The Book Monk

I just love these profiles where you discover someone who is so into their craft that they are trusted by the greatest, they get their client to come to them, waiting for years and except them to “drop everything when he calls” because “he delivers”.

This is the story of printer Gerhard Steidl,

known for fanatical attention to detail, for superlative craftsmanship, and for embracing the best that technology has to offer. […] “It is like the haute couture of printing. He takes it to the _n_th degree.”

Each Steidl title is unique, printed with a bespoke combination of inks and papers.


Like any great man, the back story of how he came to be the Master he is goes way back.

I was really interested in discovering that his analysis of the Nazi officers living outside the concentration camps made him realise:

“it makes a huge difference when you are not isolated from your work, when working and living is a symbiosis. Normally, when you have a business and you produce something industrial, you have the plant somewhere and it makes a lot of dirt, and poison, and noise, and destroys the environment. You are working there all day, and then in the evening you drive home and you have your pleasant place to stay, with clean air, while poor people have to live with the dirt you are producing. I control my noise, because I am sleeping there, with an open window, every night.”

He is a canny businessman and his profitable relationship with Chanel (since 1993) gives him the freedom to choose photographers he wishes to publish. I can truly believe Lagerfeld’s reaction at their first meeting:

Presenting one image, Steidl cautioned, “This is beautiful paper, but it is very expensive.” Lagerfeld responded with four words: “Gerhard, are we poor?”

His philosophy is really inspiring and like any great man his purpose is greater than just the work as he grasped a historical moment as photographers reach the end of their lives:

He has always wanted to make money, and funnels it back into the business when he does. But his admirers say that he is engaged in a loftier project than merely selling books. “Gerhard has an intense quest for making an encyclopedic, wide survey of the world of photography,” Polidori says. “It is almost a race with him—to get as much done while the money lasts, and while his life lasts.”

[…] in an effort to print and catalogue work that might otherwise not be available, and to use advanced industrial means to distribute it widely: it is a Gutenberg-like goal, with the history of photography substituting for the word of God.

His financial freedom also allows him to say

“I don’t care if it’s late, so long as it’s perfect,”