Interview with Martin Venezky, January-February, 2023
I’ve been aware of Martin Venezky since 1994, when he sent me a letter to the editor that we published in Emigre #31. The letter touched upon an issue Martin has tried to reconcile throughout his career. He wrote: “I am amused at the gymnastics the design community is performing as it attempts to write its own definition. We, as designers, are eager to expand and embrace multimedia and animation, but contract into apologies if we get too close to “Art.” Why? Whose honor are we protecting by denying the natural, frequent and essential crossover? Art or design? I wonder if we fear inadequacy in judging quality and value once the line is crossed.”
Since that letter, I’ve published his writing and parts of his Cranbrook thesis in Emigre issues #41 and #50 respectively. One of his recent photographs from “The New Machinery” series hangs prominently in my home in Berkeley, California. And whenever we meet, there never seems to be enough time to cover all that we love to talk about. You can say I’m a big fan of Martin and his work.
A few years back, I interviewed Martin for a small book published on the occasion of a show of his photography at San Francisco State University titled “Martin Venezky: What I know About Photography.” The interview covered a lot of territory. So when I was asked to interview Martin again, as part of his well-deserved AIGA SF Fellow honors, I jumped on the opportunity, although with some trepidation for repeating myself.
That concern quickly evaporated, because Martin’s output is prolific and never boring. And his career is so fascinating, with so many twists and turns and surprise moves, I never seem to run out of questions to ask him. So here goes.
Rudy VanderLans: First of all, congratulations with the wonderful AIGA SF Fellow honors. It’s obvious that your contributions as a designer, writer, teacher and artist, fits the motivation behind the award perfectly. You have definitely raised the standards of excellence within the Bay Area design community.
While you’re not originally from here, you’ve taught at CCA SF for almost 30 years, and you’ve done some of your most amazing magazine and book design work while in San Francisco. And your new devotion to still photography started here. Is there anything about San Francisco and the Bay Area that has formed you or helped you make the incredible work that you’ve produced here?
Martin Venezky: Thanks, Rudy. I've been looking forward to this conversation.
There is a general misconception that my arrival in San Francisco (in 1985) was the start of a golden era in my creative output. For my first five years in San Francisco, my work was hardly remarkable. I was deeply dissatisfied. I was seeing extraordinary design all around me in the Bay Area, but, from where I stood, there was a deep chasm separating me from those creative minds. One sympathetic coworker encouraged me to attend a lecture being given by one of those distant creatives. Perhaps, she thought, by witnessing someone else's successful path I could begin to map my own.
Rudy, the speakers were you and Zuzana (Licko)! And the venue was CCA(C)'s Oakland campus! Your lecture was inspiring in the literal sense. I had only a vague idea about Emigre magazine beforehand, but afterwards, I was truly invigorated. The next day I drove around Oakland to find the latest issue of Emigre. It was #17, "Wise Guys," with Ed Fella on the cover.
From that moment I was convinced that a complete reeducation about design and creativity would be my bridge across that divide. I knew I had to leave San Francisco in order to build it. And the place of study would ultimately be Cranbrook Academy of Art.
All the work you mentioned happened after my return in 1993. But I have to admit --- and I hope this doesn't wreck the gist of your question --- I managed to thrive in spite of the city. All I had ever wanted was to join one of the exceptional San Francisco design firms on the sunny side of the creative chasm. I thought it would be easy with my big-time education and dramatic portfolio. I never wanted to be independent but it was hard not to be.
Yes, I had made it to the other side, but now my work was too weird and personal. Even in San Francisco, and even after all these years, I still feel a little on the outside, never really a comfortable guest at the party. That's why this award and its recognition are so meaningful to me. Maybe San Francisco is a place where even an outsider can make himself a home.
R: Thanks for the kind words regarding that lecture, Martin. I believe that was in 1991, which feels like a different lifetime.
Perhaps going your own way, independently, is exactly what San Francisco and the Bay Area encourages. I know that with Emigre we always felt like outsiders, but I’m not sure we could have accomplished what we did anywhere else. So while it may not have been easy for you, you obviously ended up finding enough local commissions and clients, big and small, that appreciated your highly personal work enough to hire you. Speak magazine, SFMoMA, CCA, Chronicle Books, SF Arts Commission, SF Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, to name but a few. That’s an impressive list of clients who were obviously willing to push the envelope with you.
