Gerhard Steidl's passion is books. They are his hobby and his work in equal measure. International artists are clamoring to produce a book with Steidl. In addition to books, beautiful printed matter is produced in Göttingen for international brands around the world.
Anyone walking down Düstere Strasse in the German university town of Göttingen who is not familiar with the area will find it hard to believe: behind the inconspicuous facade of house number 4, publisher and printer Gerhard Steidl
, one of the best in the world in the field of photography and art books, has set up shop. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, the renowned "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote: "No one in the world prints more beautiful books than Gerhard Steidl."
It is cramped on the four floors of the building, work is concentrated everywhere, and one cannot help but be amazed when looking at the past and present works. The company, which employs around 40 people, resembles a manufactory – although Steidl attaches great importance to always being up to date with the latest technology. "My passion is books. That's my hobby and my work at the same time. In addition to books, we produce beautiful-printed matter for customers all over the world," says Gerhard Steidl.
Literature and selected art between book covers
160 to 170 books – mainly photography and to a lesser extent architecture and visual arts – and around 50 literary titles are published annually by Steidl Verlag
. All titles are printed in-house. "I also call our books haute couture books, because it's an individual process that I oversee from start to finish." Ultimately, that's what makes the publisher's reputation. And it's no coincidence – because close to 2,000 photographers ask Steidl every year if he'll do a book with them.
The alchemist in the pressroom
Steidl, who initially aspired to a career as a photographer as a teenager, soon reoriented himself from camera and darkroom to reproduction and printing. "I decided to work for artists. From the beginning, I tried to meet the artists who entrusted me with their work at eye level. That is, I wanted to understand their ideas and understand how they wanted it translated into a print or a book. Then I worked and experimented in the background until I felt it could match what the artist wanted."
He is also an absolute perfectionist, using special reproduction processes such as Duotone, Tritone and Quadrotone, which are too costly for many printers, to push the brilliance of his books to the extreme. He is constantly experimenting with papers, varnishes, oils and inks, taking on the role of alchemist in the pressroom.
Gerhard Steidl, always in a white coat at work, in his office.
Working with renowned artists
He earns his first spurs in 1968 producing posters for Klaus Staeck in screen printing. Klaus Staeck is also the author of the first book Steidl publishes. It is entitled "Questioning the documenta" and is published in 1972 on the occasion of the Kassel art exhibition. Another formative experience is the work with Joseph Beuys, whose multiples – a manifestation of art in the 1960s – and prints Gerhard Steidl also produces in screen printing and other artistic printing techniques.
In 1986, the writer and artist Günter Grass published his first book at Steidl: "In Kupfer, auf Stein" (In Copper, on Stone). Steidl discovered Grass the artist at an exhibition, wondered why there were no books about the graphic work. Grass's house publisher is not interested, and so begins the almost 30-year intensive collaboration between Steidl and Grass, which lasts until the author's death in 2005.
Of course, Grass's work has continued to be cultivated at Steidl ever since. Grass's literary work has also been published by Steidl since 1992, and in 1993 the publishing house took over the world rights to the author's work – six years before he won the Nobel Prize. "From his first book on, Günter Grass has always had an influence on the design, choosing fonts, selecting papers, working with typesetters and book designers, designing book covers. He found these possibilities here. He was with us regularly, and we worked intensively here," reports Gerhard Steidl.
Special relationship with Karl Lagerfeld
He also impressed the famous fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld with his uncompromising quality. In 1993, he produces proofs of photographs of the fashion designer, sends them to Paris and offers to publish a coffee-table book. Lagerfeld is thrilled. The illustrated book is published under the title "Off the Record". Over the years, the two combined diverse publishing activities as well as regular commissioned work for the fashion house Chanel. On the occasion of Lagerfeld's death in 2019, Steidl wrote an article for the German magazine "Vogue" in which he describes his special relationship with the legendary fashion designer.
A large number of other artists and photographers from all over the world entrust their work to the printer and publisher. They are often on site in Göttingen, sometimes for weeks or even months, to follow and accompany the development of their works.
Proofing a pulled print sheet of the Chanel magazine.
Offset printing as an extended photo lab
Steidl has been printing in offset since the early 1980s. Today, almost all production runs on a six-color sheetfed offset press. The 70 x 100 cm format press operates around the clock, seven days a week. In addition, there is a two-color press in the 50 x 70 cm format on which all book covers and small-format print products are produced. "For me, I have defined offset printing as being my extended photo lab. I've always viewed offset presses also as a means by which I can realize artistic ideas in a reproduction process. I've always been interested in interpretation, the opportunity that printing offers to support the artist," says Gerhard Steidl.
Offset printing at Steidl is largely a production process that goes beyond standardized industry practices. For example, the company typically prints its many black-and-white photo volumes using the Quadroton process – where Gerhard Steidl chooses, say, one black and three different grays or two blacks and two grays in coordination with what the artist wants to express. Likewise, in order to achieve an authentic image reproduction or intended visual effect, different screen widths or processes are used, screen techniques are combined in hybrid applications, papers are varied, or blankets with specific properties are used selectively. The way we work means that a lot of testing and printing is done on the presses. Around 50 percent of the work involves at least one press proof on the original production press.
"We are currently experiencing a golden age"
Reprints play a big role economically, and Steidl Verlag's extensive backlist includes titles from five decades that are reprinted again and again. At the top of the reprint hit list in the literature section is "The Tin Drum" by Günter Grass. Several tens of thousands of copies of the novel are produced every year. In the photo books, it is the work "The Americans" by photographer Robert Frank, published in 1958, which is considered the blueprint of the modern photo book and is regularly reprinted.
"As far as the technical possibilities of printing for newspapers, magazines and books are concerned, we are currently experiencing a golden age," asserts Steidl, and he also wants to share his extensive knowledge of book design and production. In the "Steidl Academy," founded in 2020, he wants to pass on his know-how. And that's important, because the demand for books from Düstere Strasse 4 in Göttingen is huge. Although Steidl prints around the clock, there is never enough time to keep up with production.