Interview with Photobook Designer Elizabeth Avedon

I first met Elizabeth Avedon when she was the Gallery Director at photo-eye. Since the time Elizabeth departed Santa Fe, she established her own blog which has become a recognized voice in the photography community featuring portfolios and interviews, including my first interview about my photography. I am delighted to turn the tables on Ms. Avedon and allow her to discuss her profession: Book, Exhibition and Web Design + Curatorial Consultant. Here she discusses the photobook, print-on-demand, and some of her favorite projects.

Melanie McWhorter: At what point is it important to involve a designer in your project?

Elizabeth Avedon: There are different stages for a designer to step in for every project. It really depends on the artist/photographer. Some photographers will start talking to me years before they actually are ready to begin the layouts, others hand me a complete, finished edit when I first meet them. I can easily begin to sequence the work for them from that, but I think it's an important step in the overall process for the designer to be involved in the edit of the work from the start, to get a feel for the point of view of the photographer. Many times the designer will see an interesting "book" the artist hadn't imagined for themselves. Other times the photographer will be overly critical in their edit, second guessing themselves and their audience, leaving out images that may show important steps in the evolution of their work. Other photographers may not be critical enough with their work, unable to edit out images because of the people, place or action going on which may not actually come across so well in the image as they think. They are still visualizing the moment, but we don't see it in the frame. It's important for everyone to have an outside eye. 

MM: Are most of your clients individuals and do you consult with them one-on-one or are most publishers?

EA: I'm not really a trade book designer, although I love the work I've done for them in the past. (Favorite was An Open Heart by The Dalai Lama for Little, Brown & Co). Almost all of my clients have been individuals or at least the projects start out as someone approaching me and then suggesting to their publisher they would like to work with me. I'm mostly asked to work on special projects. I recently had lunch with the son of a late great photographer to discuss a book of his father's iconic images. Fortunately I knew his father and many of these images are part of my own history, so it could work out well for both of us. We discussed whether to bring in a publisher at this juncture or design the completed book and package it to a publisher. Other times I'll design and print a 20-page dummy for someone to shop around to publishers. 

MM: What do you feel is the role of a designer in a creating a photobook?

EA: I think a designer is there to organize the work, whether through a timeline, chapters, subcategories or just by the sequencing into a narrative. The way the works flows from one image to the next, one spread to another, should intuitively guide the viewer through the photographer's world - his or her intention with their work. It's really fun to do a very creative design, with crazy fabulous typography and collage the images and show off as a designer, but that isn't going to showcase a photographer's work. I try to let the work dictate what kind of book it wants to be and stay out of the way. Let the work speak for itself. I've worked on several long-term projects that began as one kind of book and when they were completed, I could see they wanted to be an entirely different kind of book. The work needed to be organized into its first incarnation, to see it was meant to be as an entirely different kind of entity.

MM: Will you give an example of a book that transformed from its original plan into a different book? 

EA: One example, and one of my favorite projects I've ever worked on, was AVEDON: 1947-1977 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a 30-year retrospective of Richard Avedon's fashion work. This book was a labor of love for everyone involved in its making. It was almost a 10-year project, five of which were just printing and editing thirty years worth of contact sheets - printed round the clock by Kazutaka Nakamura, Jeff Niki, Harry Mattison and overseen by then Studio Manager, Gideon Lewin. Designer Marvin Israel originally began editing the contact sheets with Avedon around 1970, I assisted them at an early point in the process a couple of years later (Marvin had been my teacher at Parsons and I worked as his assistant on-and-off), and a couple of years after that I took over the project. 

The editing seemed endless, but in a good way. The photographs were extraordinary! Viewing all of the original contact sheets of Susy Parker, Dorian Leigh and Dovima; early Paris Collections; Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Lena Horne, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Jean Shrimpton; and the first photos of Twiggy and Penelope Tree coming on the scene, among so many others. There were cartons and cartons of contact sheets for each year, for each decade, for 30 years. We would have some of the early choices printed along the way even before we would finish the decade we were working on, so early on we had some of the best images from each year already beginning to take shape. 