But let’s backtrack a bit further. When did you first become aware of this thing called graphic design? Were there any particular people, circumstances or experiences that inspired you to pursue this track?
M: That's an easy question for me. I met my father's brother, my Uncle Milton, in 1965, when I was 8 years old. We visited him on a family trip from southern California to Maryland in the dead of winter. He was a cartographer and a master calligrapher. I revered him and wanted to model myself after him. I loved watching him work on maps, all drawn by hand. He introduced me to stamp collecting. He was the first person to take me to an art museum --- the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. He gifted me a Speedball pen set and a lettering guide, which I still have today! This was my introduction to typography as a form of drawing, involving the hand and the body. After that visit, in high school art classes I created elaborate pictures that revolved around the typography of song lyrics. All the lettering I used evolved from the examples in that Speedball book.
At Dartmouth College, there were no classes in graphic design (or photography, for that matter). But as a student, I worked at the Hopkins Center Design Office where I designed posters and brochures for the college's performing arts programs. It was there, on a janky photo-typositor machine that I learned the fundamentals of typography. It was an awkward, difficult machine on which I set type letter-by-letter on long strips of photo paper doused in a chemical bath, determining the spacing by eye. Then the long strips of type were waxed, mounted on board, and sized on a photostat machine. This was a long, laborious process. It seemed like drudge work at the time, but it taught me patience, precision and detail.
At that moment, though, I don't think I even understood what "graphic design" was as a profession. I was instead gearing up for what seemed like the most probable option, a career in advertising. But at that moment I happened upon an issue of the Push Pin Graphic, a publication that changed everything for me. Those pages combined design, type, illustration, writing, and yes, advertising, but all as a cultural, self-generated phenomenon. That was in 1977, and that was my first real understanding of the potential of "graphic design".
R: So you received no formal training as a designer during your undergraduate studies at Dartmouth? You pretty much taught yourself how to produce graphic design simply by exploring the tools?
M: That's right. I had bosses, but they were not educators. I learned everything on the job or through my own curiosity. The only formal classes I ever took were through the University of California Santa Cruz Extension program. My applications to graduate schools did not succeed at first because the only samples I had were coupons and sales brochures. I needed some classroom exercises that I could finesse into a reasonable portfolio so I worked during the day, then drove to night school, came home, did the homework, and started over again the next day. One of the instructors for a weekend workshop was Lucille Tenazas, who ultimately wrote a recommendation for my application. Another was a very young Terry Irwin who taught a class on Swiss Design.
R: It’s so funny to think of you designing coupons and sales brochures, because the work you’re known for today often incorporates this kind of amateur or vernacular work. Who did you work for during those early days in SF when you were also going to night school?
M: I worked for a design group that was a part of a larger marketing firm in Oakland. They specialized in taking on food brands from other countries that were trying to break into the American market. All of our design was driven by marketing data. It was a stifling place to work but I made a decent salary with decent benefits. A lot of our work was business-to-business; that is, trade brochures to convince grocers to stock these new untested brands. Everything was based on promoting products—recipe booklets, coupons, in-store displays, that sort of thing. Any creativity was kept within very strict, easy-to-sell boundaries. I stayed there for five years, which, looking back, seems crazy to me. But, for most of that time, I needed security and steadiness more than a creative outlet.
R: I get that. But all the while you knew that design had much more to offer than marketing driven jobs. I’m guessing the workshops with Lucille Tenazas, a Cranbrook grad, and Terry Irwin, a Basel grad, must have been eye openers. That is the near opposite of what you were involved in. Was it Lucille who suggested you apply to Cranbrook?
M: OK, Rudy, now things get complicated!
I first learned about Cranbrook in 1979 when I was about to graduate from my undergraduate program at Dartmouth College. Lorna Ritz was a visiting professor at the time. She was a painter with a fierce spirit at odds with the staid backdrop of Dartmouth's Visual Studies program. She was a big influence on me at the time and recommended I consider Cranbrook, where she had received her training. I had never heard of it before, and, at the time, was determined to get into Yale's graduate design program. (I tried three times and failed. The last time they sent me a kind but stern letter that perhaps this was just not the place for me. Case closed.)
