Our weekly Portfolio Spotlight series is a close-up look at the talented people using Format websites to showcase their work. This week, we interview artist Grayson James.
Grayson James initially got into creating his own books when he was just fifteen, a self-described angry teenager in Edmonton, Alberta, looking to kill time. “Self-publishing was very much an outlet from the beginning,” he says.
James’ initial experimentation with self-published zines lead to an enduring interest in creating printed matter. Now located in Toronto, the recent Ryerson University grad splits his time working at local brand No Fun as well as developing his independent publishing project, Successful Press.
Books are a unifying theme of James’ work, which ranges from writing to photography to installation. He prints everything himself at home on a black and white laser printer and binds his books by hand, embracing and expanding the cheap, DIY aesthetic of the punk zines that initially inspired him. James finds that creating within a set of clear limitations like this can foster creativity in unexpected ways, encouraging him to think outside the box about how to make a project work.
His website, built using Format’s Offset theme, echoes the minimalistic feel of his printed work, with a neon green typeface providing a memorable contrast to James’ predominantly black and white imagery.
We sat down with James to talk about the process behind his work, and why he prefers handmade books to polished publications.
Did you first come to making books through photography, or writing, or design?
Yeah, photography almost entirely. My grandpa was a photographer and an editor for the Associated Press for a long time, so I had that when I was a kid, always being around photo books. I couldn’t draw very well, and I always wanted to be a writer but never thought I could do it, so I ended up being a photographer.
How is it different to take photos with the intent of putting them in a book as opposed to putting them online or printing them?
I think that’s an interesting question and one that I’m still trying to work through. Part of the place I’m at with my work now is trying to think about the specificity of what I’m doing, like, what am I doing for a gallery? What am I bringing to the physical space? Why is it important that this is shown in an actual site?
The book is the place I start with the project, where it’s like, I’ll read a lot and then I’ll be shooting a bunch, and then sequence that loosely and then write almost in response to one of the images, and from that produce a rough cut of the sequence and make a zine of that. After I do a couple of those, I’ll find myself coming to a project that’ll make more sense for a gallery maybe, but my practice is shaping I think quite rapidly. I’ve stopped thinking about making a photograph for the gallery, so photography for me is very much about the book, what’s going on, and doing installation work and workshops and discursive projects in the gallery space itself.
I think this is why photo books are so fascinating right now, because for a lot of photographers putting photos online is their primary way of showcasing work—which you can look at sort of as a book, but it’s different because they’re not physical in the same way.
Yeah, there’s a lack of intimacy to the digital that I think is both a benefit and a negative. You know, books are really great because you hold them as close as you hold someone you’re hugging, and they’re very tactile; they’re a slow thing that you move through patiently. The physical object, to me, is important. I want to make things that deteriorate. I’m interested in things that fall apart over time, so a photocopied book that has ink smudges and the binding is falling out—that to me is quite beautiful in a way the digital can’t ever quite recreate.
But the widespread dissemination of digital images and the speed with which you can access them is also an exciting front to be working on. I feel like if I want to make good work for the internet, I need to know how to code better. That’s sort of where I’m at: how can I find opportunities through coding or through digital design to have the same serendipity and the same structural instability that I’m attracted to in a book.
Yeah, because sharing work online can feel more like putting your photos in someone else’s book. You don’t always have the same control.
Yeah, totally. I want things to be dirtier and shittier and falling apart, in a way. Serendipity is important to my work. I like the idea of finding a zine at someone’s house and being like, “Oh, this is crazy. I would never have found this if I had not been here at the right time.” I think recreating that online is hard.
When it comes to selling actual books, it’s obviously hard to compete with established publishers. But do you find there are positives to working within the limitations of self-publishing?
I really believe that a bad, poorly made, photocopied zine is often much more exciting and interesting. I feel like there’s urgency in those things. I think a small book that’s put together kind of hastily—not that I don’t take what I’m doing quite seriously, but I think there’s a conviviality to that, and a conversational nature to it, that makes it for me much more interesting to read than like a nice, beautiful offset printed book. I want to feel the artist’s presence in that object, which I think we sort of lose with the commercial stuff, like a larger publisher. Not to say that always that happens, but I think often it’s the case.
Would you have any advice for someone that’s interested in getting into independent publishing?
For me it’s always about being a member of a community and going to openings and being a friendly person—and supporting people that are doing the same kind of thing as you.
I think reading widely is a thing that I would recommend just to anyone starting anything. Even before thinking about making stuff, just reading a lot and understanding why you’re attracted to it and the kind of things you’re attracted to.
And then I think you have to just do it. It’s daunting, certainly, but it’s easy once you start learning how to do a design or even doing a cut and paste photocopy deal. You can do it in a couple of hours and just a couple of Googles, you know?
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