The original intention for this book was to be an encyclopedia of fashion for those 30 years. Each photograph was going to have a list of everyone involved in that image, maybe common practice now, but never done in the 70s. The captions were meant to include the name of the model, fashion editor, dress designer, hair stylist, etc. I'm skipping over the years of printing and editing, and editing and printing, years of creating layouts on the floor, on the walls, everywhere. Because Director Richard Benjamin and his wife, actress Paula Prentiss, then later Musician John Phillips and his wife, actress Genevieve Waite were renting the space upstairs from the Studio (that years later became the loft space to work on "In The American West") we worked in a loft down the street from the Studio just for this book and later to build models of the museum exhibition spaces. 

Back to the early book dummy. It was huge. A huge book all about the models, the editors, and the famous hair dressers. It just didn't feel right to me.  At this point we were in about the sixth year of this project, my fourth, and we now had a huge thick book dummy of really beautiful prints (in those days using rubber cement to stick prints back to back to create pages and using giant paper clips to cover over changes).  I remember RA inviting Jacqueline Kennedy over to the loft for tea with us to show her the dummy, hoping she would give permission to include a portrait of her in the book (she didn't). There was something about watching an 'outsider' look through the book, that convinced me it wasn't quite right. Sort of like holding your work up to a mirror-for some reason you're able to see what's wrong with it.
I was very young at that time and did not always speak up when I disagreed, but I brought up my thoughts about what I was feeling about the overall book. I edited down the dummy using the giant paper clips, clipping spreads together, just leaving the best of the best photographs. It became a much slimmer volume, but seemed to have much more impact. Now it was a "photography" book, it was now all about the images, no longer about a big book of fashion. It was unheard of to consider fashion photographs as fine art photography back then, but the images held their own as photographs as far as either of us were concerned, and not because of who was in them or who did their hair! I would suppose the recent headline "CHRISTIE’S SETS NEW WORLD AUCTION RECORD OF  $1,153,011 FOR RICHARD AVEDON, DOVIMA WITH ELEPHANTS" is vindication for those early critics, although it no longer matters. Those images, that took so many years to edit, became the basis for Richard Avedon's first retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the most beautiful show I was fortunate to be able to design.

MM: Has the increase of desktop publishing and print-on-demand had an effect  on your role as designer?

EA: I'm not sure it's changed my role as a designer. Photographers still need an outside editor or designer to work with for best results, an objective eye, but it's changed the method, the timing involved and added a technical element to the work. I love self-publishing/print-on-demand projects. I think it's the greatest invention. I know there are a lot of people saying it isn't "Real Photography" if you've published the book yourself, but a book is as good as you make it. What if Cartier-Bresson had self-published all his work? Would that work be any less impressive because he used print-on-demand? 

Of course, I love to see "Real Photography" books by Steidl, Twin Palms, Radius Books, Nazraeli Press. But if someone has good work and isn't lucky enough to be offered a publishing deal because the economy doesn't allow for it right now, I love the idea they have the opportunity to create their own book. If they are good at marketing or publicity, there's no reason their book can't be seen or receive recognition.

I've enjoyed the work I've done with Blurb. For example, I worked with photographer Jessica Hines on the design of her Blurb book, My Brother's War. Both her work and the book design gained a lot of attention this past year. She won the Grand Prize for the Lens Culture International Exposure Awards 2010 for this series. Mary Virginia Swanson and Darius Himes, co-authors of the upcoming Publish Your Photography Book, incorporated examples of the various states of my design process for My Brother's War into their current book lecture. In order to demonstrate the evolution of this book design, they show examples such as the positioning and sizing of  the book's title, image choice and positioning of the art for the book cover, chapter headings and various font options before settling on the final "look" for the book. 

