Interview by Lisa Gonzalez / Photographs and GIFs by Alex Thebez
Romke Hoogwaerts and Grace Leigh are such generous spirits. They are the working force behind MOSSLESS; the duo’s work reflects a genuine interest in creative collaboration, promoting emerging artists, and honoring the still-very-important craft of book making. They currently have a Kickstarter campaign to help fund their third print issue, “The United States (2003-2013)”, with a quarter of the subsequent sales going back to the contributing photographers. They’re also having a print sale, offering prints from some of the featured artists in Issue 3. Alex and I had the pleasure of stopping by their studio to chat about the resurrection of Mossless interviews via Vice.com and the welfare of online, creative communities.
Lisa Gonzalez: So, tell us a bit about yourselves and your background.
Grace Leigh: I grew up in Savannah, GA and both of my parents were photographers. I grew up above my dad’s photography studio which was a big part of my childhood. He passed away when I was 13 and that’s when I started moving around and going to boarding school. I was at Idyllwild Academy, studying ceramics. I then came here [to New York] and went to [School of Visual Arts]. Romke and I met in a drawing class.
Romke Hoogwaerts: I became obsessed with photography when I was 14. Actually, a bit before that. The first time was when I had a throw away camera was for some school trip; I was 9. I filled the roll in the first 30 minutes, and I didn’t even get to use it on the trip. I couldn’t help myself. I realized I loved it. I don’t shoot that much anymore, mostly because I spend so much time looking at photos.
LG: What is Mossless and how did you come up with the name?
RH: I just needed a URL. It came from when I was a younger teenager and I was on deviantART and I made vector art, sort of. [Laughs] There was one picture I came across of a guy wearing a shirt that said, “A rolling stone gathers no moss” and that really latched onto me. That if you keep working on things, you’ll be fine. I don’t know, I really liked the shirt. I only realized later is was the same phrase that gave Rolling Stone its name. But when I needed a name, it [Mossless] was something I knew I wanted to grow accumulatively. We’ve kept true to the phrase.
The reason I started it was when I applied to study film at SVA and I was also really interested in publishing. I had this book, Vitamin PH. I knew I would not be able to get an internship in publishing due to the labor market. The only opportunity I could make was if I started it myself and I thought, “Oh shit, I may as well.” So I started the blog and I was posting people’s photos and I wrote a little bit of a caption because I wanted more information. Their name, age, and a little phrase. I didn’t think that was enough so I started interviewing everybody. I was posting 1 interview every 2 days. I was introduced to this photographer Sean Vegezzi. He was too interesting for a blog post, and when I met Sean it felt right. I started interviewing him a lot and it later became part of the first issue. This was made a year and a half before the first issue came out. I initially made them as tests and to send out to possible advertisers, but I wasn’t quite happy with it.
LG: What weren’t you happy with?
RH: Well, I didn’t know if anyone was going to buy them.
LG: So you came to the point where you wanted to explore something a bit more in-depth. What are the ones you remember well?
RH: We did over 300 interviews. I interviewed Ana Kras a long time ago and one question I asked her was where do you see yourself in 5 years? She said hopefully married and with kids or something. About a year later I saw an interview where she was commissioned to photograph Devendra Banhart. She photographed him in a hotel room and after 5 minutes of meting her, he proposed to her. There are a lot of interviews that were interesting: Sean Vegezzi, Peter Sutherland, Bill Hunt, the collector. I was stoked on the one I did with Carrie Levy. One of the early interviews with Bobby Doherty was really awesome. That was very early on and it was great to get such interesting responses. There are too many.
LG: Why did you stop interviewing?
RH: I wore out. I started doing Issue 1 and it became a lot of work- with school and work and everything else. I had a few contributors online helping me, but doing it every two days was hard. When I started the blog there was Big, Red, and Shiny, and American Suburb X which posted archives, but interview blogs weren’t that common. When I stopped, new websites had come up like The Great Leap Sideways. They are so damn good. I don’t want to detract from it in a way. I want to focus on what we can do now. So this [Issue 3] is the book I’ve been wanting to make from the beginning for a long, long time.
GL: But we’re starting up interviews again through Vice! We’ll be doing a weekly column for Vice.com with photographers from Issue 3 and it’s really nice to see Romke back in the interview game.
LG: Tell us about the book.
GL: The work we’re finding is in the right place so we feel a bit of urgency around it. And we want to put it out now, people can’t keep passing this stuff up. I don’t even know if it’s “in style” to put our social documentary type of work.
RH: The [third] book is a very multi-faceted overview of America over the last 10 years. It’s comprised of work that could be put into a bigger context. We’re sourcing from people who post on Flickr, Tumblr, personal websites, or even someone like Terry Evans who was born in 1944, and shot a series of the North Dakota oil boom with a PBS Newshour writer, Elizabeth Farnsworth. We found them through the blog of a museum in Nevada. And because it’s all been sourced online it kind of feels like a singular experience. I also can’t believe no one has done this yet.
