Behind the scenes at Café Royal Books: Craig Atkinson on sniffing out unseen and unpublished photography gems
As he celebrates the publication of 500 zines with an exhibition at the Martin Parr Foundation, we talk to the founder of Café Royal Books about what inspired him to begin publishing.
- Elfie Thomas
- 13 May 2022
For the past 10 years, the weekly publications lovingly produced by Café Royal Books have been a go-to source for anyone interested in post-war documentary photography. Fans will know that its speciality is in digging up unseen, under-represented and un-published photography connected to Britain and Ireland. Over the years, Café Royal’s archive of zines has become not only a precious source of photographic gems but also preserves a unique history of Britain and Ireland, celebrating all the quirks and subcultures which documentary photographers have a knack for sniffing out. From Welsh coal miners, UK ravers and the urban cowboys of Dublin to football fans, punks, the Sloanes and the Rahs, Café Royal Books has seen it all.
Craig Atkinson has now published over 500 books from his home in Southport, all as hand-made, hand-cut and small-sized as when he first began making them. His current exhibition at the Martin Parr foundation – which celebrates five archive boxes of publications – has provided us with the perfect excuse to talk to Craig about what inspired him to begin publishing, how he founded Café Royal Books and to ask him to share some insights on a few of the images in the exhibition.
Craig took to publishing after 10 years of making abstract paintings. The process was slow and expensive. “I needed a change," he tells us. It occurred to him that drawing and making zines would provide the answer to all his problems: “Multiple, fast, cheap, pos-table, but still an art object, and more democratic perhaps.” And so, he hatched the idea to create an affordable format to share art which bypassed the need for galleries – which is when Café Royal Books was borne.
Craig never trained as a photographer himself, so his zine-making was led by his passion for the “free and underground press”, and the “subversive nature” of a lot of the material he found in photographer’s submissions. “I love finding things out and I love working with other people and getting their work seen,” he tells us. “Getting their work seen is a massive reason for doing what I do — it’s great when people find a photographer they didn’t know of through one of the books I’ve published.” In the early days pre-Facebook MySpace was the centre of networking for him and soon he began selling his books all over the world, “anywhere there was a scene”.
Out of the 500 books Craig has published – with each representing the work of a different photographer – it would be a mammoth task to choose just a few favourites. Plus, Craig is super indecisive: “if I told you a favourite now, by lunch it’d be different." So, we've picked out a few of our own favourites currently being displayed at the Martin Parr Foundation, and have asked Craig to give us his thoughts on them.
The first is an image taken by Sophie Gerrard at the Tunnock’s teacake factory in Scotland. Craig is instinctively drawn to the image because he’s a bit of a fan of Tunnock’s teacakes himself. He tells us that his family had a mini-crisis when the factory had to close during lockdown and a “global-shortage” of teacakes ensued. Turning more seriously to the task at hand, Craig notes the interesting contrast between the factory’s clinical machinery and the more human, imperfect arrangement of teacakes on the conveyor belt: “I like the look on the worker’s face as if she’s monitoring slightly disorderly children.”
Next is an image by the wonderful photographer-cum-restaurateur Charlie Phillips, well-known for his role in documenting West-Indian culture in post-war London. The image depicts a young man standing in Westbourne Grove tube station. Despite being underground, he sports a pair of dark sunglasses – a detail which amuses Craig. “Charlie took this in 1967, I think in his early 20s — he’d been in the UK about 15 years I think,” he adds. “A lot of Charlie’s archive is missing — Hendrix photos amongst them. It’s such a shame and reinforces the importance of digitising, printing and archiving work.”
Finally, there's a bleakly atmospheric image of an isolated building in Manchester taken by Dragan Novaković. The photographer submitted work to Craig a while ago and, since then, Café Royal has published several zines featuring his photographs of London and Manchester. “The Manchester work fascinates me,” he tells us. “It predates me by a few years and, no matter how many times I see work like this, I’m always amazed at how much has changed in such a short period of time.”
500 books down and many more in the making, Craig is working on a new collection of zines he’s calling the World Series. The new project will allow him to publish work that doesn't fit into his usual series, whilst still maintaining loose connections to Britain and Ireland either through the photographer or the subject. It will showcase documentary photography between 1960-2010 and, like all his series, will rely heavily on submissions, “which I always encourage, from all photographers — of all races, beliefs, genders and backgrounds, the well-known or underrepresented,” he concludes. “I want the series to be a true reflection of life, and of photographers making work at the time.”
Shirley Baker: Punks 1980s (Copyright © Nan Levy, 2022)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.