by Christian Caujolle
Vera Michalski © P.M. Delessert
For more than fifty years, Robert Delpire has stood as one of the most important creators and publishers of art books. And he was the first, in this category long dominated by albums devoted to painting, to give photography a prominent place. He was studying medicine when he first published the journal Neuf. Certain issues, like the one devoted to Brassaï, are today considered collector’s items. He published the work of Robert Frank’s Americans when no one else in Europe seemed interested, as well as works by Klein, Doisneau, René Burri’s series on Germany, and other books by Inge Morath and Werner Bischof, to name just a few. Henri Cartier-Bresson published exclusively with Delpire, who also collaborated with Josef Koudelka as soon as the latter arrived in France, and Sarah Moon. Among his most memorable creations is Photo Poche, a collection of pocket-sized photography books that helped make photography more accessible to the French public.
At a time when bookstores are struggling and publishers are being bought up and merged, Delpire remained independent, he has had his share of financial troubles. The situation is difficult, especially given that Delpire, now in his eighties, continues taking on more and more projects.
After a series of negotiations and failed deals, a solution has finally been found. Vera Michalski-Hoffmann has decided to get involved in the future of Éditions Delpire to keep the adventure going. A series of exhibitions at the Recontres d’Arles, the Maison Européene de la Photographie, and in New York attest of the publisher’s historical importance.
In her office on the Rue des Cannettes in Paris, overwhelmed by her obligations to book fairs, literary events and the Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing and Literature, which will soon occupy the Maison de l’Ecriture in Montricher, Switzerland, the new partner calmly and joyfully speaks of her latest adventure:
Vera Michalski: It should be noted that, while still the President of the publishing group Libella, my involvement with Éditions Delpire is in a personal capacity. Libella includes publishers that release around 300 titles each year in France and Poland, mainly literature, essays, and books on history and music. We publish relatively few photography books, although Franck Berzieri’s Sûra, devoted to Egypt, is forthcoming from Phébus. I am personally interested in photography, hence the existence of Éditions Photosynthèses, which published the complete writings of Walter Benjamin on photography, among other large books. But contrary to what has been written, Éditions Delpire will not become a part of the Libella group.
Christian Caujolle: Why did you decide to get involved with Delpire?
VM: For reasons of taste, and for my respect for the excellent and demanding work that Robert Delpire has produced for so many years, and to give him the opportunity to continue. It’s obvious that publishers need money, not only for putting together and releasing books with high production costs, but also to bring back into print books that we believe should be available again in bookstores. So I decided to come to his aid and make sure that Editions Delpire survives.
CC: Do you intend to change the structure of the team or other parts of the company to improve its efficiency?
VM: Everything is very clear. Robert Delpire will remain the head of publishing. The offices will remain where they are on the Rue de l’Abbaye. The current team will continue working with Bob. The only expected change to the team is an increase in size, given how well things are going. And distribution will still be handled by Actes Sud. So this is not a takeover. No ogre coming to swallow up Delpire. Instead, it represents a commitment to maintaining and facilitating the quality and creation that has made the publishing house what it is today.
CC: You have certainly discussed upcoming projects...
VM: Yes, these are Robert Delpire’s projects: developing the Poche Illustrateurs collection and publishing more texts written by photographers themselves. We are also preparing editions of William Klein, Agnès Varda, Josef Koudelka’s Exils, and Robert Delpire’s Man Ray. We are also thinking of republications, not all of which will be possible for rights issues and other reasons. But it’s always nice to dream. I’m also very responsive to Bob’s interest in plants, nature, birds and animals. He was the first to produce exceptional illustrated books in this field, with his encyclopedic vision.
CC: How are decisions made now? Do you plan to bring all the photography projects under one roof?
VM: We’ve only just recently completed the deal. And even if we know and respect each other, we’re learning how to work together. We have decided not to make any drastic changes while everyone gets their bearings. There will be plenty of things to consider later. Today there are plans and projects and the means to achieve them. Others will be born. And that’s truly exciting.
CC: With the global financial crisis, do you have the impression that the amount of photography books published today makes sense given the expansion and development of digital publishing?
VM: Yes, there are certainly a lot of photography books being published today. Some seem more interesting than others, and I think it’s not very different from what’s happening with novels, where new titles respond more to economic logic than editorial criteria. It’s well known that some titles keep the machine running. They pay the printers and maintain the cash flow. I think that with the rise of digital, certain areas of publishing, like guides and cookbooks, are endangered in their paper format. But photography book, as I see it, and as Robert Delpire has always seen it, is an object. With its paper, its sensuality, the subtleties in the printing—all of that is irreplaceable, even if that’s exactly what makes them so expensive to produce. And I believe that there will always be people who love photography in that form, and who love the object.
Outside the autumn sun is shining even though the air has taken on a sudden chill. Saint-Germain-des-Près is radiant. There is a future, and the future is here.