GL: We’re showing 118 photographers and over 550 photographs. There are a lot of brilliant people in this book. We’re kind of setting it up as a resource; it’s very much like an index of photographers.
RH: We’re trying to bit encyclopedic but it’s still heavily sequenced, to put the works in context. It’s not a complete index though, it’s more a swoop through some of the best that we personally experienced. We don’t know everyone online!
GL: And we’re keeping it democratic, another reason why we’re sourcing work online. It might not be the best time to work on something this large but we feel like we need to.
LG: Well, you’re not gathering any moss.
GL: I’m most excited to get this work in people’s hands. I want the artists to see their work. We’ll be giving them each a copy! We’re also making a more haphazard zine to go along with the book of photos that didn’t necessarily quite fit in. I‘ll get to bind these things and that’s one of my favorite parts.
RH: One nice thing about self-publishing this book is that we don’t have to follow anybody else’s rules and we can make our own. We’ve set up a publishing model that compensates the photographers—we’re going to be sharing our profits. Because we live in our studio and sourcing our work is free, if we raise the money on Kickstarter, the profits we’d make after that wouldn’t have to be divided as much.
LG: Book making is a bit foreign to me. What’s the process of making a book like for you guys?
GL: Well, we find the content all pretty much online. Most recently, Romke also made a book of his own work from our trip to Holland.
RH: The second book was a democratic exploration of artists responding to the internet. The one we’re working on now [issue three] features photographs of America because magazines aren’t really republishing that kind of work. So the format is really informed by the content.There is so much photography online that isn’t being seen, and some that is being seen by a few.The book starts online. We source photos we see online and put together a good format for the content. The first one I wanted to do was make a magazine that focused on one photographer per issue — what eventually Matte Magazine became. But, when I made a test I thought I needed to do it a little differently — I did four books in a box. Our first book was [in collaboration] with Jesse Hlebo. The first two books became a democratic exploration of different photographers. The one we’re working on now [issue three] features photographs of America because magazines aren’t really commissioning that kind of work. The format is really informed by the content.
LG: What else are you working on in addition to these larger, curated issues?
GL: In between the larger issues we work on exclusively hand-made artist’s editions – Jake McNulty, Mark King, Laurie Kang. We’ll plan them out together, sequence them together. Romke’s the one who does the computer stuff and I’ll bind them. We kind of make them to order since it’s more expensive to make them all in one go. But it’s really fun to have such a strong connection with a book, You know every detail, there’s nothing we haven’t gone over 1,000 times.
RH: The [artist] editions were printed here [in the studio] as well as the second issue. For issue one, the books were printed in Hong Kong, and for this third issue it’ll be printed at an off-set printer here in the US.
GL: We’ll be making the limited edition copies of the third issue ourselves, and they’ll each have unique covers.
LG: When you’re sourcing this content from the internet rather from exhibitions or portfolios, if their origin from the Internet important? Going from files and turning it into something tangible, that’s really neat.
RH: Yes. There is a convenience to it and a democracy to it that we enjoy. At the root of it, we can see so much more, and we can spend more time on it, and that’s liberating. Approaching someone online is much easier also. When I first started the interviews for Mossless I only interviewed people on Flickr, and when I started emailing more established photographers, most of them are down to talk. People are interested in having their work seen. But, if you’re seeing interesting work online there isn’t permanence to it. When you see things on Tumblr it gets piled up; it’ll get buried. We’re mining the best work out of the streams that we follow, and putting it in a new context, bringing it together with other things, it can gives it a new life.
GL: And having something in print, turning the pages, the physical activity of it, there’s a ceremonial quality to it. I don’t think you get that online.
RH: There are huge a mount of photographers online that are fantastic at what they do. I don’t know what it is, maybe the way the industry is right now, fixed in it’s old roots, it can’t support and publish this many photographers. We’re trying to figure out a way to bring a lot of these people into a new perspective. I think there’s something to be a said about the Internet as a whole other art world. Not enough people have the chance to see this work because they might not know it’s there.
GL: I’ve always been interested in using my hands and making things. When Romke and I first met it opened up this whole new world of artists to work with and so much more- it’s been quite bizarre.
RH: That’s what’s so fascinating about the Internet- one person can only see selfies and think that’s only what the internet is about. You can have two very different worlds in the same place. It comes to this analogy — the Internet is like a city. An analogy of New York. Two very different people having two very different experiences of New York. Some people have a very impoverished experience with the internet. We’ve spent the last year working at really astute work, so it’s been very different for us.
LG: Where do you want to take Mossless?
RH: We will probably see a couple more issues. There a lot of different directions we want to go. We want to set up a gallery. We want to represents artworks and not artists.
GL: A little bit in the way the bookshops we work with.
RH: We want to move past art as an exercise in branding.
LG: It comes back to the quality of the work rather than the artist’s name it’s attached to.
RH: Exactly. It will still be high-quality, but more accessible, and more affordable. But this is in maybe 10 years. It might be here, or in Holland, or who knows.