Toward a First Decade: Interview with Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush is a British photographer and researcher whose practice explores the nature of contemporary power. His recent works include Metropole, an examination of the iniquity of property development in London, and Shadows of the State, which involved locating covert radio stations used by intelligence agencies to communicate with their agents. 

Bush’s books have been shortlisted for many awards and are held in private and institutional collections in the UK and beyond. These books often include Lewis’ writing, and he also writes on photography for print and online titles. Since 2011, he has written and edited Disphotic, a blog on photography and visual culture. Bush is course leader of the online MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication.

NS: Lewis, let’s talk about your work over the last decade. Zines and books appear to be the default mode and format of your work. My sense is that even when you put on an exhibition, it is often a way to display what you have also produced in book form. What drives the centrality of the book?

LB: Well, it’s very simple. I was a newly-graduated student and at that stage in your career, no one is interested in giving you a platform. I didn’t have the resources to go out and exhibit myself independently. And I was doing projects that were somewhat hard to characterise – they didn’t fit easily into conventional ideas of documentary or art photography. The thing that was attractive about starting to make books and publications was that I could make them myself, economically. You don’t need much to produce a book dummy or a short run of zines.

Also, with a book there are so many possibilities. So that was the initial attraction. Over the years, what I’ve enjoyed more and more has been pushing and seeing what I could do, without having access to specialist methods of binding. That was part of the fun of making the projects, the challenge of playing with the form. 

Zines and books suit the two different kinds of projects that I tend to make. Bookwise, I usually work on things that take three or four years to resolve. Zines suit short projects that get made in a day or two. This fingerprinting project I’ve just done, it doesn’t really have the scope to be made into a book. And by the time I had made it into a book, the moment might have passed. But zines are great: you can go from an idea to hitting ‘order’ on a print run in the space of a day!

From my own experience, book-making is incredibly painstaking, slow and expensive – while the zine is much quicker, cheap, and gives a chance to try out things which, if they don’t work, there’s not a great deal to lose, right?

A lot of the projects I have done, even when they ended up as hefty books, began life as zines. So zines are also great as a proof-of-concept: you have an idea for something and you try it out in a quick prototypical form and see if it works. If you can’t summarise it in a small format, then maybe you need to think more about the project, or discard it altogether.

So your zines act like a testing ground? 

Totally. I have boxes of zines that never went anywhere. But, you know, part of the process.

I wonder if you could talk about your latest zine, Latent Labour, made during lockdown?

Vice asked a number of photographers to respond to Covid. I wanted something that wouldn’t involve me leaving the house. The idea was that everything that came into my house would be fingerprinted. At the time there was a lot of talk about people who were shielding and disinfecting their shopping, and I was wondering if that was a reasonable response. So I decided to fingerprint my purchases. Obviously that doesn’t prove any kind of Covid contamination, it was to see if the things we buy every day which often seem so sterile and clean are actually the opposite. So the zine is a compendium of traces I found, which ranged from a partial fingerprint to other things which were quite literally smothered in people’s prints in a really disgusting way.  It began as a Covid idea, but then it became about shelf-stackers, warehouse workers and delivery people. Those we see but don’t see.

Do you have any thoughts on the extent to which books and zines might be aided by our present situation of restrictions and lockdowns? I see more and more people and organisations turning to book and zine production, since the cost and time a show requires just cannot be justified. Books, meanwhile, can be viewed and promoted online, can be posted, and remain affordable. Any thoughts?

Interesting question. Talking to some publishers, I know there’s been a bizarre mini boom in bookselling during Covid. It could be because people are stuck at home, starved of opportunities to see photography, and they suddenly have time and furlough money. Also, I think some definitely want to support publishers and self-publishers.

I reached a point a few years ago where I was actually being invited to do shows, and I was struck by an awareness of the massive amount of effort and resources that goes into them, relative to such short periods of display. I ended up doing exhibitions where I really felt there was more time going into the preparation than the actual exhibition itself. Which isn’t to say that’s a reason not to do exhibitions, just that at times it felt a little crazy how much energy I was putting into these things. 

At the same time, I’m aware that there are things an exhibition can do that a book can’t. What was fun for me in doing exhibitions was the spatial aspect and the ability to use spaces in memorable ways. Photography wasn’t the main attraction. The way I work isn’t really about beautiful prints, it’s about seeing the images in the context of a larger space and experience.

Recently we’ve seen the rise of photobooks as collectable and coveted objects, driven at least partly by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s series of The Photobook: A History books. That series sought to shape a photobook canon, and in spite of online viewing the antiquated book continues to be something that artists and photographers want to make and work with, and that collectors and the public want to have…

The cynic in me would say that the reason photobooks have experienced this renaissance is actually because of something completely anathema to them: the dematerialisation of images into files. I think the reason a lot of people are excited by photo books is because they act as a balm to this existential distress photographers have about their medium being devalued, in the sense that photographs are no longer tangible, or in the sense that photographs are now even more ubiquitous than ever. 

