MATTE: Mossless Magazine’s America

by Matthew Leifheit on December 3, 2013 MATTE

photo by the author for AFC

Photo by the author for AFC

This interview series is produced in partnership with MATTE Magazine, a publication produced by writer and curator Matthew Leifheit that focuses on the work of a single photographer per issue.

In 2009, Romke Hoogwearts started Mossless Magazine as a photo blog. Every other day he interviewed a different photographer. Since then, his girlfriend Grace Leigh has joined him as an equal player, and the organization has transitioned to a print-only publication run out of their Long Island City headquarters.

It’s my kind of place; early in the morning, there’s a dozen or so tenants buzzing around the 2,500 square foot loft. Their haircuts told me they had been to art school. They dissipated, leaving Romke, Grace, and me in a bright corner of the space, where a cat lay curled up on stacks of photographs on the floor which had been divided into subcategories with titles such as “Rural People” and “Human Debris.” As we sorted through the stacks, I quickly realized the ambitious proportions of Mossless Magazine’s forthcoming third issue, which looks at documentary photography in the U.S. during the last ten years.

MATTE: Where are you guys from?

Grace: I’m from Savannah, Georgia.

Romke: I am from Holland.

Grace’s dad was a photographer. His name was Jack Leigh, and he shot rural scenes around Savannah because it was his home. He shot people fishing, people working: real people.

Grace, your father made pictures like this? (Gestures to the photo above.)

Grace: Yes. I went on photo trips with him, we would go and visit these people in their homes, and really get to know them before photographing them. I’ve always thought that documentary photography is incredibly important. Especially now that it’s kind of out of style, it’s something we wanted to embrace.

So going back to the beginning, Mossless started as a blog?

Romke:  Yeah, where we interviewed a photographer every two days.

That started in 2009. How long did that go on?

Romke: It went on for three years. We interviewed 300 photographers. The intent was always to go to print.

So you stopped doing the blog. The print publication was instead of the blog.

Romke: Yeah, it just took up so much time that I didn’t have time to do the interviews at regular intervals anymore. Also at that time, I was really burnt out by them. It was kind of repetitive, you know?

You feature one artist per issue in MATTE right? It’s funny because we were going to do that at first. One artist at a time, because it would reflect how the blog worked. I did one issue this way. I used my savings to print 50 copies in Chinatown. I wasn’t satisfied with the printing, and it was expensive.

You went into your savings, and printed 50 copies of the trial issue. Where did they go?

Romke: The idea was to bring them around to potential advertisers.

You wanted advertisers at that point?

Romke: I didn’t want stupid advertising; I wanted to make the ads, or do something really specific, because I could see no other way to make it work. Once I spent all that money and made all those books, I went into a couple places like Agnes B, and they had no interest in placing ads.

I took a deep breath, and decided I wanted to make something bigger.

The first issue contained four booklets on individual photographers. Then you made the second issue, which has twelve contributors. And the third issue will include, as mentioned, nearly a hundred photographers.

Romke: The third issue is the one I’ve always wanted to make. But I wouldn’t have been able to work with all these people before because we hadn’t built a reputation. Now we’ve asserted ourselves as people who work with photographers, and that part’s coming easier.

The first issue was a collection of personal documentaries, and the second issue was really “hard Internet.” It included digital paintings alongside photography, and a physicalized version of Winslow Laroche’s photo blog Je Suis Perdu.

Romke: It was about a sort of Internet anxiety.

Now with the third issue, you’re publishing an issue of photos you find on the Internet, but they don’t look engaged in an Internet art dialogue.

Romke: I do think they’re engaged in a dialogue: all the best work speaks to one another. Even if it’s Terry Evans who was born in 1944, or somebody who was born twenty years ago, you can feel similar notes in it. You can see the same groans in each photo; everybody is kind of tired. That’s something that comes across no matter what because that’s the way it is right now, for most people.

It’s interesting—the effects of the economic crash, even the government shutdown, have all been documented. But the way they have been published is largely in magazine articles, not in a big photographic volume. There have been many books by individual photographers, so many that it can be hard to keep up. Every now and then someone will make an anthology, like Flak Photo, who did a submission-based thing. But those books don’t quite hit the mark.

The photos we’re working with for our third issue show what America looks like as people, places, daily life—just showing what is here now. We’re editing photos of roads that will connect all the different scenes.

So the magazine will be photographs of genre scenes connected by roads?

Romke: Right. So for instance, we have a section called “Rural Buildings and Houses” that contains a number of different photographers. We pick our favorite photos from everyone we could find online shooting photographs of America in a documentary style. We want to make a huge mix tape of our favorite works of the last ten years.

We work with photographers by going from website to website, from linked page to linked page. There are a lot of people who shoot a series of something very specific; we wanted to bring all of those instances together.

If we go into profit, we can pay photographers royalties. 25% of our profits can go to them. That’s something that’s really important to us. Because as far as I’m aware, most magazines compensate photographers by the exposure it brings to their work. In the past we haven’t made money off our books so we haven’t been able to pay photographers.

How did you begin the third issue?

Romke: I have been seeing photographers become successful in their editorial work, but their personal work doesn’t get published. Work is blogged around, then it doesn’t get seen anymore. It’s hard to point people to their personal websites when there’s no book reviews of websites, there’s not a place where you can go to see it condensed.

What made me want to do it is that we saw all this work that was, to be honest, ripe for the taking. I feel like I’ll never have an opportunity like this again, where there’s so much work to see online that is so powerful. I believe this work is as powerful as Walker Evans and James Agee.

Photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, people who worked for LIFE magazine, WPA photographers, and the like used to be able to make a living doing social documentary work. The online world photography world is very different.

Romke: Everybody we work with posts their work online. For us, we want to get a good grab of our generation’s perspective, or at least this age’s perspective on America.

We want to bring a lot of this work to a more broad audience so the public can really see a lot of this profound work. Like Bryan Schutmaat for instance. The people who have seen his work are mostly the photo world, and some of the art world, but it’s not pervasive like Walker Evans.

How many photographers are there?

Romke: Right now there’s 86, but we’re adding 10 – 20 more.

So the book is huge.

Romke: It’s pretty big. It’s going to be at least 200 pages.

How is it going to be printed?

Romke: We’re going to have it offset printed and perfect bound, we want to do a couple thousand copies at least.

That’s a lot.

Romke: Yeah, we’re going to Kickstarter it. We want to be able to print quite a few. We’re doing a small edition of high-quality laser jet with Pau Wau Press in advance for publicity.

What do you think is the importance of printing it?

Grace: Online you scroll through things so fast, and it’s hard sometimes for a photograph to leave a very distinct impression. It can get lost.

There’s also an archival quality, too, if the publication is collected, picked up by a library or even sold at a bookstore.

Romke: The internet seems like a permanent place but it really isn’t.

Grace: Now everybody is documenting everything they do all the time. You see some great documentary pictures on the Internet and Tumblr, but they don’t have a home. We want to give them one.

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