Interview: Al Palmer of Brown Owl Press

Al Palmer (b. 1984, Gateshead, UK) is a photographer and book designer working in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK. He is the founder of Brown Owl Press. We’ve featured his photographic work in the past, and had the pleasure of learning about the workings behind being an independent publisher of photo books and zines.

Pool Resources: Hi, Al! How are you doing today?

Al Palmer: Hi, I’m very well. How are you?

Pool Resources: So, tell me how Brown Owl Press came into creation.

Al Palmer: It was quite a long journey from the original idea to the first book being released! I’m a photographer, I graduated in 2006, so was making work, exhibiting and generally doing the regular photo world things. The photobook publishing boom happened within that time. I became very influenced by what Little Brown Mushroom, 14-19, Cafe Royal etc were doing and I had a vague idea of doing something similar, an idea that twas then called Brown Owl Books. A trip to NYC showed me shops like Printed Matter and Dashwood Books which are full of people doing what I wanted to be doing.

I’ve spent a long time in the punk/hardcore music scene and have long been a believer in the DIY ethic and spirit. There are definitely a lot of parallels with running an indie record label. Quite a few of our photographers come from a similar background, whether it’s at the front of their work or not. The most obvious case of this is Jackie Roman’s Old Domino which documents a series of now closed DIY music venues in Brooklyn.

Pool Resources: Can you elaborate more on your time in the punk/hardcore music scene? What led you to these genres?

Al Palmer: It was almost by accident—I picked up a copy of a UK punk fanzine called Fracture and discovered a whole scene of fanzines, tape trading, independently released music. The independent attitude resonated with me, as did the anti-authoritarian mindset - I’ve never tolerated being told what to do. I once saw a gig poster that said “DIY or DI why bother?” and that’s my unofficial mantra.

Pool Resources: Was the focus of the publication always on narrative photographic stories or did it transition into that?

Al Palmer: I once saw a quote saying that photobooks are children’s books for adults. That always stuck with me. The story is important to me, regardless of the subject matter - Iain Sarjeant’s work is pure landscape, Jackie Roman’s work is relatively straight documentary work 

Pool Resources: Aside from narration, is there another aesthetic you look for when considering taking someone’s digital imagery to print form?

Al Palmer: Narrative is the main thing I’m looking for. There is no set topics or photographic styles we’re looking for, certainly no house style other than maybe a few design cues I re-use frequently. Any patterns are mostly coincidental. I suppose I’m generally more drawn to quite subtle work than loud work but Brown Owl Press has published both. Definitely not open to anything racist, homophobic, misogynist or anything otherwise bigoted.

Pool Resources: Is there one book in particular that Brown Owl Press has published that you resonate with most?

Al Palmer: Aside from Flood of Sunshine, as I took the photos in that, The Thirsting Flowers by Hans Nøstdahl is probably the quietest little poem we’ve published. It’s quirky and off-beat and it pleases me greatly to look at it. On a more literal level, Old Domino by Jackie Roman documents the punk scene in Brooklyn between 2007 and 2014 which is obviously a subject that’s close to my heart.

Pool Resources: I noticed that submissions are currently closed. Is there a specific season when they are open?

Al Palmer: I kept submissions open as long I could, there was just too much work to sift through - there is a LOT of email and it’s the one thing I struggle with, replying to emails swiftly. As my network grew, I was able to contact photographers I was interested in working with, or would often just eventually meet them through mutual friends and associates.

Pool Resources: You have an impressive amount of stockists. Can you tell me how you developed these relationships?

Al Palmer: This is probably the most difficult part of indie publishing. Not all of the stockists have every title. Village Books in Leeds and NewBridge Books in Newcastle have been strong supporters, very grateful for their help. Distribution is very tricky, especially internationally. CatLABS in Massachusetts has just began stocking Brown Owl Press titles. If anyone is interested in stocking BOP titles please get in touch!

Pool Resources: What future project are you most excited for?

Al Palmer: Our newest title, Inconsolable Beginnings by Murray Thompson, has just been released. It came together very quickly and I’m really pleased with it. Next up we have a title being released by Lauren Zallo, a photographer whose work I’ve admired for a long while. Beyond that, I’m really excited to be working on books by Jenny Riffle and Brian David Stevens. There’s also a Brown Owl Press Presents… two-part exhibition coming later this year/early next year. Who needs sleep?

Pool Resources: Where do you hope to see Brown Owl Press in the next five years?

Al Palmer: I definitely want to attend more book fairs. 2016 will be the first international book fair we attend. I don’t really have any definitive goals other than to publish more work I like by photographers I think deserve a wider audience. There is a plan to release a 7” record with a photobook sleeve but that is quite a way off yet…

Pool Resources: Any advice for someone looking to start their own photographic publication?

Al Palmer: Jump in with both feet. You’ll make a ton of mistakes but there’s no better way to learn. Be transparent about your ethics and your finances. Learn to say no. Do what feels right.

Learn more about Brown Owl Press on their website.