Established 25 years ago, Dewi Lewis Publishing is one of the leading photographic publishers in the world. Its award-winning authors include Martin Parr, Paolo Pellegrin, Bruce Gilden, Jacob Aue Sobol and Laia Abril, among many others.
Dewi Lewis, who runs Dewi Lewis Publishing alongside his partner Caroline Warhurst, is a sought after voice in the photography world and an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. In 2009, he was awarded the Society’s inaugural RPS Award for Outstanding Service to Photography. In addition to serving on the jury for numerous international awards, Lewis has been a “Master” three times for the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclasses.
We are thrilled that Lewis has agreed to serve on the jury for our Street Photography Awards 2022. With three decades of experience in photobook publishing, he brings a wealth of knowledge and a sharp eye to our jury panel. LensCulture reached out to Lewis to learn more about his unique background and the questions photographers should ask before seeking to publish a book.
Cover photo © Dougie Wallace, from Harrodsburg, published by Dewi Lewis
LensCulture: You have long been involved with the arts: I discovered you initially started working in the theatre. Could you tell us a bit more about your performance background and how you made a transition into the publishing world? Do you think your theatre background has had any influence on your work as a publisher?
Dewi Lewis: I started working in the arts immediately after university. My first job with any real control over programming involved setting up an Arts Association and then an Arts Centre in Bury, North Manchester. This was primarily performance-based, with the main focus on music and theatre. But even at that stage, I was putting on exhibitions alongside the other events. These encompassed not only photography but other visual arts as well.
In 1982, I moved on to a new project to establish an arts venue in central Manchester. For this, I developed a focus on film and contemporary visual arts. It was then a matter of finding a space and raising the funding before we could embark on what was a 12-month plus building programme. The centre, Cornerhouse, opened in 1985. Eighteen months later, I decided that we should launch a publishing house within Cornerhouse, and that was when my more direct involvement with photography began.
Over the years, my interests have spanned several art forms, and whilst it’s difficult to separate out the different influences that these have had on my approach to publishing, I do think that a common thread is my wish to push interesting work, work that I personally value, out to a wider audience.
LC: You and your wife, Caroline Warhurst, run Dewi Lewis Publishing together. Is it an intentional decision to keep your team small? What does it add to your publishing process? How does it affect the relationship you have with the photographers you work with?
DL: Cornerhouse involved a lot of staff as we were open twelve to fifteen hours each day for 363 days of the year. That meant so much of my time was taken up with issues very different from the original reason I had become involved in the arts. Inevitably, the role became increasingly managerial rather than direct engagement with the arts.
When I went independent, I initially took the decision to keep it small so as to avoid these same structural issues becoming a distraction. As things developed, I was tempted to build up the company but decided against it; I didn’t want to create a large overhead. That would mean us having to take on more and more projects simply to generate income and not because we believed in them.
I hope that this approach allows us to have more personal contact with the photographers we work with—though it can sometime mean that we are spread more thinly than we’d like. Ultimately, though, it means that the photographers know that they are dealing with the people who actually make the decisions, and not a disembodied committee.
LC: A lot of the projects you publish have a very humanistic aspect as well as a social documentary slant. What compels you towards projects that deal with our contemporary culture, our present situation? Do you think photography has an obligation to address the world?
DL: I’ve always been curious about how society operates, how it works, or more precisely how people work within the realities we all confront. But I have to admit to an arrogance in that I’ve always felt that if I find something interesting or important, then other people should and will as well. The years have taught me that this is often not the case.
Nevertheless, I do feel that photography, along with all other art forms, has an obligation to address things which are external to it. It is critical for every art to have a relationship to the world and also to its audience.
LC: You state on your website, “There are now only very few first books that we’re able to do with emerging photographers.” And yet many people talk about how photobooks are one of the most important platforms for young photographers to establish themselves. How do you feel about young people using books as a path towards prominence?
DL: It’s an understandable phenomenon—I think we all want some sort of recognition. My concern, though, is that too many photographers now feel that they need a book to move forward—even if they haven’t yet really found their subject. Many younger photographers would do far better to focus their time and resources on creating new work rather than trying to get their “first” project published.
One harsh reality is that the majority of photobooks are now funded by the photographer, in one way or another. This is unlikely to change and it is a dynamic that causes me concern. It creates an uneven playing field—emerging photographers without access to financial resources are at a critical disadvantage.
