Shelf Sessions: Elisa Medde
“Visual language is the primal language we have as humans. It’s all about communication. Even when you do something without the intent of communicating; that’s what you’re doing – communicating. I think that we as editors, should act as translators of this communication.”
Elisa Medde is the Managing Editor of Foam Magazine. She leads a small team of photography buffs who compose a beautiful thick international magazine three times a year. Foam Magazine is sold worldwide, and is part of the larger Foam organization which also is both a museum and a gallery.
Check some of Elisa’s favorite books.
On a sunny Monday afternoon in April, Elisa leads us through the entire building past installations and photographs of the Dutch duo Scheltens & Abbenes and the South-African documentary photographer Santu Mofokeng. Two very different bodies of work, existing right next to each other, representing photography as a whole. “The magazine, and the entire Foam organization aims to do the same. I always describe it as a mobile exhibition platform in which we have a group exhibition in every issue. The magazine is independent from the museum, but we do have conversations with the exhibitions department. With Foam Talent as a prime example, of course.”
Foam organizes an annual Talent Call inviting photographers to send in their work in hopes to be selected for the Foam Talent issue as well as the Foam Talent exhibition (which travels to New York, London and Paris amongst other venues). Every year, artists from all over the world send in their work out of which roughly 16 talents are selected by Elisa and her colleagues. “I think we have a responsibility to understand different narratives. With Foam Talent we receive submissions from all over the world, and we try to invest time and effort in understanding the works. As Europeans we tend to have a European or Anglo-Saxon way of explaining things, while the work may not fit within that language.”
This year’s winner of the Foam Paul Huf Award is proof of that. Ghanaian photographer Eric Gyamfi was part of the Talent issue last year, and the winner of Foam’s most prestigious award this year. “With the award, named after the famous Dutch photographer Paul Huf, who was an important ambassador for the establishment of Foam, an independent jury nominated by us selects one photographer under the age of 35 who not only wins a spot in the Foam Talent selection, but also money to make new work and a solo exhibition in the museum.” The value of the prize can be seen in Gyamfi’s predecessors, among whom you’ll find big names such as Pieter Hugo and Alex Prager.
‘ The mission of Foam is to champion talent. ’
This should come as no surprise though. Foam has been a photography institution for nearly twenty years, and with such a multifaceted organization, it is evident that it has a full team of expertise heavyweights. As we make our way through the museum, we arrive at the top floor where the gallery Foam Editions has been located since 2007. Iconic photos made by photographers such as Anton Corbijn and Daido Moriyama can be found here, but also contemporary work by photographers like Harley Weir and Jack Davison are sold. “In a way, Editions brings the magazine and the museum together. The mission of Foam is to champion talent. We often work together with young photographers and here we can introduce them to the photography market with First Editions. A first opportunity to sell their work, and it is presented amongst familiar artists and treated equally. Putting young artists in the same context as established artists is very valuable.”
Foam Editions, like the museum and the magazine showcases a vast variety of works and exclusive books. From the early 20th Century-portraits made by August Sander, to more conceptual work, like Takashi Kawashima—Foam likes to explore all the boundaries of the medium. “I think that is extremely valuable. We’re questioning the medium and the technique. The technique of photography exists for over one hundred years, but in the last decades, we see a shift from treating the technique as a medium, towards treating the technique as just a technique. If you treat it as such, it opens up new possibilities and ways of expressing through it.”
During our tour, a visitor was questioning if a Scheltens & Abbenes work should be seen as photography. It’s a discussion that will always be present, as borders of the medium expand. “It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. It can exist next to each other at the same time, and we want to do both. We want to represent all the currents in photography, as I think that at the end, it is more about the images. It’s not about diminishing photography, it’s about adding more seats at the table. Or adding more tables,” she adds with a cheeky smile.
‘ I think we have a responsibility to understand different narratives. ’
‘ I think we have a responsibility to understand different narratives. ’
Foam Magazine could be seen as a very large table, in that sense. Showcasing many different artists on different kinds of paper. For us at MENDO, paper (of course) is very important. Because of its paper sponsor, Foam Magazine is allowed to make bold choices in terms of design and paper—with open binding, and daring colors. “Foam Magazine is quite a luxurious magazine, so I feel very privileged to to work on a magazine with 288 pages and so many different types of paper per issue. On top of that, we only have six pages of advertising, and they’re all in the back of the magazine.”
