Interview by Douglas Stockdale •
Louie Palu: born Toronto, Canada and resides between Toronto & Washington DC
Introduction: I have been following Louie Palu’s photographic career for what seems ages as his break-out book project Cage Call, the riveting photographs he made in the Canadian mines, resulted in his Photolucida Critical Mass book publication which was reviewed here. We have shared back-to-back LensWork magazine features; he was in Issue #73 with his Cage Call portfolio and my portfolio was featured in Issue #74. His ability to visually distill a story has maintained my attention over the years, including my review of two of his subsequent books, most recently A Field Guide to Asbestos, another of his long-term projects. Realizing that he was one of the key-note speakers at the Medium Festival in San Diego this past October (2019), I knew that this would be the perfect opportunity to have a long overdue photobook discussion with this inspiring photographer.
Douglas Stockdale (DS): Louie, you are pretty well known within photo documentary circles with your John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 2016–2017, the recent Arnold Newman Prize For New Directions in Portraiture, two Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting Grants and numerous other awards including a Hasselblad Master Award and an Aftermath Project Grant. Tell us about your background growing up and what brought you to photography?
Louie Palu (LP): My parents were children in Italy who experienced the Second World War first hand. Their oral stories shaped my imagination and photography helped me see what I imagined. I studied visual art at a high school that had a special visual arts program in which at least half of my 8 classes were art. It was in this special program that I was classically taught college level art classes as a teenager.
By the age of 16 I had intensive classes in life drawing several days a week, sculpture, industrial design, typography, art history and theory, was reading Edward Weston’s daybooks and was learning color theory and about the Bauhaus. My parents were immigrant workers
DS: We have reviewed three photographic books published of your work, the Photolucida perhaps the more traditional book, then Front Towards Enemy was published by Yoffy Press, which is a real departure in design and concept for photojournalistic projects. What led you to create this exhibition in a box idea? Has this changed how you perceive the potential for book objects?
LP: I actually have several publications that lead to the Front Towards Enemy book. I published three concept newspapers Mira Mexico (2013) on the drug war in Mexico, Guantanamo Operational Security Review (2014) on the prison and Federal City (2017) on Washington DC. The concept was to self publish newspapers which could be re-edited by the viewer to change the visual narrative or hung anywhere as a pop up exhibition.
Those newspapers are what lead to the concept of Front Towards Enemy. Some followers of my work have described it as me incorporating my punk rock sensibilities into a photo publication. I think everything should be approached with some kind of an unconventional way of thinking and doing and question everything.
DS: Likewise, you shared with me while I was preparing my review of your recent collaboration with Yoffy Press, A Field Guide to Asbestos, that you were involved in the conceptual design of this book. Do you pre-visualize a book for a project or does a design result from the collaboration with the publishing team?
LP: I think the concept and final design of a book for me is organic, there should be room left for some surprises and discoveries on top of what you originally thought of being the foundation. I also believe in solid photo editing. Sequencing is the weak part of so many books and bodies of work. It’s not taught as much as it should be and is becoming a lost art. There are many bodies of work and photographers who would benefit from having some tough mentors who are photo editors pointing out strengths and weaknesses.
I have some great mentors and photo editors I work with. On planning a book I usually make some photo copies of possible page layouts and fold them together and turn some pages to see how things work very loosely. I also make 4×6″ prints at the instant printing machine at CVS (that’s a pharmacy chain in the US) and lay them out in a row to see what it could look like. The work usually lets you know what is possible, new, interesting and best for the body of work. But the editing must be solid, you must be brutal and decisive on what is cut out and what stays in the edit.
DS: Similar to Cage Call, A Field Guide to Asbestos is another long-term project and you have stated that the glue that holds this book together is working with Chloe Coleman on the editing of this body of work. Currently there are a lot of discussions about the importance of book designer in the success of a photobook, not as often do we emphasis and credit for the editing work. Do you think that the importance of an editor to your book is due to this being a photojournalist project?
LP: I like designers and they are an integral part of any book, but for the most part many of them can’t edit or sequence very well beyond what visually looks good. For me it starts with a photo editor and in some cases a curator, I consider myself both a photographer and a photo editor. I actually just spent several years helping organizing Stephen Crowley’s archive of political photography and then editing into a concept and book.
