In a 2013 interview for the British Journal of Photography, Giulia Zorzi explained the motivation behind the founding of Micamera. “It was hard to find photo books in Milan. And where you did find them, they cost too much. We were looking for a space to bring them all together. We found a space that was a shop at one time, and we turned it into a bookstore.”
Today it is the most well-stocked photography bookstore in Europe, according to its founder. Its catalog is boosted by the phenomenon of self-published books – such as those published on the digital platform Self Publish Be Happy, founded in London in 2010 by the Italian, Bruno Ceshel. Self-publishing has become a necessity for photographers seeking to bypass publishers, who carry with them high costs, long production times, and inefficient distribution channels. “It’s a revolution both in terms of the impact on artistic experimentation, and in terms of sales,” Zorzi says. “Photographic publishing is its own world, and is in a constant state of transformation. For a photographer, a book is a work, and often one that is more important than the work that hangs on a wall.”
The Photobook: A History is the first of three volumes published by Phaidon and edited by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr, which offer a panoramic view of the history of the photo book from 1850 to the present. In the introduction to Volume 1, the editors write, “a photo book is a book in which the principal message vehicle is the image. It’s a volume authored by the creator, or by someone else who is engaged in editing and putting into sequence the project of one person or, often, a group of people.”
At the dawn of the 2000’s, photography and photo books were not in wide circulation. In 2003, Zorzi and her husband, Flavio Franzoni, opened their bookstore, Micamera, in Via Medardo Rosso, on the corner of Piazza Fidia in the Isola neighborhood, which was still at that time an “isola” (island) in the city, prior to the processes of reassessment and gentrification which have since taken place there. The project was a year in the making on the banks of the Trebbia River, beginning just after the birth of the couple’s first child.
Until 2006, Micamera occupied just twenty-five square meters, but has since expanded and today is housed in part of the ground floor on Via Medardo Rosso, in a building that is typical of Milanese architectural style. One of the signs bears the slogan, Photography and Lens-Based Arts. Since 2004, Micamera has also been a cultural organization that organizes author events, portfolio reviews, and exhibits. It has also expanded its catalogue, from 800 titles at the beginning to five thousand today, including such a rarities as the book Fotogalerie Forum Stadtpark, by Luigi Ghirri, which sells for 1300 euros. There are also self-published books, secondhand books, and new works from independent publishers. “These are limited print run works, which generally means between 500 and two thousand copies, which circulate among enthusiasts. This means that when a book is successful, it very quickly goes out of print and enters the collectors market.”
Micamera is an open space with window displays, minimalist tables, and industrial steel shelving. To the right of the store is the exhibit space. Publishers sold by Micamera include international ones, like Nazraeli Press (Paso Robles, California); Peperoni Books (Berlin); MACK (London); Aperture (New York); and Kehrer Verlag and Steidl (Germany), who primarily publish volumes dedicated to or curated by Karl Lagerfeld. Micamera’s partnerships with these publishers have been beneficial in terms of rapid delivery, which helps contain the problem of competition with Amazon.
2011 saw a collaboration with Gigi Giannuzzi, the founder of Italian publishing house Trolley Books, who passed away in 2012. A pop-up store was created in order to promote photo projects and publishers at the same time. The concept involved exhibiting a photographer’s project alongside a selection of volumes to which the photographer had contributed the work visible on the walls. Both the photographer and the publisher take part in events organized by Micamera, and the store also organizes small photography master classes. The inaugural presentation was of the work of Philip Jones Griffiths, a war photographer for Magnum, whose work Recollections was published by Trolley Books. The latest event, in May 2019, was the show Playing for Keeps, which focuses on the female perspective in contemporary American society, with work by the U.S. photographers Molly Matalon and Caroline Tompkins, together with the publishing platform Enlarge Your Memories.
Online, Micamera’s website archives all of their pop-up stores from 2011 to the present. These include the American photographer Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX project, edited by MACK and winner of the Paris Photo / Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award; the project Six Degrees of Freedom, by Jessica Backhaus, exhibited in 2017 along with publisher Kehrer Verlag; Jacopo Benassi’s The Eyes Can See What the Mouth Cannot Say, together with Peperoni Books; and Stefano Carnelli’s Transumanza, also by Peperoni. 2018 saw the very first pop-up store that took place outside Micamera’s space, at the Fondazione Stelline. There, German photographer Michael Wolf (who died suddenly on April 25, 2019) exhibited his work, alongside the opening of the new retail location Micamera Stelline, inside the Fondazione building itself. Other collaborations, such as with the Padiglione di Arte Contemporanea (PAC) in Milan, have followed.
In an interview, the German critic Ralph Prins, explains that “a photo book is an autonomous artwork, comparable to a sculpture or a film. Within them, photos lose their individual characteristics and, in being translated for the page, become part of the dramatic event known as a book.”* Zorzi, Micamera’s founder, observes that “the elements that contribute to a good book are the images and their sequence, the printing quality of the images, and the choice of paper, format, and graphic design. “ She goes on to explain that “over the years, our customer base has grown, and we’ve noticed them getting younger. They are young people who are enthusiasts and who already have a certain amount of knowledge. In a world that is subject to constant bombardment with images, photo publishing is trying to enter a wider world, and trying to contribute to visual literacy. Today more than ever, considering the endless proliferation of digital images, it is necessary to teach people the necessary skills to view images critically.”
“The Great Unreal, by Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs (Edition Patrick Frey, 2009) retraces the footsteps of a milestone of photo publishing such as The Americans by Robert Frank, which first appeared in 1958. The Great Unreal traces the same trip across much of the United States. Imperial Courts 1993-2015, by Dana Lixenberg (Roma Publications, 2015) is a love letter to a neighborhood in Los Angeles the author initially visited in 1992, to document the riots that broke out after the verdict in the case of Rodney King, the African American construction worker who was a victim of police brutality. Lixenberg returned to the locations many times over a period of over twenty years, and created a portrait of the life of the community in her book – people die, grow up, have children. Staged photography by the Dutch designer Roger Willems, who is also the publisher. The most recent is Guido Guidi, with Per Strada, published in 2018 by English publisher MACK. The book was out of print within a period of days. It is packaged in a small box with three volumes that bring together images taken by Guidi between 1980 and 1994 along the Via Emilia, the backbone of the Southern tier of the Po Valley. Man Ray, one of the fathers of contemporary art, was a Dadaist painter and Surrealist, but also a photographer. He produced art books that are still relevant today for the modern composition of the images and the graphic design of the books,” she adds. Michael Wolf – “his reading of life in cities, brought to the forefront through work that look at the theme from diverse perspectives. I hope that the typically Western, white, male vision which has dominated photography as well will begin to leave space for diverse visions and interpretations.”
* Ralph Prins in conversation with Cas Oorthuys, from the book Photography Between Covers: The Dutch Documentary Photobook After 1945, published in 1989 by Fragment Uitgeverij.
Translated from the original Italian by Deborah Wassertzug