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By Peter Lindhorst
Volker Renner on his passion for making books, painful pleasures, and coffee stains on dust jackets
Imagine running into the photographer Volker Renner: you’re about to ask him how the work on his current book is coming along when he whips out a whole new one that’s already in print. There aren’t many photographers who’ve produced more publications, or more widely diverse ones, in recent years. We have plenty to talk about, so we make a date. The photographer opens the door with an apology—his place, he says, is a bit of mess right now. He’s just produced two new books, which now sit in stacks ready to be boxed and shipped. Books are everywhere in Volker Renner’s apartment. That’s not just because he’s bagging up his new releases. He’s also a passionate collector. His shelves are crammed with a wide array of photo-books that attest to his expertise. Collectors are happy people, Goethe said, and that’s certainly true of Volker Renner. As we talk, he excitedly pulls books from his library to demonstrate something exemplary about them. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate place for a conversation about books and the joy of making them.
You seem to be driven, almost compulsive, about making books. Are you a book maniac?
“Maniac” is a strong word. But I thought it was interesting what Martin Parr said in a recent lecture I attended. He talked about how his book collecting habit slowly grew into an obsession. That’s when I recognized myself—both as a collector and with my own production—in what he was saying. The passion gradually takes on an obsessive note. I’m always pushing myself on. When I’ve finished a project I’m already thinking about the next one, the next one, the next one. So “driven” describes me pretty accurately.
Let’s start with your passion for collecting photo-books. What’s the motivation that propels you?
I collect photo-books both because it’s a passion and as a source of inspiration. There are a few books I’m firmly convinced I just need to have around. But I’m not too focused on specific themes. I look around to see what’s coming out on the market. When something captures my interest, I buy it, which unfortunately happens far too often.
Are there limits to how much you’ll shell out for a specific book?
Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” was kind of a borderline experience. I’d discovered it in an antiquarian bookshop. The dealer agreed to let me pay in installments. So that’s a pleasure that’s edged with pain.
What does making a book mean to you in concrete terms? Is it a way to wrap up a creative process and give it a satisfying form?
To my mind, it’s the consummation of the work on something, yes. In terms of its value to me, a book is perhaps an even more rewarding conclusion than an exhibition, which will be taken down at some point and then go into storage in the attic. A book is something to hold on to, and it circulates. You meet people all the time who ask you what you do. A book is an ideal communication aid.
Are there artists you would say are role models when it comes to making books or who inspire you?
There’s Ed Ruscha, of course, who made his own artist’s books early on, and they’re absolutely magnificent. Then there are artists who caught my attention when I was a student and who intrigued me. Hans-Peter Feldmann, Baldessari, and Kippenberger. They’re all artists who continually experimented with books, and with photography, too, and whose approach I thought was very interesting.
You’ve published an astonishing number of books. How and when did that start?
Well, there aren’t that many of them, I’ve got 9 books out and hope to bring out three more next year, to make it a dozen. That’s the plan! But we’ll have to see—it depends on how I can finance them. Putting the funding together takes considerable creativity.
“Eben war noch” came out in 2007, after I’d graduated from the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg (HFBK), on occasion of my show at Raum für Photographie in Hamburg. The production went far from smoothly; the color management, in particular, was tricky—but that’s to be expected when you’ve never done something. Still, it was my first experience with making a book, and I was hooked right away!
You were so hooked you didn’t wait long before you made your second and third books …
Next up was “Wie war Las Vegas,” my graduate thesis as Peter Piller’s master student at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig. The book came out with Salon Verlag in Cologne, timed to coincide with my show at Galerie Robert Morat in Hamburg. I’d roamed Las Vegas and the surrounding areas nonstop for 5 weeks and gone back a year later, and the pictures I took during those two stays became the material for the book. It’s a series of filled-in motel swimming pools, reflections on the façade of the Circus Circus, absurdities, remnants, the genuine and the fake.
The third book, “A Road Trip Redone,” was produced by Textem Verlag. It revolves around an imitative gesture: I tried to identify the scenes where Stephen Shore had taken photographs many years earlier and then went to take new pictures. The idea behind it was that I wouldn’t just produce similar content, I’d also use the same typography, binding, format, etc. Shore’s book was produced in a limited edition of 3,300 copies; mine came out in 330 copies.
Since you’re mentioning Textem, how did you end up working with them on a regular basis? Your books hardly fit into their usual program.
I’d known Nora Sdun and Gustav Mechlenburg for quite a while—we’d met at art school and through exhibitions—and Textem was a familiar name because they publish the journal “Kultur & Gespenster.” Christoph Steinegger, who does the graphic design for the journal, worked with me to design “A Road Trip Redone.” That went super well, and since then we’ve collaborated on all my books. Working with him and the other two also made me see making books in a whole new light. Which materials might I use? What are things I might try out between the covers? The four of us together keep pushing the envelope, experimenting to find ways to bring out a book’s full potential.
