Words by Anthony Thomas
Given the state of the print media industry, publishing limited run photo and art books hardly seems a logical, let alone viable, endeavour. Fortunately, under Small House Books, Charlie Hillhouse does exactly that. Arriving at the QCA trained photographer’s live-in studio nestled in the heart of Paddington, I’m met with a lush, vertically aligned landscape, the sound of a hip-hop mix tape looping in the background and greetings from a reserved but warm Hillhouse.
Conceptualising a niche publishing venture may seem absurd to most, let alone continuing to develop and actualise the idea. This may lead you to believe that Small House’s relative success is the design of an elaborate marketing scheme. Incorrect. “Before my final year (at uni) I started collating all of my photographs and putting them into books. I wanted a holiday project to see if I could do it and really enjoyed the process. Once that happened and I finished the first one, I kept thinking about the next one and the one after that.”
Hillhouse and Small House Books are one and the same. “It’s my life. The things I find interesting and intriguing.” His almost seamless integration of passion and work is an enviable situation for most but one he is reluctant to admit, much less bask in with gaudy satisfaction. “I just go along with it. Whatever happens, happens. I don’t really plan it, one thing leads to another. I get really excited about something and just have to do it.” Three years on, Hillhouse has released upwards of fifteen books, not all his own work either. In fact, he revels in the opportunity to work with other artists, leveraging the small nature of his operation to construct a dynamic, highly collaborative work culture. Though perhaps time-consuming, the unified approach to creation bears remarkable results. I’m curious to know what attracts him to work on certain projects.
“I have to have some kind of affinity to the work. I’ve never published anything where someone has just come to me with something they want published. It’s about working together. All the projects are very organic in the way they evolve. I don’t want it to be me just creating something. I want them to feel like they are a part of this process. It’s not about me just doing my own thing and putting books out. I’ve never worked that way with Small House books. I want the people I work with to share the enjoyment of having their work as a physical object.”
Each project runs between 50-100 copies. Small House Books, the collector’s item perhaps? “Sure. It’s also less fuss if you’re running smaller prints. When money isn’t the goal you can do what you want. With Small House there is the freedom to do solely what you want, there’s no pressure to raise huge amounts of funds. If it doesn’t go that well then it’s not the end of the world.” A refreshing ethic given the torrents of kitsch-art drowning contemporary culture. But is keeping this aesthetic a long-term goal? “Yes. It’s purely about making the object, not thinking about the best way to sell or market it. Maybe the project isn’t the greatest but it’s something we wanted to do at that time.”
Hillhouse also utilises a Risograph printer for appropriate projects, an interesting addition to his practise. Firing up his baby, a soft hum permeates. Describing it as a glorified photocopier, he goes onto explain that, “Using soy-based inks, it prints one colour at a time which allows for its own aesthetic that I can then play with. Sometimes it works for a project, sometimes it doesn’t.” He pokes around his studio for a moment and pulls out a small green zine called Waiya. The title features a body of work taken by Hillhouse himself while travelling through Tokyo. “The risograph really allows experimentation with the colour drums in the printer without the insane price tag.” In this case, the photographs have been manipulated to stunning effect, the varying hues of the image highlighted by the corresponding tone of green.
Before I leave, Hillhouse shows me through his vast personal collection of art books, records and zines. Pulling Mike Millsand Paul Kookier publications from the wall-sized bookshelf and flicking through them with careful affection, he offers considered and intelligent opinions on art, design and music in an off the record conversation. Refreshing, culturally aware and immersive – the insight into his persona beyond the professional context is remarkable. Devoid of gimmicks, Hillhouseand Small House Books shine equally as underground icons in their own right. Who said publishing is dead?