John Gossage, San Diego, 2017 copyright Douglas Stockdale
I have been following John Gossage’s photographic book publication career for some time and when I noted that he would be at the Medium Festival in San Diego, it seemed like a really great time to discuss his book making and publishing background. We have traded messages off and on for years, but this was the first opportunity we had to actually meet-up. We found a corner of the café of the Lafayette Hotel to talk about his experience and background which resulted in a really free-wheeling discussion, as one memory triggered another (and not all of which is included, especially as we talked a little gossip and Gossage shared some very personal experiences). He has been the photographer or co-author of 36 photobooks, with the next to be released shortly by Steidl; Looking up Ben James – A Fable (Martin Parr is his subject).
DS (Douglas Stockdale): Tell us about growing up and what brought you to photography?
JG (John Gossage): After leaving school at 16 (maybe I was asked to leave?), I was lucky to be living in NYC and able to meet other professional photographers. I found that I was more visually oriented and photography just connected with me. These were the days before someone would be called a Fine Art Photographer, at this time photographers had their commercial work and maybe a personal project on the side.
I was fortunate to be adopted by Lisette Model for her private photography workshop classes. She had a minimum age for her students and when she looked at me, she said; just how old are you? When I told her, she gave that wonderful smile of hers with a twinkle in her eye, she said with her thick accent; that will do.
Another NYC opportunity I had was hanging out at the Magnum photography offices. I became the unofficial mascot of Magnum picking up a lot of “grunt” projects that the other photographers really did not want to photograph. I was very happy to have the Magnum photographers receive a dull project that nobody really wanted to photograph and they decide to “give it to the kid”. That paid for a lot of camera equipment and then some. I was doing really well for just being a kid of 17.
During this time I had W. Eugene Smith teach me how to print. I would pay Smith 10 bucks for an hour printing lesson and that usually turned into four hours of printing.
DS: What brought you in to book making? In particular, what led you to your second book, The Pond?
JG: When starting in photography in NYC, there were plenty of photobooks to look at. I have an affinity to photobooks. My first photobook was Eugene Atget, which was an assignment by Lisette Model that inspired me to purchase the book, but I did not really get it until much later and when I did, then it really connected. I also bought Robert Frank’s The Americans. In the early 1960’s I could still buy a 1930’s Atget book that is like new for ten bucks. I knew I wanted to do a book project and I wanted to develop a narrative landscape.
The turning point came when I realized that photographs in a sequence is a myth, a fiction. This allowed me to include photographs that I made in Berlin to complete the narrative about a “pond” that I had come across while in Maryland. I had self-published The Pond with two friends and for the first edition Aperture was the distributor. Later for the Aperture edition, I was able to add four photographs as we had run out of money for the first edition and we could not include these.
DS: In addition to publishing with Steidl, you have your own imprint, Loosestrife Editions, how did that come about?
JG: In 1987 I published Stadt des Schwarz and Katie Schlumberger had supported this publication, she had mentioned that her favorite flower was the Loosestrife, thus we chose this as the name of the imprint (publisher). Later when I was in the process of self-publishing another new book, we decided that since I had already used that name for an imprint, why not stick with it?
DS: What do you think is the future for photobooks?
JG: Currently there are too many mediocre photobooks out there. You can look at them once and you’re done; nothing draws you back. I am looking for photographers who put themselves into a book and I can learn from. Right now I am constantly inspired by the photobooks of Roe Ethridge.
DS: What do you look for and consider when developing a new photobook?
JG: Gerry Badger has stated that the magic number for a great photo book is including 68 photographs. I am now working a photobook that will contain 68 photographs.
DS: Do you have advice for photographers thinking about creating a photobook?
JG: The photographs are the most important aspect of a book, thus make the work (photographs) that can stand as singular images. Don’t depend on transformational images to help make connections. Then create the context with the photographs. Don’t expect a great book design to save the photographs.
Likewise, making photobook should be treated as a hobby and understand that the book distribution (selling) is the devil.
DS: What are some of your proudest achievements?
JG: Never got caught! (big smile) If you are not from New York City, you might not know that this is used by the connected wise-guys (wink-wink)
DS: What is some unexpected that we don’t know about you?
JG: I was on the New York State Championship Bowling team while in High School.
DS Any last thoughts as we close?
JG: Yeah, let’s go for a walk. I have a new mirrorless Hasselblad (X1D with XCD 45mm f/3.5 lens) that I want to test. It does not have a normal lens yet, my favorite focal length, but I am interested in seeing how it does while walking the local neighborhood.
DS: John, Excellent and thanks again for this opportunity to discuss your interesting artistic and book making practice. Let’s go. (Stage right; out the front door of the Lafayette Hotel into San Diego’s North Park side streets)