Beyond Arles: Cosmos goes offspace

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Since 2014, Cosmos-Arles-Books has brought over 90 international publishers to Les Rencontres d’Arles, curating a lively and experimental space to share international publishing projects with the photography world and general public. After four successful years, the book fair will part from the main festival programme this summer, downsizing and relocating to a bullfighters’ club known as Muleta.

“We need to concentrate on what we know is best,” says Sebastian Hau, who co-founded the fair in 2009 with artist Olivier Cablat. The fair began as an offspace event called Supermarkt, where 12 photographers and five independent publishers were invited to exhibit and sell work in a relaxed environment. In 2014, they were invited to join the main festival and rebranded as Cosmos, more than tripling in size. The decision to split from the festival five years on was mutual, says Hau: “They had the feeling they wanted a change, and so did we.”

Cosmos will scale back down in size, with 30 pop-up style stalls that will house around 50 publishers over the festival period. The new venue is a 17th century building with 7m-thick walls, which keeps the rooms cool and dry – an ideal condition for books.

“I don’t want to say we’ve got the best publishers, because that’s not interesting. We want to get stuff that people might not see elsewhere,” says Hau. “I think choosing who to work with comes from the energy of the publisher and what they invest in the community.”

Hau has worked with photobooks for 20 years; he is the former director of LE BAL, an independent bookshop in Paris, and co-founder of Polycopies, the annual book fair that runs parallel to Paris Photo.

Photograph courtesy of Sebastian Hau

As with most offshoots of the publishing industry, the photobook market has radically changed since Hau first visited Arles in 2000, when there was no social media or readily accessible internet. Back then, the festival was the best place to get seen and sell work, whereas now people tend to buy books online, and book fairs have transformed into a space where forming connections and nurturing a community are just as important as selling.

“When you run a book fair, it allows you to create a different economy,” says Hau, explaining that there is less at stake with a book fair compared to running a shop, because you don’t have to buy in stock. “All I can do is try to give the publishers the best conditions so that collectors, curators, and the public can discover new work.”

“The changes in photobooks are radical,” he continues, “there are more random, small, and poetical photobooks, and a whole lot more political photobooks. The language of photography and books is evolving rapidly”.

The following for these new trends are growing too, mostly outside of the mainstream and major institutions. Though this means it could take a while for classical publishers to follow suit, and while a lot of the production is economically marginal, “the numbers of people visiting festivals and buying books is rising,” says Hau.

“Books that would have been considered highly esoteric, let’s say at the beginning of the century, are now introduced to a worldwide public. They are discussed, criticised, and bought,” he continues. “It’s a very difficult professional world to survive in as a photographer, but we are in a time of complete change in terms of how photography is understood and valued.”

As Cosmos returns offspace, they aim to include a wider range of international publishers. This year, they hope to invite more sellers from South America – though economically this can be tricky. “Unfortunately we still have a huge blindspot for the African continent,” adds Hau. “We’re hoping to change that one day”.

Cosmos will continue to run the PDF Book Award, and will introduce a free exhibition space for young artists to introduce their work to the public. “We used to be a bit more edited, but we really want to open up now,” says Hau. 

Photograph courtesy of Sebastian Hau
Photograph courtesy of Sebastian Hau
Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.