“Well this is exciting – my mother is German!” says Martin Usborne, photographer and co-founder of Hoxton Mini Press (HMP), as he picks up one of his miniature photography books to flip through.
In the bright East London publishing house, boxes filled with books are lined along the walls. Today, Martin and Ann are sitting among pages of artwork, text and photography as they finalize cover art for a new release set to come out this summer. “Which cover do you prefer?” Martin asks. “We like to ask everyone who comes around. Then, if we end up choosing the wrong one, we can blame it on you!”
It’s an exciting afternoon at Hoxton Mini Press, they’ve just received a huge shipment of new releases. These days, the married couple has difficulty finding time to produce all the books they have ideas for. From nightlife, to crazy haircuts, to gorgeous flower markets, there’s certainly a wealth of stories to be found in East London. But their whole project started with a chance encounter. One afternoon, Martin saw 86 ½ year old Joseph Markovitch looking strangely out of place among all the young hipsters lounging in Hoxton Square Park. What began as a simple request to take the old man’s portrait resulted in a long friendship, a photography book and a new independent publishing company in East London.
The personal portrayal of Markovitch – who expressed a deep love for Nicolas Cage, took five sugars in his tea and only left East London once in his life – received a lot of interest, ultimately leading to Martin and Ann opening Hoxton Mini Press. They quickly followed up with similar titles. A Portrait of Hackney, East London Swimmers and Shoreditch Wild Life all provide the same raw approach to photography, illustration and storytelling.
The diversity found in East London is unmatched, and Hoxton Mini Press is successfully sharing stories from their vibrant corner of the world. Their books showcase an area where there’s always more to see, do and explore. Through their eyes, it’s easy to see that East London is still very much alive.
For people who aren’t familiar with Hoxton Mini Press, can you tell us the story of how you first ventured into independent publishing?
Ann: It all started with Martin’s book about Joseph, the old man.
Martin: I documented him for about five years. I had a photography exhibition coming up, and I thought it would be nice to make a book with the photos I’d taken. I’ve always been an avid collector of photography books, so I thought it would be fun. When the book came out, it received a lot of readership from local bookshops, so that’s when I started thinking I could do other books featuring East London.
There are so many creatives living in Hackney, so I started thinking about books I could do with other East London photographers. We took the book on Joseph and decided to make a collectable series based around that concept. The idea was to limit ourselves to a small but vibrant area so we could create a brand focus, and that’s what eventually happened. The initial idea for a local publishing company was born.
Going back to Joseph for a moment, his story is incredible. How did you find him, and what made you want to take his portrait?
Martin: I saw him one day standing alone in the middle of Hoxton Square, which was ground zero for hipsters and skinny jeans in the 90s. He obviously stood out, because he was 86 and his trousers didn’t quite cuff so tightly at the ankles. Truly though, he provided an interesting contrast to all the young people in the area. I thought he was a bit drunk, sad and kind of hopeless, so I asked to take his portrait.
I quickly found out that he was actually much more rooted to the area than all of these pretenders surrounding him, including myself. I thought I could tell a story about East London through his eyes that was a bit more genuine and real, but he didn’t want to talk about the history of East London. He was more interested in talking about celebrities and their sex lives, and the things in the universe he thought were invented first – cats, rocks and coffee. He was bizarre and funny, but he was also touching and sad. I decided to try to tell his story, rather than telling a purely East London story. I made the book, and that’s what essentially started the whole company.
Besides Joseph’s book, have you personally photographed any others for HMP?
Martin: Not yet. I do my own photography books, but I intentionally don’t do them through Hoxton Mini Press. They’re not the same style as East London, so I want to keep that separate. We like to look outside of ourselves and collaborate with other creative photographers who are like-minded people.
How have you felt about the outside response you’ve received?
Ann: We’ve been so surprised and excited. It hasn’t just caught on in East London, but really all over the place. Wherever they’re living, people have been able to find a connection to this area, and it’s so interesting.
What’s the actual production process like? Do you do the design work yourselves?
Ann: We do a lot of the design work here, but we also work with freelance designers. We like very simplistic design and we want everything to have a sense of branding.
Martin: I’m always amazed at how few publishers have a brand. They’ll produce a book and then think – how can we sell this book? We like the idea of creating a family of books that are all hung together on the shelf.
Your newest illustrated title is Haircuts of Hackney, which is filled with colorful drawings of eclectic hair styles. How did you come up with this one?
Ann: We wanted to work with the illustrator Daniel Frost. He’s known for doing small paintings on wooden boards, and they’re always done in a very particular style. He drew some pictures of the backs of people’s heads once, and we loved them. After that, the idea for Haircuts of Hackney was born.
Martin: Yes, these are all the haircuts you can find in East London! It’s a bit of a bonkers book, really.
I like Hackney most of all because it’s unfinished.
What about Jenny Lewis’ One Day Young? It seems to be more of an emotionally-driven title.