I asked Jessica, who is also Professor of Art at Georgia Southern University, to help explain what my role as Book Designer was in the process for her. Maybe it will be useful to someone else contemplating their own book. Here are Jessica's comments:

The role of the designer is to create a presentation that allows the work to be seen in its most clear form – a good design allows the work to "speak" without interference. The best designers are those who are capable of feeling the essence of the project and creating a design that does not compete with the work, but rather flows along with it. A good designer is a sensitive person who not only understands the work, but is also open to dialog with the artist and who makes design suggestions that will ultimately benefit the work. 

Speaking from my own experience as a complete novice to photobook publishing, I needed help on every level – from understanding what "page count" means in the publishing world  -- which was not what I expected -- to choice of font(s), size of font(s), placement of the text, the size of the photographs and where exactly the photographs fall on the page once the book is printed. The designer helps the artist make decisions on book trim size and whether to use a square, portrait, or landscape format, to considerations of overall book dimensions and the final weight of the book. A designer's keen eye for playing two pictures together on apposing pages or whether to leave a blank page next to the strongest images is another important skill that the untrained individual might overlook. A good designer knows how to create a design that "breaks through the clutter" so that your book will stand out among the rest of the books on the shelf. -- Jessica Hines
MM: What was one of your favorite projects that you have completed ?

EA: The AVEDON: 1947-1977 fashion retrospective, mentioned above, was my favorite project of all time I've completed. It was a huge accomplishment, my first time for everything. I was very young, yet I designed not only an important book at that time, but one the most successful Museum exhibitions at that time, that was perfect in every way. Second to that would be In the American West, the book and original exhibition at the High Museum in Fort Worth. I try to bring that same level of skill I used for both of those huge projects to every undertaking, no matter how small it is, otherwise what is the point in doing it.


Photolucida Wow Picks: Elin Høyland

One of the larger issues associated with working on a personal project that an artist hopes to launch for a larger audience is creating a universal appeal for the work. Elin Høyland's Brother project, although an intimate portrait of two lifetime companions expands into broader themes of, literally, brotherly love, devotion and friendship with another human being and the feeling of loss and loneliness when one departs.

Elin Høyland

"The Brothers I was working on a photo project where two people were closely connected to each other. I'd heard about two elderly brothers living together on the outskirts of the small village of Vågå in Norway. I rang them and we made an arrangement to meet at the Co-operative supermarket , after their weekly shopping trip. I wanted to photograph them in their home so we got in my car. We made the ten minute journey to the house in near silence. I parked the car and took some time to collect my photography equipment. When I came into the house both brothers were stood to attention waiting, still in their hats and coats, rucksacks still bulging. Now I understood that it was going to take some time to get acquainted and sat myself down to get to know them. The photographs are a combination of the brothers letting me into their daily lives and the thoughts and ideas I had as I worked with them. The brothers had always lived together on the small farm. They had never been married and didn't get many visitors. The extent to which we began to trust each other meant that we could also have fun while being together and me taking the pictures. After a while I got the feeling that I as an outsider was also appreciated and that there was en element of satisfaction for them in being seen. I felt a huge privilege that they allowed me into their world. After one of the brothers died, I went back and took more photos of the remaining brother." -- Elin Høyland


Fraction Holiday Print Sale Ends on January 2nd, 2011

If you were thinking of purchasing a print from the Fraction Holiday Print Sale, shop now as the sale ends on January 2nd, 2011. The site includes some fantastic images by many great working photographers and photo professionals with work ranges from $35 to $100. Some of the prints have sold out so do not wait to purchase.