How much work do you put into a book? You keep churning out new ones, so it’s tempting to think that it must be simple and easy!
That’s maybe a bit of a wrong impression. The books never come out the same year the pictures were taken. It still takes me a year or more to put a book together—I also work on film for most of my projects, which entails another whole list of chores. Scanning, removing spots, correcting the colors, etc., that’s all quite time-consuming.
Were “A Road Trip Redone” or the project that came before it, “Wie war Las Vegas,” commercial successes?
They received some attention, there were several reviews, one was nominated for the Photobook Award, but financially speaking a book is in the end pretty much a wash. Given the small print runs and how lavishly made the books are, it would be folly to expect to make a profit. Anyway, seeing them in print is more important to me than commercial success. And over the years I’ve gathered a set of steady supporters, people who buy the books and help me defray the printing costs so it’s not as painful as it could be.
What’s Textem’s motivation for standing by you so unwaveringly, given that your books with their small print runs don’t exactly contribute to their commercial consolidation?
Idealism and friendship. A great combination.
Do they help pay for your books?
Textem offers me great support during the production process, but putting the funding together is my job. I’ve started offering editions for sale on subscription. Crowdfunding platforms didn’t really do much for me—I’ve found that approaching people personally through friends and acquaintances works better. I first tested making books on subscription with a box containing 4 books and a 24-by-30-cm print—it was priced at €100 and 70 people spontaneously placed orders. That’s a big help when the first payment to the print shop is due.
“Schwebende Rahmung,” “Die Fuge,” “Die Anderen,” “Der Große Preis”—you brought out four new books in one fell swoop. Doesn’t that create unhelpful competition between your various projects?
The package-deal thing sort of happened by accident—I gave Christoph Steinegger four different book dummies, assuming that he’d select the project that seemed most interesting to him, and a few weeks later he called to tell me he had 4 books that were virtually ready for the press. That’s when the idea of selling them on subscription came up and the wish to print them all at the same time. I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to the possibility of competition between the various titles.
The price is certainly moderate for a package of four books!
People paid the list price for the four books and got the print as a bonus. I know how my own mind works when I shop for books. I often think: I’d love to have this edition, but it’s going to cost me €250 or €400. I wanted the package to be affordable even for people who don’t have unlimited financial resources and don’t usually buy expensive photo-books. Many people signed up for the package. I went the same route with my most recent package—this time it’s only two books, but they’re thicker and more elaborate in terms of production, and again the package includes a photograph.
What was the response like this time around?
Some people said right away that they were up for it again because they couldn’t possibly miss out on one of my books for their collections. Others felt it was too much … I haven’t received as many subscriptions as last time, but I still have orders coming in every now and then.
Do you also personally approach bookstores?
I visit the relevant bookshops in Hamburg or Berlin or whenever I travel to major cities. 25 Books and Haus der Photographie in Hamburg, or Yvon Lambert, Le Bal, and Colette in Paris. Colette organized a book signing for me during the last Paris Photo. Bruce Weber, who was also there at the same time, was busier than I was, but by the time it was over I’d signed a neat stack of each of my two new books.
Do you also go to events to promote your books there?
I do go to events, but promoting your work is tricky without a booth. Last year I wanted to rent a booth at Offprint in Paris, but that didn’t work out at all. So I went on a tour of the city’s bookshops instead. I don’t often approach people at fairs—they’re overwhelmed by the surfeit of offerings anyway. It’s better to make contacts and collect addresses and then send people information later on, when they can sit down and look at it. That gets you more feedback.
How many copies of your books did you print? Are any of them already sold out?
With the exception of the Stephen Shore book I’ve already mentioned, I always print editions of 500. In the case of “Wie war Las Vegas” and the Shore book I’m down to the last few copies, with the others I’m not running out of them anytime soon—the distributor has them in stock, and I have boxes of them up in the attic.
Have you ever tried to sell your work to a major brand-name publisher?
No, because I think the freedom to do what you mean to do between the covers of a book is wonderful. My most recent book has coffee stains and cigar ash all over the cover, and they’re there on purpose. For starters, it annoys me that so many books have to have a barcode on the cover. When I make a book, I love it when I can subvert a convention or simply try something out and not have someone breathing down my neck and looking to rein me in. With Textem I’m dealing with people with whom I have the freedom to realize my ideas. For example, I’d given Christoph the folder with my new book project in it, and there was a post-it not stuck to it, which gave him the idea of integrating that post-it into the layout. As we were finishing up the book, we were kidding around with the idea of sticking a note on each book instead of merely reproducing it on the inside. And so the printed “Long Time No See” actually has that post-it stuck to the cover in lieu of a title. The Columbo book “Sleep Tight” went through a similar experimental process. We were thinking about a cover that would be a reminiscence of Columbo’s slightly grimy trench coat. So we brainstormed: he smokes cigars and drinks coffee—hence the idea of the deliberately dirty cover.