I decided to apply to Cranbrook in 1981. I made it through the preliminary selection and flew to Bloomfield Hills for an interview with Kathy McCoy (my first plane flight ever). I was daunted by the overwhelming seriousness of the place and, although I was eventually accepted into the program at the time, I declined the invitation, thinking that I was just not ready for the rigor. Had I accepted, I would have been one of Lucille's classmates.
After that, I bounced around a number of jobs and moved to San Francisco where I ended up at the aforementioned marketing firm. I had begun to think that my declining that invitation in 1981 was the biggest mistake of my life and that now I was too old to attend. But one evening it struck me like a bolt of lightning... maybe I could still go! I called the school the next day, got an application, and began the process all over again.
But this time, after visiting the school with my now much worse portfolio, I did not get in.
I was crushed but determined. That's when I began taking evening classes where I met Terry and Lucille.
It was such a funny time for me. I was learning about grid systems and page structure at night, and then trying to apply these things to coupons and sales kits during the day! Needless to say, it just didn't work.
But I was able to wrangle together a barely acceptable portfolio and a letter of recommendation from Lucille. I was on the wait list for a very long time and was finally accepted with a great deal of reservation and concern (at least that was what I was told upon arrival by one of the second-year students).
At that time I had also applied to a number of other schools including RISD, Cal Arts and Basel. (Not Yale. God forbid!) I was torn between Basel and Cranbrook and asked Lucille for advice. She didn't hesitate. “Basel is the past. Cranbrook is the future.” I agreed and here I am.
R: That’s such an amazing story! With all those rejections, and mental hardships, did you ever think that perhaps graphic design was not for you? What was it that kept you going? And when did you start to gain the confidence and knew that you were actually pretty good at this?
M: That's a really hard question to answer. There were times when it felt bleak, but I never lost my love of design as a field. I didn't know for sure that I could create great design, but, until I finally crossed the grad school threshold, I felt that I never had a proper chance to test my abilities. I knew that there was a real possibility I would lose the battle, but it was the only way forward. I'm sure these experiences have made me a better teacher. I really understand how difficult it is to put yourself in such a vulnerable space as the classroom, and I really want my students to become better than they thought they could be. I've worked alongside some teachers who feel their job is to sniff out the best students and shepherd them along, while letting the lesser ones scramble. I don't think that way. I really believe my task is to convince the insecure, self-doubting students that, with enough work and commitment, they can raise their skill level and become exceptional. That's a bigger challenge, and it doesn't always work. Sometimes I feel like I want them to excel more than they do! I can be difficult and demanding in critiques. But I am just as hard on myself because that's the way I climbed over all of the rejections.
R: Cranbrook always stood out as an exceptional school for graphic design yet with a reputation that made many in the profession question the type of work that was being created there. What made it so unique, and what’s the most valuable lesson you learned at Cranbrook?
M: Because there is no set model of instruction at Cranbrook, each Artist-In-Residence (that's how the faculty is referred to and there is only one per program) is free to establish an independent method and curriculum. This freedom manifests itself in the student work and encourages the testing of the limits of a discipline. It also makes it much easier to merge disciplines together. I didn't really understand all of that before I arrived, but I think that was one of the things that both tantalized and concerned the profession itself. A lot of my design work became extremely personal, which made it very difficult to find a job when I returned to San Francisco.
Two big lessons for me. First, making work can be personal and idiosyncratic, allowing chance and surprise to enter into the process. Second, beyond just a profession, design can be a lens through which we examine the entire world. Those ideas may seem obvious now, but they weren't at the time, at least for me.
R: At the time, those ideas were not obvious to a lot of people. For the most part design at the time was taught as a simple set of rules. We lived by all these wonderful memes like Form Follows Function, Less is More and the idea of grid-based design, and the Crystal Goblet, etc. We were being primed to clean up the world so to speak. But then some of us started to realize that all those rules didn’t always make for the most effective way to communicate. And places like Cranbrook, and later CalArts (with the help of a faculty of Cranbrook grads), started testing the limits of these approaches to design.
