Interview: Romke Hoogwaerts and Grace Leigh of Mossless Magazine on the Making of "Issue Three: The United States (2003-2013)"

Today we look at bringing a photographic anthology from concept to product through a visual recording of making Issue Three: The United States (2003-2013) by editors Romke Hoogwaerts and partner Grace Leigh of Mossless Magazine. These photographs were originally posted on Instagram during the process of making the book. Here they are collated and presented as a step-by-step rough guide through the bookmaking process.

This documentation is followed by a Q&A with them based in their photographs.

Mossless is an experimental photography publication that is run by Romke and Grace. Romke started Mossless in 2009 as a blog where he interviewed a different photographer every two days. Mossless has printed a number of issues of their experimental format magazine as a handful of handmade, limited-edition photobooks. Mossless publishes the work of a large variety of photographers who share their photographs on the internet in one way or another.

Romke was raised internationally and holds a degree in Visual and Critical Studies from SVA, where he met Grace, who is from Savannah, Georgia, the daughter of two documentary photographers. Romke has also worked as a freelance photo editor for magazines such as Bloomberg Businessweek and NYTimes Magazine.

Issue Three: The United States (2003-2013) is a composition of new American photographs taken over the last ten years. In an extensive sequence spanning over 200 pages, Issue 3 features the work of photographers like Bryan Schutmaat, Ilona Szwarc, Daniel Shea, Vanessa Winship, Lucas Foglia and over 100 more, printed in Minneapolis by Shapco.

2013/11/6: All our considered photographs are printed out for layout — almost a thousand images. This was after we reached out to photographers. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2013/11/7: The next day we had grouped each of these photos into various categories. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2013/11/10: Grace adding a photo to the sequence — this process took several weeks. We reassembled the sequence many times. We didn’t have enough space to accommodate all of the photographs, we had to overlap many to squeeze them all in. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2013/12/20: A month later, the first rough draft of a sequence was printed for us to review in book­form. We didn’t reveal what the sequence looked like at this point — it was still too early. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/1/15: After a heavy grooming process, we whittled our sequence down to around 300 pages for this test dummy. Again, we were not ready to reveal its contents. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/1/27: Later that month we had arrived at a solid dummy and as we were printing it out, we took this photo of a page in the book. Juan Madrid's work is seen on this page. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/1/28 (1): We took the dummy to a binding shop in Chinatown to have it velo­bound. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/1/28 (2): The velo­binding barely fit on the dummy copy, which was over 300 pages. On the cover is a photo by Suzanna Zak, S​ee Through Mine Shaft.​ © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/2/9: The following week, we made our Kickstarter video. We had also filmed a complete flip-through of the dummy book to show backers what they were getting. We believe that having a complete draft version of this book to show to backers was a great part of our success: it proved that it was possible and had been done - so the money clearly would be going to the right process: printing and distribution. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/3/2: Later in our Kickstarter process, we created our third video to promote the project. In this instagram, Pablo Chea is seen editing his ass off late at night. At this point, we had already succeeded in raising our goal, but we were aiming for more funds for a better book. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/3/19: Right after our Kickstarter success, and after being kicked out of our former apartment and needing to find a new job, Romke suffered a seizure which paralyzed his arm for a month. © Grace Leigh

2014/5/7 (1): The first proofs arrived from Shapco in Minneapolis. After recovering from Romke's injury, we had spent a month redesigning the book to fit its new, shorter page run (216 pages). © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/5/7 (2): Pagination proofs from Shapco. This was our first time outsourcing a book of this scale within the United States, a goal we aimed for to keep to our American theme. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/5/7 (3): Proofs for color correction from Shapco. They were absolutely perfect. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/5/13: Romke leafs through the color proofs from Shapco. © Grace Leigh

2014/5/27: A few weeks later, we received a photo from Shapco of the stacks of pages ready to be bound. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/6/4: A week after that, we received a courier­-shipped copy of the book. This was an incredible moment for us. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/6/10 (1): A week later, all of our books arrived. We had printed 2500 copies, 550 of which went straight to Antenne's warehouse in New Jersey. Antenne is our distributor in Europe. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/6/10 (2): Our 1950 copies of Issue Three took up a severe amount of space in our hallway! Thankfully, 660 of these had already been pre­ordered through Kickstarter and sales continued to come in. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/6/14: Ryan and Lauren of TGIF Gallery are seen setting up our exhibit at our book launch at William Wegman's Picture Ray Studios. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/6/15: Grace and Romke the day after the book launch and exhibit at Picture Ray Studios in Chelsea, NYC. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/6/19: Romke carting a bunch of books to the post office. We had to do this in waves. We had actually run out of funds at this point and were paying for shipments out of pocket. At the time, Romke was a bicycle tour guide in Brooklyn and Grace was a nanny. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/6/26: Romke works with Sergiy Barchuk to photograph the book. © Grace Leigh

