Gereon Wetzel and Jörg Adolph are German freelance filmmakers. Gerhard Steidl is the powerhouse behind the photographic book publishing company Steidl. Together they are responsible for creating one of the most engaging, passionate, funny, revealing, sensitive and essential films anybody interested in photography or photography book-publishing could see. The How To Make a Book project came into fruition after a friend of both Gereon and Jörg’s the newspaper journalist Alex Rühle, told them about Gerhard Steidl.
Rühle had intended to write an article about the photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank for his ‘At Work’ column in the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. To get to the reclusive Frank, Rühle contacted Gerhard Frank’s publisher, who agreed to help and they then travelled to Paris, Nova Scotia and Göttingen (the home of Steidl’s operations which is known as Steidlville) together whilst Gerhard was working on a book of Frank’s work. What resulted was an article in the newspaper which Steidl approved and an offer from Steidl to publish Rühle’s ‘At Work’ column as a book. Rühle was fascinated by Steidl but instead of taking up the book offer he instantly saw an opportunity to record Steidl’s frenetic life traversing the globe, meeting photographers and producing books as a filmed documentary. Rühle then telephoned Steidl and told him to expect the arrival of two documentary filmmakers at Steidlville.
Gerhard Steidl began working as a designer and printer when he was 17 years old and opened his first printing studio just a year later printing posters for art exhibitions until 1972, when the first Steidl book, Befragung zur documenta (Questioning Documenta) was published. Throughout the Seventies he began adding political non-fiction to his publishing rosta before expanding into literature and selected art and photography books in the Eighties. Finally in 1996, he decided to follow his passion for photography and to start his own internationally oriented photo book-publishing programme. Today, Steidl works with photographers and artists including Joel Sternfeld, Mitch Epstein, Richard Serra, Bruce Davidson, Susan Meiselas, Karl Lagerfeld, Gerard Malanga, Lewis Baltz, Ed Ruscha, Bill Brandt, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Jim Dine, Roni Horn, Paolo Roversi, Richard Serra and Jürgen Teller amongst others. They are published by Steidl because of Gerhard. Steidl is one of the few remaining publishing houses to control every step of the manufacturing process, the editing, design, typography, scanning, marketing, distribution, public relations and printing on their own presses.
Photographers stay in Steidlville whilst their books are created. Steidl’s way of working is unique and so is Gerhard Steidl. Gereon and Jörg’s first meeting with Gerhard at the Steidl offices was brief and to the point “Hello. No time. Documentary film. Great. Rühle said you’re the right people for the job. Rühle’s word is worth its weight in gold. I usually can’t bear having anyone with me when I travel — and especially no journalists — but with Rühle things went really well. Nice Guy. More later.” Filming began and lasted for just over a year. The budget secured through German television and a regional arts funding gave them a total budget of just £100,000, which had to cover every aspect of the process from travel to final editing, Gerhard had no financial or creative input. He trusted Gereon and Jörg. Their pitch to Gerhard was simple: no set ups and no interviews, they just wanted to follow him. As Gereon says “We just wanted to show his work and process. We think that he felt that it was the right time for him to show what he does and knows, he was friendly and interested in the film but he said that we are the experts in filmmaking and he left us alone to make and edit the film. He said to us to follow him and he placed no limitations on what or how we filmed. Working in this way we collected a lot of material and he told us that when we had enough we could finish filming and begin editing. It’s his philosophy of working which is based on mutual respect. It’s the best way of working for us”
This filmmaking process reminds me of the approach adopted by both DA Pennebaker with his music documentaries and The Maysles Brothers with their work such as Grey Gardens both filmmakers whom Gereon and Jörg admire. They bring their own twist to this free flowing approach to documentary work as Gereon explains, “They are heroes to us and their way of working is a huge influence on our way of filming. This was our second project working together and the film was created by just us, no one else was involved in the filming or sound capture. One day I film and Jörg does the sound and then the next day Jörg films and I do the sound. This way of working keeps us fresh, we are both filmmakers, so it was easy for us to divide the responsibilities over the 60 days of filming and five to six months of editing which we spent on this project” Gerhard Steidl is not someone who you would imagine as a star of a film, he is constantly, passionately absorbed in the publishing process as the film shows and yet his personality shines throughout. He is the star and yet he never tries to be. Jörg says that: “Gerhard was the door opener for all of the scenes in the film, with our direct cinema approach you need a strong character to follow and Gerhard is like a magnet, everyone knows him and if he says that we are okay everyone trusts him, even photographers who are quite shy like Robert Frank and Ed Ruscha, both of whom feature in the film. But if Gerhard doesn’t want something to happen it is very clear that you have no chance of it happening. We are very interested in story telling, so there is no set structure to the film and the way in which we work. We just let things happen and then control the final film in the editing room.”
