The many passions of Eric Ghysels, founder of 5 Continents Editions

by Luca Sorbo

The history of photography lives and becomes real through books. We rarely have the opportunity to see the original images of the great authors, more often these are mediated by publications in newspapers and magazines, but it is mainly books which build visual imagination, thanks to their iconographic heritage. It is therefore easy to understand how the role of publishing and its protagonists are fundamental in the development of photographic language.

Eric Ghysels is certainly one of the most fascinating and peculiar characters of the contemporary publishing scene with his role as director of 5 Continents Editions,  which, to him, is much more than a company,  “a human and cultural adventure”, as Ghysels himself calls it.

Born in Belgium, of Armenian heritage, son of a sculptor – one of the best known and most important in Belgium – and of a collector of ethnic jewels, Ghysels grew up surrounded by art and books, nourishing his eyes and mind with the images in which he was immersed. In Brussels he opened Ethnographie des 5 Continents, a small gallery all of his own: here came the desire to share his knowledge and his passions, here he began to build the imaginary museum that will be the basis for all his future activity. Later he worked with Franco Maria Ricci and Skira, but in 2002 he decided to found in Milan his own publishing house to be free and independent. 5 Continents Editions quickly became a point of reference for extra-European arts. Photography plays an important role in this context, both as a tool for documenting works of art and as a stand alone language. In fact, Ghysels wants to create an open door to the world, convinced that the role of the publisher is a real mission: to spread the love for art and culture in the broadest sense.

Creating a book for Eric is like giving birth and, therefore, the search for the right authors and collaborators is fundamental. To date, after 20 years, his publishing house has published over 800 books which are first of all the result of a deep personal relationship and only secondarily of a professional collaboration. Producing a book is love at first sight, a human encounter: Eric, demanding and perfectionist, follows each publication personally, choosing the format, paper and graphics always in conversation with the author, who is always fully involved in the process.

From this point of view, a fortunate encounter was the one with Luigi Spina, with whom he created numerous books of the highest quality and of great success: among these, Diario mitico, in whose pages Spina documents and interprets the entire Farnese collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Currently the same author is working on the series Canova. Quattro tempi, where he talks about the plaster casts of the great sculptor to discover the creative force of an artist who has in plasters his trademark. Another “flagship” of Ghysels is the 1966 edition of the book The Photographer’s Eye, by John Szarkowski – head of the photography department at MOMA in New York –, a volume still unpublished in either Italian or French. The series La fotografia al Museo d’Orsay and the book Photographies Américaines by Walker Evans are two equally great insights. In fact, it is worth remembering that Eric collaborates with the most important museums in the world, from the Louvre to the National Gallery in London, from MOMA to MANN in Naples.

An extraordinary editorial success, with a wide international impact, is the recent Loving (70,000 copies sold so far), a project that has allowed Eric, even in this dramatic period of the pandemic, to keep all his employees. 5 Continents Editions is first of all a family in which everyone is bonded with the publisher by a deep feeling of trust.

Today making a book is more and more difficult because many areas of expertise no longer exist and, therefore, it is necessary to train collaborators and making them “grow” every day as in a real home. This organization allows Eric to be completely independent, to not need financing from banks and to be able to engage, without conditioning, in the most varied and complex projects, confident in the attention of readers who for two decades have learned to love the quality of his publications. It is impossible to mention all the successes that have marked the history of 5 Continents Editions, but, as said, each book is the result of passionate research based on quality human bonds. Eric is convinced that one should always be generous, as this is the only way to build meaningful relationships. Not only that: he is convinced that the publisher is like a music conductor, like a chef, who must know how to dose the ingredients that are the basis, in this case, of a book, to satisfy all five senses.

5 Continents Editions is still an artisanal business, even if it uses the most modern industrial equipment. For this reason Eric has chosen the best Italian professionals, who started working early in printing presses with a long tradition of quality. In a publishing house, each component plays a fundamental role, it is a collective work. When Eric chooses a collaborator the most important thing, much more than the curriculum, are the handshake and eye contact: what really matters is the energy that each person has within them, whatever their role.

He advises young authors to have an original project, never to copy and to know how to design a book of 30-40 images, taking care of every detail with the utmost attention.

5 Continents Editions thrives on dreams and try and make them come true. We just have to buy his books and immerse ourselves in those dreams, always full of humanity and beauty.


February 2022

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