2014/7/12: A two-­page feature of our book appeared in PDN. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/8/12: Close friends came over for a packing party to complete our remaining Kickstarter shipments. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/9/25: Grace is seen at our table at the 2014 NY Art Book Fair, where we officially released Issue Three for sale. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/9/25: Romke at the book fair, copying Grace's pose. © Grace Leigh

2014/10/25 (1): We noticed our book had a special display at McNally Bookstore - one of our favorite bookshops! © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/10/25 (2): Romke's grandma, Bep, hopefully enjoying a read through the issue. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2014/12/13: Grace at the Aperture book fair. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2015/2/12: Our book was exhibited by Kickstarter. This print of its cover now hangs in their conference room. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2015/2/18: We completed our Limited Edition copies, each of which had a unique cover. These had an even better sequence and design, with a few more images, spread out over 288 pages. It went out to special backers and some were donated to museums. © Romke Hoogwaerts

2015/3/3: Romke works with Jonathan Schoonover to photograph and film a limited edition copy. (flip through video here: h​ttps://vimeo.com/121560029)​ © Grace Leigh


fototazo: Let's start by going all the way back to the premise. Where did the idea of the book come from and what convinced you of the need for a project like this?

Grace Leigh: Romke was talking about the project in a more abstract way since I met him, this idea of making a book about America in its current state. I remember it coming a bit more clearly into focus when we were on a bus to Philly from New York. We started talking about it as we were passing stripmalls in New Jersey. About a week or so before, we'd been walking down the street in Greenpoint and there was this old lady selling books on the street and one we picked up called Israel, The Reality ended up being a huge inspiration for us in terms of showing the United States as it truly was through the eyes of different photographers.

Romke Hoogwaerts: That book was edited by Cornell Capa and it featured all kinds of photographs from the country and it was sequenced by theme. The photographs are all black and white, in the style we'd now call photojournalism. The thing that matters in those photographs is the subject, the frame, not the photographer. But of course they are credited.

There's so many photobooks nowadays and it just so happens that the theme of many is America, whether it happens to focus on a specific topic or is comprised of a broad observational series. For whatever reason, I can speculate all day, photo publishing culture has grown accustomed to making photobooks of individual photographers and nowadays there are very, very few books like the one Cornell Capa made. And yet we need it now more than ever. We are constantly being shown very distorted representations of our civilization and it falls upon art to reveal the truth. It just so happens that today imagery is more available and easier to publish, so why not pursue poetic justice when it's all at arm's reach?

f: How did you place parameters around a project as ambitious and potentially open as this one is thematically?

RH: We looked for photographers who seemed to be photographing with an intent to create speech about the nation, in one way or another, whether that be in small microcosms or vast landscapes. That intent or motivation could have been warm or cold in nature, that didn't matter to us. We were looking for photographs that intentionally (or accidentally) reflected the state of the nation, or at least, a part of it. So by combining all of those together, we were hoping to portray a very multifaceted understanding of culture in the United States. A huge parameter for us was reflecting a very real, populist perspective, revealing the life of the working class and showing the state of our architecture and so on, but also the beauty of American nature.

f: Did the parameters change over time as you developed the project?

RH: In a way. We decided early on that we would focus only on photographers that in some way shared their work online. We were very open to photographers who were at very different stages in their career, so long as their imagery was valuable to the project.

f: How did you manage to generate such a large response to your open call for submissions? What were the different ways that you reached out to photographers?

RH: Honestly, we didn't really work with submissions. While we did receive a good amount of them, a few of which we published, the vast majority of our sourced photographers — there are over 100 in the book — we found online, or had already known about. We spent over a year bookmarking photographs for this project. When we had a reached our fill, we sent out emails to all of those photographers at the same time. We made sure our email was personal, but the following information was all the same. Only about a dozen photographers out of about 150 did not respond or declined.

f: In the Instagram images you've sent, you mention a couple of times that early in the process you weren't ready to reveal the sequence or the contents yet. Can you expand on that? How did you know when you were ready? What was the level of polish you needed to feel comfortable making it public?

RH: Yeah, we really wanted to be the first to tackle this concept in this way. We were worried that if we revealed what we were doing, another publisher would pick up on the idea and tackle it in a different way. They would undoubtedly be able to get it out in the world faster than us and beat us to the concept because at that time our resources were incredibly limited. We knew it would take us a long time to get it done. We also just didn't want to spoil the surprise!

