The founder of Contrasto
Roberto Koch © Riccardo Auci
A book publishing company, an agency, a foundation. Contrasto is one of the most lively photography place in Italy. We decided to dedicate this day to them.
Interview with Roberto Koch, founder and President of Contrasto and FORMA Foundation for Photography in Milan. Interview by Valentina Notarberardino.
Contrasto is the preeminent publishing house for photography and illustrated books in Italy. For more than 15 years, its editorial catalogue has grown with about 35 new titles per year, and now has a total of 400 publications to its name: artist monographs, the Box series, the Logos series, and the Great Photographers app series. Since 2002, the independent publisher has distributed complete English-language volumes around the world, and notably in the United States. Today, Contrasto is a leading actor in co-publications with various publishing houses around the world. The International role and preminence of Contrasto publications in the world has been confirmed once again at the last Frankfurt Book Fair, where all its editorial projects have been welcomed with success. Contrasto will participate at Paris Photo in the publishers' dedicated space. Two Contrasto books “Uncle Charlie” and “The wrong side” are in the shortlist Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobooks Awards in "First Photobook" category. Along with a vast editorial production comes the organizing of exhibits at the most important art venues in Italy and abroad. Contrasto is also the Founder Member of FORMA Foundation for Photography (Milan) Italy's photography house, which, since 2005, exhibits the most important photographers in the world.
How did Contrasto come into being?
When I began as a photographer in the '80s, the photography world in Italy was rather disorganized; there weren't any structures, and photographers didn't have any kind of comprehensive, professional network. The Italian market was filled by foreign agencies and associations, which were taking advantage of Italy as a country of consumption rather than production, to distribute and publish our photographs. My idea was to bring together other photographers to build a production structure, the Contrasto Agency, which later was organized to form international alliances, which radically changed the company's profile over the course of the '90s, ultimately becoming the most important production structure in Italy today. In addition, considering the fact that the major Italian publishers in the '90s were not working in photography, or else were only interested in the big names, I decided to start producing photographic exhibits and, in 1994, to create an editorial venture with the name “Contrasto,” which would operate as a publishing house.
What has been the path of the publishing house over the years?
We have created exhibits and brought them to all of the canonical Italian venues for the visual arts, not just for photography: from the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, to the Palazzo Reale of Milan, the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and so on, in Bologna, Naples, and Palermo. As for books, initially we planned on doing exhibit catalogues, and then we expanded into independent projects. Our objective for the publishing house, especially in the early years, was to become the point of reference in Italy for anyone who wanted to publish books related to photography, and in time we began to set our sights internationally. We have accomplished this through the publication of English-language books that have been distributed around the world. It has been a gradual process, but today the publishing house boasts more than 400 titles: it publishes and produces about 35 volumes every year about world-famous photographers as well as rising photographers. Contrasto also publishes a cultural magazine called “Lo straniero.” In 2005, we secured the creation of Forma Foundation, a center for the promotion of the most important photography in Italy, offering a service that had never existed before.
What was the first book to be published?
The first book that gave Contrasto significant visibility and a foundation for the creation of the publishing house was “La mano dell'uomo” [Workers] by Sebastiao Salgãdo. Other Italian editors had not appreciated the importance of this volume; we were organizing the show, with a lot of hard work, but it was a great success, and so we knew that conditions were ripe to publish a beautiful book, which is very important for the history of photography. The fact that a brand-new publisher could established itself in the market with such a significant volume laid the foundations for our work in publishing.
What is it that distinguishes your editorial production?
Our activities are so diversified, we are always trying to draw different kinds of audiences to photography: fans of the classics, young audiences always on the lookout for new talents, amateur photographers, and even audience interested not only in photography but also in writing. I think that one of the most significant challenges was breaking out from being a place for professionals only, which risks being self-referential. Contrasto's work over the years has been pioneering: to seed conditions for the promotion of photography on a didactic level, to bring exhibitions to life, to curate the steady publication of books in order to promote projects like the “FotoNote” series, which is the Italian edition of the French series entitled “Photo Poche.” In the last few years, the success of our “Logos” series has been especially significant, bringing together images and words in essays, creating a culture interwoven around photography through words, essays, discussions, autobiographies and biographies, and all kinds of texts that reflect on the themes of the contemporary image. Over the past two years, our international presence has grown; this year, we published Martin Parr's book “Up and Down Peachtree,” Marc Asnin's “Uncle Charlie,” as well as Jerome Sessini's “The Wrong Side,” which won the Premio F, a prize organized by the Forma Foundation.
Let's discuss the international publications and co-publications.
“Contrasto” began its international publications seven years ago, in 2005. The co-publications were the result of relationships with publishers going back fifteen years. “Italia,” for example, was one of the first books to come out in French, English, and German, and was very well-received, and it was followed by numerous others, including books by Gianni Berengo Gardin, Mimmo Jodice, Mario Giacomelli, Paolo Pellegrin and the book about Mick Jagger. Over the years, through our collaborations with many international publishers, we have been able to conceive , and have had great success producing photographic anthologies at a sufficiently low cost. This is the story of our BOX series. The first volume was Foto:Box, which brings together 250 images organized in categories according to the history of photography, and has sold nearly 120,000 copies around the world. Next came Fashion:Box, Music:Box, and Movie:Box, and we are currently working on a title for 2013. We have had positive feedback from numerous publishers, including Thames &Hudson, Abrams, Éditions du Chêne, Seigensha, Lunwerg, and Thoth. By publishing these titles in so many countries, we ensured a much wider circulation, and thus could venture into more interesting productions. This allowed us to propose more ambitious books, such as “Grandi fotografi,” a work in two volumes, the first of which came out in 2012 and brought together twenty of the most important artists in the entire history of photography, including Cartier-Bresson, Salgãdo, Evans, Lindberg, Erwitt , Parr, McCurry, Nachtwey, Newton and Mapplethorpe. An Italian publisher that could produce volumes distributed all over the world, and which had a wide circulation, great prestige, and totally in-house production, was something entirely new.
What are your projects for the future?
We have to stay focused on our initial challenge, but innovation is fundamental. We have set out into the unexplored territory of photography apps, with a series called The Great Photographers, the first of which was dedicated to Mario Giacomelli. The second app, just released, is dedicated to William Klein, and will be followed by apps about Robert Doisneau and Sebastiao Salgãdo. The Apps come in multiple languages; the Klein app is available in Italian, French and English, and those to come might even be available in a fourth language. Obviously these are catered to an international audience. The project of “Contrasto” is also tied to its ability to build a group, or a community, around the publishing house, and around all of our activities in books, and products which in photography are comparable to books, such as DVDs or other multimedia productions. I believe that one of Contrasto's most important challenges will be, in the next two years, to intensify and strengthen our efforts to produce books that interweave images and words even more richly, if possible engaging even more authors, writers, and creating volumes that perhaps do not belong, strictly speaking, in the catalogue of a publishing house specialized in photography, but which explore new genres and allow for a commingling of languages, enhancing the ways in which individual languages are perceived.