Any Answers: Dewi Lewis

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Dewi Lewis was the first director of Cornerhouse, the arts centre at the heart of Manchester’s cultural renaissance in the mid-1980s, setting up a publishing venture that included seminal photobooks such as Martin Parr’s The Cost of Living and Tom Wood’s Looking For Love. Twenty-five years ago, he went independent with Dewi Lewis Publishing, which he still runs with his partner, Caroline Warhurst. Recent books include Laia Abril’s On Abortion, Louis Quail’s Big Brother and Dougie Wallace’s Well Heeled.

I was born in Denbigh, North Wales. But I was brought up on the coast, in Rhyl, which in the 1960s was still a very busy summer holiday resort. I’m sure it shaped me massively, not least through summer jobs that put me into contact with people from a wide range of backgrounds.

The first art form I fell in love with was music. Then theatre and then photography. The first photobook that made a real impact on me was Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph. It was first published in 1972, after her death [and has never been out of print since].

The 1980s was a key time in Manchester. It was a very collaborative period. The Haçienda opened, as did Factory Records, and Cornerhouse. It was a city in which anything was possible.

I took a risk and left my job. I became the founder and director of what was to become Cornerhouse. After three months, I found the building and we moved into development mode. In the end, we dropped the theatre element, and set up a film and visual arts centre.

Becoming the director was a massive learning curve. But also extremely exciting. When you’re young, you’re also naive and tend not to see things as problems.

Everything seemed possible. We were setting up something that didn’t exist anywhere else in the UK. When we opened, the public response – and the impact on the city – was immense.

Very few photobooks were being published at the time. Conversations with photographers made it clear there was a real need, and that exhibitions were ultimately too ephemeral. And again, at that age, anything seemed possible. Why couldn’t Cornerhouse also be a publisher?

I went independent in 1994. I’d begun to feel that I was spending too much time on admin, fundraising and management. I wanted to focus more on the creative side.

Of all the books I have published, the one I am most pleased with is the first one. Titled A Green & Pleasant Land, it’s by John Davies. It showed me and others that it could be done.

We don’t really have a manifesto. We have broad interests, and so it’s a matter of how we respond to any individual project, rather than working to any sort of agenda.

It usually takes a while to understand a person’s character when you’re working together on a book. But by the end, you have quite a deep understanding of the individual behind the images. And it’s often very different to the person you first met.

You can’t really maintain quality control over photography. Other than by calling out ‘bad’ photography – though it’s usually more a case of badly thought-out, ill-conceived projects.

I design most of our books. At least 90 per cent of them. But I am also very able to work with other designers and allow them to assert their individuality. Strong, original design is important. But ultimately a book is dependent on its content.

There are too many books being published. But it’s not always a problem of dumbing down. Sometimes it’s the opposite: creating work which may be complex, but is of little interest to an audience. The curse of self-publishing can be self-indulgence.

I never know if a photobook will be a commercial success. Experience has shown me that believing that a project can make money is generally the best way of ensuring that it won’t.

We are always working on at least five or six projects at any one time. We’re currently finishing projects with Dougie Wallace, Catherine Balet, Poulomi Basu, Charles Rozier, Kajsa Gullberg, Theo Derksen and Anne Helene Gjelstad.

The wisest thing anyone ever said to me? There are few things in life that are that important. I used to play guitar obsessively. I have four, but all need repair. Until then I have my ukulele.

Caroline is my wife and partner. Our success is we trust and enjoy each other’s company.

Michael Grieve

Michael Grieve has been a contributing writer and photographer for the British Journal of Photography since 2011. He has an MA in Photographic Studies from the University of Westminster, graduating in 1997, and then began working on assignments as a reportage and portrait photographer for publications. In 2008 he began writing about photography and was the deputy editor of 1000 Words Contemporary Photography Magazine. In 2011 he began teaching and was a senior lecturer in photography at Nottingham Trent University and now teaches documentary photography at Ostkreuzschule fur Fotografie in Berlin. He is the founder/director of Art Foto Mode, a project that organises photography workshops internationally. Currently based in Athens and Berlin.