LC: As photobooks grow more popular and publishers more numerous, I feel that the design of photobooks sometimes threatens to overshadow the books’ content. Has the photobook become a fetish? How can young photographers avoid this trap for their early-career publications?
DL: For me, the book should always be about content, about what the photographer has to say or show. Design is critical, but only in the sense of making work more accessible, more understandable. I fully believe that form should always try to follow function.
I feel a very real sense that both designers and photographers are trying to leapfrog each other in their attempts to make the production and appearance of their projects more complex and unique. Many books increasingly involve elements which require handwork for their production. This inevitably increases production costs and shifts projects out of the realm of commercial feasibility. It has become increasingly common to see books that will cost more to produce than they can possibly recoup from bookshop sales.
LC: Curator and writer David Campany has written that the term “photobook” “hardly appears in writings and discussions before the 21st century” and observes that the term only came to prominence recently. You started publishing books in 1994—what do you think has changed in that time given the establishment of this now commonplace term?
DL: I actually started publishing in 1987 at Cornerhouse. Even then we talked about photobooks—it’s just that we called them “photography books”—simply a different terminology. Interestingly, I’m just working on a reprint of Dialogue with Photography, which involves interviews with many of the greats of 20th-century photography. The interviews were all done in the 1970s and whilst many of the interviewees talk about their books, it is generally in a different way than today.
But, of course, the key way to reach audiences then was through publication in magazines. It is worth noting a comment that Henri Cartier-Bresson made about The Decisive Moment—”I didn’t make a cent out of it. I did it for the prestige rather than the money!”
LC: From your perspective, what is the most important outcome after you publish a book—the critical response, the popular response (sales), the artist’s reaction? In sum, when do you feel that one of your books has been a success? I’m especially curious since some books take years to be fully appreciated (The Decisive Moment being a good example!)…
DL: A reality for us is that because we don’t have any rich backers or Arts Council funding, over the year, we have to achieve a financial balance. We need enough titles achieving some monetary return to enable us to keep going. We can take risks on some books but only if we feel secure with others. Of course, it’s great when a book sells well or when you get critical acclaim or when the photographer has a positive reaction. These are all factors in determining whether or not you might call something a “success.”
In reality though, it comes down to my own personal reaction—do I still feel that the work is strong? Do I feel that we’ve done it justice? Is it a project that I’m proud of? Generally, I’m never 100% happy with a finished book—I don’t even enjoy looking at them for at least several months after they’re printed. For me, it tends to be a few years before I can make a final judgement and decide whether it really is a book of which I’m proud.
LC: You are serving on the jury for our Street Photography Awards 2022. What does fresh and innovative street photography look like today? Do you think street photography has taken (or could take) a new direction in upcoming years?
DL: I’ve always loved street photography but it is one of the most difficult areas in which to present work which has any real depth to it. It needs to offer up layers rather than focus on a single element. For me, the images that really work are those that are complex and dynamic.
I think, and hope, that this is the way in which it’s changing. It’s rarely enough just to come across an unusual situation or a strange juxtaposition. When it’s done well, street photography can offer up perhaps the most expressive way of exploring the world around us.
LC: You once said, “I’m looking for projects that say something about our culture as it’s lived today.” Do you think street photography is a promising avenue for such explorations?
DL: Yes, I think that street photography can offer up a rich vein for exploration of “our culture as it’s lived today” with all its quirks and its vagaries. But it has to be about the curiosity of the photographer—their ability to decipher the signs and symbols that are all around us—and in a way that goes beyond the immediate surface of things. I believe that a photographer has to have something to say to be able to make good photographs.
LC: What advice do you have for street photographers, specifically, who are looking to publish their first photobook?
DL: Firstly decide why, then what, then how.
Why do you want a book? Is it the best way to take things forward for you? Do you really have something to say? Is there a way of bringing the work together coherently? When you look at the full body of work is there a way of giving it a coherent sequence? Is there an audience for it? What would be the best way of reaching that audience? What form should the book take?
The questions should go on and on. The key to a successful book is in the answers and in being totally honest, self-aware, and self-critical.
And, if at the end of the process you are still 100% convinced, then go for it.
—Dewi Lewis, interviewed by Lauren Jackson for LensCulture
Our Street Photography Awards are open for entries! Submit your work now to have it seen by our international panel of jurors—including Dewi Lewis—and for a chance to exhibit your work in London during Photo London. Learn more about the prizes and jury.