There is so much more to editing in terms of context that design has anything to do with. In some ways a newspaper and or magazine is a book that gets designed everyday and without the photo editor they would be a puzzle using pieces that don’t fit in the right place. I would apply my last comment to a book. But hey some people might disagree, and that’s cool too. I own some books by some of the greatest photographers that have too many or the wrong order of photos I could easily chop 10-20% of photos out of. Self-indulgence and publishing photos you can’t decide on only waters down the powerful images or weakens the narrative of the book.
DS: Your documentary projects are intended to be published in a broad spectrum of publications, how does publishing a book fit into your overall project strategy? Do assignments, self or on behalf of your agency, initiate the investigative process and after a period of time, enough work is accumulated that might warrant consideration of unifying the narrative into a book?
LP: My first project Cage Call, took an insane 15-years to complete, I am never going through that again. Since then I usually take 3-5 years to complete a project, but lately I have essays that I have produced faster like in a week and several months. It all depends on the subject. It is also because I have become a better photographer and understood my own personal process and how I can make it happen my own way faster without compromising the work.
Sometimes I shoot an essay with no intention of making it a project and it remains just that, then sometimes I photograph the same thing over and over again and it just becomes a book. I have had a lot of ideas that never got past a roll of film or idea written on a page. I normally have 5 projects on the go at one time at various stages.
DS: What is the current trend in photojournalism with regard to avenues to publish investigative work? I frequently hear that traditional magazines appear to be withering away and the photojournalist opportunities are becoming scarcer. Does this then lead to more self-assignments on subjects that you have a growing concern about and that that need more attention? How do books fit into this strategy?
LP: I am not sure what trends are going on, but I am meeting all my goals and expectations creatively and lately there have been a few bonus surprises. I am making a living and having my work published, collected and exhibited in all the places I want and I am making a living. It’s very competitive out there and always has been; I like to compete and work hard. The revenue is still out there, it’s just the manner in which you get it that has changed.
Many people talk gloom and doom and how photography or photojournalism is over. However, I only focus on making things happen because that’s life, sink or swim. I don’t intend on doing anything else and no one is going to save me so it’s up to me to figure out ways of being an artist and journalist that might be unconventional. I am happy and that is my focus and I stay away from negativity and focus on creativity.
DS: Do you have advice for photojournalist thinking about creating a photobook?
LP: There can be this pressure to do things that meet what popular photographers are doing; don’t do that. Do what is “you” while still accepting challenges and wisdom from your mentors. If you don’t have a mentor find one. Find a good photo editor. These days there are many imposters and self proclaimed experts in the field of photography, don’t get sucked into trends or what competitions or awards are pointing to. Most people who win awards end up as one-hit wonders, play the long game and don’t rush.
DS: What are some of your proudest achievements?
LP: Having enough accomplishments under my belt to show my parents that their sacrifices were worth something and that I learned from my mistakes, valued them and worked hard to see the wisdom they were imparting to me when I was younger.
DS: What is something unexpected that we don’t know about you?
LP:I have a scar on my cheek from a hockey stick going through my face, multiple broken noses and stitches on my face from playing hockey. I like fishing and was a DJ in an alternative music night club when I was in college.
DS: Any last thoughts as we close?
LP: Don’t be anyone else, be you. Work hard and it will pay off. Stay away from negative people.
DS: Louie, thank you sitting down with us and for this opportunity to discuss your interesting photography, work and how it intertwines with your photo book projects.
LP: Thanks, it’s always a pleasure.
(Afterword: Since completing this interview, it was a bit of a hoot to see Palu on television doing his photojournalistic magic (perhaps one of the few with an on-camera flash) photographing on the floor of the House of Representatives during the hearings that led to the impeachment the American president.)
Louie Palu Bio: Louie Palu has worked as a photojournalist and filmmaker for 28 years. His work has been published and exhibited internationally including in National Geographic, The New York Times, BBC, El Pais, La Republica, Munich International Documentary Film Festival, Visa pour l’Image and Museum of Fine Arts Boston. His work has been selected for the National Press Photographers Best of Photojournalism awards, Pictures of the Year International and National Magazine Awards multiple times. He is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow and was awarded the 2019 Arnold Newman Prize. He is best known for work that explores social political issues such as human rights, conflict and poverty.
Gallery Representation: Stephen Bugler Gallery www.bulgergallery.com
Editorial Representation: ZUMA Press www.zumapress.com