Elizabeth Avedon – Book and Exhibition Designer

I was corresponding with Elizabeth Avedon after I posted several pages from Rolling Stone Magazine’s seminal political photo essay “The Family” shot by Richard Avedon, because as it turns out Elizabeth was working in the photographer’s studio at the time designing the cover of the book “Portraits.” She was telling me some fascinating stories about working with Richard Avedon along with revealing the fact that she designed that issue of RS and so I asked her a few question. The first obviously was if she’s related to Richard to which she replied that at one time she was married to his son.

APE: Tell me how you ended up working with Richard Avedon for 20 years?

pileofdummiesMarvin Isreal was Dick’s best friend and together they created Avedon’s Minneapolis exhibition, Nothing Personal book, and Marlborough exhibition. Marvin Israel was a Painter, Book Designer, Art Director of “The Bazaar” and Diane Arbus protege. He created, along with Doon Arbus, the first retrospective of Diane’s photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as designed and edited her famous Aperture Monograph, now in it’s umpteenth printing.

I was his student at Parsons and he was always trying to convince me to leave school and just start working. Marvin was one of my favorite teachers and I began working as his assistant on several books. He would invariably have a falling out with who ever we were working for half way through and then I would end up completing the project. For example, while working with Peter Beard on “Kamante’s Tales,” Peter and Marvin had a falling out early into it. Marvin insisted Peter hire me to finish designing the book which is how I began my path as a book designer.

Marvin introduced me to Richard Avedon beaming I was “the best student he’d ever had.” Dick wanted me to start work for him that very day. We were on the same page right away when it came to his work. At that time Marvin and Dick (RA) were working on editing all of the fashion photographs RA had ever taken. They had special printers come over from Japan to work around the clock in the darkroom making contact sheets of the thousands and thousands of negatives for them to edit from. There were huge stacks of cartons filled with contact sheets all over Marvin’s studio. It was a several year project just to edit them so they would work on it on and off. During an off period, I was a magazine designer under the fabulous A.D. Bea Feitler (Bea was later Annie Leibovitz’s lover/partner).

During the period just after the Marlborough show, RA offered me a full time position to quit the magazine and work as designer/art director for him at the Studio. Some of my first projects were the cover for the Rolling Stone issue “The Family” and the book Portraits from the work that was in the Marlborough exhibit.

The work itself was phenomenally inspiring. The most elegant, beautiful images anyone could ever wish to work with and I thought it was my job to just make them look as great as they are, to not get in their way with a lot of strange type faces or layout ideas. It was my theory to keep everything simple so the work shined through, not my “design” showing off.

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APE: Tell me about designing the Fashion book cover?

RA wanted “Dovima and The Elephants” on the cover and didn’t like my idea of using his signature. While he was away for a month shooting the Paris Collections for Vogue, I designed many covers along the lines of what he’d asked for – including the one I was sure would be distinctive and beautiful.

APE: How did you convince Richard Avedon to not go with “Dovima and The Elephants” on the cover?

He knew it was the right choice immediately. All of us have an idea in our mind how we want something to look and can’t let go of it until we see something better. When he looked at the two covers side by side, there was no discussion. Marella Agnelli embodied everything his fashion photographs were about and the simplicity of his signature curved around the crook of her neck was extraordinary.

We never lost anything by putting “Dovima and the Elephants” on the back cover. It was fabulous that book stores displayed both front and back, side by side.

I also featured Dovima in each and every museum poster in Avedon’s retrospective exhibition I designed for The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I redesigned the typography for all the additional museums it traveled to, including reshaping the space in each to accommodate the images I had divided into decades.

The lighting, framing, size of the prints and finally wall colors all changed and expanded – beginning with faintly lit, dark grey walls and the Paris photographs framed in small gold leaf frames. They were spot lit and as each decade unfolded the lighting would become brighter in each room as the frames slowly became more modern, until the last room of “Icons” – June Leaf, Renata Adler, Priscilla Rattazzi etc. were displayed as huge 9 foot prints mounted on canvas lit in blazing white light. Strong women – with an inner beauty that seemed to radiate out in these particular images.

APE: Do you think he appreciated the drive and instinct you had for the book design and exhibitions the same way that he used those qualities in his photography?

Can you imagine that Richard Avedon, who was at the top of his profession, would let someone whose opinion he didn’t completely trust and respect edit his work or design his exhibitions, books, catalogs, or collaborate on advertising campaigns?