Your book Bordertown is a perfect example of this approach, with a very high level of personal input. The book was centered on the photos of David Perry and the text and drawings of Barry Gifford, but you were given a lot of creative freedom and added much of your own imagery. I believe you actually visited Mexico to collect collage material. Typographically it’s very playful, with a distinct absence of a grid. It’s a wonderful book, and I know it’s one of your favorites, but it was a commercial flop. And it seems to me that you toned down this approach in more recent books, like the Wes Anderson books. Was there a realization that you had taken it too far with Bordertown?
M: If I had to be remembered for one single project, it would be Bordertown, so I'm glad you mentioned it. There are so many stories to tell about this book that we could spend the rest of the interview on this one project. The project brief from Chronicle Books was to “create something that had never been done before,” which I took to heart. This was in 1997, at the height of the “designer as author” explosion, which was a key tenet of the Cranbrook sensibility. Under art director Michael Carabetta (also a Cranbrook graduate) and editor Caroline Herter, Chronicle was interested in cultivating this area of collaborative work, and we were all excited (and nervous) about where this could lead. I brought on Geoff Kaplan (also from Cranbrook) to work with me on the project. Although the result looks loose and spontaneous, we spent months collecting, studying, and preparing all of the material.
The result was a book that everyone was proud of. Well, everyone except the Chronicle sales team, who were tasked with visiting bookstores to market it. They were completely unprepared for a title this dark and troubling. Many stores refused to stock it, and those that did had no idea where to place it. No one thought of it as a photobook, which it was. It was often shelved under “travel,” or “Mexican history.” Barry Gifford, whose notes and writing are included is primarily a fiction writer, so sometimes the book would appear alongside his other titles.
Geoff and I were unaware of this problem. We were waiting for the phone to start ringing, expecting this book would usher in a new era of major publishing houses creating similarly challenging books. No. It was utter silence. No offers, no interviews, and absolutely no reviews. I still believed in the project, even going so far as suggesting a series of “Border” books which would pair up photographers and writers to travel along contentious borders all around the world. Wouldn't that have been a fantastic series? I still think it would, maybe even more so today. When I dared to mention this to Caroline Herter, she looked as if I was suggesting human sacrifice! There was no way she would ever entertain such a project again. (At that point she had already left Chronicle and was working as an independent book packager.)
Looking back, no, I don't believe it went too far at all. It was ahead of its time. Maybe it still is, or maybe the window of time has shut. I believe that someday some curator will discover it and give it proper recognition as an important photobook. In the meantime, I buy up cheap copies of it for sale on Amazon, sometimes as low as $5.00. But other times going for $100+.
R: What would you want the curator to say about the book? Why do you think it’s an important photobook?
M: In the world of photobooks it's rare for the designer to take command. We usually work around the edges, keeping well out of the way of the primacy of the photographs. And if you look back at what was being produced in 1997, design was practically invisible. Bordertown is an example of collaboration that was sanctioned and encouraged by the publisher. And all parties worked with a level of trust and responsibility that could be a model for future projects, if it ever were to receive wide visibility.
The interweaving of image, text, artifact, and design is so tight that it is often hard to tell who did what, like a movie whose acting, writing, directing, and cinematography collectively give rise to a complex and unique world.
I should point out that, although they may appear otherwise in hindsight, the design decisions were not based on an outside style. They were influenced directly by the nature of the border town, where old structures and new buildings, tradition and pop culture, sinners and saints, tourists and denizens, are all pushed up against each other. Our process sought to simulate this alternating pressure and release.
R: Taking into consideration your prominent role in this collaboration, it’s curious that your name is not on the cover alongside Perry's and Gifford's. But I guess that’s a remnant of the traditional role of the designer as a mere facilitator.
M: It was thrilling enough to simply get this opportunity. So it didn't even occur to me to ask for that kind of credit. I honestly thought that Bordertown would be the foundation for a career filled with similar projects. It didn't quite happen like that (it never does). But subsequently, both David Perry and Barry Gifford contributed extensively to Speak magazine, which was a nice consolation.
