In Conversation: Craig Atkinson (Cafe Royal Books)

Café Royal Books is a publisher of limited edition photographic titles focussing on British documentary photography. As well as work made in the British Isles (by home and international photographers), I include international work made by photographers from the British Isles. Café Royal Books is run and founded by Craig Atkinson (2005), in Southport, UK.

From Prestwich Mental Hospital 1972 by Martin Parr, published by Cafe Royal Books

Craig Atkinson of Cafe Royal Books:

My aim is to create a focussed and complete archive of British documentary photography. I publish roughly 70 titles each year, with a small edition ‘archive box’ every 100th title. These archive boxes are aimed at major collections, libraries, and museums — helping to increase the visibility of the work and making the books publicly accessible for as long as possible. Collectors are wide and varied but include, MoMA NY, Harvard University, Oxford University, Cambridge University, The British Library, The Hyman Collection, Martin Parr Foundation, TATE, V&A / National Art Library).

I aim to make the publications affordable, democratic, utilitarian and useful, without fuss or decoration. The images, history and the cultural archive are the focus. Helped by, but not overwhelmed by the design.

From River to River the Coastline Mersey to Douglas 1985–1990 by Stephen McCoy, published by Cafe Royal Books

MK: How did Cafe Royal start? Were there the same thematic and aesthetic preferences with regards to what you published from the beginning? What did its evolution look like?
CA: I started in 2005 as a way of disseminating and exhibiting my own work without having to use a gallery. They were mainly drawing based books at the time and as my own work became more photographic, so did what I publish.
MK: Could you talk about the format of the series? The small, simple, saddle stitch booklet format is affordable and yet your design and print quality, on the semi-coated paper gives the books a special sort of weight that other zines in that format often don’t seem to have.
CA: I like to keep the books affordable. I like inclusion. I dislike fuss and decoration, so the books are what they are, and hopefully, they show the images without any design-based distraction. The paper is actually uncoated — everything is as straight forward as I can possibly make it. A lot of work goes into making it like that. The banner on the front is all the info you need as a reader. Sometimes there is a little extra inside, captions or an intro, but not always.

From Children of the troubles Northern Ireland by John Benton-Harris, published by Cafe Royal Books

MK: How do you find the content you publish? Did you often have a relationship with the photographers beforehand?
CA: Not really. Most is by submission.
MK: As an editor, what does your process look like? Is it different working with established magnum photographers and less recognized photographers? How much control do you require in the selection and sequencing of a body of work? Or is it on a case by case basis?
CA: The same process applies to everyone, regardless of fame. Some people send a very defined edit and sequence, and others send a folder of images and let me get on with it. It’s a collaborative process. Often photographers don’t see links between images they’ve shot, or undervalue some shots. Equally, because I wasn’t there when they were shot, I might miss things in terms of the context or environment…So we both have to have a say. Each book is different although the process follows a similar path.

From The End of Manufacturing by John Myers, published by Cafe Royal Books

From From the Provy to the Derry by Ken Grant, published by Cafe Royal Books

From Preston Bus Station, Dead and Buried by Craig Atkinson, published by Cafe Royal Books

MK: As a photographer, has your work changed as a result of your publishing experience?
CA: No. I do take pictures but don’t consider myself a photographer.
MK: What was special about British documentary photography of the 1960’s, 1970’s, and up through today? Who is carrying the torch today?
CA: I suppose we are all carrying the torch today. Photography is very different today but it’ll take a couple of decades to decide what it all means and of what value it is. Documentary photography — any photography that records life, is important. I think its value increases over time. People are arguable less interested in photos of now because they are living now. I wasn’t around in the 60s and most of the 70s, so for me, the images show life before my own memory. There are so many things though, community, social, gender, poverty, race, religion…Without the pictures, we would have little to go on. Words maybe. Audio perhaps, and both are equally as important, but images are universal, arguably more than words and audio.
MK: You are one of the few publishers who produce very intentionally affordable photobooks. How important is this to you? Is it simply a practicality? Or is it because, as a result, you can publish a wider variety of work? Or do you feel that the photobook world should have a lower cost of entry?
CA: See Q2. The most important thing to me is to get the work seen. If I make a cloth bound, foil blocked with printed book, which retails at £50, that isn’t going to get the work seen. I try to make a balance of high-quality paper and print and manufacture, with affordability — genuine affordability. They’re not luxury items. I like them to be as democratic and utilitarian as possible. The photobook world is a strange place. Café Royal Books I think stands across it and social history/info pamphlets and zines. It exists in all of them but doesn’t really fit into any of them — I like that though, it opens more opportunities and widens the audience.

From The End of Manufacturing by John Myers, published by Cafe Royal Books

MK: Cafe Royal’s primary focus seems to be the monograph. Each volume is a specific body of work from a specific time. What is the importance for you in exploring a particular project as opposed to an entire lifetime’s body of work, or an artist’s catalog?
CA: Each book is a single body of work. I often make a series of books by a photographer — Homer Sykes, for example, 27 books. This kind of becomes a catalog and the chapters are single publications. My focus really is on the series, and making as complete a collection as possible of the particular type of photography I deal with.

From Prestwich Mental Hospital 1972 by Martin Parr, published by Cafe Royal Books

From The Toxteth Riots 1981 by Homer Sykes, published by Cafe Royal Books

MK: Were there any particular influences on the aesthetic and design of Cafe Royal?
CA: National trust pamphlets from my childhood.
MK: How do you approach distribution? Cafe Royal’s work feels sort of “mom and pop” and yet, I’ve seen certain publications show up in the bookstores at the Tate and Whitney. Getting this often under-appreciated work to the eyes of the public seems like a difficult task.
CA: Café Royal Books is just me. I like it like that, and when the kids are old enough perhaps there’ll be a team of three. It’s hard work, very long hours. Some books do well, others wait around a while, some photographers have connections in galleries and others have none…The books do spider out though.
MK: What’s upcoming for Cafe Royal? Are there any future publications you’re particularly excited about?
CA: I make about five books each month and they all excite me. I love finding new work. I teach too so time is pretty tight, but I would love more submissions from photographers typically underrepresented or in the minority.
MK: Are there any photobooks you have been returning to for inspiration recently?
CA: Not really. I don’t own many books. I like serial publications rather than one off — things you can collect.

To view more of Craig Atkinson/Cafe Royal’s work please visit their website.