Early on a chilly winter evening, high above the damp streets of Manhattan, Steven Albahari runs his palm along an oversized book covered in a thin skin of dark blue Japanese silk and sighs. "Stand up," he urges me, flicking past a creamily marbled end paper. "Looking at one of these books is like performance art; the viewer has to accommodate it, not the other way around."
It's a quaint concept—an object that demands you inconvenience yourself for it—but then again, this is no ordinary book. This is 21st, an impossibly luxurious annual (Albahari calls the book a journal, but that seems woefully inadequate) of photographs and writing. Over the past five years, 21st: Publishers of Fine Art Photography—which also publishes single-artist monographs, such as the wonderfully evocative New York by Sheila Metzner—has championed work by photographers both well known (John Dugdale, Joel-Peter Witkin) and not (John Metoyer), as well as original essays and poems by Ann Beattie, Edmund White, and Dana Gioia. Like many photography-book publishers, Albahari and his partner, John Wood, strive to "publish photographers we admire," says Wood. "It doesn't matter whether they're well-known or not."
But unlike other photography book publishers, whose reputations (and revenues) are largely determined by their trade books rather than pricey and time-consuming special editions, 21st has made its name by focusing almost all its efforts on creating small numbers of exquisitely produced books. The house comes out with three different editions of each journal. The trade edition has a print run of 750 to 2,000. Then there's the deluxe edition of 100 to 200 copies, which comes with a signed print. Finally, there is the spectacular museum edition: Bound in goatskin, it is limited to 50 copies, comes with its own print, and is housed in a clamshell box covered in finely woven Italian cotton. All are beautiful, but the artistry of the latter two editions impresses the most—the books are bound in silk so fine that one's fingertips snag on the material's weft, and the handmade paper is so lofty and cottony it feels fibrous. In a limited-edition 21st book, each page is as thoughtfully chosen as the image printed on it.
Such specific and exacting production values mean that 21st's books are created in an intensely collaborative, almost artisanal manner: Each title takes more than a year to make, and may pass through the hands of a half-dozen artists and craftsmen. Wood conceives the book with the artist, and a letterpress printer designs and sets the type. Then it goes to a photogravure printer (photogravure, a century-old process gives the books' images their signature ink-saturated depth), the bookbinder, and the photographer himself, who examines and approves the images before adding his signature. Although 21st exists to showcase photography, even the casual viewer is never allowed to forget that the book itself is an objet d'art.
And if 21st's painstaking methodologies seem not just extravagant, but anachronistic, well, it's intentional: Both Wood and Albahari are happily out of step with the photography world's prevailing trends and attitudes (don't even mention digital to them). "We wanted to create something that captured what contemporary photography is about," says Wood. "Part of the twentieth century was a repudiation of beauty. But Steve and I aren't afraid of beauty, and there's beautiful photography being made today. That indulgence in beauty, and the wonderful antiquarian feel that comes with it—not digital prints—are the most exciting things in photography. 21st is about how the future of photography can invent itself by looking back at the past." Wood and Albahari are contrarians in another way too. "People say you shouldn't buy art as an investment, but that's ridiculous," Wood says. "I mean, it's nice to buy things you love, but investment is a business, and not everything appreciates in value," Albahari adds. "At 21st, we publish artists we believe in."
Wood and Albahari's idiosyncratic approach has paid off. Collected by individuals worldwide, their work is also in dozens of libraries and institutions, including the Library of Congress, the Fogg Art Museum, and Stanford and Cornell universities, all of which own 21st's complete catalogue. The books' values have also spiked: Some copies of 21st's deluxe editions (which sell for $2,000 to $3,000 at publication) and museum editions ($6,500 to $9,000) have more than doubled in the two or three years since being released. Indeed, avid collectors have come to anticipate the journal's appreciation, and new titles have been selling out before publication. The monographs have also increased in value. When Metzner's New York first came out, it was offered at $5,000. Now it sells for $30,000.
While such popularity is flattering, it's not what motivates Albahari and Wood. "We started this because we wanted to broaden the dialogue of contemporary photography," says Albahari. "We wanted to create the finest books in the world."
