Like many things in the photo world, it was all Martin Parr’s fault.
I had been a publisher in a previous life, specialising in philosophy and the history of ideas with an emphasis on neglected and minor figures. Much to the relief of my bank I managed to sell Thoemmes Press in 2004. After not doing much for a few months I went back to my roots and started to buy and sell antiquarian philosophy books again. At a particular boring Bookfair in Berlin I noticed a flea-market outside where I found an East German Propaganda book for 9 Euros. This was followed by the discovery of vol 1 of Parr/Badger in a Museum’s shop somewhere in Upstate NY - again, I was bored and it was the only interesting book to look at while I was waiting for my partner to finish viewing an exhibition. It was a long wait but fortunately the book contained a great number of pictures.
Rudi Thoemmes Rare Books catalogue, 2009-2010
Books with pictures were a welcome change after dealing with academia for 25 years though at that stage I did not have to deal with photographers so it was a bit of a honeymoon period for a while. I started buying East German photobooks - no-one else was, and the average purchase price stayed in the 9 euro range. I received more book parcels in Bristol than anyone else. On a visit to a Bookshop in Leipzig I was told that they had no photo books since this mad English guy was buying them all. This should have alerted me to maybe reconsider but unfortunately one of my sons had a warehouse which I was able to use for my new hobby and a few pallets did not look that much within the vast warehouse space. Another mistake.
Die Frau bei der Deutschen Post, 1963
See this title on AbeBooks.com
While I started to stock-pile East German photo books I also became curious as to how new photo books were published and sold. As a bookseller for about 40 years and a publisher for nearly 30 years I could see a few challenges on both fronts. All this coincided with a small group of local photographers centered around what was to become ICVL started by Alejandro Acin who had recently ended-up in Bristol from Spain via Colombia. Somehow Alejandro managed to secure a space in Bristol’s Old Market area which became a thriving hub for photo books and really put Bristol on the map photographically speaking long before the Martin Parr Foundation or the move of the Royal Photographic Society to Bristol. Speakers in the early days (maximum capacity was about 60) included Laura El Tantawy, Alec Soth, Stacy Kranitz, Jon Tonks, David Goldblatt and Peter Mitchell.
Unlike Alec and David, Peter was not well-known in spite of the relentless support he had from Martin Parr over the years. Peter had self-published his seminal Memento Mori in 1990 and then - nothing. It took Martin years to get him to publish Strangely Familiar in a series he edited for Nazraeli in 2013. Martin is not only relentless, he is also quite good at connecting and he suggested that I should “take-on” Peter who had become a good friend though publishing Peter was not something I had considered. He had very much his own pace, did not not do email or indeed do anything digital and clearly was not going to be rushed by anyone. He had also displayed worrying signs of perfectionism and stubbornness, never good signs for a publisher.
Memento Mori, hardcover, 1990
My memory is a little bit hazy what exactly happened next but I found myself within a few weeks at Spencer Place in Leeds with Peter. I do however remember that the first drawer I opened contained a whole pile of photographs of Scarecrows which Peter instantly dismissed as snaps or ‘non-pictures’ which he had taken over the years in the countryside to amuse himself. The rest, as they say, is history.
Rudi Thoemmes, March 2020
There are a few Scarecrow related blog-posts here if you want to know what happened next:
And best of all, there is Geoff Dyer’s piece, soon to appear in a collection of his essays, but first published here: