Finding a bookstore with a good photobook section can be challenging unless you live in one of a handful of big cities, and even then, art bookstores are few and far between. And whether it's in a bookstore or on the Internet, how do filter through the 1000s of photobooks out there and find something unique and special that is worth spending your money on? Charcoal Book Club is a book-of-the-month club that aims to both give people access to a curated selection of photobooks and "guide and educate guide and educate people to understand what is actually interesting and worth owning." This being right up our alley, we spoke to Charcoal founder and photographer Jesse Lenz about a love for photobooks and the inspiration behind starting a book-of-the-month club.
Juxtapoz: What is the Charcoal Book Club and what was the inspiration behind starting it?
Jesse Lenz: Charcoal Book Club is a book-of-the-month club exclusively dedicated to photography monographs. As an artist, I'm constantly on the hunt for new inspiration, and photobooks have long been one of my favorite sources. The photobook has historically been underrated and misunderstood, and only in the past 20 years has it started to be taken seriously as a medium. But, they can also be incredibly hard to find, most people live hundreds of miles from the closest photobook store. Although the internet has made it possible to get books from all over the world, it doesn’t help you to discover something that you were not looking for.
Charcoal Book Club was created to give access to these titles to people no matter where they live, but also to guide and educate people to understand what is actually interesting and worth owning. There are a lot of not so good books out there, a lot of noise you need to cut through to find the truly inspiring, that is where we come in.
Photo from Larry Towell's The Mennonites
What was the first book you saw that really opened your eyes to the power of the photobook?
Larry Towell’s The Mennonites. That book showed me the emotional power of a photography book. I look at that book at least once a week for the past two years and it gets better every-time. It was made over 10 years of traveling and living with the subjects. It tells you a deeper story than anything a magazine, newspaper, or a documentary film could.
On a similar note, what are your most prized photobooks/ones you revisit the most?
Recently I’ve been amassing a small collection of Raymond Meek’s handmade artist's books. His work is poetry. I feel it gets my head in the correct place before starting my day. Many photographers work in a “project” mindset about other people, places, and things, but Raymond looks to his own interior, to his own backyard, and finds poetic nuances that transcend and communicate deeper truths about life.
Do you think that the Internet/digital media age has actually reignited an interested in collecting printed, tangible materials?
I think our generation is starting to learn that quality comes with a price-tag. Anything that is free is probably trying to sell you something. Maybe the internet and digital media are teaching us that we need balance in our lives by allowing the overindulgence of unhealthy practices, the equivalent of eating candy for every meal of the day. Anyone who has a stomachache or craves substantial nourishment needs to find substance elsewhere. For me, photobooks offer a place for quiet contemplation and meditation.
What have you learned about book publishing since collaborating with different publishers for Charcoal?
The importance of building a passionate community that supports and encourages publishers/artists to push boundaries instead of playing it safe. Art isn’t about winning awards or making money, it’s about creating and supporting work that speaks to the soul.
Can you tell us a little bit about this month's book?
This month’s book is Guts by Masaki Yamamoto, a 29-year-old Japanese photographer. Curated by guest curator Jonathan Levitt, Guts, he says, “is a gritty stream of consciousness, a claustrophobic mess of black and white snapshots, all of them chronicling daily life in the one-room apartment in Kobe where Yamamoto lived with his parents and siblings.
At first glance Yamamoto’s pictures might seem to aestheticize poverty and dysfunction - this is not unfamiliar territory for art photographers. Boris Mikhailov, Bruce Gilden, Shelby Lee Adams, Bruce Davidson, Roger Ballen… all of them and many others have been accused of morally ambiguous voyeurism.
Spread from Guts by Masaki Yamamoto
But Guts is different, Yamamoto is actually at home, he is witness and participant - making hard-boiled but affectionate pictures of his own life. Those might be his dirty ramen bowls, his stubbed out cigarettes. Guts functions as conventional social documentary, but only Yamamoto could have made these pictures. In this sense, Guts resembles Ray’s a Laugh by Richard Billingham, Living Room by Nick Waplington, Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home, and even The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin - all of them the truest and toughest pictures of life and family.”
How do you select books each month?
Each month we look at the most recent books on the market, books we’ve discovered recently, and classics we can’t seem to put down. We discuss why a book is interesting to us right now, the context, and if it is a must for our members. Once we make our selection we connect with the publisher or artist for purchasing and to orchestrate a signing.
It’s so much fun because some months the selections catch all of us by surprise. Each month I am delighted by what we find/discover which I feel is a litmus test for our members.
Photos by Jesse Lenz
Photobooks are an endless source of inspiration. As a photographer yourself, do you find you can actually overdo it and looking at other people's work can actually confuse your own work and vision?
Not at all, actually the opposite. Like Picasso said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” I think there is a huge misconception among artists that you need to be in a vacuum to create something unique or original. But in fact, all you end up doing is creating work that someone else already made and probably did it better. Knowing what others have done and are doing in your medium is important to carve out your space and angle inside of the tradition.
Visit charcoalbookclub.com for more information.