The Ice Plant is a small art book publishing company in Los Angeles, California, that has a wonderful penchant for imagery in which there’s an aspect of the peculiar in the mundane. Mike Slack and Tricia Gabriel, the duo that runs The Ice Plant, leapt into publishing after many combined years of experience in the book business. And while they are both photographers, they estimate that this experience working in the business has more to do with how they publish books than their own creative practices in photography.
They published their first book, Jason Fulford’s Raising Frogs for $$$, in 2006. To date, they have published 19 titles, and, along with artist Tamara Shopsin, co-publish the 5 Year Diary, which “lets you keep track of the next 60 months of your life in just a few lines a day.” Their next book will be a book of Seth Lower’s photographs, entitled The Sun Shone Glaringly. While they haven’t been able to make the press their one and only job, Gabriel and Slack have managed to continue publishing the books they both want to.
Slack and Gabriel were good enough to answer several questions about the inner workings of The Ice Plant:
What does The Ice Plant mean?
TG: My grandfather started an ice factory in San Bernardino [outside of Los Angeles and where Gabriel grew up] at a time when people would buy bags or blocks of ice in various forms (dry, crushed, etc.) for their homes. The business was passed down to my father and brothers. Our family always called it “the ice plant” when I was growing up.
Why/when/how did you conceive of the idea of The Ice Plant?
TG: I had been working as a book buyer for SFMOMA [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] for seven years, then as a sales rep for Phaidon Press for five years. I wanted a change but still wanted to be in the art book business. It felt like a natural move to start a small publishing imprint, an area that I hadn’t worked in before (the only thing close was a book-making class in art school). I quit repping and started The Ice Plant in 2006, then quickly got another rep job after realizing there was no way to make a living as a small art book publisher!
Who comes up with the brilliant titles for your books?
MS: In almost every case the artist already has a title attached to the project and we stick with it (maybe debating over some subtle variation). In fact, it’s often the title that first wins us over—Animals That Saw Me and Slow Paparazzo in particular. (Speaking of which: we’ve got an upcoming project called Bad Luck, Hot Rocks, about this huge archive of ‘conscience letters’ that have been mailed back to the Petrified National Forest along with pieces of petrified wood that people have stolen from the park.)
Did you have guiding principles in mind at the start, a business model, or otherwise?
TG: No business model per se—just learned the basics about distribution vs. selling to stores directly by talking to friends and former colleagues in publishing. And since Mike and I have both been in the book business in various ways, we understood print runs and the importance of coming up with decent prices for our books.
MS: I’d say the basic principle has been to work on books we want to spend time with, or books we’d be jealous to see published elsewhere, and to not lose money in the process (which doesn’t always mean we make money). Also, whenever possible, we like working with artists with whom we can do karaoke.
Have you been able to adhere to this, more or less?
TG/MS: Yeah, it has worked out more or less as planned (admittedly, it was a loose plan). We keep it small and selective, and try to stay consistent to our aesthetic, which is fairly intuitive and hard to define.
What do you think both of you being photographers brings to the publishing process or adds to the way you go about the business of publishing, in particular?
MS: Being photographers helps with the editing process and affects what we respond to, etc. But on the business end, being in the book business for all these years (on the sales and bookstore end) has probably had a greater effect on how we conceive and fine-tune the books for retail.
What are some publishers and publications that have fueled you along the way?
TG/MS: It would be hard to narrow down the list of publications (we’re both surrounded by so many books!) but some key publishers would include: A-Jump Books, J&L Books, Hassla, Gottlund Verlag, Spaces Corners, Roma, Walther Konig Verlag, and Kodoji Press.
Mike, do you have a day job right now (aside from photography)?
MS: I have a very full-time day job as a local sales rep for Macmillan Publishers, selling books (not art books, but just about everything else besides textbooks) to independent bookshops in Southern California and Arizona. I’ve been doing that since 1997! Photography jobs come up from time to time and I take them as I can, but I don’t rely on freelance work to pay the bills. I think I actually became a photographer because of all the driving involved with being a traveling sales rep…
How do you even find the time?
TG/MS: That is a very good question! We find the time for this the way some people find time to…have kids?
All images courtesy The Ice Plant and copyright the respective artists. The first two images in this post are © Melissa Catanese, from Dive Dark Dream Slow.