Errata’s Books on Books series has published sixteen titles, each a comprehensive study of a rare or out of print photobook that combines illustrations of every original page with extensive new scholarship. His blog 5b4 was an influential resource for photobook enthusiasts, and he wrote 450 reviews and articles from 2007-2011. His own work is in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the City Museum of New York, and has appeared in numerous periodicals. He is a regular contributor to Time‘s LightBox.
Ward Long: Tell me a little bit about your library. Where do you keep your books?
Jeffrey Ladd: They are all here in Köln, Germany with me. On one side of our living room are my shelves, the other side my wife’s. I think because of my blog people have the impression that I own thousands of books, but I really have a modest library that holds currently at about 900. As much as possible I claim to be a minimalist, relatively speaking. My obsession is not to own but to know a little about and to learn from. So my library has varied over the past 25 years from its most burdensome (2000+ titles) to the state of my shelves today, which I consider an essential reference and working library.
WL: When did you start collecting books?
JL: I discovered photobooks my first year in art school in 1987. I had a work/study requirement for one of my student loans working in an “art supply shop” run by The School of Visual Arts. It was actually less a shop and more a tiny janitor’s closet they stocked with a few cases of rubber cement and sheets of colored paper which graphic design students needed for class. It was mind-numbingly boring because only about 3 students an hour would stop to buy something. So I wouldn’t be tempted to start huffing rubber cement, I checked out half a dozen photobooks from the school library before each shift. I gravitated towards books which were mostly catalogs that featured dozens of photographer’s work — eg: American Images edited by Peter Turner, The Photographer’s Eye and Looking at Photographs by John Szarkowski, etc. — so I had neatly organized overviews of photography and could discover photographers I liked. Then I got more into books of individual photographers, but I was still looking at them for the separate pictures and not for collected statements that transcend the individual photos.
My first two years in art school I lived very hand-to-mouth but I did manage to buy my first photobook at The Strand bookstore for $3.50 — a paperback copy of the catalog Towards a Social Landscape, the Eastman House exhibition with Bruce Davidson, Duane Michals, Danny Lyon, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand, curated by Nathan Lyons. I liked the Danny Lyon photos, so I spent my Christmas money that year on his book Pictures from the New World. The Strand had a stock of the signed and numbered slipcase edition (but lacking the print of course!) for $29.95. That was 1987 and was the most money I had ever spent on a book. When I showed it to my mom, by pure chance, she flipped it open to the page that has a self-portrait of Danny Lyon fucking his girlfriend. That was an awkward introduction into photobooks for the rest of my family.
WL: Do you remember the time you saw a book and decided to search high and low for your own copy?
Yes, Sophie Ristelhueber’s book Fait. In 1996 she was one of the artists showing in the New Photography series at MoMA where I first saw the work. A year or two later I saw the book at Gilles Peress’s studio when I became his printer. Gilles also had her book Beyruth Photographies which I also thought I needed. It took three years of searching but I finally found a copy of Fait through a London bookseller for about 80 dollars. Around the same time I found her book Beyruth Photographies at The Strand for about 6 dollars, and they remain to be two of my favorites. The Beirut book unfortunately got damaged while I lived in a loft on 14th street where some phony assholes would gather once a month to talk about Buddhism. One of them, apparently unconcerned with my worldly possessions, had sat their teacup on top of it because I found it later with the whole bottom right corner wet with tea. To this day there is a “Buddhist” out there that owes me an undamaged copy of that book.
WL: In an interview with Blake Andrews, you described your own photography as “just putting myself in the way of life.” That’s an incredible description, and a poetic way to think about the right place and the right time. In some moments, shapes, people, buildings, shadows and places seem to coalesce into something larger and more mysterious right in front of your camera. I’m wondering whether you’ve had the same experience with a book or another piece of art, when you delve into it at precisely the right time in your life for maximum impact.
JL: I think that has happened many times but an example of just the opposite comes immediately to mind. It haunts me a bit that there have been many books I passed up (or exhibitions I didn’t respond to) that are very important to me now that I am older. It wasn’t the right moment when it first crossed my path, I passed on it and now it is way out of my price range. Once when I was still naïve towards everything let alone photobooks, I saw a box full of Ed Ruscha’s artist books in the Strand Rare Book department. While I leafed through a few of them I remember distinctly being confused as to what they were trying to be. To see a book called Thirty-Four Parking Lots or Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations and the content was exactly that, I thought Ruscha was somehow making fun of the reader. They didn’t have that familiar ring of “Art” to them. Also why the number 34? Why 26? They seemed like a joke but they were also serious — it was a printed book after all. Plus The Strand had them priced around 50-60 dollars each, which seemed totally insane for what they appeared to be. Days later I was still thinking of them and getting more annoyed because they seemed so pretentious. I took it personally. Ok, I was young but there is something to be said about getting pissed at little art books even if I wasn’t ready for them. I hadn’t had any book evoke a reaction like that before.
Right now, I often look at Robert Adams (From the Missouri West, The New West, Denver, Los Angeles Spring and especially What We Bought) and I genuinely feel giddy with excitement towards the pictures which, in my youth, I thought were dry and boring. Now is the time for that work and me to be in the same room.
WL: You went to school at SVA, and you lived in New York for a long time. Do you think there’s a unique photobook culture here?
