As art director of Welcome Books and because of my involvement in the photography community outside of that position I was invited by Kevin Longino to be part of a panel discussion on photography book publishing and a portfolio reviewer at PhotoNOLA in New Orleans this past weekend. It was my first experience doing reviews in such a manner, which I imagined was not unlike the experience of speed dating. You are turned on by some, turned off by others. But, you always strive to be courteous and, most importantly, honest.
Mary Virginia Swanson led the way during Friday’s panel discussion which followed her terrific presentation, “Publish Your Photography Book,” based on her upcoming book of the same title co-authored with Darius Himes. Simply put, to all photographers out there thinking about a book of their work, buy the book when it is available (due in February 2011 from Princeton Architectural Press ). It tells you everything you need to know from the perspectives of both photography and publishing. As an added bonus to the presentation, photographers Jackie Brenner and Dave Anderson talked about their own experiences in publishing recent books of their work. Jackie’s book, Friday Night Grind, was self-published while Dave’s recent book, One Block, was published by Schilt Publishing with Aperture signing on for the U.S. edition.
My colleagues on the Friday panel discussion included (in order of introduction) Maarten Schilt of Schilt Publishing in the Netherlands; Jennifer Thompson, Editorial Director at Princeton Architectural Press; Alexa Dilworth, Publishing Director/Editor at the Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University; and Melanie McWhorter, Books Division Manager at photo-eye .
For my part, I talked briefly about how Welcome Books works with photographers using Peter Feldstein’s The Oxford Project, Amy Arbus’ On The Street: 1980–1990, and Sean Perry’s Monolith as illustrations of three very different ways we have worked with photographers in shaping their work into book form. Though Monolith has not yet been published I included it as an example of how when we discover work with great potential (and that we love) but is not yet ready for publication (whether for artistic or business reasons) we sometimes will choose to work with the photographer to help develop its potential as a book, whether we end up publishing it ourselves or perhaps package it for someone else. I included visuals to illustrate each title and its development and was told by many that my presentation was really helpful for that reason. As the lone art director in the panel discussion and among the portfolio reviewers I figured I could distinguish what I had to say by really emphasizing the visual development process of a book’s conception and design. But during the presentation I was nervous as hell and thought I probably sounded like SpongeBob SquarePants after an all-night espresso bender.
I was fortunate enough to have my lovely wife Teresa join me in New Orleans so that night we had dinner at Cochon , which is featured in Welcome’s recent food book, Primal Cuts. Okay, that was about as much pork in one sitting as I have eaten in my entire life, but it was fantastic. Because we had included butcher/chef Donald Link in the book we were treated (without warning) to some things in addition to what we ordered. The challenge of eating it all was formidable but I think we did pretty well. We then took a walk through the French Quarter. All I can say is if that is what Bourbon Street looks like on any run of the mill Friday night during the year then I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like during Mardi Gras. Someone we know—and I won’t say who—described New Orleans as being like Disneyland for drunks. I want to clarify that that joke is aimed squarely at the people who visit New Orleans (whether on vacation or for college) and not at its residents, every one of whom I met was as gracious and sober as you will find anywhere.
Regrettably, our dinner at Cochon prevented us from attending Michael Kenna’s lecture that evening. But, we did make it to the reception at A Gallery for Fine Photography before dinner where Mr. Kenna’s work was featured along with displays of the work of Herman Leonard and Sebastiao Salgado.
Saturday and Sunday were spent reviewing the portfolios of the photographers, most of whom also attended the Friday “Focus on Publishing” event. I reviewed a total of twenty-four portfolios and the work was varied and interesting. The event was advertised with the reviewers’ names and affiliations listed, including their bios and a statement about what kinds of portfolios each was interested in seeing. As a result there was some logic to each reviewers list of photographers. As previously remarked, being the only dedicated art director/designer in the mix, most of the photographers I saw were looking for feedback on the potential of their work as a book. Each review lasted twenty minutes with ten minute breaks in between (which I was told, on more the one occasion, was a luxury not to be expected at such reviews conducted in other cities and so not to get used to it). The time went by quickly so it was not easy to go into any great depth about each person’s work. In general, much of the work was as yet incomplete or not focused enough, though much of it was beautiful and finely executed. These were all serious photographers with varying degrees of experience under their belts. I respected them all and admired their pursuit of something that is not easy to achieve. I liked some work more than others and I am choosing not to discuss specific photographers here because it would simply take too long as there were a number I feel would be worthy of mention for various reasons. Each reviewer was asked to rank their top three choices among the work they reviewed. The winner among all the reviewers’ choices would be given a show during next year’s PhotoNOLA. One of my choices ended up in the final top three but I cannot mention names at this point because the announcement of the winner has yet to be made by PhotoNOLA.
