Aperture Foundation originated from a conference about the future of photography in Aspen in 1951, at which a group of the most important photographers, writers and intellectuals were assembled. Minor White, Ansel Adams, Bob Morgan, Beaumont Newhall and Dorothea Lange were amongst those present.
Aperture has grown to become the leading foundation in the world on photography and we had a wonderful opportunity to speak to Aperture’s director, Chris Boot, about its roots and its focus while he also has been able to give us a glimpse into its future.
Chris Boot: The original mission of Aperture was to create common ground for the advancement of photography. It was also to ascribe to all these new potentials and create a forum for photographers to speak directly to one another, things that the founders felt weren’t happening by other means.
It was also a little bit a new movement in photography in a way to counter the dominant culture of photography at that time, which was characterised by Life Magazine above all. So the photography was being used with the coming of the visual culture. The photography was used as a tool of illustration rather than as an art form. Not to say that the photographers whose work was used for illustration weren’t, in fact, great or interesting artists, but they had no control over the manner that their work was presented and even MoMa at that time, which was where Edward Steichen was the dominant figure in photography and we all know about his great contribution to the medium, which is ‘The Family of Man’ exhibition – but it wasn’t that far from the same culture of photography as illustration.
The photographers who were involved in the founding of Aperture really wanted their work to be understood as art. They thought like artists, they pursued their work like artists. The precise manner in which their work was presented was part of that art and, in that regard, they really wanted to promote understanding of those values and build what has become the culture we work in today, which is a broad culture of photographers respected as artists. So, and that’s really where we began and what we still do.
Aperture from 1952 to the future
Chris Boot: Aperture began just as the magazine in 1952. By the early sixties, actually, the first book that Aperture published was an issue of the magazine to which hardcovers were attached and it was distributed through book distribution networks to bookstores and that began Aperture’s role as a book publisher which we have really distinguished, part of the history of photography in that regard. Really developing the book as a work of art in its own right.
We were based in 23rd Street for many years, where there was a little print sales gallery. In 2005, we moved into this space. That was a moment of a kind of profound change in the field of photography. There was the sort of digital revolution well underway on the one hand, but it was also the emergence, or the moment when value is attached to photographers, artists and Chelsea was the sort of epicentre of that in terms of the gallery world. So one of my predecessors decided we should be in the gallery sector. We should have a space like this.
We love this space. It is joyous, but it is on the fourth floor of a rambling building and frankly, Chelsea rents are no longer affordable for us.
So, we’ve really spent the last two or three years thinking about what Aperture should look like twenty-five years from now and how we should function, economically, culturally.
We moved all our major exhibition initiatives to work within partnerships with people like SFMoMa and Foam and C/O Berlin. I mean we work with many institutions around the world creating shows that travel but we don’t show them here, necessarily, and we’re really focusing more on being a national and global brand for photography, manifesting, you know everywhere from San Francisco to Johannesburg and including the shows, but with everything sort of underpinned by our publications.
That will stay your main activity?
Absolutely. I mean the world has changed so much. You know, historically, we would have thought of ourselves as a one publisher, competing with others. Now, we really think of ourselves as serving the world of the book in a broad way that the art of a book, as well as obviously the voices of photographers and thinkers within our field.
In addition to your growing digital publishing programme you still produce a number of printed versions. How do you disseminate these? And what would be a good example of a book that sold in small quantities but has an enormous effect?
Chris Boot: We still work with the traditional machinery of publishing distributors in different parts of the world. We do co-editions with different language publishers. This is an infrastructure that’s been around for a long time. It’s also a little creaky these days, in the sense that everything’s changed, the way the books are sold and magazines too. I mean, for the magazine we used to rely entirely on subscriptions, now it sells in museum stores through a book distribution infrastructure which is just as important.
We have good distribution, but a lot of books we do, they really do sell in pretty small numbers and you’ll be surprised how much impact a book can have – you asked for an example – I think the best one is Penelope Umbrico’s book “Photographs”. I’m not actually sure how many we sold, maybe 2,000 at the most – but it was her first book and it became a platform for her career and she’s been extremely successful ever since and if you look at the economics of the book in its own right, that is not attractive. We probably spent far more money than we were able to earn back in sales of the book, but with the support that we can attract … and also Penelope let us sell some of her work and we did. We’ve shown her at many art fairs and so on. So all these pieces add up to a great platform for a photographer like Penelope to grow her audience, her support and her presence.
The foundation is also involved in photographic awards, such as Paris Photo. Are there other Awards and competitions you set up or you organise?
Chris Boot: We run three open submission programmes: the Paris Photo Aperture Book Award, which is now regarded as the leading book award in our field and attracts kind of everybody who’s involved in this incredible culture of bookmaking: publishers, as well as artists who are making their own books, and little micro-enterprises. We get over a thousand books submitted for that and, every year, you see the form of the book changing and evolving and there are always very exciting ideas about the actual kind of physical possibilities of the book, as well as, of course, many new artists trying new things. That was very important to us in the sense that we really wanted to position ourselves as serving the field of bookmaking, not just be seen as one among others.