JL: I lived in NYC for most of my life, I moved there a couple months before my 18th birthday and left 5 days before my 43rd. I’d say it just has a great book culture, period! There are still so many bookstores among the many other outlets for books; library sales, thrift shops, street sellers. A copy of William Eggleston’s Guide came to me in 1989 from a street seller off St. Marks Place for $3. It was laid out on a dirty cardboard next to a heap of clothing and a knot of extension cords. Before the internet made it harder to find rare and out of print stuff priced reasonably, The Strand bookstore was a gold mine for finding great stuff. I worked three days a week as a printer in the late 80s at a custom b+w lab called Arista near Union Square so I would check the photobook section and “art paper bins” at The Strand during every lunch hour. I’d estimate about 40% of my important books came from there.
Looking for books just became part of my routine while photographing. I spent so much of my life photographing in the streets I would organize my wandering to intentionally cross paths with different bookstores every couple hours when I needed a break or to escape the weather. If I was in midtown photographing I would slowly work my way towards Gotham Books (they almost never had anything), then wander up to the MoMA Bookshop (full retail price but I could see a good selection of new titles), go across the street to the Donnell Library and look at the library sale carts (library discard stamps but a few gems were occasionally there – plus they had a public bathroom), then photograph up and across to Argosy Books near Bloomingdales (priced a bit higher for the uptown clientele but worth browsing), then maybe shoot my way back down to Hacker Art Books on 57th (a small version of The Strand), then usually photograph all the way down to The Strand at 12th and Broadway, check Mercer Street Books (messiest stacks but great prices) and further down on Mercer to A Photographer’s Place (buy a book and still have Harvey the owner shoot you an angry look). Maybe finish up at the Strand Annex which was way down on Fulton street. Several hours later I might have 8-9 rolls of film shot and one or two books in my backpack. Do that 4-5 days a week and you tend to find things. It is like photographing, you have to be continuously engaged with the actual physical world to be surprised by it.
WL:Each book in the Books on Books series has to meet some pretty strict criteria, but every batch of four books has some very distinct themes; cities, experimentation, the stasis of political events. Were you interested in these topics before Errata, or did they emerge from the group of books eligible for the project?
JL: Curating the series is fairly difficult as it depends on what books we can get permissions to do and when. I have been lucky to be able to make connections between the books in the series but that is how my own collection grew as well — I have a lot of interests. One books leads to another — sometimes it is a direct link, other times it is a purely random discovery. My books sit on my shelves in alphabetical order and not by subject or groupings, so if you look at the variety of styles connected just by name it becomes very interesting. Just glancing left I have this order; A pamphlet on Parachuting, Astrid Proll, issue one of Provoke, Gregoire Pujade-Lauraine (maybe that should be shelved under ‘L’), Walid Raad, Man Ray, Josep Renau, Tony Ray-Jones, Marc Riboud, Revistas Y Guerra (a book about periodicals from the Spanish Civil War), Eugene Richards, Clare Richardson, Gerhard Richter, Miguel Rio-Branco, Sophie Ristelhueber, Alexander Rodchenko, Thomas Roma, Dieter Roth, and so on.
WL: More broadly, how do you see the relationship between your own library and Books on Books? Were you searching for some of these titles before Errata?
JL: The series partly grew out of my own frustration in not being able to see many important books. My library up until the early 2000s was very American-centric. When the Parr/Badger The Photobook: A History Volume I and Volume II came out I was amazed at how many books there were I hadn’t even known existed. After more than a decade of being immersed in books I thought I knew something about photobooks but I saw I knew only a fraction of what the history held. Most important European or Asian books, unless by big name artists and translated into English, didn’t regularly get distributed in the US. Of course by the time I found out about the larger scope I could only access some of them at auction previews, research libraries or in specialty rare bookshops. Doing the Errata series has enabled me to spend a year at a time with four books that I mostly didn’t know. I don’t have a lot of money to spend on one book so I don’t worry about owning anymore.
WL: Errata Editions focuses on out-of-print titles and the classics of photobook history, but are there any new favorites that you’d like to recommend?
JL: It is becoming much harder for me to get my fix. A lot of books are published each year, more than ever, and although I am excited by the popularity and interest with artists exploring the possibilities in bookmaking, there are fewer and fewer books that I feel I need to have at arms length. Some recent discoveries from the past half year are; Wilhelm Schurmann’s books Fotografien and Pagel Koeln; A Document by Paul Thek and Edwin Klein; Elisabeth Tonnard’s We Are Small; Gerhard Richter’s Eis; Gerry Johansson’s Deutschland; Christian Lange’s Lange Liste 79-97; and the William Eggleston Los Alamos Revisited box set. Many of those are not “photobooks” though.
The last mention of the Eggleston box set is fascinating for me. The books are f-ugly but that archive is so deep. Just when you think you’ve seen everything from Eggleston that could possibly be scraped from his proverbial mayonaise jar, they publish another 300-400 images, and although there is certainly a lot of crap mixed in, the majority is pretty amazing. It reminds me of when my friends and I would get together and look at stacks of each other’s prints for feedback. Its a raw experience and you see variants of the same photo, the interesting pictures sit in line with the embarrassing but you see someone investigating and curious, taking risks and testing their vocabulary.
That is what I often miss when I look at a lot of contemporary work. Much of what gets immediate attention in the book world I perceive as almost too well thought out or just extremely clever. It looks complete and well designed yet it leaves me wondering why I should ever pick it up twice. I sense almost a distrust of photography on the part of many bookmakers now. But I am also a self-described dinosaur. I want the pictures to make me fall under their spell when they are irreducible in form, not by the ideas laid upon them. The pictures I have known for decades and they still somehow excite me after hundreds of viewings, those win out. There are books like that, you know them so well and yet they somehow still surprise you even as you change. Those are the books I keep that don’t get neglected and dusty. Lots of dust is the sign of a poor choice.