A Weekend With London’s Printed Image Pioneers

Self Publish, Be Happy. Tate London.

In London, the last weekend of May was fully dedicated to the world of photography and the printed image. Led by Photo London at Somerset House, the UK-pendant to the massively successful photography fair Paris Photo, a total of three photography and book fairs, as well as countless individual events, coincided this weekend, with Offprint in Tate Modern and Room and Book at the Institute of Contemporary Art. While a fair amount of digital image-making was represented, the fairs predominately celebrated the printed image, a form of image-making and -consumption arguably nearing its own extinction. This threat to book lovers, magazine-fetishists and anyone else passionate about the material world, calls for a reevaluation of photography’s materiality, and an exploration as to how an umbrella term such as “photography” might prove useful in the future.

The bottom of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall transformed into a hectic market space, with over 100 participating national and international magazines, distributors and publishers. Heavyweights like MIT Books, Semiotext(e) and (obviously) Tate were present, but the main focus was on the small publishers and vendors, . Book fairs trigger an almost fetishistic appreciation for print, and the unique odour of freshly printed and unwrapped books filled the air of the Tate. 

Offprint festival, Tate Modern
Offprint festival, Tate Modern

Centrally in the fair, surrounded by congested ‘streets’ of book-stands, a structure of red boxes rose over the browsing crowd – creating a performative space of sorts in the middle of the fair, hosted and organized by the London-organisation “Self Publish be Happy” (SPBH). The group enthusiastically promotes and supports (as the name indicates) independently published books, predominately photo- and artworks. Bruno Ceschel. Ceschel founded SPBH back in 2012, and has pioneered a new way of distributing, curating and collecting photography in the digital age, with the organization’s collection currently containing over 2000 publications.

For Offprint, SFBH curated a series of workshops and performances meant to activate and engage the audience with photography. “We really want to present an interactive element to the process of image-making,” he tells Sleek, on Saturday afternoon, in between performances. Artist Thomas Mailaender opened a temporary tattoo-parlour, Maya Rochat invited audiences to destroy images creatively, while Tony Cairns did a live-hacking of Kindle publications – a diverse array of projects all reflecting on the image-making process. It was refreshing to encounter an interactive space at a book fair, usually structured rigidly with passive spectatorship/buying and semi-engaged sales (the vendors, one imagines, must tire after a whole of three days for which the fair is open) 

Arvida Byström and xx selfie stick workshop
Arvida Byström and Maja Malou Lyse’s selfie stick workshop

The highlight was certainly when Swedish photographer Arvida Byström and Danish artist Maja Malou Lyse took over the interactive booth in an armour of baby pink track suits, covering the Turbine Hall’s concrete ground in similarly-coloured fitness mats. To a quirky house beat and a high-energy voice-over channeling a fitness-instructor, the dynamic duo guided participants through a set of selfie stick aerobics, presented as a lesson in “high energy self-admiration”. It included a full runthrough of the standard selfie-stick poses such as the slide, the spin and not to forget, the belfie (“aka the butt selfie – a media’s favorite!”). Byström and Lyse passionately explores and advocate the agency that lies in the new photographic gadget, presenting a feminist discourse that is young, refreshing and celebratory. 


Over at the ICA, a whole different book fair, Room and Book, was taking place in the grandiose Nash & Brandon Rooms on its top floor, characterized by its more specialist, exclusive and “new rare” book dealers. The United Kingdom was well-represented through famous shops and publishers such as Walther Koenig, Donlon and Test Centre, but also several American boutiques, like Division Leap and Printed Matter, and one Japanese vendor, So Books, were present,. Collectively, the specialists offered an impressive range of one-of-a-kinds, out-of-prints etc: from the 10 first issues of i-D Magazine and obscure vintage gay porn zines from the ‘60s, to a perfectly preserved collection of Art – Languages first five volumes, and rare exhibition catalogues from David Hockney and Matisse. 

Room & Book 2015

Rather informally, Portuguese artist and writer Bruno Zhou did a reading of his latest book Facsimile II on the staircase, creating a theatrical stage at the top of the stairs while the audience reclined on the steps. Zhou’s Internet archeology is a strange and highly amusing portrait of Tumblr culture and the Internet’s performative identity-politics, which was accentuated when he, quite skilfully, dramatized fragmented Tumblr-bios, including an emotional performance of Madonna’s Bedtime Story.

All in all, London proved this weekend that photography is still incredibly relevant. Even in its old-fashioned, printed form, photography is something we consume, buy, collect, and participate in – individually, collectively, and virtually. 

Text by Jeppe Ugelvig

More: What We Saw At Photo London

More: The 8th Momentum Biennial Gets Tunnel Vision

Cyprien Gaillard's Nightlife at Sprüth Magers