In between the Saturday and Sunday review sessions Teresa and I went out to dinner again on Saturday night (Hey, we gotta eat, especially in New Orleans!). We were fortunate enough to get a table at John Besh’s August and it did not disappoint. My appetizer of Hand-made (Yukon Gold) Potato Gnocchi with Blue Crab and Winter Truffle was sublime. If I had been the type I could easily have said, “Hey waiter, bring me another!”. Don’t think it didn’t cross my mind. It was a very different meal than the one at Cochon and just as satisfying, if not as filling. While we had no room at the end of our Cochon meal for dessert we did at August and ordered the Crème au Chocolat (a fancy way of saying chocolate pudding) and it was a nice way to end. The pudding on the cake, as it were.
Dinner was followed by a gallery crawl along Julia Street where it was nice to discover more of New Orleans-based photographer David Halliday’s work at Arthur Roger Gallery . If you do not know his images I would recommend specifically looking at his “Box Series” of sepia-toned silver prints. Then it was off to the PhotoNOLA Gala Benefit party where amidst the food, drink, music and conversation a number of prints were auctioned off to raise money for the New Orleans Photo Alliance . Also provided was a burlesque performance by Fleur de Tease which was roundly appreciated by all, despite a momentary wardrobe malfunction. In the case of a burlesque strip tease a malfunction is when the clothing stays on.
I ended up bidding on a David Halliday print because it was beautiful, but also to help bump the price up because many of the pieces were selling for far less than they were worth and I know how agonizing that is for those sponsoring the event given my involvement with the Friends of Friends Photography auction here in New York. You just can’t help but feel awful that photographers have generously donated their work of a certain value only to see it often sell for appreciably less. It helps a little to remind oneself that the photographers understand that this is the way things happen and that they are sincerely happy that their work brings in however much it does to benefit the cause. But the sting is always there for those of us who are involved in soliciting artists for donations and support because we want to protect the integrity of their work as well. We can never adequately express our gratitude to them not only for their generosity but for their understanding as well. Anyway, I digress. Ta daaa! I ended up winning the Halliday, a beautiful still life sepia-toned silver print, Camellia, 2009. There I am hoping to push the bidding up to at least somewhere near the estimate value and all of a sudden I am the only one raising my hand, and at a price still half of what it is worth. As the auctioneer indicated last call, once, twice, three times, I considered raising the bid on myself just for fun but the gavel was dropped (figuratively speaking in this case) and I found myself the proud new owner of a beautiful print. I should say Teresa found herself the proud new owner of a beautiful print since my bidding started with a glance of approval from her and because it was her birthday I thought it would be a nice present, in addition to the visit to New Orleans. Happy Birthday T. 😉
After Sunday’s reviews I (along with Mary Virginia Swanson, Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin; and Del Zogg, Collections Manager, Works on Paper & Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston ) was treated to a private walk-through by Dave Anderson of his show, One Block, at the beautiful Ogden Museum of Southern Art . Dave’s show was small in footprint but big in impact. Some fifty prints, many rather large format, were niftily installed into a modest size space. While the overall size of the room is relatively small the ceilings are high and allowed for a strong but sensitive installation of the images. In spite of all the photographic attention that has been paid to New Orleans after Katrina, this work is fresh and new. It is its own voice among the many and rises above most. It is also one of the most satisfying contemporary photography exhibits I have seen this year. It was a treat to have Dave talk about the scenes and people depicted in his work. And this was after hours so were all alone in the museum, which is a must-see if you visit New Orleans.
Since the reviews ended at an hour too late for most of the us to make flights to get home we were all invited to a dinner hosted by photographer Joséphine Sacabo . From there it was on to a one-night-only installation of the work of photographer Lori Vrba , who also happened to be one of the photographers whose work I reviewed earlier that day. She is represented by fellow reviewer and gallerist Jennifer Schwartz in Atlanta, GA. It was a one-of-a-kind installation, any description of which I might offer would not do it justice. The work was installed on the first floor of the partially restored historic Louise Arsene Vitry House in the legendary Treme neighborhood and it made me feel like I was in something like Grey Gardens. Lori is a very talented photographer and printer. She is all traditional all the way…from film to beautifully executed toned gelatin silver prints. The creativity of the installation was perfect for her work and a true reflection of her artistry and personality.
I really did love it and kicked myself for not bringing my camera. Fortunately, Jennifer Schwartz kindly shared some of her photos of the installation which capture the character and creativity of it all.
For more information about show itself you should read Jennifer’s blog . It is a fun read. Look back to her earlier blog, “Studio Visit with Lori Vrba,” to read about how the idea for the show started and some great shots of Lori’s darkroom and Emerson Farm, the location and inspiration for Lori’s Piano Farm work.
Faced with a 7:00am flight the next morning I had to take my leave at a decent hour to pack and get at least some sleep. That 7:00am thing was a mistake and I should have known better.
There are some projects that I intend to follow up on because the potential for a book is there. All in all, it was a terrific weekend with a lot of intelligent, creative, and fun individuals and I am grateful for the experience that the wonderful people—many of them talented artists in their own right—at PhotoNOLA provided. Among them: Jennifer Shaw; Vanessa Brown; Samuel Portera; and Millie Fuller.