I think the reason a lot of people are excited by photo books is because they act as a balm to this existential distress photographers have about their medium being devalued, in the sense that photographs are no longer tangible, or in the sense that photographs are now even more ubiquitous than ever.

So I think photobooks are attractive because they put photographs into a form we can hold in our hands and possess in a reassuring way. In that sense, photobooks are like comfort blankets for photographers, reassuring them that it’s all ok. For that reason, I’m less and less interested in thinking of my books as photobooks and more interested in them as just books which happen to contain photography, but often contain a lot of other things.  For me, the most successful of my books have been those that succeeded outside of photography, with communities that don’t know what a photobook is and don’t really care.

Is it the case that when something is on the way up, people want to jump on board, but at a certain point it then becomes such a commonplace that people then only want to sneer? Once someone’s dad’s doing it, that’s when it’s dead…

When things are really revolutionary, that’s when people haven’t even noticed them yet. It does irritate me to hear people talking about a photobook revolution and publishing manifestos, without scrutinising how much this rediscovery isn’t really that revolutionary at all. It’s a continuity of something that has always been with us and also masks a lot of very conservative feelings and desires in photography.

Isn’t it the case that the major change didn’t come from photography but from desktop publishing? That print on demand services are what has transformed what is possible?

That’s definitely a really big factor. I think Mishka Henner did this very well, hijacking print on demand platforms which were not actually meant for photography at all, but for people’s fan-fiction novels.

In 2018, you crowd-funded the publication of Shadows of the State. Can you outline why you chose that route?

Initially, desperation! The book had been shortlisted for various prizes, but didn’t win any of them. I applied for grants but didn’t hold much hope. Crowdfunding felt like the last option. I couldn’t fund the book myself. What little I knew of crowdfunding suggested that this project might suit, because it had this weird, slightly viral subject matter: spying. That was borne out by the crowdfunding campaign, whose real driver was word of mouth, particularly from those outside the photography world.

It was really noticeable that we would get press from very prestigious photography titles and that would yield one or two backers. Then we would get a post on a weird blog run by someone who lived in a bunker in the woods and that would translate into a huge number of backers. That made me realise that in terms of exposure, there’s a lot of value in an obsessive and committed audience. I don’t mean obsessive in a derogatory sense, because I’m obsessive. I mean people who are really committed to a subject. It may also have been the nature of the project. It wasn’t obviously photographic. It used satellite imagery and images made out of radio signals.

Would you crowd-fund again?

I did say to myself that I’d never do this again! Although it was an overwhelmingly positive experience, it took so much energy, and I felt that I used up all the goodwill I had with everyone: friends, family, the photography community at large. But that was nearly three years ago now, and I feel it’s likely that it’s something I would return to, as I’m currently working on a project that’s a direct outgrowth of Shadows of the State, and I feel that project has the same potential to find a committed audience.

I wanted to ask about some current projects. One is your investigation into Nazi/NASA rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. Where are you with this?

As part of my research for Shadows of the State I wanted to learn as much as I could about the technologies I was using. I was reading a lot about satellite mapping and I came across an image of the earth from space taken in 1947 and I got really quite obsessed with it because it was far earlier than I had realised anyone was launching rockets capable of photographing the Earth. This picture was taken by a V2 rocket launched from the United States by a group of German engineers and scientists, brought over from Nazi Germany at the end of the war, to help America kick-start its rocketry program. 

The key figure in this group was Wernher von Braun, the mastermind behind the V2 rocket which was used to kill civilians indiscriminately across Europe. After the war, he was seen as too useful to put on trial and became one of the most senior figures in NASA. Without his input the United States would not have landed on the moon in 1969 and might not have landed there at all. 

So the project is about moral binaries, which I feel is really relevant to our current moment, where we have this simplistic need for people to fit neatly into one of two categories: good or evil. The project focuses on von Braun’s rationalisation of what he did. I think it’s easier to imagine him as an opportunist rather than a committed Nazi or a committed American patriot. It’s also about the way that we split projects like space exploration into being good or bad, and of course space exploration has always been portrayed as this benign thing – for all mankind. What von Braun offers is a way to look at space exploration as being just as morally conflicted as he was. Lastly, the book is about the legacies of the moral choices that we are yet to come to terms with, and which linger into the present and the way we talk about space today.

Another live project is your update of John Berger’s enormously influential visual literacy primer Ways of Seeing. It seems to me that this relates to an earlier work of yours, War Primer 3, which reworked an already reworked book. The tension between the physicality of a printed book and your sense of the growing influence of machine vision on contemporary society makes the humble book a curious medium to use. Can you talk about how the idea has developed and where it’s currently at?

