Germany, home to Gutenburg and the most sophisticated presses of today, is where you find the highly respected Steidl publishing house, best known for its publication of art books, many of which are considered collectible works of art themselves. Given the title, I expected to be educated in the intricacies and technical details of bookmaking. Not so. Instead, the movie is an delightful portrait of the fastidious Gerhard Steidl, as he zooms around the world in first class airplane cabins or private planes to work with artists to make each of their books an individual masterpiece.
One of the books he prints, of which only 200 copies will be sold, is launched with an art exhibit displaying the pages of the book. Whether his printing is supporting a French designer's fashion show, or publishing a collection of photos of a young Emir, he's always collaborating fully with the artist to choose exactly the right paper, format, type of printing and binding to make the book a unique treasure. He purses his lips as he considers possibilities, a sparkle lights up his eyes when he has what he unashamedly describes as a good idea. He can simply lay out choices without prejudice, or he can imperiously dictate. He's cavalier to someone seeking to publish what he considers an unworthy book; he's told Steidl is full up for years into the future.
Consider the process for the book Steidl put together for highly regarded photographer Joel Sternfeld. Sternfeld has taken a portfolio of photos in the malls of Dubai - using his iPhone (!). Because of resistance to photo-taking, he pretends to get a fake call, starts talking, seems to get another call, and then holds the camera in front of him, ostensibly to press the keys to switch to the other call, but in reality to snap his photo. Sternfeld and Steidl collaborate on all aspects of the book. Should there be 1, 2, or 3 photos per page? Three per page. What should the size of the book be? Small and in the same proportion as an iPhone. The discussion around the binding choice is hilarious. To emphasize commercial decadence, Steidl looks in his 'ugly shit' pile of binding choices, and they settle on glittery bindings in many different colours. The title will be in gold (what else) and the back of the binding will feature a blown-up bar code also imprinted in gold. Sternfeld is tickled that this treatment will reinforce that this is not a high quality photography book - after all it was taken with an iPhone!
Steidl treats his publishing house like a lab. He works in a white lab coat, completing the nerd image by filling his pocket with pens. He misses the mark on the nerd caricature because he doesn't have pen protectors - and pays the price when a pen leaks all over his pocket. How to Make a Book with Steidl is a thoroughly delightful character study of a man who has pride in his work to the point of conceit. He's at the top of his game. He is selective about what he chooses to publish on his single press, and clearly loves what he's doing.