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Interview: Peter Bialobrzeski

Books Interview: Peter Bialobrzeski One late night (and one simultaneously early morning) in July 2016 Christopher J Johnson of photo-eye Bookstore and Peter himself had a phone conversation between the cities of Santa Fe, NM and Kochi in India.

Taipei Diary By  Peter Bialobrzeski. The Velvet Cell, 2016.

Peter Bialobrzeski is a prolific photographer. In recent years he has made several studies of cities with a view towards socio-political views and the city as a site of independent character. These works have been published by Hatje Cantz and, more recently, by The Velvet Cell and focused on cities as varied as Shanghai, Cairo and Wolfsburg among others. One late night  (and one simultaneously early morning) in July 2016 Christopher J Johnson of photo-eye Bookstore and Peter himself had a phone conversation between the cities of Santa Fe, NM and Kochi in India.

Cairo Diary By  Peter Bialobrzeski. The Velvet Cell, 2014.

Christopher J Johnson (Santa Fe, NM): Considering your City Diaries series there is something I wanted to ask you – you have figures in them occasionally but they are few, as opposed to works of abundant street life, so I wondered why you chose to show these cities in a quiet way.

Peter Bialobrzeski (Kochi): Well for me it’s that I’m very interested in the urban surface and what it actually tells of a city, and how you place it in the political and sociological context. So if you look at Athens Diary and Cairo Diary you’ll find very different cities even though the photographic approach is the same.

For me the people are interesting in terms of their inhabitance of a place, or how they can be sort of models, architecturally, for size. What do I know about their lives – you know – I don’t really want to interfere and the thing is that street photography has been done already and done really well and I did it, at some point, but for me the idea of actually describing a city through its semiotics and turning the images into something that is multilayered and also abstract in terms of aesthetic approach, I think, adds something to an archive of the contemporary environment; I mean, if you Google any one of those cities, Google Athens for instance, you’ll get a few street vendors or some well-known statues, but you don’t really get a sense of the city.

Athens Diary By  Peter Bialobrzeski. The Velvet Cell, 2014.

CJJ: Do you feel that this is a way of showing the city as more of an organism or character in-of-itself?

PB: Yeah, and in a way, the images are a kind of visual research by which I can make sense of the place. At the moment I am photographing Kochi – that’s a city with a community that’s pretty dominantly Christian, but also there are strong Muslim and Hindu factions as well as Jains and a few Jewish communities. When you walk the street you see the difference; in the Muslim areas there are goats, in the Hindu areas the odd cow… it’s very very interesting I think.

CJJ:  Then by showing the people in the way that you do, you show how they interact with that organism, the organism of a city?

PB: You find always in all the books images of people. They form small groups or they go into shops or stand across the street and wait for something, [speaking of the City Diary series photographs here] so in a way there is always a relationship; in the Athens Diary there are more people in the pictures, it’s just that they are very small.

Case Study Homes By  Peter Bialobrzeski. Hatje Cantz, 2009.

CJJ: You mentioned Beirut, a title we haven’t see yet, are there any other cities besides this that you are considering for a City Diary?

PB:  I’ve already done Taipei, which is printed and will come out in September. Then Beirut which will come out spring next year and then I have already photographed Mumbai, Osaka, Bangkok, Yangon and, of course, I’m doing Kochi and also the city opposite Kochi which is called Ernakulam -- Ernakulam is one of those third-tier Indian cities which is, also, kind of emerging in a quite interesting way – I’m not sure if I’d turn that into one book or into two; I’m just figuring it out at the moment…

[interjecting] CJJ:  Wow, so it’s going to be a prolific series…

PB: Well, yeah – so next year I have a residency in China – so I’m going to be doing a book there. I also have something in the works for Singapore, a visit there later in the year.

Nail Houses or the Destruction Of Lower Shanghai By  Peter Bialobrzeski. Hatje Cantz, 2014.

CJJ: How did you come into the venture of making books with The Velvet Cell?

PB: That was, really, total chance. I had gotten an email from Éanna (Éanna de Fréine) saying that he liked my work and wondered if would consider a project with him in the future; I was just in the process of producing my last book with Hatje Cantz and I remembered that I had done a series of Cairo photographs while I was with some students there [Cairo] and I had already made a little 8″ x 10″ book dummy so I sent him the pdf and asked him if it was anything like what he had in mind. He liked the work so we agreed that I could make the books with a colleague who I teach with, who does the book design – I do the sequencing and select the paper. So, in a way, that whole series evolved from Éanna’s little email. Then I went to Taipei to meet him and to print the book and we really hit it off. We are very good friends now and we enjoy our time together.

For my visit to Taipei I had brought along another dummy book I made, Beirut and we also agreed to do that as a City Diary, which, later, we swapped for Athens because of the crisis and everything – so Beirut Diary will be at the printer’s later this fall.

It started like this, you know -- it was pretty easy. [laughs]

Wolfsburg Diary By  Peter Bialobrzeski. The Velvet Cell, 2016.

CJJ: You say, “pretty easy” – is that in contrast to previous publishing experiences?

PB: No, I became pretty good friends with Mark at Hatje Cantz too, he was the publishing director – and the time when I made books with Hatje Cantz was quite interesting because they were part of a larger media group – so they made money with printing and with distribution, but the publisher [Hatje Cantz] being a part of that media group was more like the small hostile on the edge of the city, you know – they could kind of basically do whatever they wanted so I didn’t really have to turn a big profit – I just had to stay afloat. They had a really good name [in the industry], so they could subsidize museum catalogs and also publish projects that they liked.

During that time it was very easy to work with them because when they liked a book project they did it. It was really like publishing in the old days – I didn’t have to buy copies or do my own promotions.

Cairo Diary By  Peter Bialobrzeski. The Velvet Cell, 2014.

Final question, and maybe it’ll have a long answer -- I’m not sure.  I’m curious what photobooks you’ve liked – either for their design or their layout or some other quality of them, or a photographer who you’ve more consistently liked the works of.

PB:  I mean for, you know, the point is liking the work – so The Uncommon Places of Stephen Shore, as well as the work of Joel Sternfeld, were a really big influence for me, but also some early pictures of Andres Gursky. Eye openers for me were Gilles Peress’ Telex Iran and Under A Grudging Sun by Alex Webb, which seems a bit odd when you look at my work now, but I come from a photojournalist background. Maybe Under A Grudging Sun is one of the more interesting books for its time because it has this feeling of violence building up to the elections of Haiti – that’s reflected in its sequencing, when you really understand it and it's not overproduced like these things now where you have all these little odd bits and pieces, things to fold out. I find those to have, you know, a bit too much topping. I mean when you have something like Redheaded Peckerwood and then everybody does it, I start getting a bit bored.

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