When Photographers Become Publishers: Mossless

By Conor Risch

© Justin Kaneps
An image from Justin Kaneps’s series “In Our Veins,” published in Mossless “Issue Three: The United States (2003–2013).”

For some photographers, the only way to execute an idea without compromise is to publish it on their own. Whether creating print or digital publications, calling them quarterlies or magazines or even “manuals,” photographers-turned-publishers have pursued projects that they felt nobody else could make, building communities and brands around publications that have led to related work and no small amount of personal and creative satisfaction. As Daniel Wakefield Pasley, one of the founders of cycling journal Manual For Speed, points out, “No one is going to pay you or give you the space to do it right, so if you have this aim to do it right, then you basically have to be a publisher.” 

PDN recently spoke with the founders of three publications with different goals, subjects, audiences and business models—to find out why and how they became publishers and what they’ve learned about developing engaging content, reaching readers and collaborating with sponsors and advertisers. Below is the third part of this three-part series, which originally appeared in the August issue of PDN. Use these links to read part one, about the cycling journal Manual For Speed, and part two, about travel and lifestyle journal Tiny Atlas Quarterly.

Romke Hoogwaerts founded Mossless magazine in 2009 as way to stay connected to the international photography community while he was living abroad in Vietnam. Using Tumblr as his publishing platform, Hoogwaerts, who had recently graduated from high school, posted personal work by mostly young photographers accompanied by short interviews. “I wanted to help share a lot of the photographs that I was seeing but add a little context,” he says. 

He did this every couple of days, slowly growing his audience through platforms like Tumblr and Flickr as he delved into the interconnected photography communities that exist online. 

After more than a year publishing photographs and interviews by photographers who interested him, Hoogwaerts felt he’d built enough relationships and gained enough of a reputation for thoughtful interviews and photo editing that he was able to launch, in print, what he calls an “abstract magazine” whose format varies according to the theme and content of each issue. 

“It was important to me that I build a network first and find the right people” with whom to work, he says, since those would be his first readers and the people who might champion the publication. He launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first issue, which featured four books in a box set, each with work by a different photographer. He offered backers who contributed $35 or more to the campaign a copy of the publication, and watched nervously to see if he’d receive the support he needed. Almost all of the funds to meet his modest goal of $4,000 came in the last week, thanks in part to a shout-out on the blog A Photo Editor. In the end, Hoogwaerts raised $4,776. He offset-printed it in an edition of 500 and packaged it in screen-printed boxes he made himself. 

He and his partner in business and in life, Grace Leigh, worked together on the second issue, which they inkjet-printed and assembled in an edition of 100. Their independence allows them to “change [the publishing format] up every single time,” Hoogwaerts explains, “so each time we found something that hadn’t been identified or published yet, or an idea that we had that we hadn’t seen yet, we tried to find a format for it.” 

To learn about publishing and printing, Hoogwaerts took classes on editing and curating while a student at New York City’s School of Visual Arts. He read manuals and information on the web about printing styles and binding, and watched YouTube tutorials. “There’s a lot of information out there that really makes it possible for people to learn [about publishing],” he notes. He learned about art law by taking a class at Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. “The rest is trial and error,” he adds. “I made a lot of mistakes along the way, and I cherish them.” For instance, inkjet printing turned out to be unrealistic for mass production—it’s time-consuming and printer ink is expensive. 

The third issue of Mossless, by far the most ambitious in terms of scope, print-run and expense, was recently released. “Issue Three: The United States (2003-2013),” a decade-long look at American culture and socioeconomics, features more than 500 images by 100 photographers, and “happens to feel much more like a book than anything else we’ve done,” Hoogwaerts says. They set a Kickstarter goal of $25,000 and raised more than $33,000, printing 2,500 copies at a printer in Minneapolis. 

At press time, more than half of the books were spoken for by Kickstarter backers, people who placed pre-orders and the Mossless distributor, which represents the publication in the United Kingdom and Europe (Hoogwaerts and Leigh are handling domestic distribution themselves). 

To create “Issue Three,” Hoogwaerts and Leigh bookmarked photos for months on end. When they felt they had enough photographs to make the publication they envisioned, they began requesting images from photographers. (Photographers have been enthusiastic about contributing, Hoogwaerts says, not only to this issue, but throughout his time working on Mossless.) They hung the images on a wall and began editing them into a continuous sequence. Not only did they want to provide a current look at America through the personal images of the photographers, they also wanted to emphasize that “this journey is one that you can take essentially for free”: all of the photographs had already been published online on blogs or websites. 

“Many of these photographers are very aware of other works in the book, and are always responding to one another, whether or not they are aware of it,” Hoogwaerts says. “Issue Three” plucks these photographs from the stream of online image publishing and places them in context with one another. 

The dream for the future of Mossless, Hoogwaerts says, is to acquire printing equipment “so we can print whenever we want … more efficiently [and] with a faster turnover, but also understand how the printing will work so that we can design and plan everything ahead of time with a much more acute understanding of how it will look.” They’re working on a new Mossless logo that features a visual reference to the Japanese concept of kaizen, which means “continuous improvement.” Hoogwaerts says, “That’s something we really believe in.” 

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