Martin Usborne is a fine art photographer and the co-founder of Hoxton Mini Press.
Despite feeling under the weather, Martin gave us a fascinating insight into his own photography, how he and his wife, Ann Waldvogel, came to set up Hoxton Mini Press, and into the challenges of book publishing in general.
Martin described his own photographic practice which led to his published book “Silence of Dogs in Cars” (below), which is full of powerful, moving, staged images of chosen dogs alone in appropriate cars in carefully selected locations. He saw it as documenting his own anxiety from memories of being left alone in a car as a child. At the time, he was withdrawn, had a stutter, and felt an affinity with dogs who also could not speak. After trying to resist the book for several years, he finally realised what a good idea it was and used the images to express humour, anger and sadness.
He then took a year off his commercial photography work to help animals, and travelled around the world documenting animal welfare. During his research he came across greyhounds that are used for hunting in Spain, but which are often abandoned or killed when their working life is over. The popularity of this type of hunting peaked during the time of Velazquez. Martin decided to draw inspiration from the style of Velazquez’ paintings for the style of his own photographic images. The resulting book, “Spanish Hunting Dogs” (below), shows moving diptychs of each dog with the location in which it was found abandoned.
Martin returned to England to work as a photographer in East London. His wife had recently stopped working in a gallery and they were looking for a venture together, which led to the founding of Hoxton Mini Press. Everyone said it was too late to found a book publisher as books were going the way of vinyl. Martin and Ann wanted to prove them wrong and to produce books that were worthy of being kept. They wanted to produce beautiful books with the design of high end books combined with the immediacy and humour of cheaper books. However, it is difficult to make money in the no-man’s-land between printing a few books at a high price and mass printing books at a low price.
The first project was about Joseph Markovitch who they saw as the original face of East London. The resulting book “I’ve lived in East London for Eighty-Six & A Half Years” (above and below) had photographs by Martin and words by Joseph himself. It is a fascinating insight into the changes in East London over the best part of a century in the words of someone who left London only once, to visit the seaside with his mother.
Martin took us through the various series that HMP have now produced (below), for example, the East London series, Collectors’ editions, cities, and vintage Britain They can all be found on HMP’s excellent website
A recent project is “One Hundred Years” (below) where Martin took the idea of producing a book with a photograph and a story about one person for each year of age from 1 to 100. He persuaded photographer Jenny Lewis to take on the challenge of finding 100 people of different ages, ethnicities, balance of genders, and eliciting fascinating stories. The common theme is “Life” as everyone has stories of challenges and heartbreaks.
From the business point of view, Martin explained how difficult and crucial it is to get the size of the print run correct. Too few and the unit cost of the books is too high and it might sell out too quickly, too many and sales might not cover the cost of the print run and the excess books might be in stock for years. For a book distributed through a book shop with a recommended retail price of £20, the book shop keeps £10, the distributor and the photographer get £2 each, and the printer and the publisher get £3 each. The moral of this story is, if any Society members wish to buy more HMP books (as I am sure we all do!), please buy them directly from the HMP website
For the future, HMP needs to retain its unity of voice. However, it cannot publish books about East London forever. Martin’s idea is to expand the scope from “East London” to “East” as it is frequently the case that the east end of cities are the more interesting parts in terms of their trades, multiculturalism and experimental attitudes. In order to sell well a book has to have ‘heart’, a great title, excellent photographs, be well-designed, and to tell good stories, which is an excellent description of HMP’s whole catalogue.