At 9 New Venture Drive, South Dennis, MA; 800-965-3536, 508-398-3000; www.21stphotography.com.
Taschen Sizes Up the Trend
Quality bookstores in Beverly Hills have had a troubled past. The most recent to come and go, Rizzoli, continued to prove the strange rule in this tony commercial village: People will spend money here, but bookstores open at their own risk.
Now, international art-book publisher Taschen aims to do things differently. Founded in Germany by Benedikt Taschen, the eponymously named firm has opened its first U.S. outpost, in the heart of Beverly Hills. Designed by Philippe Starck, the store is a high, narrow space where the shelves are glossy walnut, the love seats are done up in golden leather, and an upstairs exhibition gallery is imported glass from Paris.
The Euro sleekness could have made Taschen LA a forbidding place—even to browse; instead you feel as if you've wandered into a sophisticated literary boudoir. There is, for instance, the volume of photographs from Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki that sells for $2,000. And don't overlook GOAT, a photo tribute to Muhammad Ali. At 75 pounds, the "Champ's Edition" costs $7,500. At 354 N. Beverly Drive; 310-274-4300.
Ask any gallery owner or seasoned photography collector and he'll tell you that a good way to start collecting is to buy monographs. They train your eye, so you can get to know the scope of your own tastes. But they can also be an unexpected boon. Not only do these special editions offer some of the best bargains you'll find, they allow collectors to buy art by well-known names at a fraction of their open-market value.
You love Philip-Lorca diCorcia, but aren't quite willing to spend $10,000 on a print from his show at Pace/MacGill Gallery? Never mind; this past February, the art-book publisher TWIN PALMS (800-797-0680; www.twinpalms.com) brought out a special edition of the influential photographer's monograph A Storybook Life that included a frameworthy 11-by-14-inch print—for $5,000.
Although the advantage to the collector is clear, publishers—often collectors themselves—also benefit from producing special editions. Chris Pichler, the founder of NAZRAELI PRESS (520-798-1530), a small Tucson-based outfit known for its exquisite books, has produced limited editions for the past 15 years. Like many of the other publishers, his talks with artists about their special editions often begin after they've decided to work on a book together. "I usually agree if an artist wants to do it," Pichler says, "or I'll try to make them do it if I can't afford the artist's work myself." In addition to its limited-edition monographs, Nazraeli also publishes a series called One Picture Books that sell for a mere $35; each is only 16 pages, but the books (usually limited to 500 copies) come with a signed 3-by-4-inch print. Participating artists have included Chan Chao, Todd Hido, Martin Parr, and Terri Weifenbach, all of whose gallery prints begin at $2,000.
And while special-edition prints may never appreciate with quite the speed or drama of an artist's gallery print, they do increase in value as the artist's reputation grows. The New York-based POWERHOUSE BOOKS (212-604-9074; www.powerhousebooks.com) in 1995 launched its first limited edition, Jack Pierson's All of a Sudden, which came with an 11-by-14-inch print for $175. It's now published as a deluxe set with three 16-by-20-inch prints and sells for $3,000.
Using a slightly different model, BLIND SPOT (212-633-1317; www.blindspot.com), a beautifully produced magazine about contemporary photography, offers a limited-edition print for sale with each of its three annual issues. "We split the proceeds fifty-fifty with the artists," says its founder, Kim Zorn Caputo, "and use our half for the production costs of the magazine." In 1998, Blind Spot offered a 16-by-20-inch black-and-white picture of a cloud by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz for $800. Today, the same image at 11 by 14 inches (the original size is sold out) costs $1,875, and the price will keep rising as more prints are sold.
Similarly, the APERTURE FOUNDATION (800-929-2323; www.aperture.org), which publishes a photography quarterly, produces a diverse collection of limited-edition prints, often by well-known names. Images printed with the cooperation of the estates of such masters as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand start at just $350. Aperture also offers prints in conjunction with its own titles by Jock Sturges, Yasumasa Morimura, and Sebastião Salgado, which range in price from $450 to $1,500.