Works included by:
Hollis Bennett, Ellen Rennard, Isa Leshko, David Ondrik, Jonathan Blaustein, Aline Smithson, Tom Griscom, Todd Walker, Tom Leininger, Dalton Rooney, Lydia Panas, Isabelle Pateer, Greg Friedler, Ken Rosenthal, Daniel Shea, Blake Andrews, William Greiner, Kerry Mansfield, Samuel Portera, Suzanne Revy, Jason Houston, Tabitha Soren, Jane Alden Stevens , Jim Stone, Nadia Sablin, Francesca Yorke, Eliot Dudik, Noelle Swan Gilbert, Tom Richardson, Michael Sebastian, Kevin Miyazaki, Susan Hayre Thelwell, Daniel W Coburn, Kathleen Robbins, Beth Yarnelle Edwards, Jeff Rich, Nate Larson, Holly Lynton, Gordon Stettinius, Ian Whitmore, Susan Lynn Smith, Jennifer Ray, Bryan Formhals, Victoria Crayhon, Melanie McWhorter, Matt Slaby, Daryl Peveto, David Walter Banks, Kendrick Brinson, Kevin German, Matt Eich, Noah Beil, Taylor Glenn, Allison V Smith, Norman Mauskopf, Christy Karpinski, Warren Harold, Brad Temkin, Susan Worsham, David J Eisenlord, David Bram

Finite Foto: Alternatives

We launched Finite Foto's Alternatives issue last month. We have switched to a bimonthly magazine so the recent content is online. Visit finitefoto.com to see the entire issue or search the back issues.

"Alternative is a tricky description. To be meaningful, it relies on an accepted mainstream. And when something that was once an alternative becomes ubiquitous, is it still useful to call it alternative? I can't help but snicker when people call Nirvana or The Cure "alternative music," as if filling stadiums with screaming fans and heavy rotation on the radio is only mainstream when it's the Rolling Stones or Britney Spears. Just like music, when talking about photography it is increasingly difficult to define what "mainstream" is.  Is it an aesthetic? A process? A subject? How many people like it? When it is difficult to agree on a mainstream, it is even more difficult to meaningfully describe an alternative." -- David Ondrik


Kevin Sullivan writes about the changing landscape of "alternative process" photography. Mr. Sullivan currently teaches non-silver photography at Santa Fe Community College, and handled technical support for the foremost alternative process photo supplier Bostick & Sullivan for nearly a decade.

David Ondrik interviews Chip Thomas about his large-scale photographic paste-ups, biking across Africa, and the ups-and-downs of street art.

Vera Sprunt is an artist working with photography. We're showing a collection of 19 of her luminous, multi-layered images.

Melanie McWhorter showcases four photographers working with wet-plate collodion photography.

Todd Stewart has been photographing New Mexico for 20 years. We're pleased to present 20 of his platinum/palladium images.

Justyna Badach has been collaborating on a series of portraits with bachelors over the past five years.

Melanie McWhorter interviews the guys behind Axle Contemporary, a mobile exhibition space that was founded in 2010.

Finite Foto is a new media collective that investigates and promotes the intersection of photography and culture in the state of New Mexico. We are dedicated to bringing awareness to the global art community about both historical and contemporary photography from all regions of the state.

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Photolucida Wow Picks: Nate Larson & Marni Shindelman

After a trip to PhotoNOLA, a workshop at the New Orleans Photography Workshops and long holiday break, I am back at the blog. I have a few more Photolucida post to include and some highlights from PhotoNOLA and a great interview with photobook designer Elizabeth Avedon.

My selection of Nate Larson & Marni Shindelman as a Photolucida favorite might stem from my own since of paranoia about social media and my interest in the notion of the sense of place. Larson and Shindleman present locations which at first glance are neutral-- devoid of history for a few-- but when text is applied seem relevant to others.

"Each morning we follow strangers through their Twitter updates, becoming intimately involved in their banal daily errands. We imagine ourselves as virtual flâneurs, exploring cities 140 characters at a time through the lives of others. Sometimes we follow these strangers for a day and other times for months, following the ups and downs of their posts to this public venue.

Using publicly available embedded geotag information in Twitter updates, we track the locations of users through their GPS coordinates and make a photograph to mark the location in the real world. Each of these photographs is taken on the site of the update and paired with the originating text.

We think of these photographs as historical monuments to small lived moments, selecting texts that reveal something about the personal nature of the users' lives or the national climate of the United States. It is also grounds the virtual reality of social networking data streams in their originating locations in the physical world while examining how the nature of one's physical space may influence online presence. " -- Nate Larson & Marni Shindelman

Read more and view more images on their site.