Manfred Heiting: An interview about photobooks

We have the honour to have an interview published with Manfred Heiting, renowned for his vision on collecting photography.

This is the full version of the interview. A shorter version is published in Dialogue Vintage Photography Magazine #1-2021 BUY ONLINE at publisher FOCUS or at the FOCUS STAND on 18 September.


Manfred Heiting

An interview about photobooks


Text: Dirk Bakker


Manfred Heiting (born 1943) has played an important role in the ‘world of photography’ for more than forty years: as a design director of Polaroid’s international division (also establishing the International Polaroid Collection in Amsterdam), as editor for American Express’ magazines in Europe, but also as curator of more than 50 exhibitions, editor/co-editor, and designer of dozens of photobooks as well as board member of several cultural institutions.

But Heiting has also made history as a collector (starting in the early 1970s) of original photographic prints from the period between 1840 to 2000. In 2002, he transferred this important collection of 4,000 master prints to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Since the early 1970s, he also started acquiring photobooks, mainly as tools/sources of information for building up his photo collection, but, starting in the early 1990s, Heiting spent most of his time collecting photobooks from a more historical perspective. He also started the design and editing of reference books: Imagining Paradise (for the George Eastman House, 2007), together with Sheila Foster and Rachel Stuhlman, Deutschland im Fotobuch (2011), with Thomas Wiegand. Autopsie 1 & 2 (2012, 2015), with Roland Jaeger and a team of dedicated experts. The Soviet Photobook (2015), with Mikhail Karasik. The Japanese Photobook (2017), with Kaneko Ryuichi, and the Czech and Slovak Photo Publications (2018), with essays by Amanda Meddox, James Steerman, Thomas Wiegand and others.

In November 2018, a large part of his collection, which had grown to about 40,000 books and was considered one of the most important photobook collections in the world, went up in flames, along with precious photographs, a ceramic collection, and his entire residence in Malibu, along with the art deco furniture and other art objects. A blaze razed everything to the ground, during one of those now sadly well-known annual wildfires in California. Luckily, because of several ongoing projects, not all his books had been in Malibu at the time of the fire. Heiting and his wife Hanna had been abroad at that time.

After this incredible disaster, Heiting quickly picked up where he left off and continued working on a book about Paul Wolff: Dr Paul Wolff & Alfred Tritschler. The Printed images 1906 -2019, with Kristina Lemke as well as a number of other books on photographers original work (published this year by Steidl – like all his books). The ‘overview’, Dutch Photo Publications, 1918-1970s (Steidl website), will be published in the Fall of 2022.


What is your definition of a collectable photobook?

For me, a photobook that I am interested in – and collect – has to have a purpose for being published. It always needs to be for, over or about something. Singular images of the personal idea or expression of a photographer are certainly interesting as a print but not enough to have a selection of those images in a catalogue or monograph. They are very important though as documentation of the photographer’s work in my library but not as a photobook in my collection.

In addition, an interesting photobook needs an author for the accompanying text to build the framework for the book, a specific design, layout and typography, the right balance between these various elements, high quality printing and an appropriate size and binding.

To use Ansel Adams’ parallel with music (in which the negatives are the notes and the prints are the performances): the editor of a book is the conductor, the photographer is the soloist, and all other participants are the orchestra.


As a designer yourself, do you pay extra attention to the design?

Of course. But I am also trained as a typesetter and followed a technical education in book printing and binding at a renowned printer and publisher in Germany (as well as in advertising agencies in Germany and Holland).

I believe I know how a book is ‘made’, what to look for, what quality criteria I should apply when selecting a book. Of course, the photographs are still very important – but for me, never the only reason to choose a photobook for my collection.


You collected photobooks from between 1840 and 1980. Why did you stop at 1980?

Well, it is quite simple: when photography books became so popular towards the end of the 1970s, many were produced involving the photographer. And they often looked at ‘his’ book as an exhibition on paper. He cared more about his photograph’s position than the medium that it was used for: a book.

And, increasingly colour photographs, printed on one page (often with an empty page on the other side), and a short introduction, praising the greatness of the maker in the front. Most of the time the photographs had a white border.

So, unfortunately, all these photobooks started looking the same. The photographers loved it.

Of course there are exceptions (I may have missed a few outstanding ones), but this has been the formula of contemporary book publishing until most recently (and when in colour often also printed in China… cheap).

The photobook as I knew it, and loved it, died.


How do you find out which books/publications are still missing in your collection? In other words, how do you find out what you still don’t know?

I was heavily ‘engaged‘ in collecting photographs from 1840 throughout the first half of the 20th century and looked for books to learn more about the photographers of my interest. (I only started seriously collecting photobooks at the beginning of the 1990s.) It was a gradual but slow process, to shift my attention to the publications from the time many of those photographs were actually ‘used’ for the first time.

Over the years a lot of information emerged and some books about photobooks were published. It started already, in 1984, when the Photokina (the biennial World’s Fair of Photography in Cologne) organized an exhibition on The Printed Image: photo books and photo magazines.