We have a “Portfolio Prize”, which is really where the person selected gets a show at Aperture. The kind of thing we hope to be able to do in our new space. They just won’t be the big very ambitious launch shows, as we used to do here with our partners. That’s been going for a very long time. And that’s really a kind of opportunity to launch somebody’s and emerging photographer’s career.
And then we also have a “Summer Open” where we invite – it’s actually for subscribers of the magazine who submit work on a theme.. ideas and we have again over a thousand people who submit from all over the world.
Part of the reason we do those two photography awards is that it allows us to encounter a lot of work. Every day we get a lot of emails or phone calls saying will we be taking meetings to look at somebody’s work which is really difficult. So, we created those programmes partly to be able to look at a lot of people’s work. And, of course, that feeds our other programmes of content for the magazine and so on; and the exhibition as well.
A Museum Upside Down
Chris Boot: We are a bit like a museum turned upside down. A museum leads with the exhibition and they think of the publications as a complementary activity, necessary and supporting their exhibition projects. We are the other way around; we start with the publication. Often it is the artist’s idea for having wanted their work to be manifested; sometimes with the magazine it is really us curating around an idea in photography, but we start with the publication and then we build programmes around it. I’ll give you one example; we did an issue of the magazine called “Prison Nation”, which was all about the issues around criminal justice in America which are very hot at the moment and this was really a vital issue. Then we had a gap in the programme, here in the gallery, and we decided to just roll the magazine out onto the walls of the space and then use that as a platform for debates and presentations and the first conversation we had about photography in criminal justice, the queue was to the end of the block. I mean, it was incredibly successful and really touched a nerve. We had no plans to travel with that exhibition. It was just an opportunity arose in our calendar. We’ve got some help to do that. That exhibition now is travelling for several years to many other venues. It keeps that issue and the photographer’s work alive. And so we start with the publication and things unfold from there, be they conversations, events, talks, exhibitions.
Aperture as collector
Does the Aperture Foundation have its own photography collection?
Chris Boot: We are not a collecting institution except in one regard and I’ll tell you about that. Historically, one of my predecessors, really the man who built Aperture as a not-for-profit institution, Michael Hoffman, succeeded in attracting the Paul Strand archive to Aperture. Paul Strand, and not that long after his widow, died and they didn’t have children. We merged, in fact, with the Paul Strand Trust at the time and it meant we essentially got bestowed a great collection of Paul Strand’s prints. He was a great printmaker and we have progressively placed those prints in institutions around the world and that’s actually served as a kind of endowment for Aperture.
But it was never our intention to be a collecting institution…. until now, and now we’re really, we’re collecting books. We’re collecting the story of photography in books partly because we have this book award that we run and we have our own history of bookmaking.
So that is what we are collecting today: publications and books; and we hope in the not-too-distant future to be able to make that accessible as a research library, but at the moment they’re all in our offices and in boxes in different places. We have a selecting catalogue of 21,000 books at this point, so this is a significant collection.
How many books did Aperture produce up to now?
Chris Boot: We absolutely do not have the exact figure, but somewhere around the thousand and there are different editions of books and, as we are almost 70 (years old), over that period there are a lot of books made.
You started as a bookmaker yourself.
Chris Book: I started working with photographers. I worked in different capacities, representing them, having put their projects together as an editor etc. About 25 years ago I started working in publishing and ended up starting my own little imprint from my home in London. So, I’m saturated in the culture of books. Absolutely.
How did you look at Aperture at the time? What was Aperture for you?
Chris Boot: Well, my first job in photography was working for an organisation called ‘Photo Co-Op’ in London and one of its directors bought me, as a birthday present, or somewhere on the way, she bought me a subscription to Aperture Magazine. So that was nice to hang out. I didn’t buy books at that time but hung out in the Photographer’s Gallery Bookshop and ICA Bookshop, and those places in London where you could experience incredible publications and artists’ books and so on. I think the most influential early book was an Alex Webb book called, “Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds”, which was like… it was a moment when I was intoxicated by the possibilities of photography. So Aperture from very early was a reference for thinking about photography and what I should be looking at, what books I might find and so on. Then actually while I was independently publishing, I was working with Aperture on some projects, publishing between different parts of the world, swapping books and they would take some of my books for the American market and then; look, this is quite personal, I got a call from somebody from Aperture saying the director’s job is coming up. But I was not looking for a job; I wasn’t interested. Then, I was on holiday and I woke up in the middle of the night thinking ‘that’s my job’. It combines the sort of legacy, the deep roots in photography, which is such a fantastic thing. Everything we do connects back to our founders and we might be focused on, I mean, themes that our founders might never have imagined – we are doing a lot of work around race and representation; we’re working on gender and sexuality issues and transgender themes and things like that.
