In an age where almost everything is just a click away, has the need to own and touch physical objects become irrelevant or heightened more than ever? While we can more or less agree that digitalization has compressed most of the devices we use to reach out to the world, the quiet yet steady existence of photobooks, independent publishers and a community of collectors from the beginning of photography may shed some light on our preference to experience visual arts.
Both lovers of photography and books, Tram Nguyen and her partner James Brown have founded their independent publishing company NB, whose first publication FOLK by Aaron Schuman was chosen by photographer / publisher Jason Fulford for TIME to be among the best photobooks of the year. Though little known, such small independent publishers like NB have been providing an outlet for works by emerging artists and supporting diversity within the industry. Matca has had the honor of sitting down with this Hanoi born London resident to talk about the significance of photobooks at this time, her work process and what drives her to this publishing business.
So how do you feel at the moment?
Tired – but very excited. Honestly, it is hard to balance a full time job (although luckily in the arts) and independent projects as well. It is really rewarding for all of us to invest a lot of time and energy into something and see it others appreciate it as well. I suppose we all know how one-way it can be to invest your passion into the arts purely for the selfish reason of wanting to do it never expecting anything in return, and sometimes good things happen.
When we met for the first time in Hanoi, I found you incredibly knowledgeable and crazy about books. What does book mean for you? Especially photo book?
That’s very kind of you but I don’t think I’m knowledgeable at all – I’m just crazy about knowledge – and books is a form of knowledge production and dissemination, and I guess I’m crazy about books. It would be cliché for me to state the appeal of visual knowledge from childhood, but that’s what it means to me. For me, the photobook is the ultimate familiar and intimate way to experience images, not to mention humble too. It is easy to make big things impressive and impactful, but with things as small and condensed as photobooks, you have to treat more carefully. And it is art that you get to touch, that’s pretty rare.
As a very young artist, what inspires you to start your own publishing company?
James and I started collecting photobooks while we were still in university. It’s difficult to like photography and literary books and not be drawn to this medium. We just thought they were precious, beautiful things. The world could always do with more beautiful things.
In the age of modern technology, can you share with us your thought on the importance of physical photo books and their meaning to photographer and visual art lover?
To be completely honest, personally I never find them at odds with each other. It’s like comparing digital and film, most of the time it is shallow and unproductive. The age of modern technology has obviously had massive impacts on how we interact with the world and the world of images, but things have always been changing. Our relationship with forms of images has constantly been changing and to acknowledge it is how we can forward our use and understanding of past and future forms. The photobook is odd because it has been around for a long time, yet still manages to create a surge of interest in the photography world. Perhaps in ‘the age of modern technology’ or ‘age of mechanical reproduction’, the idea of the object and our relationship to us could be considered enhanced. To me, these days everything seems physically far but virtually close – so maybe something you can hold – especially ‘art’ you can hold – is an unusually satisfying experience.
Why did you choose Aaron Schuman’s work to be NB’s first book? How did you go about selecting and editing images? Share with us your thoughts and working process.
Well it’s a very organic process. James previously worked for Hotshoe magazine, which featured the project back in 2014. We then approached Aaron on the back of this to see if he would be interested in making a book of the project and he said yes. The sequencing of the book was created in conversation with Aaron, who was very keen to find a way to create a language between the book and the initial exhibition format.
We also worked closely with a very talented friend/graphic designer called Ana to provide the best layout and design for the book. The cover is another aspect I love as it reflects and references a specific work in the book without giving away too much. The paper we have chosen is also a type of paper we love – it’s important to have the give the images the best chance but also to consider the experience of the viewer or ‘reader’ in mind when experiencing the book.
Where do you think NB would be in the publishing world? Is NB going to keep co-operating with young artists and self-publishers in the future?
I know it sounds idealistic but I think realistically, we don’t think of it so much as a business. NB is a part of a small but very much needed (in my opinion) community of independent arts publisher out there. Most people do it because just because they love it, I know we do. And although it’s difficult to say anything for certain, we tend to go for the artists that we like and believe whose work would translate into a great book.
What are your perspectives on Vietnamese photography community? Would NB consider selling your products in Vietnam and connect with the talents here?
This seems like a trick question… I can’t really make an informed opinion because there are a lot more hidden talents out there that could be overshadowed by our preferred notions and formats of photography. Within our short trip recently, I have especially found that there are plenty of young Vietnamese visual artists/photographers with much to say and perhaps hasn’t found the right time and tool to say them. I definitely would like to sell our books in Vietnam and would love to see a photobook maniac community as well. I trust it will all come in time.
Are you guys working on the next book?
All I can say is, watch this space 😉
Thank you very much for sharing!