For most Oregonians summer is the season to get outside and unwind. A respite from the winter rains, it’s a chance to sunbathe, swim, hike, and soak up some daylight.
Evan Baden’s summer took a detour from this norm. The 37-year-old OSU photography instructor spent much of June through August hunkered down in his garage, jumpstarting his new publishing venture Push Pull Editions. That’s where I found him on a recent visit to his suburban home near Corvallis, comfortably ensconced in a nest of steampunk-looking machinery.
Despite his self deprecating forewarning —“my system is hodgepodge” and “unimpressive”— I was in fact impressed by Baden’s setup. Various bookmaking components filled every available cranny. He’d scavenged them piecemeal from discard sources around the country, over the course of two years. Through a combination of donation and purchase, he’d gained ownership and had them freighted to Corvallis. Taken together they weighed a few tons, and they might have cost north of $50K purchased new. By Baden’s reckoning he’d invested just a few thousand dollars.
The machines had arrived in various states of disrepair. But Baden had nursed them all back into working order with elbow grease and pluck. They were now carefully arranged a few feet apart, in a connect-the-dots assembly line —some still on their shipping pallets. The operation looked like something out of an old Lewis Hine photo, but its function was quite contemporary. These were the basic tools of Push Pull Editions. The company name refers to analog film and the controlled dynamics of photographic exposure/development. Listening to Baden animatedly describe his operation, I realized that Push Pull’s icon, a +/- symbol, might also represent a charged battery.
Baden was especially proud of his latest addition, a 1905 National bindery—an off-brand version of the better known Smyth-sewn bindery—for stitching book signatures together. He’d acquired it several months ago, at which point it hadn’t been used in years. The machine was so old and uncommon that Baden had trouble sourcing good information on it. He had called around and tried this and that, pursuing various leads and dead ends. By his estimation he’d put 50 hours of time into research, and it had finally paid off. He’d finally gotten the darn thing working. It would now replace the early summer’s hand-sewn method and shave a half hour of labor per book. The industrial revolution, as recapitulated in one casebound example.
As he described the bindery to me, Baden provided a short working demo in the garage. Standing proudly over the National in fashionably oversized glasses (were they rose colored? Or how else to explain his all-systems-go optimism?) he buzzed with the exuberance of a mad scientist. “I am very much learning everything as I go,” he explained later. “There is a lot of guess, check, luck, and plenty of mistakes.” None appeared to have slowed him down.
In addition to the National sewer, Baden’s garage housed a Baum 714xl for folding printed sheets, a small perfect binder for gluing sewn book blocks, a hydraulic paper shear for trimming pages and book blocks to uniform size, a board shear for the cardboard cases, a “casing in” machine to glue end sheets into the book case, a Kensol K60 foil stamper for cover graphics, and a heavy screw press to flatten finished books. Each one took up perhaps a phone booth’s worth of volume, in a garage which might have been 300 square feet.
The cloth covers would not require their own machine. He would simply make these by hand from cardstock and fabric, with the help of a student intern. There were also shipping flats and a hair dryer for shrinkwrap, both easily stashed in a corner. The only component which had to be outsourced was the printing itself. This was done by a Versant Digital Press at OSU. By Baden’s reckoning, it cost 1/10th the expense of a traditional offset press, and the reproductions were virtually indistinguishable in book form. He’d convinced the university to purchase the machine, and it was now used for all class projects in the photo department. Push Pull could lease time and materials during the school’s idle times, especially summer.
It should be obvious by now that a start-up publisher has several moving parts and people. Coordinating them all in real-time is a managerial feat. Baden had pieced together his fledgling Push Pull by trial and error, spurred initially by the pandemic.
In early 2020 he’d found himself displaced from physical teaching. He and his wife had recently begun a family. Travel was impossible, and he faced an indefinite period of long hours at home. He’d long had an interest in photobooks and physical expressions of photography, and in fact he’d been teaching zine and book making for several years at OSU. The leap to running his own press seemed doable, but the learning curve was steep. It helped that ignorance can sometimes be bliss. Book publishing might be one of those fields no one would enter if they actually knew beforehand all that was involved. It is perfect for an autodidact like Baden.
That was two years ago. Fast forward to September 2022, and Push Pull has just begun shipping its first book release. The debut is Schools for the Colored by Wendel White, a study of segregated school buildings shot mostly in the Midwest. The book’s design is calibrated to historic racial tensions. It’s a sturdy hard cover with 112 pages, with stark monochrome images. “I wanted the book to feel heavy, so it’s a lot of black,” explains Baden. “Black cloth, foil, and end sheets…I see the heavy use of black in this book as a type of mourning. Mourning for those who had to suffer in a segregated system, always put at a disadvantage and then finally, when schools were integrated, the loss of a teaching class that served as a beacon to the community.”
The edition size is only 150. That’s a small run by traditional publishing standards, but not a total outlier in the increasingly boutique world of collectible photobooks. Created by hand in Baden’s garage, they are closer in spirit to artisan crafts than mass-culture products. By keeping the operation to a small scale, he can minimize expenses and outsourcing. Baden requires no upfront financial contribution from authors, a contrast with many publishers. Photographers receive several copies of the finished book as compensation, along with the satisfaction of their own monograph. The remaining editions are sold publicly to pay production expenses. It’s a homegrown approach perfect for the Willamette Valley, which slots also into the upper echelons of the photo world.
Push Pull’s marketing strategy is somewhat smoothed by Baden’s teaching gig at OSU, which insulates him from the typically treacherous waters of photobook sales. “I am at an advantage of not having to do this for a living,” he chimes. “I get to pick and choose the projects I want and because of how vertical my process is I am not overly concerned with making profit. My main aim is to make beautiful and thoughtful expansions of artists’ work and to break even.”
It’s a promising system, and Baden is just getting started. After Schools for the Colored, Push Pull has a handful of other projects in the planning pipeline stretching into Spring 2023. These include books by Ana Pearse, Fábio Messias, Jennifer Ray, Sara Winston, and Aaron Canipe. Each photographer is a personal favorite handpicked by Baden, who has full discretion over publishing choices. “I feel a book as an object should reflect and contribute to the content within,” he adds. “A book is a new imagining of the work presented, and care should be taken to not have anything that distracts, and hopefully to elevate already excellent work.”