GL: Like any project but especially a project of this scale, it's bound to change and shift over time. We wanted it to be as fluid and organic as possible. Had we been posting images and updates about the sequence, and then something had to shift just because of logistics or whatnot, it would have felt strange knowing that there was an older version out in the world. We really only wanted people to see it once we could flip through it a few times and not have the overwhelming feeling that we wanted to adjust something.

f: How did you use Instagram and documentation of the process with images more generally as you worked through the project?

RH: I try to use Instagram as a crossover of personal observations and for Mossless promo. When I share Mossless-related stuff I do my best to make it look personal and not like a promotional campaign, but with an appropriate amount of professionalism. We don't advertise, we want our audience not to feel like consumers but as peers.

GL: I am not really an avid Instagram poster, even though I'm looking through it constantly. Social media know-how has never been my strong suit, so I generally let Romke take the wheel with that stuff. I'm much more in the physical and tactile realm of things.

f: You funded the project through Kickstarter. What were the keys for making it a successful proposal?

RH: We created a huge dummy of the book beforehand, proving that the majority of the work was behind us, and we had a video flipping through that entire 300+ page book. We also knew that the political weight of the book would get a lot of people interested. We used our rewards program as a pre-ordering format with good deals and discounts for books from our inventory. Lastly, we got lucky with getting a column in VICE online, spotlighting a different photographer from the book every week or so.

f: To take on this project, Romke, you quit your internship and then you suffered a seizure that paralyzed your left arm for a month during the process. You were both kicked out of your apartment right after the Kickstarter succeeded. How did these events affect the process?

RH: Oh God, tremendously…well, we were planning on leaving that nutty apartment and our five roommates anyway, but the seizure really fucked us over. The thing was that I really needed a job during this time - I had quit my internship about half a year earlier.

GL: During the making of the book I was splitting my time between working with Romke on it at home and moonlighting as a nanny to help us with living costs and pre-production costs. I was fortunate to have a job that was consistent while being part time enough to allow me to be involved in the editing process for the most part. It also gave me an opportunity to take a breather from the project once a day, which was nice. But Romke was holed up all day long, sequencing, editing, etc. I would have gone totally mad.

RH: Actually, before we had left the old apartment and during the first week of the Kickstarter campaign, I had landed an interview for a book production job that was a bait-and-switch and before I knew it I was asked to cold call photographers like Mary Ellen Mark to sell her ad pages in a now-redundant yellow-pages type book. It was awful, but I needed the money… I quit that job at the end of the week and immediately made our second video for Kickstarter. I never called her number.

f: But then after the Kickstarter was over, and our roommates booted us for taking up too much space in the living room, we rejoiced and moved to Bed-Stuy. I was meant to start my new job as a bicycle tour guide that week, but then I was making myself a bowl of cereal in the kitchen and woke up on the floor, in a pool of blood, my arm feeling like I had slept on it… a feeling that remained for a month. My whole arm was totally limp for weeks. I didn't tell my employer the extent of it and had to hide it from the tourists I guided… which is pretty hard when you're on a bicycle and need to signal a left turn. So that was pretty entertaining, in a way.

GL: It was completely terrifying, we were having a dinner party and heard this huge crash. I ran into the kitchen to see Romke flopping around on the floor like a fish, white as a ghost. I think that is the most scared I have ever been, not knowing if he was going to wake up. But after a few days in and out of hospitals and doctors offices we finally had answers about what happened, that it was a seizure. He was such an amazing trooper, started his job just like a week after. I was so amazed, but I shouldn't have expected anything less from him really.

RH: Those jobs paid for a lot of the shipping, which was the craziest part of it all. We ran over budget and international shipping was way more expensive than we had anticipated. We had over 120 shipments going internationally that cost over 20 bucks a piece. Trying to make that happen while struggling to pay rent was honestly a nightmare.

GL: Yeah, we ended up pouring a lot more into it then we really could, both our finances and our time. But that's what you do when you really believe in a project!

RH: Once the book was out, things started changing. I finally landed a paying gig as a photo editor at Businessweek. I have David Carthas to thank for that start, along with Meagan Ziegler-Haynes who has always been a great supporter of our work since even before Issue One. The struggle was worth it!

f: Take us through the various rounds of editing as you worked down to the final selection. How did you approach the first round? Were there changes to the criteria as you moved on to subsequent rounds?

