Happy Birthday Stanley Barker, by Robin Titchener

School of Art

It came to my attention the other day that one of my favourite people is turning five this year, Stanley Barker.

Cue wry smile and knowing laugh.

I have no idea how many times the talented British publishing duo of husband and wife Gregory and Rachel Barker have suffered that particular gaffe; quite a few it would seem.

“It’s amazing how many people expect to meet a middle-aged man called Stanley, and they get me”, said the, anything but male and middle-aged Rachel Barker (née Stanley) when I finally got the chance to meet her at a publishing fair earlier this year.

With regard to how old the couple actually are (as a middle-aged man myself, I know better than to make such enquiries), suffice it to say that from meeting Rachel, and seeing press images of the two of them; I think I have yoghurts in my fridge older than they, which only makes what they have managed to achieve over the last five years all the more incredible.

As a presence, they arrived quietly and with precious little fanfare. Impossible then to know what delights were to follow.

When I picked up a copy of (the now very desirable) Studio 54 by Tod Papageorge (2014), who would have foreseen that the exuberant depiction of the notorious New York disco was to become a publishing debut celebrated enough to rival the reputation of the very establishment it documented. It sold out in an instant and quickly moved to a second printing. These have became known respectively as the gold and silver editions.

Whilst Papageorge’s Studio 54, photography may have been relatively unknown at the time, the duo’s second collaboration was with a higher profile photographer, internationally renowned Australian, Bill Henson. Famed for his sensual night-time portraits and cityscapes, the book “1985” (2014) comprised a series of images Henson took in both the suburbs of his native Melbourne and in Egypt. As the title suggests the work dated back some thirty years, but had never been published in its entirety. Stanley/Barker’s beautiful production was to be its long overdue debut. Again, this has already become a very coveted photo book. It is worth noting that both Studio 54 and “1985” appeared within weeks of each other; two genre classics as your first two releases. Not a bad start.

“1985” proved to be the first of three (thus far) collaborations with Henson. It was followed by Particle Mist in 2015, another early body of work which, in this instance took the world of ballet as its subject. However, their third title together was to prove to be the couple’s most ambitious project to date: Kindertotenlieder (2017). A truly magnificent achievement, it combines a collection of work started by Henson in the mid-seventies, and which was revisited regularly over the following forty years. Inspired by the poem and song cycle of the same name by Friedrich Rückert and Gustav Mahler, this formidable set (30.5cm x 38cm) featured offset and letter pressed printing, was contained in a hand bound slipcase, and included a specially pressed version of Mahler’s score. Produced in a miniscule edition of one hundred and fifty signed and numbered copies, this amazing publication left absolutely no doubt as to the intent and integrity of the duo. All three Henson titles are out of print.

And so, it continues. To list the entire back catalogue of thirty five titles is not the intention here, but to draw attention to their phenomenal and consistent success is. Brave and unpredictable editorial choices mean that you never know what is coming next. A consistently innovative design aesthetic means that every book has its own personality, and the range of artists that have worked with Stanley/Barker also means that we are constantly being treated to established, emerging and maybe even a few of those whom have been unjustly overlooked.

If I had to pick a few choice highlights;

Karen Knorr – Belgravia (2015), A stunning large format black and white portrait collection, which captures the inhabitants of one of London’s most elegant and affluent neighbourhoods, in their natural habitat. A little reminiscent of Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor (only this is Rich and Richer).

Mona Kuhn – Bushes and Succulents (2018). A collection of solarized images which form her tribute to femininity and womanhood,

Sunil Gupta – Christopher Street, 1976 (2018) A wonderful combination of street photography and portraiture. Christopher Street was the location of the legendary Stonewall Inn, widely acknowledged as the birth place of gay rights. In the newly-found liberation and freedom that followed the riots of 1969, these images captured the proud, openly-gay men who were part of the landscape at the time.

Christopher Anderson – Approximate Joy (2018). Probably one of the best known of all their releases thus far. Anderson’s lush, almost erotic love letter to China. Quite superb.

Sanlé Sory – Peuple de la Nuit (2019). This is a wonderful example of discovering an artist of whom I was previously unaware. Sory’s black and white photographs captured in Burkina Faso between 1960 and 1983 are a vibrant joy-filled document of the youth and dance culture that he was on hand to observe.

And my personal favourite from this year so far;

Matthew Finn – School of Art (2019). Taken during his time as an art teacher in a college in Greater London, this a nostalgic tour through a fondly remembered period in the artist’s life. Firstly the students, youthful and confident, poised, ready to take on the world. Then there is the building itself the caretaker of so many memories, since closed, and converted into flats. Finn’s portfolio becoming the perfect yearbook.

Just a dip into the already enviable back catalogue of Stanley/Barker – and 2019 isn’t over yet.

The way we look at, and judge books is constantly shifting and evolving. Whether handmade zines, self-published limited editions, or the cream of the professional independent publishers, the things that have always attracted me remain constant. Firstly, the work, then however it is assembled and presented, the integrity behind it. When I started collecting photo books, there were a few publishers to whom I turned for beautiful and carefully curated publications. Twin Palms (Twelve Trees as they were then), Nazraeli, Steidl, then more recently Mack, Akio Nagasawa and Zen Foto. These are just some of the independent publishers regularly producing books of the highest quality, which continue to be both stimulating and forward-thinking. It seems only right therefore that the name of Stanley/Barker should be added to this illustrious list.

They may be the new kids on the block, but their vision, commitment and track record, which already comprises a litany of acknowledged genre classics, means that in both presence and reputation, they are already one of the most important and influential art publishing houses around.

Ask yourself, “What had you done by the time you were five ?”

Happy birthday Stanley …. I mean Mr. Barker……I’ll get my coat.

See all our current stock of books from Stanley Barker here.

Robin Titchener is a keen, bordering on fanatical photobook collector of thirty years.

Images: top – School of Art by Matthew Finn, below – Approximate Joy by Christopher Anderson

Approximate Joy