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.


Bruce Barone said...

Loved every word!

Michael Kirchoff said...

Wonderful interview. Thanks to you and Elizabeth both for continuing to bring understanding and insight into the world of the photobook. I truly appreciate the work and subject matter you put into your blog. I look forward to more in the future!

Melanie McWhorter said...

Thanks Bruce and Michael. I really enjoyed Elizabeth's responses.

Susan May Tell said...

Great interview. Informative and intuitive at the same time. Much appreciation to Melanie, Elizabeth, and Jessica.

Michael Kirchoff said...

An excellent look into the skills Elizabeth provides as a photobook designer. As one who is looking at doing a book for my own project, I appreciate your time in helping others understand the efforts needed to undertake such a seemingly daunting task.

Dallas Arts Salon said...

Great interview!

P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

great interview with wonderful answers. I am going to follow along with you to see what you have in store for the new year. pgt

Larry the Artist said...

Great interview and keen observation of the role of the designer in publications.

Cynthia Matthews said...

I am stunned and delighted to discover that Elizabeth Avedon was the one behind the most brilliantly designed and hung photography show of all time: The Metropolitan's 1976 Richard Avedon fashion retrospective. Thank you Melanie.