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Café Royal Publishes Exactly One Great Photo Book Every Week

That's quite a lot for a publisher run by just one guy, so we asked him how he does it.

Preston Bus Station, Pie and Blow Dry by Craig Atkinson 

This post originally appeared in VICE UK

If you really sat down and tried, you could turn a lot of pages in the space of 30 days. While we've spent more than a decade providing you with about 120 of those pages every month, it turns out there are many more magazines in the world other than VICE. This new series, Ink Spots, is a helpful guide to which of those zines, pamphlets, and publications you should be reading when you're not staring at ours.


Café Royal books is an independent label run out of North West England by artist/photographer/father/publisher/one-man-miracle Craig Atkinson. Running since 2005, mostly they put out books of black-and-white photography by British social documentary photographers, but there's no hard and fast rule. The main criterion is simply that the work demonstrates some kind of "change"—a theme Craig explained to us when we caught up with him this week.

VICE: Hi, Craig. How did Café Royal come about? What was the "light-bulb moment"?
Craig Atkinson:  I used to paint big abstracts, and I suppose the "light-bulb moment" was deciding to stop painting. I returned to drawing and wanted a way of exhibiting the drawings that didn't rely on the gallery system. Books and zines, at the time, were my way to disseminate my work affordably and quickly. I didn't want to self publish under my own name, so Café Royal was started.

You put out an edition every Thursday. Why one book a week?
Because I don't have time to do more!

A Café Royal book. Cover shot by Hugh Hood

Is that pressurising? It sounds like kinda a lot of work.
The team is excellent, we work really well together. Very tight routine and excellent admin department. In reality, though, it's just me, in a small room. It is pressure but not really stress, not often anyway, because it's so enjoyable. I teach full-time and have two young children, so altogether it gets tight—there are no breaks!


Photo by Tony Bock, from Social Britain

What has been the hardest thing about running Café Royal?
It's only recently that I've considered how it's grown. I never had the intention of it becoming a "business," or something I could potentially do full-time. I see it as a way for me to promote great work by getting it seen and in collections and to make the books I'd like to collect. There's nothing hard, really, except for timing, but that becomes a system that, if kept to, doesn't cause many problems. It's great fun—if it weren't, I'd stop.

​Photo by Tony Bock, from Social Britain

You're a photographer? How does that influence your curatorial practice as a publisher?
As my work has moved further into photography so has what I publish. The books initially were just an outlet where as now the books and my work meet in the middle, they kind of inform each other. So in terms of curatorial practice in relation to my own work, the two are tied.

The majority of what I publish now examines social change in the UK in some way—aspects of which my work does too. Roughly one fifth of what I publish is my own work. My interests are brutalist architecture and estates, public places, and street photography specific to a location.

Photo by Craig Atkinson

You print works in a limited run. What do people most often wish they could get their hands on?
The titles that have sold the fastest are by John Claridge, Jim Mortram, and Brian David Stevens… So perhaps they are the ones. Once they're out of print they stay out of print. A second edition is sometimes (but rarely) produced, and really only at the request of the photographer. We have to agree there's a reason for it rather than just to sell more. For example, if something sells out in a day it limits the audience. It creates a buzz but long term it doesn't reach it's potential I don't think, so on occasion I might make another edition. No more after that though.


Having said all that, I think some of the slow burners are the ones that when they've gone people will appreciate. John Darwell, Arthur Tress, Tony Bock, Geoff Howard, for example. Loads of shops stock them now but out of print ones… I guess eBay might have a copy.

Holy Ireland by Geoff Howard

Why do you focus on change as the overriding theme in the work you publish?
When I started to use a camera more, it was very much as a tourist. Then I found out that a place in Beijing that I'd shot for a book had been demolished. It was a place of cultural significance, gone, to make way for the Olympics. So the book became a record of something that no longer existed, and that really simple thing affected the way I saw photography and the way I wanted to engage with it. The term "change" is very broad. History shows change. Without showing a history what we have is just surface. I think it's good to remind people, to suggest, to pause, reflect, etc.

Which Café Royal editions would you recommend?
I only publish work that I love, so to single out a few books is too difficult. Impossible. It's all of them. Steve McCoy's Housing Estates book stands out to me, but that's because, coincidentally, the housing estate is the one I grew up on. John Darwell's topographical work and John Stoddart's Liverpool work… I could give reasons for every book.

Photo by Brian David Stevens, from Notting Hill Sound Systems

What's coming up, and what's the future of Café Royal more generally?
​Recently I started Notes [at]. The aim is to create a resource or reference of UK social documentary photography, and it will also provide contextual information for the books. Next year I'm working with John Stoddart, Ken Grant, Martin Parr, Daniel Meadows, John Darwell, Patrick Ward, Steve Clarke, Steve McCoy.

The future? Time will tell. I'll stop when I no longer enjoy it, but right now I enjoy it more than ever. I still see the books as very small things, but slowly, somehow, I think they're making a difference.

Follow Café Royal on ​Twitter and buy some of their books through their ​website.

Follow Amelia Abraham on ​Twitter.