‘People crave the sensual over the virtual’

Ottawa photographer Tony Fouhse has been shooting portraits of drug addicts in the ByWard Market for several years, and has produced – as widely reported – a gritty, grimy, and vital record of the city’s underbelly, stretch marks and all.

It sounds like crazy work, but not so crazy as what Fouhse is doing now – opening a publishing house, “Straylight,” just as we’re to believe that digital is killing print. Turns out the two seemingly crazy ideas are linked. Fouhse told me about his new project, publishing books and zines of his own work and the work of other photographers, during an email interview over recent days. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and such things.

Why open a publishing house in 2012? The self-appointed web gurus say print is dead.

The self-appointed web gurus would say that, just like the know-it-alls who said painting was dead when photography came along, etc. This world is too complicated, multi-faceted, to be summed up so categorically. Easy problems equal easy answers. I like my problems to be difficult. More interesting. I try to eschew comfort (up to a point) and so will Straylight (up to a point).

There’s a resurgence of interest in the photo book. I believe certain people crave the sensual over the virtual, and that’s what books and magazines are, sensual.

You’re not averse to the virtual, as you maintain a website and blog about “fotography,” so what is it that the virtual cannot provide?

How do you define the sensual?

These days, if you want to disseminate data (opinion, images, facts, what you perceive to be the truth) the Internet is where it’s at. But … we have choices and, if we’re smart, we think about and exercise our options.

Just as I prefer to print my photos, to have and to hold, I like the idea of images in books. Wanting to manifest things in a physical form brings everything into sharper focus, forces the creator to make more difficult decisions vis-à-vis their commitment to whatever it is they want to say.

As well, sitting on a couch, holding a book, feeling the paper and the physicality of the pages turning, changes the way the viewer experiences whatever it is they are looking at.

To me, these things – commitment and physicality – are partly what the sensuous is about.

What is Straylight publishing first?

There are already zines on offer: Ordinary Places by Shannon Delmonico, and American States, by me. There are three more zines in the works: SadCity by Los Angeles photographer Scot Sothern, The Unit by Josh Hotz and a thing I’m planning with photographers I met in Boston.

The first book will be LIVE THROUGH THIS, based on the time I spent with Stephanie, a heroin addict I helped. It’s an amazing story, full of twists and turns. The book will include 48 photos and, as a separate booklet, Steph’s story in her own words. The idea is that she and I came together and did this thing but were always two entities. It’s just another way of separating the virtual from the sensual.

You used a fundraising website to help finance your trip to see and shoot Stephanie when she returned to her home in Nova Scotia. (I should declare here that I made a small contribution.) Are you using a similar approach to finance Straylight?

I thought about doing another crowd-funding thing to get the book printed, but in the end I decided to think bigger.

The problem is crowd-funded projects are, by definition, one-offs. I decided to set up my own e-commerce infrastructure to try to raise enough money to get LIVE THROUGH THIS printed. Once the book was published I also wanted a place people could go to buy it, a (web) store. The problem is that I’m committed to printing and sending the book to the people who buy it, even if I don’t make enough money up-front to pay for printing, i.e. more risk. But I’ve never been averse to risk.

From there it was a short leap to figuring out that if I had a “store,” why not sell other people’s stuff too? That way I can support other people’s photography that I think has merit.

First is the pre-sale of LIVE THROUGH THIS. If that’s successful we’ll look into using the plat-form to produce another book of someone else’s work.

Where can people buy these zines and books, where can they leaf through them to see if they’re sharing the tactile sensuality you’re selling?

There is so little markup on them that if it was necessary to pay a bricks and mortar store commission on sales we’d lose money. So they can buy them at www.stray-lightpress.com and try them out at home.

We’re going on faith here, but I’m pretty sure everybody remembers what it feels like to get a parcel in the mail, to open it, sit down and hold and look at this thing, to own it. If they don’t remember that feeling, perhaps it’s time to see what it feels like.

If they are dissatisfied Straylight will gladly refund their money.

psimpson@ottawacitizen.com

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