GL: Our first go at it, we just decided to print out each image individually and start lining them up on the wall, image by image, organizing them in the way we wanted them to appear in the book. It took weeks. Maybe even a month; to be honest, it is all such a blur! Waking up every day, making coffee and heading into the living room and just staring at this wall.

RH: In our first round of editing we created loose categories so that we could begin editing by theme. There were categories like industry, commerce, home life, on the road, and so on, each of which eventually needed subcategories. From there we tried to create sequences of these groupings, which would later be connected by various "on the road" photographs. That kind of worked, but from there things got really chaotic, out of order, and we kept a few strings of sequences and reorganized the entire structure. Later on, when we had larger set sequences, we reorganized themes to find different flows and eventually we stuck with the idea of starting in the desert and slowly meandering through themes that eventually reach the city.

GL: After that we took them all down in order and just starting plugging them into InDesign, Romke and I taking turns just sitting behind the computer, finding files, dragging them in. So much of the early days of editing was just pure organization, but after that was when the real fun started.

f: How did you approach the task of sequencing so much work from so many different photographers? What were the roles of the form and content of each photograph in terms of sequencing, and what other strategies did you employ for organizing the material?

RH: We decided to have no blank pages. We had a few features. The idea was if a photographer had a very fascinating story with beautiful photos, they might get a spread, but if a photographer was observationally photographing various ideas, their photos would be separated from each other and we'd find relevant photographs by others that would add to their shared concepts, and we would create spreads like that. So those spreads are what create the flow between the features. We called them montage pages and they are designated by a squiggly line in the header and footer (a symbol we've co-opted to signify relativity or kaizen depending on their context), in place of where a photographers' name would be in a feature.

f: You include here a picture of Pablo Chea editing and another of Sergiy Barchuk photographing the book. How many people did you include in the book process and how did you delegate and manage the team?

RH: Pablo Chea actually edited our third Kickstarter video, he did not work with us on the book itself. Sergiy photographed the book for promo materials. The book was really just created by Grace and I, top to bottom, except for the photography and the printing of course.

f: This is a question based in my ignorance: what is velo-binding?

RH: Velo is a cheap binding style. It uses plastic pegs that go through the pages and are held in on either side by plastic strips. Usually the cover is just clear plastic. It is frequently used for business materials or whatever. Our book was really pushing the limit on page count and the binding has since snapped out. It is not an appropriate binding style for photobooks, but it's great for dummies like the one we made.

f: How did you research printers and how did you eventually decide to print with Shapco?

RH: We spent a lot of time reaching out to printers across the country for quotes. We really wanted to print the book stateside to ratify the concept. We even sourced an American font company for our font for the book, Balto. Shapco isn't necessarily the cheapest in the country, but they do have incredible facilities and a fantastic team of professionals. They print a lot of museum catalogs and that sort of thing. We were really taken by the book they printed for the Walker, Graphic Design: Now In Production. We really wanted our book to take a shape similar to that, but we had to scale it down because it was way too expensive for us.

f: You mention in an image caption creating a new, shorter page run. What drove that decision?

RH: Our Kickstarter goal was sort-of the minimum we needed. For every dollar we raised beyond that, we planned on expanding the page count and/or paper quality. So we actually had to cut down our page count from what we had in our dummy to make it all work out. That streamlined version of the book is what you will see in-store. We also created a limited edition whose page count is way higher.

GL: Limiting that page count was incredibly hard to do, but had we printed the book the way we wanted to with the original page count, it would have been insanely expensive. Maybe one day we can do a reprint of it, a sort of director's cut.

f: Talk us through distribution. How did you hook up with Antenne? How have you managed US distribution?

RH: Antenne approached us. That was a godsend. As for US distribution, we've tried a few places, one in particular who really fucked us over…we unfortunately never found the right place. We've been doing it ourselves. We're a really odd fit and there's not that many domestic distributors out there for this kind of thing. Our ears are still open.

f: Did Grandma Bep ultimately like the book?

RH: Ha! I sure hope so. (I actually wasn't there for that picture and haven't been back to Holland since).

GL: I bet she did.

f: What would you have done differently or what have you learned through the process that you would pass on to others considering this type of publishing project?

RH: Despite all of our research, we should have budgeted our Kickstarter shipping costs better.

GL: I think this was one of my greatest learning experiences in life thus far. It feels crazy to do a project this big. People (me included at first, honestly) tried to dissuade us from doing this, but Romke is very persistent and persuasive! I think I learned that the best ideas with the most fulfilling results feel frightening and all it takes is persistence. People are a lot more capable than they think!

RH: You didn't resist for too long! Embarking on a project like this sure is engrossing, it can make you crazy…but it's pretty easy if you have the right kind of love and support.