As Gerhard had given Gereon and Jörg the freedom to decide when they had shot enough, I was interested in how they reached that decision, when it’s clear from their portrayal of his life that the filming opportunities and potential photographers they could film seemed to be endless. Gereon explains: “That’s a difficult question, when we began the film we planned to follow the creation of one book as the central element of the film and that was the book which Joel Sternfield was working on, the idea was that when the book was done then the film was done. There was also a Steidl exhibition planned in Lausanne, which we felt would provide a good conclusion for the film. This was our framework, but within this was the publishing year of a bookmaker and all of the events that brings with it. The problem was that it was so interesting to travel with him and meet all of the photographers that it was really hard to say that we had enough, despite the fact that as experienced filmmakers we knew we already had enough. Gerhard was so easy to film because he is so energetic and always on the run. There was an opportunity to film William Eggleston but we already had so many great artists in the film that to have another five minutes with Eggleston would be just too much and our budget was running out but it was very hard to say that we didn’t want to meet and film him. However, if Gerhard was to ask us now to go and film Eggleston we would definitely do it. It was important that we didn’t overload the film with too many artists” I came upon the film by seeing it advertised within the Steidl 2012 book catalogue and was therefore surprised when Gereon pointed out that for them it is already an old project, which has already acheived success at a number of international film festivals. “We first showed the film at the Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival and had no idea of what kind of film we had created. We thought that it was just a small film about a strange guy making great things but when we saw the audience’s reaction to it we realized that in Gerhard Steidl we had a hero. Everyone was really excited about him. We won the main festival prize with the film and then the film just took off on the film festival circuit winning several other prizes. The success of such a small film really surprised us. We haven’t spoken to any of the photographers who appeared in the film or heard from them, in fact we are not sure if they have seen it. Having said that in the Steidl catalogue there is a photograph of Robert Frank and in the background you can see that our DVD is lying on the couch. But we know that Gerhard is very happy with the film even though it shows him exactly as he is, conflicting with his staff and the artists he is publishing. He felt it was a good portrait of who he is.”
There is no doubt that the power of Gerhard Steidl’s commitment to both photography and publishing is in every publication they release and in every detail of those publications. It’s why people love Steidl books. The fact that Gereon and Jörg were able to translate this into the medium of film is, I believe, not only a testament to their filmmaking ability but also to their courage in allowing the film to take its own shape. The final film is a capsule document not only of Gerhard and Steidl books but also of the photographers involved and photography in 2012. Jörg explained to me: “ When we started filming we met Martin Parr and he asked us not to make a shallow film of Gerhard. I hope we didn’t. I think we made a film that was a study of his character”. “You never know what the historical relevance of what you are doing is at the time, but maybe we did capture a special time ” says Gereon “It was an interesting point in the story of Steidl’s legacy. What it did do was make us want to make more documentaries with and on photographers but with our direct cinema approach it is very difficult to say that we are creating a film about a specific person, there has to be a sense of movement, say a project they are working on. So it is very difficult to find the right person to choose as a subject and the right time to film that person. When we met Jeff Wall with Gerhard he showed us his studio and the way he works on a particular picture, which I thought would make a great film: him working on just one picture. But that’s not an easy film to finance and I’m not sure that Jeff is that interested in showing how he works. It is difficult to make a film about someone just taking a photograph.”
© Grant Scott 2012
You can buy a copy of How To Make a Book as a luxury edition with a 48-page booklet with both English and German Subtitles for 25 euros plus shipping from Steidl or directly from Gereon and Jörg with international subtitles including English for 16.90 euros plus shipping from www.doccollection.de