Print Is Alive and Well

Renowned publisher Gerhard Steidl tells Tufts audience that books can be not just beautiful, but timeless
Gerhard Steidl at Tufts
“Paper not only has storage space, but, more importantly, it has a memory,” said Gerhard Steidl at Tufts during an event held in conjunction with the Robert Frank exhibition at Tisch Library. Photo: Alonso Nichols
October 10, 2017

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For Gerhard Steidl, books are beautiful. Considered the finest publisher in the world of art and photography books, Steidl says books bring together scent and aura, weight and form, concept and design, texture and brightness, ink and paper, typography and binding. The printed book “cannot be manipulated or switched off” like a computer, he said, but rather, “conserves human memory for future generations.”

Steidl shared his outlook and a rare glimpse into the meticulous processes of his publishing house in Göttingen, Germany, at a public lecture “Print Is Not Dead: The Beauty of Analogue Media in the Digital World,” at Tufts on October 5. The talk was held in conjunction with the exhibition Robert Frank: Books and Films, 1947-2017, which Steidl co-curated with Frank. Tufts is the only institution in Massachusetts to host the exhibit, on display at Tisch Library on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus through November 5.

A recent book published by SteidlSteidl’s uncompromising reverence for the printed book has earned him a rarified place as an elite printer of art and photography books. Rebecca Mead, in a recent New Yorker profile, wrote, “Among photographers and photography aficionados, Steidl’s name recognition equals that of Johannes Gutenberg: he is widely regarded as the best printer in the world.” 

Introducing Steidl at the event, Dorothy Meaney, interim director of Tisch Library, noted that “what began as a backyard enterprise has evolved into one of the world’s most sophisticated and distinguished printing and publishing companies.” All Steidel books are designed and produced under the same roof, she said, and all benefit from Steidel’s “legendary passion for paper.”

Indeed, Steidl’s talk revealed a man singularly devoted to preserving the integrity of the quality printed book and disheartened by trends in printing—publishers now typically outsource different production steps with “disappointing” results, he said. Steidl spoke on many topics; here are a few:

Paper is patient. “In Germany we have this saying: ‘Paper is patient.’ Paper begins its life in a pure, unmarked state. Once it is printed, it carries that information forever. This information documents the state of knowledge, our aesthetic position in a particular point of time. Such information cannot be deleted or overwritten. The printed book can also be saved simply by placing it on a bookshelf. There, it never requires any new form of energy. . . . You can always return to the book exactly as it was. . . . Even when the book is destroyed, the information contains itself in other copies of the book. . . . The printed book, placed in the community, in the library, is for me the perfect open access system.”  

Paper has memory. “The digital book can be produced quickly, but it can just as easily be lost if we abandon the paying system dictated by the digital industry. The printed book, in contrast, we have as it was at the time of its creation—even 100 years later, the original version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn sits unchanged in a bookshelf. . . . Paper not only has storage space, but, more importantly, it has a memory.”

What it takes to create a good book. “To create a good book means not only having great content. It means using the entire know-how developed by the publishing industry over centuries,” including “careful editing, first-class typography, the finest paper, top-printing quality, excellent binding materials.” But “publishers who no longer possess such know-how or choose not to use it because it’s too expensive will definitely lose out” to their competitors. “Many publishers will disappear in the years to come as their books continue to lack good content, and they have no passion for the book as an aesthetic object.” 

Johannes Gutenberg as a role model. Gutenberg created a “sound business model. He understood that content, art, and technology are all connected, and he invented a marketing concept that Steidl publishes books by photographer Edward Burtynsky.combined them all. . . . In terms of content, he made the Bible more accessible. In artistic terms, he personally designed each book, and in technology, he invented printing with movable letters in order to reduce cost and production time. And on top of all of this, Gutenberg was a clever businessman. Everything was under his control. Everything was under one roof. He personally executed everything—from ordering paper through the sales of the books.” While book publishers now outsource different aspects of book production, Steidl keeps each step under one roof, which is also his home. His printing press is 58 meters from his front door. “Essentially I have copied Gutenberg’s model, and given it new life in my publishing house. I have turned back the wheel of time.”

A normal day is all about the work. “I get up at 4:45 a.m., woken up not by the alarm, but by the excitement of the things to be done that day. . . . I love to draw and sketch in the early morning, and test out ideas that my colleagues will later realize on their computer screens.”

Collaboration is key. Steidl collaborates closely to every artist “who chooses to jump aboard my submarine. I say submarine because . . . we first discuss what is to be done, and then we go on board, close the hatch, and dive into the deep, blue book-making sea, unreachable by the outside world. After a week, we then resurface, our mission is complete, and the concept of the book is found.”

The exhibition Robert Frank: Books and Films, 1947-2017 at Tufts University is made possible by the generous support of Tufts alumnus Steve Tisch, A71, the Steve Tisch Foundation, Gerhard Steidl, and the Richard Ehrlich Family Foundation.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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