APE: Do you have any anecdotes from working in his studio that you could share with young photographers?

He was driven to be who he became – it was not an accident. He practiced and demanded excellence everyday.

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APE: Tell me about working on “The American West” book?

Every last detail in the design down to the color selection of the hard cover linen cloth was meticulously considered and symbiotic to the work. I chose a color I associated with the desert landscape of the Four Corners area of the West. The typeface was influenced by an antique western frontispiece I found printed in the late 1890’s.

The images he made for this was a multiple year project and he rented a loft space just to work on it. After laying out all of the photographs on the floor, we spent months remixing them over and over until we finally edited them down to a manageable number. I then posted them up on a very long wall of cork board we had painted white. After mixing and remixing the wall images, they were reduced to almost the amount in the final book and inserted into acetate sleeves in a big black portfolio notebook. We would then go over whatever changes each would make day to day and re-sequence, just moving the acetate pages within the notebook until the images would seem to find their own home.

Collector’s want to buy the “book dummy”, but the dummy they want to buy never existed. They imagine a book of master prints perfectly bound, it wasn’t created that way.

Everyone asks that I explain my homage to Marvin Israel in the design credit as he died before I began working on the project. Marvin had traveled to Montana and then Texas with Dick while he was photographing for the book. Two diehard New Yorkers traveling around the American West together. It was a great moment for their friendship. Marvin died in Texas while on that trip. As my long time friend and mentor, I wanted to honor him in the book.

The book was a complement to the original exhibition I designed for the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, specifically for this work. I had a model built to scale (one inch = one foot) and had the images made into 5 different sizes to scale and rework within the space. An additional space was created within to house the coal miners. It was a breath taking exhibition – the entrance to the Museum is entirely glass and you can see two floors at once lit up from outside the Museum. I placed 8 of the huge iconic images within their 8 large entranceways/doorways. It was a very glamorous entrance. I redesigned the spaces of the other eight Museums it traveled to over several years and recreated somewhat the original show for each of them. Only the Amon Carter had the full effect of his work being seen as it was originally intended.

APE: Where did you go from there?

I spent several years going through the archives and having prints made for many of the books that were published later. I moved on to co-publish, in conjunction with Random House, Elizabeth Avedon Editions/Vintage Contemporary Artists series, working with distinguished art critics such as Donald Kuspit and Peter Schjeldahl, and contemporary artists Francesco Clemente, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Rauschenberg, and many others. I was Art Director for Ralph Lauren’s National Advertising and a co-founder of Tibet House, NYC. Later, as Creative Director for The Gere Foundation, I initiated a wide range of photography exhibitions and projects to raise money for Richard Gere’s non-profit organization. I then worked for Ralph Lauren Media as photo editor for their online magazine (here). I recently returned to New York from New Mexico where I worked as Director of Photo-Eye Gallery in Santa Fe.

APE: What are you doing now and what kinds of projects you are looking to work on?

I’m happy to be back in NYC and designing. In early June I’ll be at Review Santa Fe and look forward to meeting all of the photographers there. I like working on projects that have multidisciplinary design possibilities in that I can play with two and three dimensional space. Books, exhibitions, ad-work – I always welcome the opportunity to work closely with photographers.

You can visit Elizabeth Avedon’s website (here) and see more photographs from Richard Avedon (here).

Joerg Investigates Self Published Books

Joerg Colberg has an good post on his experience and comments from readers on their experience with, on demand printing of photography books (here).

“…the images inside the book look like crap. They look like something printed on an extremely cheap printer…”

“What I do want to point out is that while printing books on demand might sound like a great idea, it is ultimately up to the photographer to perform quality control. And getting books printed on demand might in fact lower the threshold of the quality of photography books to a noticeable extent…”

“…I find it slightly surprising that while many photographers – especially those who grew up before the so-called digital revolution – know the names of expert analog printers, there does not appear to be a corresponding pool of expert digital printers.”

If anyone knows of any high quality on demand photography book publishers it would be good to hear about it (or email Joerg so he can add to his post). The very first books I started seeing with portfolios came from .mac and I remember the photographer telling me she tried them all and .mac was the only one where the color was consistent. Not sure what happened to them but now I only hear about blurb, although I’ve only actually seen a couple and they seemed fine but then again, I’m used to magazine printing; )

Darius Himes, Publisher- Radius Books

I first met Darius at Review Santa Fe many years ago when he was the editor of Photo-Eye Booklist, the quarterly, highly collectible catalog of books for the renowned local photography bookstore. When I heard several months ago that he’d founded a photography book publishing company called Radius Books (website here) I was curious to find out more on how the book publishing side of this industry works.