Privileges like these allow Elisa and her team to make choices that are not (solely) based on generating sales. Instead, her team focuses on what works best for the artists and for the magazine itself. “It feels like a game of Tetris sometimes, but we always do it consciously. We try to connect the design and paper choice with the body of work printed on it. So when we have fashion images, or something that is very colorful, we could make a choice of printing it on glossier paper – or not. In the museum you are immersed in the work, you can’t do that with a magazine. But by choosing for a certain type of paper, you add tactility and smell which creates a unique experience that might come close.”
She shows us an example in the latest Talent issue with the work of Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques. “This shows what I mean with “challenging the medium.” This portfolio contains video work—which is challenging to print on paper, of course. We decided to print it on a satin paper, which has a luminance that (with a little fantasy) mimics that of a screen. The original is a two-channel video-installation, so we decided to smash the images on the opposite ends of the pages to create a cinematic effect. That way you experience the work in the magazine in a similar way as you would during the exhibition.”
Eric Gyamfi’s work is printed on uncoated paper, which stresses the seriousness but also the fragility of his work. On the opposite of that spectrum, Maisie Cousins’ extreme close-ups of wet and sticky things were printed on an extreme glossy type of paper. Enhancing the experience of seeing her work to almost feeling that what she has photographed. These are examples that emphasize the value of print. “Yes, it’s the future of digital! All craziness aside, I do think that paper is absolutely fundamental. While at university, I worked as a paper restorer, so I’m kind of a paper nerd. And I find that when you’re seeing images on paper you do consume them differently. Your attention span is different, and what the image transmits to you is different. It’s like comparing a quick beer on the go to a very good glass of wine. It is something that needs time to be understood. Which to me is fundamental.”
‘ Print is the future of digital. ’
These are words that resonate with us at MENDO. And although the two are very different companies, a similar passion for photography and paper is shared. Elisa herself is an avid book collector, and a frequent visitor of MENDO. “I love MENDO. And I can see that passion. But your shop is very dark, which is why I often can’t stay longer than 30 minutes. Oh well, maybe that’s also better for my wallet.”
So what about the book collection at Foam? At the office there are books and magazines dispersed all over, with books by some familiar artists like Ed van der Elsken and Rineke Dijkstra laying around. “We have this cute little corner in which you can sit back and browse through a book for a while. And we have the library upstairs, of course.”
The library contains at least a thousand books. From old catalogs to contemporary monographs by artists like Viviane Sassen and Wolfgang Tillmans, as well as an old edition of Ari Versluis’ & Ellie Uyttenbroek’s Exactitudes. “We often get books sent over by publishers or artists, and sometimes we use them as reference.” An example is the catalog of Fashion Photography, which was probably used for Foam’s latest issue named Adorned. In the small, sunlit office in the attic (which has a phenomenal view on the Keizersgracht), Elisa shows us the proof prints for the latest issue. “We use these to determine the types of paper, and to see what works best in terms of colors. In our eyes, some images require more glossy, or newspaper-like paper, and with others we go for something steviger.”
The use of the Dutch word steviger (more firm), brings us back to the opening of this story. It’s all about communication. “I never really managed to become fluent in Dutch until now; I don’t want my son to think he can say things without me knowing what it means. So I am trying to get better .” Until then we have visual language, and it seems like Elisa speaks it fluently.
As our tour ends, we pass the artworks in the museum once again, and of course, exit through the gift shop. Some of Foam Magazine’s back-issues can be found here, as well as monographs from photographers that have exhibited in the museum. “I started in 2012, but you can see here that the philosophy has always been to celebrate photography and to offer the best experience possible. People buy it, because people appreciate this kind of experience. That’s why we work with great designers – Hamid Sallali and Ayumi Higuchi – with different types of paper, with a lithographer, and with one of the best printers in the Netherlands – NPN Drukkers. Sometimes we make their life difficult, because we’re very demanding—but every little detail counts. Each magazine is the result of so many people and different skills. That’s why we’re so committed to preserve it in the best way we can.”
MENDO is the proud host of Sevdaliza: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert by NPR Music. Watch Sevdaliza perform 'Human', and more recorded at MENDO for Tiny Desk.
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