More and more books on this subject were published after that. An important early one was Photografía Pública, Photography in Print 1919-1939, in 1999, published as a catalogue of an exhibition at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. For me, that was an eye-opener and a game changer.

I had very little contact with other collectors, but throughout the 1990s I frequently researched publications in several national libraries and relevant institutions. In the beginning, I did not work systematically but looked more for certain periods, specifically the Bauhaus and related ephemera. Over time I ‘branched out’, and my vision related to the photobooks evolved.


Can you please name a few publications that pleasantly surprised you when you finally got your hands on them, and could see and feel these publications yourself? And why?

Quite impossible. There are so many… (and most of those are from before 1950). But, I have one book, which I did not know existed: I knew about London by Alvin Langdon Coburn, which was originally published by Duckworth & Co., in London, in 1909. The book was large: 41.5 x 31.9 cm. It was later revealed that – in Coburn’s opinion – it was too big. So, in 1914, he published it himself, this time titled: London. A Book of Aspects, Privately Printed for Edmund D. Brooks and Friends. This one was 33.4 x 25.8, bound in leather by the famous bindery of Sangorski and Sutcliff (with all the same images in photogravures). He only produced 2 copies, one for Edmund Brooks and one for himself. Brooks’ copy was sold by his family and found its way to me. To my surprise, all the photogravures were signed by Coburn. The other copy – his own – is in his archive at the University of Reading, Berkshire, England. I wondered… would he have signed his own copy? I found out: he did not.


You appreciate the work of the French photographer Laure Albin-Guillot (1879 -1962). Can you explain why with one or two of her books?

Yes, a great French photographer, not so much known internationally. Frequently published in France and in some European countries (from 1925 until 1962, when she died). But maybe because she was independent wealthy and well connected, she rarely made prints for sale (except for advertising and publications) and whatever remained in her archive is now in institutions. When I collected photographs, I acquired one print of an image by her, though not an important one.

Most of her publications had a theme, all in small print runs, often with original Fresson prints (and, as common in France, made in various limited editions). All are spectacular productions and a collector’s delight.

Of course, she is most famous for her book Micrographie Décorative, 1931, but she was also assigned by the official organizers to coordinate the photographic documentation of the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, for which she produced – with a hand-picked team – over 10,000 photographs, many by herself, published in the 16-volume report.

Here are three outstanding highlights: Narcisse, 1936 with poems by Paul Valéry, Ciels, 1944, with text by Marcelle Maurette and Prélude, 1948, with musical scores by Claude Debussy. They do not make books like those anymore.


Why have you decided to publish reference works about photobooks?

When buying books from dealers in the 1990s, at auctions or from private sellers (I never went to flea markets), I asked about their original attributions that seemed to be missing (slip cases, dust jacket, belly bands, other editions, versions, etc.), and often – if not most of the time – I was told ‘… never seen one, do not think exists …’, and very often, as I found out, this was not correct.

Feeling the urge, and investing the time to do it, I went to many national libraries in the countries I was interested in or had local researchers who investigated these aspect for me. I collected all the information available in my database, and of course then looked for a perfect example of the same.

For any field in which one collects, it is always important to enthuse others, so I wanted to ensure that future collectors would not go through the same ‘experience’ that I did. Once there is a reference book, everyone can find out.


Does the selection used for The Soviet Photobook (2015), The Japanese Photobook (2017), and the Czech and Slovak Photo Publications (2018) fit with what you consider to be the most interesting photobooks from these four countries?

Yes, and no. All three reference books include selected books from a different culture and political system (published during the chosen time frame). They had to be known to me, to my partners in those projects, or they had to have been documented in that country before. However, I knew of most of the photographers, designer and writers from my time collecting photographs, also from those countries. So, I always had a kind of reference. The photobooks from Japan and the Czech Republic had no local documentation before the 1980s, but I had a very knowledgeable team.

In the Soviet Union, several extensive documentations existed, but many books were just not available in the condition I needed, many not at all – in any condition – and I wanted to show important double pages and all the technical information for each book. Mikhail Karasik did an excellent job describing the purpose of each of the books. I could never do this in all my other projects, but it also took me many years to find the copy I could use.


The two volumes of Autopsie – what one could consider as your and Jaeger’s magnum opus – describe the various editions, published in Germany between 1918 and 1945, as accurately as possible, an approach reminiscent of the words of the German historian Von Ranke’s ‘bloß (zu) sagen wie es gewesen’ (ist).

Isn’t this the ideal you are striving for on a larger scale: as much exact information as possible about what has been published?

Indeed, without Roland Jaeger, Autopsie would not have been possible: his previous work on books on architecture, his detailed insight knowledge of the subject matters and his superior writing skills were all essential to get these two extensive reference books published, after 6 years in the making (together with an additional team of 16 experts). But I am not sure if this would be our Opus Magnum – I think that Roland and I still have that coming.

Yes, it was necessary (and possible) to have this detailed approach for the German photobooks documented – because the photographic, publishing and printing industry in Germany made most of the advances in technical equipment, tools and materials, to accelerate the highest quality, distribution methods and diversity in styles of photobooks (and certainly in the late 19th to the mid 20th century).