Purposely staining the cover of your book—that’s pretty out there!
When the distributor received the books and wanted to stock them, they called me right away to ask what had happened. I’d been at the bookbinder’s before they were shrink-wrapped and spent two days putting smudges on the books. The staff there were obviously pretty irritated! I’d brought several 1.5-liter bottles with coffee I’d boiled down to concentrate it, cigar ash, ballpoint pens, and petroleum jelly to give the spines that greasy look and feel. That’s not something they see every day, and although they were initially skeptical, it certainly piqued their curiosity. The stains make each copy a unique specimen. The 500 handwritten post-it notes on the other new book, “Long Time No See,” were a walk in the park by comparison.
Let’s stick with “Sleep Tight” for a moment. How does the content work?
It all started with a habit I had for a while: I’d watch episodes of “Columbo” on video before falling asleep. If I was lucky I made it to the murder before dozing off. It often took me over a week to finish a single episode, and by the time I got to the end I didn’t even remember who was who and who’d killed whom. So at some point I decided to watch all episodes during the day. That led me to the idea of taking snapshots of the screen at the precise instant when the clue is shown that lets Columbo solve the crime: a match left behind on the scene, a pearl on a red carpet, or the dead man’s incorrectly tied sneakers. My books usually contain virtually no text, but this one’s an exception. The short essay tells the story of how I try to watch the episodes and then fall asleep. It starts out in large letters that get smaller and smaller and eventually peter out. “Sleep Tight” refers to my own sleeping, but of course also to the dead, who sleep forever.
Does the book capture the essence of how you make art: ferreting out little details that seem inconsequential at first glance and often go overlooked?
I’ve just made an exhibition for which I combined pictures from the two new series: sets of five shots of clues grouped around one picture from “Long Time No See.” Looking at the arrangements you can tell right away which pictures are screenshots and which were taken on medium-format film. But then, to give you an example, “Long Time No See” contains a picture with a bible in it where you can see the ring stain left by a glass of water. That might easily be a scene from an episode of “Columbo.” There are several other pictures in “Long Time No See” with odd traces that hint at something that must have happened earlier. More than anything else, that’s what interests me. Generally speaking, searching for very specific details is a defining aspect of my approach.
Why is it that there are no people in your pictures?
Actually, my pictures are all about people, you just don’t see them. At bottom you can always make out things they’ve left behind, vestiges or constructions that make you wonder, how did anyone come up with that idea? Everything you see in the pictures is man-made.
Let’s talk about “Long Time No See.” Where did that project come from?
It goes back to the Stephen Shore book, where my motifs were extremely predetermined. Making it was like a pilgrimage “in the footsteps of …”. I knew there were specific places I needed to visit to take this or that picture. But those weren’t my own motifs, and so, during the same trip, I launched two additional projects: on the one hand, there’s “Schwebende Rahmungen,” a rigorously serial anthology of billboards that have been stripped of their original function. And I took the first pictures for “Long Time No See,” which showed my own motifs from the drive across the US, from the East Coast to the West Coast and back East. A year later I returned to the States to finish both series, driving from Miami to Los Angeles without a set route, collecting billboards as well as additional motifs for “Long Time No See.” There are motifs that recur throughout the book, like palm trees or motel blankets on the floor, while others are not connected to any series.
It looks like you’re good at consolidating things and developing and implementing different ideas at the same time.
My thesis project got started when I worked on a job for which I traveled throughout Germany. The assignment was to take photographs of specific addresses for an image database, so I used the opportunity to turn off the road every once in a while and make my own pictures. The book “Der Große Preis” is a similar case. I was hired to document the Eurovision Song Contest in Düsseldorf: every single rehearsal, all the events surrounding the main extravaganza. Afterwards I compiled my own personal extract in which you see only the hands of the protagonists involved in the events. Working on several projects concurrently is something that suits me pretty well. That’s also how I end up bringing out multiple books at once.
How do you maintain a balance between commercial work and your art projects?
Given that some of my projects have grown out of work I did to pay the bills—see “Der Große Preis,” or the book “Die Fuge,” where I was hired as a set photographer for a film in Paris and took pictures during the shooting breaks—I keep an open mind when it comes to the jobs people offer me. And then there are instances where I think, well, hold your nose and get it done, because the next book is already waiting.
So far you haven’t tired of making books?
A book is a wonderful way to compile photographs. There are recurrent elements and sequences you can highlight, you can build a distinctive rhythm, and so on. When I edit a book, that’s always a lengthy process. I start by making 24-by-30-cm prints that I lay out on the floor. I assemble columns of pictures I then walk along and spend a lot of time rearranging them over and over. Then I put everything in a portfolio to page through. The pictures go through at least two or three more rounds on the floor, during which I keep changing the sequences. So a lot of work goes into a book. But I still enjoy the whole process very much. And I’m currently busy making plans for the next book!