When Gary Stochl wandered into Bob Thall’s office at Columbia College last spring with 40 years’ worth of street photography in a paper bag, “he was about ten steps away from a book,” Thall recalls. Thall, chair of the school’s photography department, says he was shocked by the quality of the self-taught artist’s work. He promptly arranged an introduction to his dealer and helped organize a show by Stochl at the Chicago Cultural Center. Now he’s behind the publication of a book of Stochl’s photos, On City Streets: Chicago, 1964-2004.

Stochl (who was the subject of a Reader feature in November) isn’t the only photographer Thall has helped to achieve what he calls the “overdue first book.” By the end of this year nine photographers–six of them affiliated with Columbia College–will have volumes out thanks to a collaboration between the school and Thall’s own longtime publisher, the Virginia-based Center for American Places. The college helps underwrite the high cost of the top-quality photographic reproduction, and in some cases Columbia’s digital design studio provides preproduction work as well. The books are distributed by the University of Chicago Press, which also handles nonphotographic titles like Joel Greenberg’s Natural History of the Chicago Region, part of the center’s ongoing series “Chicago and Environs.”

Thall’s design team of Columbia students and recent grads was instrumental in bringing about Jay Wolke’s current show of photographs of the Dan Ryan at City Gallery. Wolke, now head of Columbia’s art department, shot the series of photographs of life along the expressway in the 80s while teaching at IIT’s Institute of Design. Over the years his color negatives had faded and become badly water damaged. Published by the center last year, Along the Divide: Photographs of the Dan Ryan Expressway took a feat of digital recovery on the part of Columbia’s lab.

For Stochl’s book Columbia calibrated its digital lab to the specifications used by Icelandic printer Oddi, a favorite of the Center for American Places and other publishers (including McSweeney’s) because of its high-quality tritone printing. The result is a modestly sized volume with rich tonal contrasts and velvety blacks.

Thall knows the business of fine-art publishing from the photographer’s side as well. In the fall Columbia and the center will publish the fourth of his books on Chicago’s built environment, At City’s Edge: Photographs of the Chicago Lakefront. Past installments in Thall’s cycle of large-format black-and-white photo essays on his native city have focused on the Loop (The Perfect City), sprawling “edge city” suburbs like Schaumburg (The New American Village), and Chicago alleys (City Spaces).

Much of the photography the Center for American Places has had a hand in publishing–more than 40 titles in all–explores architectural, sociological, or geographical questions in the vernacular of art. George Thompson, the center’s founder and president, studied landscape history as a grad student at the University of Wisconsin. As an editor at Johns Hopkins University Press he started a series called “Creating the North American Landscape.” He kept it up after founding the center, a nonprofit, in 1990, but mostly packaged titles for other presses. It was only in 2001, after a $50,000 grant from Chicago’s Graham Foundation underwrote a portion of “Chicago and Environs,” that he began publishing under the center’s own imprint.

“The grant gave us the confidence to move forward,” Thompson recalls. And “there were many books about Chicago that had not been written.” The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago Parks, by Chicago Park District historian Julia Sniderman Bachrach and local photographers Jim Iska and Judith Bromley, was the first title in the series. This year, in addition to the books by Stochl and Thall, there’ll be Private Places: Photographs of Chicago Gardens by Brad Temkin, a member of Columbia’s part-time faculty, and Institutional: Photographs of Jails, Schools, and Other Chicago Buildings by Chicago cop and Columbia grad Scott Fortino.

Top-quality photographic reproduction is extremely expensive, and since the projects Thompson selects aren’t market driven and have small print runs, they require subsidies. Photographers are expected to raise significant funds for their own books–between $10,000 and $30,000, depending on the format and projected sales–and to forgo pay. This “subvention,” which allows the publisher to break even without cutting quality, typically comes from private supporters of an artist’s work–foundations, businesses, collectors. The publisher’s own financial contribution is usually a bit more than the photographer’s, Thall says, but the figures vary with each project.

“No one’s making money off these books,” says Thompson, who drew no salary from the center for its first eight years. Still, while it’s possible to publish photographs more economically, he and Thall believe the compromises would be too great. “A photography book is so close to the original,” Thall says. “But you have to do it really well to get that effect.”