R: You’ve brought this up before, the fact that you had difficulty finding outlets for your work. But when I look at your portfolio, it’s littered with amazing work, for dozens of clients that radiates your personal style. Speak magazine is a great example. And then there’s Open for SFMoMA. These are both incredible projects. Particularly Open, for me, was such a standout among museum magazines. Probably one of my all-time favorite museum magazines. You’d expect more museums to allow for this kind of expressiveness in their publications, but in general they tend to be rather bland. So are you saying these projects do not build on the foundation laid by Bordertown? Or are you saying your career is filled with many more projects that you’re not showing us that were highly compromised and were simply pedestrian design? I’m trying to understand where the disappointment comes in.
M: It's not the totality of my portfolio, or the development of a style. Taken as a whole, it adds up and is satisfying.
I had always hoped that certain projects would launch new ways of thinking about how design could become a collaboration rather than a service. Open magazine lasted for five issues before the dot-com world crashed, and the plug was pulled. But for those five issues, I felt that design was given an unusually strong platform. In fact, for the sixth unrealized issue, I was about to be given an opportunity to collaborate with one of the featured artists. That would have been extraordinary.
At its height, Open was aspiring to become more than a marketing vehicle — a place for more serious content as well as adventurous design. But since its demise, marketing has won, and despite the occasional thoughtful essay, most museum magazines look and feel the same as ever.
Soon after I returned to San Francisco from Cranbrook, I remember seeing Tom Bonauro's beautiful work for Levi's and thinking, “this announces a major shift in advertising. Design and aesthetics are becoming drivers of the culture." Wrong again. It didn't happen. But there was that moment when they might have.
R: I recently watched the wonderful short movie about you titled “Beautiful (then gone)” directed by Mike Slane. And I was impressed when you said, and I paraphrase, that you never imagined being any good at teaching, but the moment you stepped in front of a classroom you felt like it was the most natural thing to do and you felt very comfortable. Earlier in this interview you talked about how you want your students to become exceptional at what they do. Yet you seem dubious whether there’s much room within the culture for designers with these highly skilled artistic abilities. How do you keep your own disappointments as a designer from infecting the students?
M: That's a good question. I have to be very aware of that potential, especially now that I am steering my work further into photography.
The jobs most students are training for seem distant from the kind of work I've done. And honestly, if the classes I am teaching had to be based on real world projects I would be at a loss. Book and poster design just doesn't require the kind of user experience testing that is so common in design education. I understand that these other kinds of projects are important and useful. They just don't interest me in the same way.
My classes are usually centered around process, experimentation, analysis, and critique, all skills that can be adapted to any kind of design project. They are really about generating a unique vocabulary of form developed from the inside out. The classes consider design as an art practice, or at least learning art practice strategies, like iteration, development, and self motivation. It is always exciting, and never disappointing, to watch students reach the moment of revelation when they create something unexpected from within their own investigation, rather than applying an outside style.
R: This distance between your own professional ambitions and the jobs most students are training for at CCA, has perhaps become even greater. You seem to have moved on from graphic design, and are seriously involved in photography. So seriously, in fact, that you went back to school last year to get your MFA in photography. You are back at Cranbrook! Which brings up two questions. Why go back to school, and why Cranbrook? There are quite a few other schools that offer MFAs in photography. Did you consider other schools?
M: I haven't really moved on from graphic design. I still enjoy designing publications and engaging with typography. I've found a lot of common ground between design and photography and the intersection is a frequent topic in my teaching. In fact, this semester I am teaching an MFA course called “Type Text Photo."
Up until my return to school, most of the photo work I made was done in isolation. Limited conversation and critique, few outside challenges. That's fine for a secondary interest especially during the pandemic. But I want photography to be a primary activity, at least for a while; something that was at the top of my to-do list, not something that I did when everything else was checked off. I needed something to either push against or push me forward. Something external to myself. At first, a return to school was simply a fantasy. But the idea stuck and the more I entertained it, the more it seemed possible, if a little insane.
