Publisher’s Spotlight: Saint Lucy Books
This month is all about books on Lenscratch. In order to understand the contemporary photo book landscape, we are interviewing and celebrating significant photography book publishers, large and small, who are elevating photographs on the page through design and unique presentation. We are so grateful for the time and energies these publishers have extended to share their perspectives, missions, and most importantly, their books.
Launched in 2011 by Mark Alice Durant, Saint Lucy is devoted to writing about photography and contemporary art. Saint Lucy features essays, portfolios and wide-ranging conversations with artists, writers, and curators.
Saint Lucy Books extends the mission of the website with a publishing venture that has, thus far, published four titles: 27 Contexts: An Anecdotal History in Photography by Mark Alice Durant, Hidden Mother by Laura Larson, Friends, Enemies, and Strangers by Oliver Wasow, and Conversations with Saint Lucy, featuring wide-ranging interviews with five important contemporary photographers: Sarah Blesener, Elinor Carucci, Doug DuBois, Ron Jude, and Rania Matar.
Saint Lucy Books aims to publish idiosyncratic books that combine words and images that investigate the marginal, hidden, and parallel histories of photography. Among the many accolades and enthusiastic reviews, Hidden Mother was shortlisted for ‘Best PhotoBook of the Year’ by Aperture and Paris Photo. Reviewing 27 Contexts in 4Columns, UCLA art historian, George Baker writes: “Durant’s writing—his storytelling—is often thrilling, wrenching, beautiful.” Of Friends, Enemies, and Strangers, Marvin Heiferman writes: “One of our shrewdest image makers and takers, Oliver Wasow pits the sentimental against the sinister, nature against human nature, and private lives against public ones.”
Today artist Aline Smithson interviews publisher Mark Alice Durant.
Follow Saint Lucy Books on Instagram: @saint_lucy_books
What was the first book you published, and what did you learn from that experience?
I started the online journal Saint Lucy (www.saint-lucy.com) in 2011 to archive articles and essays I had written for various publications and to give myself permission to write stories that I had unsuccessfully pitched to editors. I wanted to include other voices / projects so I added features like ‘One Picture / One Paragraph’ and invited others to participate. In 2016, I completed a book of essays titled 27 Contexts: An Anecdotal History in Photography, that explored my lifelong involvement with photographs. I was shopping it around to publishers who all responded in more or less the same way: “This is interesting but what is it? Who is it for? It’s not a monograph, it’s not criticism, it’s not theory, it’s not photo history, it’s somewhat autobiographical but it’s not a memoir.” My answer was: It’s all of those things, inextricably bound in an examination of how photographs shape our personal and collective lives. I hoped that my book would appeal to artists / photographers / writers, but anyone really, who had an interest in how images shape our world.
Around the same time, I reached out to Laura Larson about her book Hidden Mother because I knew she was also seeking a publisher. She told me she was getting a similar response, that editors / publishers did not know how to categorize her book which uses 19th century photographs of ‘hidden mothers,’ to anchor her episodic and lyrical writing about becoming a mother through adoption. While speaking to Laura, it occurred to me that Saint Lucy could and should publish it, that I could publish my book as well. When Laura agreed to entrust me with Hidden Mother, Saint Lucy Books was born. Both our books were released in 2017.
What is your mission as a publisher?
Saint Lucy Books publishes elegant, idiosyncratic, and accessible books that combine words and images to celebrate contemporary photographic artists, and to explore the marginal, hidden, and parallel histories of photography.
How big is your organization?
It is a one-person operation – me, although I work closely with designer Guenet Abraham who has designed six of the eight titles thus far. She is amazing, talented, and generous. Her refined esthetic has added so much to each title she has worked on.
What are the difficulties that publishers face?
The biggest challenge is distribution. The website does great, and we sell a lot of books at book fairs and hopefully those will start happening again soon. But getting books in bookstores or distributed outside of the U.S. is daunting.
Are there any publishing projects that have been particular meaningful to you?
Hidden Mother will always have a special place in my heart for reasons I already mentioned. This year (2021), Saint Lucy published three titles—Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling, Brea Souders : eleven years, and Dairy Character by Odette England. These projects are very different from each other and embody how expansive the world of photobooks could be. Odette’s book evokes her experiences growing up on a dairy farm in rural Australia in the 1970s. Not only is Odette a risk-taking image-maker, she is a powerful writer as well; her vivid personal narratives of her family and the landscape in which they lived and worked are unforgettable.
Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling, with contributions from over 80 artists and writers, is a loose compendium of photographs and texts that picture, examine, explore, and / or suggest, the human body in states of abandon, helplessness, terror, subjugation, serenity, and transcendence. Conceiving, editing, and producing that book was as intimidating as it was gratifying. To gather canonical and contemporary photographic artists, from Andre Kertesz to Cig Harvey, from Aaron Siskind and Francesca Woodman to Raymond Meeks within the same book, accompanied by texts from some of the most amazing poets, art historians, critics, curators, and fiction writers, such as Diane Seuss, Lynne Tillman, David Campany, Kate Albers, Jennifer Blessing, David Levi Strauss, Jean Dykstra, and Marvin Heiferman—was the most challenging and immersive experience of my professional life.
Saint Lucy had not produced a proper monograph before working with Brea Souders on Eleven Years. The process of conceiving and designing it occurred during the pandemic. Brea, the designer Guenet Abraham, and I, worked together via Zoom to bring that book into existence. Brea’s work is so refreshing and unique, in a way she re-invents photography for herself with each project, so we had to come up with graphic and sequential strategies that would both separate and unify the work. I learned so much during this intense collaborative process and am proud of the design solutions we came up with. Once we got the essays from art historians Kim Beil and Susan Bright, who write brilliantly about Brea’s work, I recognized that we were making something special.
What upcoming projects are you excited about?
Saint Lucy will publish three books in 2022—a second title with Laura Larson, The City of Incurable Women, which responds to Charcot’s 19th c. medical images of hysteria, a monograph with San Francisco-based photographic artist Klea McKenna, and a richly-illustrated biography of the filmmaker Maya Deren that I wrote.
How many books do you publish a year, and how do you choose which projects to publish? Do you have a specific focus?
I work on one book at a time – averaging 2-3 books a year. There is some overlap when one project is ending and another is beginning. But for obvious reasons, I have to keep it simple, and I want to be able to give each project my full attention. As the mission statement says, I am interested in publishing photobooks that combine words / images in an unexpected manner. Saint Lucy Books are accessible in two important ways; you don’t need to have studied art or be familiar with academic language to ‘get’ the books, and they are relatively affordable, lower in price than most books of this quality.
How can an artist get their work in front of you?
Thus far, with one exception, I have approached the artists that I have worked with. I am open to proposals, but I am only one person and can only produce two or three titles a year. In my experience, like a baby, it takes nine months to a year to bring a book from conception into the world. Saint Lucy provides the design and distribution. The financing of the books varies, for the artist books / monographs, the artist has provided a significant portion, if not the total cost of production. But because this is a one-person operation (i.e., I don’t employ anyone), the cost is significantly less than with most other publishers.
Do you have any advice for photographers?
For most publishers, the decision to work with someone is not simply a matter of images. There are so many other considerations; for example, does the artist have a following? Who is the audience? How does the work expand / challenge pre-existing work? If you have never made a photobook you should self-publish one or two, or at least make a physical dummy, to learn how to do it from the inside, from start to finish. Then get the book into the hands of friends and colleagues by selling it on your website or giving it away. It will help deepen your understanding of the process, from concept to editing, from sequencing to paper choice. If you have this hands-on experience, it is likely to inform your proposal when you do approach an established publisher. While there is a renaissance in photobook publishing right now, and it’s a beautiful thing that I am pleased to be a small part of; producing a book is a lot of work, and I think one should be motivated by love of books, specifically photo books, not simply because you think it’s necessary for the career.
Mark Alice Durant is an artist, writer, editor, and publisher of Saint Lucy Books. His essays have appeared in numerous journals such as Art in America, Aperture, Dear Dave, FOAM Magazine, Photograph, and many catalogs, monographs and anthologies, including Rania Matar: She, Vik Muniz: Seeing is Believing, Jimmie Durham, Marco Breuer: Early Recordings, McDermott and McGough: A History of Photography, and The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire. With Jane D. Marsching he was co-curator and co-author of Blur of the Otherworldly: Contemporary Art, Technology and the Paranormal. He curated Notes on Monumentality at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He is author of Robert Heinecken: A Material History, and 27 Contexts: An Anecdotal History in Photography. He recently completed the biography, Maya Deren, Choreographed for Camera, that will be published by Saint Lucy Books in 2022.
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