How to Make a Book With Steidl: A Persnickety German Publisher

"Books should smell good," says Gerhard Steidl. That they do, when made by the famed German printer of art and photography books. They also smell expensive. Creating a special edition of On the Road with images by Ed Ruscha, a price of $10,000 is casually mentioned. Documentary filmmakers Jörg Adolph and Gereon Wetzel ask nothing of their subject, omit his personal life entirely (childless, he's been married 40 years), and simply follow him through a series of client meetings with major artists including Ruscha, Robert Frank, and—most closely—Joel Sternfeld. During production of the latter's iDubai, mall photos taken covertly with an iPhone, Steidl emerges as a somewhat snippy and impatient perfectionist. He treats his publishing clients as near-equals, chatting companionably with Frank and even Karl Lagerfeld in German, ignoring the fashion models, obsessing over paper stocks and ink. The only time he seems flustered is when a blue pen explodes in the pocket of his pristine white smock—worn, he explains, because "the thing for me is more a laboratory than a press company." If you love photography or have a fetish for coffee-table tomes, How to Make a Book is intermittently engrossing; simply to be granted access to Frank's shabby SoHo loft and Nova Scotia summer home is quite the privilege. That said, business meetings are business meetings, and you might rather spend 88 minutes browsing through books you can't afford, or pass the same time with the voluble Sternfeld instead of the unergründlich Herr Steidl.

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