The reason Aperture is really attractive is these deep roots in photography; a reach and a visibility that as a little micro-publisher, I couldn’t achieve on my own at a time of enormous change in photography. So, it seemed a possibility to work with Aperture and do something strong in our field.
Contemporary photography and its aesthetic consequences
Did digital photography influence this a lot over the last twenty years?
Chris Boot: Absolutely. It was a kind of massive sea change in our field at that moment. I would say the biggest single ingredient is actually the cell phone, in the sense of the way that everybody talks in pictures in an everyday way and photography is an accessible language that everybody uses and, of course, that’s influenced artists and artists have influenced the way we talk in pictures. But the underlying thread of individual artists communicating observations about the world; ideas about the world contributing to consciousness; that hasn’t changed at all.
Albeit the audience is, of course, much bigger now than it ever used to be. When Aperture was founded I think the photographers and historians who were part of that were a little bit like a cult. They shared an understanding of their work with each other, there wasn’t a broad audience. You could probably number the people who understood their work in few thousand. Now there’s millions and millions of people who get it.
And aren’t we all photographers? You could ask what differentiates a great artist from everybody else making pictures and it’s not actually necessarily the quality of the pictures and the great thing about the iPhone is that we can all take very high-quality pictures. That is part of the nature of what we are surrounded by, good pictures. I think it is the context the artist puts their work in, it is the way it can change or alter consciousness or impetus.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. The era before Nan Goldin was characterised by photographers who had a sort of craftsmanship virtuosity, if you know what I mean – think of Cartier-Bresson and the Decisive Moment.
What I was going to say is, in terms of the aesthetics of photography, Nan Goldin, she marked the sea change away from virtuosity. So, she basically used the aesthetic of the snapshot that you know, the everyday way, random, slightly sometimes with mistakes, the way that we just record our lives. So, she in a way marked the end of a sort of a craftsmanship virtuosity. So now, there is no longer a premium placed on that.
We happen to have in front of us Naoya Hatakeyama’s book. He is a technical perfectionist. Of course, many photographers in the world are, have a unique craft and have taken the craft of photography to a new place in terms of trying something new….but it is not about the value of work, it’s not based any longer on technical perfection. It is about ideas and contribution to culture.
The book we are bringing out this fall – that is an exhibition, it will go to many museums and it is called ‘The New Black Vanguard’ and it is essentially, we recognise, a movement taking place in the field, which is led by young black photographers under 30. I mean, really young, who are, who’ve brought issues of race representation and beauty together in this place between fashion and art. There are many dimensions to it, but they are creating a new way of thinking about beauty, of looking at the black subject and ourselves. They are taking over an area that was traditionally the exotic black subject. It was the …vision of fashion, but rarely actually authored by artists. So, it is really a sort of sea change and I think that it will get a lot of people being interested, actually these photos are extremely good, that is not another example, but it is an aesthetic movement.
That’s part of our role, to kind of try to identify and make sense of what is going on, presented in a coherent way, as well as presenting the work of individual artists and working with them to craft.
And to change our point of view.
Chris Boot: Exactly.
Aperture Foundation amidst other Foundations
You are working with an enormous number of institutions, but many foundations. Could you tell us with which foundations you work and how important these connections are to you?
Chris Boot: Increasingly important. Our work with foundations is increasingly important because, well, in our partners our revised concept of what we’re going to be in future, we will thrive, if we are successful at partnering. These are really key for our future. We are really building, trying to build on some great experience with foundations. We worked with the Hermes Foundation for a few years. We did a cycle of projects and we learned so much from them. It was such a rewarding experience and that involved commissioning artists, creating books – this is one of them – Taysir Batniji that resulted from that programme.
We work with many foundations. Some, rather straightforwardly, help pay for them (the books), like the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Luce Foundation and with some private foundations that we work with because of individuals who decide to use those foundations and want to support the work that we’re doing. We work with a lot of museums in different parts of the world which, of course, are also not-for-profit institutions. We’ve worked with SF Moma, Crystal Bridges (Museum of American Art) and FOAM and the Photographer’s Gallery and C/O Berlin as partners to present exhibitions that come from the work that we were doing.
I should add we’re also working very actively with consumer brands as well. So we’re working with Airbnb, a project with Google. Burberry is helping us with a project this fall, so if we do our job well, we’re this sort of apex for artists and brands who value that content and help us get out in the world and reach new audiences, as well as support us financially.
The foundations and museums who are really the bedrock of our culture in America, which is very strong and not forgetting in the heart of it all, is the book. We communicate on so many platforms, so many people experience the work that we do, if it’s on a wall, at an event, a talk, online, of course, there’s more, we have more readers online than anywhere, but there’s nothing like the physical object for anchoring that. It’s to build all these activities around the book or an issue of the magazine.