Just a few of these important innovations: Without making it possible to print half tones (Meisenbach), bringing small hand-held cameras on the market (Leica), manufacturing paper for high-quality reproduction (Scheufelen), many of the photobooks would not have been published as we know them today. Having a large population as recipients also supported the necessary economic investment.

In addition, the increased importance of photography also benefited from the influence that the Bauhaus – and the explosion of magazines during the Weimar Republic – had on this medium.


Why are you working on yet another ’overview of Dutch photobooks’ (Steidl website), especially because several books already exist: The Dutch documentary photobook after 1945(1989), Het Bedrijfsfotoboek 1945-1965 (2002) and The Dutch Photobook (2012)

Right, there are already a few out there. For a small population of photographers, quite an achievement. But in my opinion, Dutch photography flourished as early as after World War I, and the period before 1945 is missing from all the early documentation. And that is where I feel an important contribution was made: Piet Zwart and Paul Schuitema helped shape the European Avant-garde. This period, early artist publications as well as non-photographic magazines that used photography in abundance, like Wendingen, will show how important the Dutch contribution to the medium is.

Besides this publication, I am also working on a selection of themes and publications that also speak to the international reader of this documentation, of course with a team of experts, and I have collected the material for this for over 12 years.


Over the last few decades, you became a ‘printed paper’ specialist. What do you think of the ‘digital revolution’, where paper and books seem less and less important?

First, I would divide the use of ‘digital revolution’ from ‘paper and books’ in your question: I do embrace the technical abilities of the computer, the internet and all the digital aspects of book making (including the capabilities of transferring huge files electronically). Without these related technologies, we would not be able to produce all the books printed on paper: the pre-press today is completely digital. It is conceivable that soon many research-based documentations will be only available as a PDF or on websites (both for a fee); there is no need (and soon no space in most libraries) to store all this information in book form.

As a matter of fact: many scientific and technical publications are already going this way. Think about all the early instruction books for computers, cars, TVs, etc. One perfect example: when computers became a regular office machine in the late 1980s, the instructions for all this early hardware and the necessary software were printed in paper manuals. The German National Library in Leipzig has a ballroom-size reading room filled with those early manuals published until the late 1990s. After that it went to disks, then to CDs, and now you only can download this information from the internet.


However, when we are talking about photography and art books – with content made for our eyes to see (excluding theoretical dissertations about the subject) – printing these books on paper is essential and will always remain so.

Today, we are also at the highest level with pre-press technologies and offset printing machines, and we should not expect any improvement on the traditional quality of 4-colour, or even black & white, printing, although we may see some improvement in digital printing.

That also means, as I said earlier, that we should focus our abilities on making photographs that bear witness to someone or something, engage meaningful writings about the subjects, involve the appropriate design, layout and structure of the book and use the perfect paper and binding. When all this is conducted in harmony, we will witness an exciting moment: priceless.


What advice would you give to starting collectors of photobooks?

If you do not have sufficient funds, time to study, advisors to help you… do not start collecting 19th and 20th century photobooks: the train has left the station…

However, look at what is published in the 21st century, and visit galleries and museum shows, as well as the auctions. Find out what photographer’s work, what subjects, what type of book appeals to you. Familiarize yourself with all the work of a photographer you like, what work that photographer has shown or has published. Look at those existing books and find out how well they are made: how interesting do these books look to you?. Than check out what it says on the internet about the work, about the subject you like, about the books you held in your hands.

Select only a few photographers or subjects (or maybe even a country or culture) to concentrate your time and money on.

Always touch each book before buying it.

Make a monthly budget you can afford to spend. But, never, ever think that you made a good ‘investment’. You did not. You should actually forget what you paid for a book.

Then stay the course for about five years.

Watch yourself becoming passionate about someone or something (or not). Review with an expert you trust the things you have collected so far. Continue, or adapt.

If you are disappointed: stop, don’t waste your money.


#1. At the still point

  1. At the Stil Point, Photographs from The Manfred Heiting Collection, 1840-2000, Volume I (1840-1916), IIA (1916-1968), IIB (1918-1968), III (1969-2000), privately published 1995, 2000, 2009, 2009. Since 2002 the collection is at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.


#2. Das Gedruckte

  1. Das Gedruckte Photo,Catalogue of the exhibition at photokina, Worlds Fair of Photographie, Cologne, 1984.


#3. Autopsie

  1. Autopsie, Photo Publication in the German language, 1918-1945, Volume 1 & 2. Steidl, Göttingen, 2012, 2014.


#4. MHPhotobooks

  1. The Soviet Photo Book, 1920-1941(2015), The Japanese Photo Publication, 1912-1990(2017), The Czech & Slovak Photo Publications 1918-1989 (2018), Dr. Paul Wolff &Alfred Tritschler, The Printed Images, 1906-2019 (2020), Steidl, Göttingen.


#5. London

  1. London, A Book of Aspects, Privately printed for Edmund D. Brooks and his Friend, 1914. With 20 hand-pulled photogravures by Alvin Langdon Coburn.


#6. Narcisse

  1. Narcisse. Poeme by Paul Valéry. Fresson prints by Laure Albin-Guillot, 1936