Ann: Yes, for sure. It’s a portrait book of one-day-old babies with their mothers. This one really seemed to strike a chord with people. It’s been blowing up everywhere! To us, it’s bizarre to see where Hoxton Mini Press books are going and being talked about all across the world, because they’re truly books about this small area. That’s the thing – these books are about East London, but they’re about people more than anything. That’s what allows them to have universal appeal.
Martin: Yes, our books are about the people. They’re about the stories, what they’re creating, why they do it and who they are.
Out of all the titles you’ve published so far, do you have a favorite book?
Martin: I don’t know. 86 ½ Years seems to be other people’s favorite, but I think Drivers in the 1980s is my favorite right now. To me, it’s an example of a book that’s ridiculously niche. It’s basically about people stuck in traffic jams throughout Hackney in the summertime. It’s shot mainly within one day, and it has nice stories behind it about the photographer’s dad, politics, Margaret Thatcher and the sell-off of Rolls Royce. There are all these little stories involved throughout. It also features incredible 80s looks in terms of strange wardrobe choices! I think this one sums up the whole aim of Hoxton Mini Press in that it’s all about using something incredibly local and small to create a much wider appeal. We want to share such things with a broader audience living outside of Hackney.
What did first drive you to become a book publisher? Did you see a gap in the market at the time?
Martin: Books are the final resting place for good photography. As more information was going online and people were worrying that print was over, it was the perfect time to get into making beautiful books that were physical objects. Most people use the Internet to source information, so the purpose of a book has become something quite different. It’s something to own, collect, store, keep or give. Those physical aspects become essential. We wanted to celebrate that.
You’re currently expanding into different projects and longer print works. Do you ever want to expand to other cities, or will you always stick to East London?
Martin: We don’t know, to be fair. We think a lot about expanding to other areas, but we aren’t sure. We have lots of ideas but no decisions. Obviously, we could go down the route of mini presses for various cities, but the truth is we don’t inhabit those other cities. Of course we could contact the artists and do similar things, but we don’t feel like we know other cities in the intimate way that we know Hackney. Alternatively, we could expand what we do as a company. But as soon as we pop out of the pool of East London and into the bigger sea, we become just another small publisher. How do we do that and still stay true to who we are? We don’t know just yet, but we think about it every day.
What do you like most about Hackney? What’s the best part of living, working and inhabiting such a vibrant area?
Ann: The people. It’s not so much about the area itself but more about the people who are based here. There are so many creatives living and working in East London, and they make up the vibe that trickles down into everything surrounding us. The amenities, the businesses, the way of life; it’s all a product of the people.
Martin: I like Hackney most of all because it’s unfinished.In the way that West London feels so finished, East London doesn’t. You go to West London and all the buildings are completed; there’s not the same opportunity for exploring. It’s closed off. In East London, there are so many contradictions and cultural inconsistencies and buildings being transformed – it’s really alive. I guess we want to ride on that energy and tell any story about East London that we think is interesting.
All the books you’ve produced have a similar feel, in terms of branding. You can often recognize a Hoxton Mini Press title when you see it among other books on the shelf. When looking for a new story, how do you know when you’ve found one?
Martin: If it excites us, we often go for it. We’re definitely on the lookout for a bit of humor, because we enjoy that kind of thing ourselves. Photography books often take themselves way too seriously, including some of my own! Photography books with playfulness are hugely appealing. If someone comes to us who’s a little self-effacing as a photographer, they get big plus points.
Books are the final resting place for good photography.
As independent print publishers, what do you think is most important about print as a medium and keeping it alive in a digitally-driven age?
Martin: I think it’s about ownership now, more than anything else. It’s about the book as an object and as something to collect. It’s obvious, but you have to be very thoughtful about how a book feels and looks. Often when we start with a book, we go backwards and think how much we want it to weigh and what we want it to feel like. It’s about physicality, and that’s exciting.
What’s coming up next for Hoxton Mini Press, in terms of new releases?
Ann: There’s Makers of East London. It’s 340 pages, so it’s our biggest yet! It features makers with a very wide range of craft. We’ve gone into 25 studios across East London and taken a look at their work and the process behind what they’re making. It’s all captured with natural film photography, and we’ve created in-depth portraits of these creative people. Essentially, the book is focused on makers and their spaces. We have a neon sign maker, a textile designer, weavers, furniture makers, pointe shoe makers, a guy that makes umbrellas and the only remaining eyeglass maker in London. It’s not only young hipsters doing cool things but also celebrating people who’ve been creatively making things in the area forever.
Martin: Because we live here and love it here. Because it changes each day. Because it’s complex and contradictory. Because it has such a rich mixture of people, a fascinating history, great food, a lot of art and design, endless events and beautiful parks.
Apart from that, it’s totally boring…
Martin and Ann, thank you for inviting us into your home and studio space. For more information on Hoxton Mini Press and all of their eclectic books featuring East London, visit their website. Find more FvF portraits from London here.