The genesis of this was actually a zine. The first version was just the first chapter of Ways of Seeing. Like War Primer 3, I started out adding material to an existing book – inhabiting it, playing off what’s already there. I came to realise that I could use AR (Augmented Reality)  in order to do this in a different way. Ways of Seeing Algorithmically is about the ways machines see. It seemed apt to use that same technology to make the project. 

AR uses a form of computer vision where you develop a system that recognises certain targets. In the case of this project, the targets are the pages of John Berger’s book. When the AR recognises those targets, it adds new imagery and video over the top of the pages. So you have this book which virtually inhabits the original, but you need the original book in order to create the new version.

When things are really revolutionary, that’s when people haven’t even noticed them yet.

I now realise the technology I’m using is not actually advanced enough to do what I want. It’ll be a couple of years before it can do what I want it to do. It’s been like running on a treadmill. Just as I feel I’ve developed something to a point where I’m happy with it, the field has already changed out of all recognition, so what I’ve done no longer makes sense. I’ve just started a PhD which is going to be in the same area of computer vision, and my feeling at the moment is that it’s a project that will evolve in parallel with the PhD. So it’s an unresolved project for me, but that’s also what I’m excited about. With the books I’ve made over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of the things I wanted to do, so it makes sense to do a book that’s actually immaterial. Maybe that’ll be the last thing I do with books?

Have you got better at book-making? How do you feel you’ve improved?

Well, my stitching has definitely got better! I mean, obviously you pick up things as you go and that’s one of the things I like about experimentation – that you accumulate this toolkit of ideas, of experiments, of received wisdom. I definitely know a lot more about graphic design than I did ten years ago. I still don’t know very much, but I know just about enough to put together a reasonably convincing book. This is such a cliché, but as you learn more about something you also become more conscious about how much you don’t know. And one of the nice things has been working with designers and learning from them.

The process I have now – for books – is that I work on a design myself, to the point where I feel I can’t develop it any more, then I hand it over to a professional designer. What’s nice about that is that you hand the book over to the designer, who then transforms it. You learn a lot from that, from seeing your designs progressed a bit further by someone who really knows what they are doing.

So you’ve been at the coalface of books for nearly a decade, awl in hand. Could you imagine yourself in 2031 having completed another decade of bookmaking? 

I think it’s a real luxury to be able to pursue these creative projects in the way I’ve been able to, but as I hope is obvious from a lot of my work, it’s not just about artistic self-expression. It’s also about things I’m angry about in the world. Photographers often talk about changing the world but I think that idea rings very hollow to me after ten years in photography. At the same time, I think photography does have real power.

I think I’ve reached the point where I’m interested in getting to grips with new tools and new ways of expressing ideas. That doesn’t mean I’ll never make another book, but it might mean that I make very different books or it might mean that I decide to use very different tools. I’ve never been wedded to books and equally I’ve never been that wedded to photography. It’s been a means to an end, and if in four years’ time statistics feels like the most effective way to achieve what I want to achieve, then, god help me, I might have to do that!

You teach, you educate, you run your own workshops, but there are those who are at a very different point in their career. They may be working on their first book. They may just be thinking about their first book. They may be studying. As someone who’s worked with many others on sequencing, editing, designing and producing books, I wonder if there are some pointers you feel like sharing?

One myth I would like to dispel is the idea that photobooks are basically a vanity project and a waste of money, which I hear so much and mostly from publishers – whose business model is based on getting money out of photographers to publish their books! Actually, photobook publishing, if you’re careful, can make you money. Despite my slight misgivings about photobooks, I’d say to anyone who’s committed to them: go for it! You need to beat your own path and you need to do whatever you feel is right for your work.

In terms of the type of books I love to see, I have a weak spot for anything researched or investigative or that tries to reveal something or bring light to something that isn’t well known. I also love photobooks that have a very strong sense of the story they want to tell, a very strong sense of the narrative. We talk a lot about visual storytelling, but actually I think it’s a much misused and badly understood practice, so when I come across a book that actually tells a story effectively and cleverly and – even better – uniquely, that’s always a pleasure.

Any classic errors or common pitfalls that you see?

I do see a lot of photobooks which I think would have been phenomenal zines, and instead they’ve overstayed their welcome. They’ve made this thing into a 100 page book when it could have been a brilliant 20 page zine, though I’m sure we’re all guilty of that to varying degrees. For me, most projects can pivot from one medium to another: from a book, to an exhibition, to a website. But I think it’s about questioning how far the idea behind a project can run. You want to finish a book wishing it was twice as long, not half the length.

Lewis Bush

All Rights Reserved: Text © Nick Scammell & Lewis Bush;
Images © Lewis Bush