Part magazine, part photo book, Bill is an annual photography publication by Roma which describes its initiative as “prioritising visual reading without distraction”. With editing and creative direction by graphic designer Julie Peeters, Bill collates new or unpublished work from 12 contributing photographers and presents the images with no accompanying text, upholding the capacity of pictures to speak for themselves.
Julie tells us that “the magazine is very much about the object and how it’s made”, something that is emphasised by the variety of textures and weights encountered as the reader-viewer leafs through the pages. The paper alternates between matte, gloss, near-transparencies and heavy, grainy, vinyl-like textures, lending each photo story a distinctive tactile identity. Printed at Benedict Press, a tiny printing house in Münsterschwarzach, a Benedictine monastery, Bill’s experimental approach to print foregrounds the presence of its images as material objects as well as visual artworks.
Having recently published its second issue, Bill 2, the magazine’s overall visual identity has gained greater clarity, with continuous themes established in elements carried over from the initial publication. The glossy covers of both issues are adorned with portraits of women, closely cropped so that their faces almost fill the frame, and paired by back-cover images of stockinged feet in low-heeled shoes. Descriptors for the cover photographs, written along the spines of both magazines, provide Bill’s only explanatory text. The first, in reference to the cover’s black and white cinematic shot of actress Susan Hampshire, reads: “Euryale (Susan Hampshire) is the Gorgon in Malpertuis. Note how her hair is curled to resemble snakes and her eyes are fixed with a petrifying stare.” Meanwhile, the caption on the spine of Bill 2, which accompanies an image of a woman looking askance over her shoulder, reads simply “Smile No”.
In this way, Bill offers a take on the “cover girl” aesthetic of magazines whereby the photographed female subject, instead of adopting the passive stance of something looked at – in accordance with John Berger’s famous claim that “men act and women appear” – asserts her own agenda. Hampshire’s Gorgon character threatens to turn the viewer to stone with her Medusa gaze, while Bill 2’s cover girl looks contemptuously back at us, refusing the wish of the photographer or the onlooker that she “smile”.
There is also a crossover between the content: Linda van Deursen’s triple black photographic scan collages appear in both issues, with her fashion archive imagery of the first issue developed and built upon in Bill 2 in her photo story Women and Printing, which makes the addition of fine art, documentary and film material, the images partially obscured by shadowy imprints of her hands across the pages. So, too, Jochen Lempert’s silver gelatin print series of a jellyfish inside a plastic bag which features in issue one finds a pairing in Bill 2 with high-contrast photographs of poppies with trailing, tentacle-like stems.
The printed editions of both Bill and Bill 2 interact with the digital element of the publication. Photographic works that appear unlabelled in their material format are supplied with captions and credits online, either on Bill’s website or on the publication’s Instagram page. Both issues are also accompanied by Spotify playlists comprised of a miscellany of musical styles, ranging from Helena Hauff’s acid-techno and Gina X Performance’s electro-pop to Bill Withers’ singer-songwriter ballads and German composer Robert Schumann’s solo piano works. As such, the face that Bill presents in print – the visual unembellished by additional information – brings with it a whole host of cross-media references and extra-visual material that give the publication far more multimodality than first meets the eye. With this interdependence between Bill’s print and online identities, meaning that a total engagement with the project as a whole demands both physical and digital interaction, Julie has captured and crafted the self-reflexive and multimedia identity of the modern magazine that invites participation across the multiple spheres in which it exists.