Happy Birthday To You: An interview with Anouk Kruithof

Anouk Kruitof

Artist and bookmaker Anouk Kruithof in New York with all the photobooks submitted to the inaugural edition of The Anamorphosis Prize

Joanna Cresswell: Let’s begin by talking a little about your work, and in particular your contribution to photobook culture. You’ve been a big part of redefining and expanding what can be done with the photobook as a medium and books are also something that you produce a lot of. What is the importance of the photobook to your practice at large? Or maybe, why photobooks?

Anouk Kruithof: My work explores and questions the philosophy and physicality of photography as a medium. My multi­layered, interdisciplinary and mostly project-based approach takes the form of photographs, installations, artist-books, texts, sculptures, ephemera and performance. For me a book is an experience, an intimate meeting as well. A book has no closing hours. Photography and the book format goes naturally hand in hand, so to me it has always been part of my practice to make works of which the final outcome is the book. My books are photo-based artist books. So the book is the work basically. I like to walk through a book with my fingers and my mind, the same way I explore the world when traveling.

JC: I think it’s really important that you talk about the photobook as an experience.  The various, interdisciplinary incarnations of your work offer ways for the experience of the photobook to move beyond the standard analogue engagement one might have with a book and become sensorial.  Perhaps the notion of ‘play’ is becoming an overused term, but do you think there’s a value in making the experience of photography fun?

AK: I certainly wish for my work to have an element of fun or for it to be sensational – a sort of question mark – in its own right. I want my work to be experienced and to touch people or stimulate them to think. The best is when the two combine.


Anouk Kruithof’s Happy Birthday To You

Take my book Happy Birthday To You as an example.  It’s quite heavy subject matter I chose, which essentially involved celebrating the birthdays of patients with mental illnesses in the way they wished their birthdays to be. The project took patience, dedication and empathy. After celebrating ten birthdays I decided to make this book – it can be looked at in the same way as a normal book, but it also demands more from the viewer.  To begin you have to engage in the theatre of unwrapping the book, tied up in ribbon, as one would find a present.

Once inside the book, you can discover each patient’s story by reading interviews and lifting flaps to reveal pictures. For each patient, I made a cake a with portrait of them printed upon the icing which they could share with fellow patients – under each flap is a picture of a cake.  In the re-photographed “3D photo-sets” you can see how the birthdays were celebrated.  The book invites the viewer to collect and experience the stories in different ways.

JC: You refer to the experience of encountering art in a photobook as an ‘intimate meeting’. Although that is very much referring to the more tactile way we can engage with work, that idea of a meeting also leads me to think about how important conversation is to the photobook experience, both between artists and contributors, and between images – the small waves of conversation between photographs talking to each other throughout a book. Can you talk a bit about how conversation (in any sense) might play an important role in the making of your photobooks?

AK: When thinking about my publication Untitled (I’ve taken too many photo’s / I’ve never taken a photo), conversation was very important.  I had a long chat with someone called Harrison Median, who I found through a poster call on the streets of Bed Stuy, an almost gentrified ghetto in Brooklyn, New York. He had never taken a photo before and therefore he played the main subject in this project. I decided to let him edit a selection of three hundred photos from my automagic archive and let him pick seventy five for an installation I later made. During this day of selection we talked and I recorded his comments on my photos, his associations and the narratives he found among them. I tried to find out how someone who has never taken a photo deals with looking at such a huge amount of photos and what photography means to someone who is not part of the “professional-photo-planet” I live in.  Harrison and I had an intimate meeting and I tried to make this publication according to our connection, translating the energy of our meeting.


Anouk Kruithof with The Anamorphosis Prize shortlisted books

JC: Let’s talk a little about your own library which I can only assume is vast by now. What’s in there and what inspires you?

AK: Wow – that’s not an easy question for me since there is so much I admire in other people – books, methods, ways of thinking – and due to that the collection keeps growing.  Since it’s so broad, I’ll share with you just a couple of things which I connected to recently in one way or another.

The books of Lieko Shiga are all there for example. I just managed to swap most of her books with my own and got a few less rare ones as a present from a friend of mine. I have been inspired by Lieko’s work for a long time, because it’s almost impossible to fathom. It is the kind of work I only really feel I “get” in that time between sleep and being fully awake. For a recent issue of Aperture’s Photobook Review I made the centerfold out of screenshots of Lieko and myself on Skype talking about her books.

Another book which has always stayed important to me is EVIDENCE by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel. I actually recently dedicated a whole new project to that book and the way in which it has inspired me, aptly titled #EVIDENCE.

Enclosed foto 125-100 cm

Anouk Kruithof, Enclosed Content Chatting Away in the Colour Invisibility, 2009.

JC: Your deep interest in photobooks has also led to another recent project of yours – The Anamorphosis Prize. Can you tell us a bit about that? How did your jury come to be formed?

AK: In November 2014 I met John Phelan, who is the founder and, together with me, the creator of this new prize to support, stimulate debate and shine more light on photobooks and photo-based artist books in the field of self-publishing. We met because of my own books, since he is among other things an obsessive photobook collector. We shared our love and almost over-appreciation for all things self-publishing, and agreed that often the most outstanding things are made when the artist can autonomously sculpt their own sense of vocation, which is the case with self-publishing.

I also strongly felt among discussions with younger makers (not necessarily in age but in the quantity of books and experience) that so many people out there pay enormous amounts of money in order to get their books published with a publisher. To pay for exposure isn’t something I believe in and self-publishing can be a way to avoid this as well as a refreshing way to create, ride and slide your own road. Therefore the deal was made: I was going to set up this new prize together with John.

Charlotte Cotton then joined the jury alongside John and I and the three of us, as well as our press coordinator Olga Yatskevich, worked tirelessly to get the prize out there.  We received 350 packages of books in the end so it’s certainly been a worthwhile pursuit!

The twenty shortlisted books gain inclusion in the MoMA library and all submitted books make their way into the Franklin Furnace Archive which is reward already. There is more to it than just $$$, but what makes this prize special is that there is just one winning author who will receive $10,000 and it’s the only prize existing with no strings attached.

The Anamorphosis Prize website

The Anamorphosis Prize website

JC: Tell us a bit about the shortlisted books. What were you looking for as a jury?

AK: We have chosen twenty books, which have a diverse range of subject matter, concept and design. There are no rules about nationality, race, gender or age of the author. We’re looking for outstanding books and we’re doing this with our own expert-wings spread open as wide as possible. Each of us have our own experience and we are using it to look at the books from three very different backgrounds: John with the eyes of a photobook collector, Charlotte with her knowledge of contemporary photography and critical view as a writer and curator and myself as an artist and bookmaker. This makes us a perfectly balanced team with different opinions and angles from which to look at elements of each book.

On the 1st January 2016, the inaugural Anamorphosis Prize was awarded to Carolyn Drake for her self-published 2014 photobook Wild Pigeon. Described as ‘intimate in scale yet broad in scope’ by the judges, the book is a worthy winner, delving into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China and the history of the Uyghur people. Read more about the winning selection, and the special mentions here.


Anouk Kruithof  is a Dutch artist based in New York. Her multi­layered, interdisciplinary approach takes the form of photographs, sculptures, artist-books, installations, texts, printed take away ephemera, video and performance. @anoukkruithof

Joanna Cresswell is a writer and works in the bookshop at The Photographers’ Gallery. @JoannaCresswell

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