Tell me a little bit of your background.

My education history and work history are basically interrelated and flow one into the other. I received a BFA in Photography at ASU, Tempe back in the early 90s and then went overseas where I worked for an organization that had a large, permanent collection of historical photographs, which dated back to the 1870s. While there, I pursued my own photography and got called upon to do everything from photograph visiting prime ministers to documenting deteriorating historical buildings.

I came to Santa Fe in 1998 to pursue a Master’s degree at St. John’s College, which, as you know, has a Great Books program. On the surface, it may seem to have nothing to do with a career in the arts, but to me it brought intellectual balance to an undergraduate fine arts degree. At the heart of the program are a couple concepts that I gravitated to. One is the idea of books serving a centuries-old dialogue about core ideas that affect humanity, regardless of race, culture, language, or class. Another was a cluster of ideas about the role of the arts in society and where image-making, artists, language, communication, and what it means to be human all figure in.

During my time in graduate school, I began working at photo-eye part-time, in the bookstore. I stayed on after graduation to launch the magazine, which was a quarterly devoted to photography books. It was here that my love of photography and a latent but deep-seated love for books–as art objects as well as conveyors of ideas and images–merged.

So, I guess you spent so much time looking at photography books working on booklist for Photo Eye you decided it looked pretty easy and you’d start your own imprint. Isn’t the photography book business notoriously unprofitable? Doesn’t that frighten you?

There was always a paradox floating around out there that didn’t make sense to me. The illustrated art book business was notorious for being unprofitable, true, but each year as editor at photo-eye, I was dealing with more and more publishers coming onto the scene that were producing great books. The two didn’t jive for me. There was a great article written by Christopher Lyon in Art in America in September, 2006 which gave a key to understanding this bigger picture. The large, illustrated book publishers (think Prestel, Rizzoli, Harry N. Abrams, Bulfinch) simply weren’t able to sell tens of thousands of copies of fine art books to the masses the way they used to. So their world was changing drastically, and Lyon detailed how and why in that article. But similar to the music industry, where genres were reproducing and splitting and creating sub-categories faster than bunnies, the art and photography book scene had become filled with lots of nimble, savvy, smaller publishers who had very smart, sophisticated collectors buying their books. If you don’t have to maintain office space on Madison Ave and you’ve got a staff of 1 to 3, you don’t need to sell 25,000 copies of each title. As people like Jack Woody of Twin Palms Publishers or Chris Pichler of Nazraeli Press proved, you can sell 1000 or 2000 copies of a book, watch it go out of print in a couple years, recouping your costs in the meantime and move on to the next list of projects.

It’s definitely not easy. But loving what you do helps (and being small and nimble is an asset).

Seems like portfolio reviews like the one in Santa Fe where you live are a great place to find projects to publish. Alec Soth was discovered there and I’m sure there were many others that got started that way. Is that your primary source for finding a book project?

Actually, they’re not the primary source for finding a book project, but they are a piece of the bigger picture. Portfolio review events are a primary way of staying in touch with the photography community overall. We, meaning publishers, editors, gallerists, dealers, collectors, curators and writers like to see and know what photographers are up to, what they’re working on, where their traveling, who they’re shooting for, and where they’re showing their work. Signing up a photographer on the spot at a portfolio review event happens more with galleries than it does with publishers, but things happen afterwards, and seeing people at these portfolio events is important.

What are the big considerations when looking at a photographer for a book? How much of a factor is potential commercial success?

First and foremost on the list is that we are deeply moved by the work and think that it is important in some lasting way. We’ve got two photography books on our Fall 2008 list. One is a book of brilliant photographs made in New Mexico by Lee Friedlander. The other is a lyrical group of photographs by Phoenix-based photographer Michael Lundgren. In terms of their careers, they couldn’t be further apart from each other. Friedlander is, well, Friedlander. How do you even summarize his influence on photography as a medium? Lundgren is a couple years out of grad school and passionate about his work and makes stunning prints based on an intelligent and soulful approach to the landscape but virtually no one has heard of him. No one, apart from the lovely Rebecca Solnit, who is contributing a wonderful essay, which will help bring attention to the work. If we looked at Mike’s book purely from a commercial standpoint, we probably wouldn’t publish it. But we love the work and are publishing a modest number of copies, which will be supported by a limited edition book which comes with a print. And we’re extremely proud to be one of the first to commit to this relatively young artist with a strong vision.

