Obituary: Xavier Barral, publisher, 1955-2019

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Xavier Barral, the award-wining publisher behind Éditions Xavier Barral, has died suddenly, at home in Paris on 17 February. Éditions Xavier Barral was behind books such as Antoine D’Agata’s Anticorps in 2013, a joint publication with Le Bal which won the Rencontres d’Arles Author’s Book Award; in 2015 another Éditions Xavier Barral/Le Bal co-publication, Images of Conviction: The Construction of Visual Evidence by Eyal Weizman, won the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photography Catalogue of the Year.

Born on 22 November 1955, Barral originally studied at the Penninghen Schol of Graphic Arts, where he met and was inspired by photographer Robert Doiseneau and graphic artist Roman Cieslewicz. Travelling widely as a photojournalist, he moved into art direction for magazines such as l’Autre Journal and l’Événement du jeudi, and created books such as Doisneau/Renault and Atget-Paris for publisher Éric Hazan.

In 1992 he joined forces with Annette Lucas and Stéphane Trapier to set up the cultural communications agency Atalante, which specialised in creating visual campaigns for institutions, and creating art books and catalogues for publishers. It was behind Pleine Mer by Jean Gaumy (2001), for example, and won the Art Book Prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair for Andy Warhol, cinéma, published by Éditions Carré. Atalante also created visual identities for institutions such as the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain and Le Bal.

In 2002 Barral set up Éditions Xavier Barral, specialising in publishing books on photography, contemporary art, and science, and swiftly gaining a reputation for creating “an irresistible collection of tomes”, as curator and photo editor Cheryl Newman put it in The Daily Telegraph in 2013. Celebrated books published by Éditions Xavier Barral include Valparaiso by Sergio Larrain, The Bikeriders by Danny Lyon, Les Gorgon by Mathieu Pernot, and Antipersonnel by Raphaël Dallaporta, as well as several books by Josef Koudelka.

Barral collaborated with many museums and institutions on publications, sometimes accompanying shows he had himself curated, such as AutoPhoto, which was shown at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in 2017. He was also known for publishing genre-busting books on science, such as his own selection of images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars (2013). Barral had recently finished printing a new book, The Comet: The Journey of Rosetta, which is due to be published in May.

“The problem is not the lack of subject matter, but how to approach it,” Barral told BJP in an article on independent French publishers in our June 2015 issue. “The graphic design must serve the message conveyed by the images. Otherwise, it would be like reading a book where  the typography made the story unintelligible.

“Making a book is like directing an orchestra,” he added. “On the one hand it’s important to trust that every player involved will do their part with the utmost care. On the other, if you have too many people involved, it becomes a cacophony.”  

“Xavier Barral always took the road less travelled, ignoring old habits and repetition,” stated ‘the whole team’ at Éditions Xavier Barral – Charlotte, Jordan, Nathalie, Perrine, and Yseult in a tribute to him. “His passion for other people’s passions (photographs and artists, authors and researchers), his tireless curiosity that constantly searched for new discoveries and encounters, as well as his quest to find a deeply personal approach, made each of his projects a new departure, an original chance to travel through space and time.”

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy