Portrait of Romke Hoogwaerts and Grace Leigh by Matthew Leifheit
The forthcoming third issue of Mossless magazine is a nearly 300-page volume of new American documentary photography that will include the work of more than 180 photographers. A number of history’s greatest photographs come from this tradition—shooting people and places in the United States, addressing hidden attitudes and issues that would have otherwise gone unrecognized. In the last decade, the American landscape has changed immeasurably. There are countless photographers documenting every facet of these changes in their everyday lives, and many of them are sharing their work online. The caliber of these photographs is sometimes extraordinary, but the sheer amount of work online is staggering, and the the great mass of images can obscure even the best. Most publishers shy away from the online world because they feel the work has already been consumed, and galleries encourage represented artists to delete their online presence. But Romke Hoogwaerts and Grace Leigh, the publishers of Mossless, have continued to nest themselves inside online communities, compiling a huge sequence of photographs selected from deep corners of the web. They believe giving these lost images permanence in the form of a major photographic volume will give their readers a complete experience of not only the country but the online world of photography as well. And the best part is that they’ve done it all by themselves.
Photo by Thomas Prior
VICE: How did you start Mossless?
Romke: It started as a blog in 2009, with the intention of going to print eventually.
The last time we did an interview together, [my art-critic friend] Paddy Johnson pointed out that you failed on your initial attempt at publishing the first issue, but then you decided to actually increase the scale of your project.
Romke: Yeah, I spent my savings having 30 copies of the first issue produced in Chinatown, but I wasn’t satisfied with the printing.
So, after that initial failure, you took a step back and decided to do something much larger rather than give up.
Romke: Yeah the content was good in that first attempt, but I wouldn’t have bought it myself. You couldn’t see all the care that went into it. So I wanted to make it more dense. I added three photographers whom I’d considered for later issues, and that made it more dimensional. We printed four offset books, one for each photographer, in an edition of 500 copies.
Grace: With each project we come up against serious issues, but Romke is very persistent.
Romke: I try to take a bigger step with each issue.
Photo by Nat Ward
Your third issue is going to be a huge photobook.
Romke: Yeah, we are going to print at least a thousand copies, because we feel the work is that important. There are around around 118 photographers, 280 pages. A few more may be added.
What is your interest in documentary photography?
Grace: My parents were both documentary photographers. I actually grew up above my dad’s photography gallery in Savannah, Georgia, so my interest is pretty innate. [laughs]
Romke: I fell in love with photography through skateboarding as a teenager. A really big aspect of skateboarding is the documentation—the filming and the photographing of it, taking it at the right moment, from the right angle. Shooting skateboarding is its own genre of photography that requires a lot of ancillary technical knowledge. To be a skateboard photographer you have to understand skateboarding deeply. You have to know every trick. That applies to all different types of documentary photography as well.
Grace: Right, to document something in a cohesive way you have to speak the language.
Romke: But when I went to college I studied cinematography. I wanted to do photography on the side, but I got so obsessed with the online world, and the sheer amount of photographers there are in our generation, I got really keen on the idea of being a support system for a lot of them. These are people whom I would consider my peers, but at the time they were all intangible because I was experiencing their work through the internet.
Photo by Nguan
A lot of the photographers in your book are American, and they’re depicting communities that they know very well, right?
Grace: Yes, but a few of them are them are from other countries as well. Most of the photographers depict the part of the country where they are from, or where they studied.
It seems like the book will cover many different regions of the US.
Romke: Even with people who’ve documented different regions, you can see connections between their bodies of work. There are ties to one another. That’s really what compelled us to make this book—seeing those different bodies of work but not seeing them in the same place, and really wanting to.
You’ve done two issues of the magazine before. The first one was released in January 2012, and it focused on sort of personal documentaries. The second was released at the 2013 New York Art Book Fair. It focused on photography’s involvement with the internet, and you printed and bound it by hand. How did you start thinking about the third issue?
Romke: I had kind of always thought of the third issue as the big one. The first one was an experiment. The second was a piece of theory, and then the third one would be a big statement. I wanted it to be about a theme that was important, that would connect a lot of people. It just so happened that American documentary photography had sort of exploded online, especially since 2008. It made sense to us to bring everything together, to create a composition that would put all the work into the same context.
Grace: All of the work we chose was responding to the same issues we face as a country.
Photo by Paul d'Amato
You also found all of this work on the Internet, so you are trying to give it more permanence, too.
Romke: It’s true—we saw everything online first. We really feel like art online is a way to experience the world, and we would like to raise awareness of all the good work that’s being done. Our experience of all of these works was very overwhelming. Some of the works we found really knocked us over. And we saw all of them for free. Some of these photographs we’ve seen on Tumblr are as good as the photographs we grew up learning about.
You’ve drawn comparisons to Walker Evans and James Agee in the past. I think it’s absolutely valid.
Romke: You look at photographs by someone like Curran Hatleberg—that’s genius. His photographs are incredibly powerful. And they are readily available online.
Grace: It’s been kind of a shame for us to see this work go largely unrecognised, and just fly through the streams of Tumblr. A lot of magazines are not publishing work that’s already been online, already been seen. We want to put as much of this work as we can in one place to give it permanence and tangibility.
What are the common themes between these photos?
R: That the reality of American life has changed.
Photo by Sebastian Collett
Photo by Ilona Szwarc
Photo by Terry Evans
Photo by Dan Boardman
Photo by Dana Lixenberg
Photo by Abigail Cassner
Photo by Caitlin Teal Price
Photo by Vanessa Winship
Photo by Geoffrey Ellis
Photo by Bryan Schutmaat
Mossless Issue Three: The United States (2003-2013) is currently currently being funded on Kickstarter.
Matthew Leifheit is Photo Editor of VICE. Follow him on Twitter.