Defining “commercial success” is different for each publisher. Again, it’s tied in to how many mouths you have to feed. Being a small publisher brings certain advantages and nimbleness that are inherently different than the advantages of being a really big publishing house.

Do you think that books will continue to be a hot ticket for collectors and photography lovers? Are there any cool innovations coming that can keep this market growing?

I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think books were important, and therefore worth saving and cherishing and collecting. The market for the book-as-object is getting more firmly established every passing auction season. And more and more artists, not just photographers, are seeing the book as a central means of expression. Concurrently, more and more curators and galleries are seeing books as a central means of expression, and are collecting accordingly. For instance Charlotte Cotton, curator and head of the photography department at LACMA recently purchased an entire set of prints by Paul Graham that make up one of his twelve volumes in A Shimmer of Possibility, which was published by Steidl last Fall.

What will keep the market growing are artists engaging with the book in this manner, where the book is seen as more than just a repository for images, but rather the seat of artistic expression. And then persuading collectors to buy them. Honestly, this is where I see the role of curators, critics/writers, and publishers. We have the chance to guide others–the public, the collectors, the institutions–to work that will have lasting importance, explaining why along the way. At least, that’s how I see my role as writer and publisher (and I know that my partners at Radius Books feel the same way). I get excited about work and I want to show others and elucidate how I see this work fitting into a broad and rich cultural dialogue. That’s the St. John’s influence speaking! One thing we’re excited about at Radius is the implementation of our library donation program–over 200 copies of every book we publish is being donated to libraries across North America in an effort to further the dialogue surrounding great art. We’ve got a strong group of donors that are helping this happen (though we’re looking for more to assist) and they are very excited about the role the book can play in stimulating dialogue.

What do you think of these self published solutions like Blurb? Will they ever compete with the traditional book publishers for market share?

I love them. I think they demystify the process of publishing a book, on a certain level. Print-on-demand won’t replace traditional publishers, but it can supplement them in important ways. It’s like having another tool in the toolbox for artists and photographers. Not sure what your current edit looks like in book form or want to try two or three sequences? Do a Blurb book (or two or three)! Not sure what the ideal trim size is for the book that’s in your mind’s eye, or not sure how long that essay will be on the page? Do a Blurb book! Going to a portfolio review event and want something really well done to give to your five favorite galleries? Do a Blurb book!

Blurb is hosting Photography Book Now, an open competition that ends in mid-July, and I’m involved with both the judging process (which I’m very excited about) as well as the traveling symposium that will take place in San Francisco, London and New York this Fall. One of things that we’re aiming to do with the symposium is to crack the door to what happens at publishing houses. Doing a Blurb book is a little like DIY publishing, right? We want the symposium to give you insight on the role of a good editor, how designers approach text and image combinations, how other book artists are using the book as object, etc.

Through the contest, we’re hopeful that the cream of the crop will rise to the top. We know there are photographers out there who think in terms of book-length projects and who simply haven’t had a chance to get that work in front of people in the photography industry. This is their chance.

Photo Book Publishers

A good source for standalone photo essays to publish in a magazine is the upcoming books lists from photo book publishers. A few of the big publishers like Chronicle or W.W. Norton will do photography books but generally the good stuff is with the specialty publishers. It’s interesting to note that the literary publishers are extremely proactive about shopping the first serial rights around to magazines for publicity but it’s rare for a photography book publisher to do that so you’ve got to go look at the upcoming lists yourself and see if there’s something worth pitching to the editor. I’m working on a project now that needs a couple photo essays so I thought I’d share my list:

21ST Editions
Aperture
Arena Editions
Chris Boot
D.A.P.
Dewi Lewis
Farewell
Foil Web
Hassla
J and L
Kehrer Verlag
Lodima
Loosestrife Editions
Monacelli
Nazraeli
Phaidon
Pond Press
Power House pH
Prestel
Quantuck Lane
Radius
Sasquatch
Scalo
Steidl
Taschen
teNeues
Trolley
TV Books
Twin Palms
Umbrage Editions
Watson-Guptill

Photo Eye publishes a newsletter with upcoming releases. Always a good resource.

More in Europe:
Apeiron
Edition Braus
Hatje Catz
Lunwerg
Mets & Schlit
Peliti Associati

Australia
T&G Publishing