Cranbrook's program is unique among other graduate programs. The structure welcomes and champions self-motivation. It's more of a laboratory than a series of classes. And the students can take in as much or as little as they want. My familiarity with the institution and admiration for Chris Fraser (the current Photography Artist-in-Residence) made the idea less daunting.
I did look at other MFA programs, and applied to a few. But nearly all of them seemed to feature classes and assignments and deadlines, all of which I was not eager to revisit in my own life (even though where I teach there are classes and assignments and deadlines!). I guess I don't mind inflicting anxiety on others. I just don't want it inflicted on me.
R: I presume you’re by far the oldest student in the program, with an incredible portfolio and a long career in teaching and working as a practicing designer. You’ve won many awards. You also have a very rich design/art vocabulary, honed over years of teaching. Does this not create a kind of asymmetrical relationship with your fellow students? Are they intimidated? Or perhaps this is not an issue at all, and the students love the presence and benefit of having an accomplished professional in their midst. How does this play itself out during critiques?
M: I am the oldest student in the department, and probably in the entire school. We do have one other photo student in his fifties, although he comes from outside the visual art world, so is young in terms of his career. It's funny to think that even thirty years ago, I was nearly the oldest student. (One woman was slightly older.) It's really hard to gauge the impact of my presence because how I perceive myself is very different from how others see me. So I have to tread carefully here.
My goal in returning to campus was not to relive my youth, or become a teacher's assistant. It was really to engage my work in critique and conversation and surround myself with photographic thinking. That doesn't happen as much as I would like. Thirty years ago, all activity was right here in the studio. There were no laptops, no cell phones, no internet. So we learned about new designers and new work from each other. We could watch each others' processes and that led to spirited conversations and debates. I remember gathering around each new issue of Emigre, Beach Culture, and Raygun, discussing the work and topics, learning about new designers. I remember how significant the Dutch design issue (Emigre #25) was to me. Every name was new to me, all the work was startling. I kept that issue with me for reference when I spent the summer of 1993 at Studio Dumbar in den Haag.
In photography, almost everyone works outside of the Cranbrook studio. We all have our own setups elsewhere, and only gather together on the days when we are critiquing or discussing assigned readings. There isn't much studio banter about photography. Much more about portfolios and job searches. I have to keep in mind that everyone else's priorities are different than mine.'
The biggest challenge has been in the critiques. It is hard for me to relinquish my teacher role, since I have run critiques for over thirty years. I am constantly frustrated at how polite everyone is, and the refusal to engage in any kind of challenge. Art critiques are fundamentally different than design critiques. The work is much more personal, and so the comments, if there are any, avoid anything that might be interpreted as a personal insult. Design always has the pretext of being at least one step removed from the designer, and we can discuss poor letter spacing or confusing layouts without it becoming dramatic. There are hard questions that deserve to be examined. Why is this photographic? What does it mean to use this picture? Why this strategy over others? What is the next step?
I tend to be honest but blunt in these settings, which others find difficult to handle. In my mind the point of the discussion is to make the work better, and the artist stronger. You can't do that by ignoring fundamental problems. Maybe the work is too didactic, or too obtuse, or too messy, or too contrived. Maybe the craft is lacking, or the relationship between content and process is unresolved. Maybe we should discuss the role of the image and how the student considers the photographic act itself. Maybe we need to discuss the political implications of photographic practice. Maybe each of us should define whether we think photography is primarily a way of editing the world or creating a new one.
R: Thanks for that very enlightening behind-the-scenes look. And I’ve heard similar stories from other teachers in the arts. Everybody feels like they're walking on eggshells. It’s also ironic when you think of the famous book that Cranbrook published in the 80s, that was titled Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse. What happened to that idea?
And as far as I’m aware, within the world of design there isn’t much banter either, with a few exceptions like perhaps Brand New, which covers redesigns of logos and identities. But if you go to the AIGA website or Design Observer, there’s very little if any debate going on. Print magazine, which is now online only, doesn’t even allow for replies. The only reaction afforded is to link articles to other platforms. Perhaps it’s all the result of an entire generation conditioned to only show a thumbs up or click a “like” button. Of course I’m not on Twitter, so I don’t know what’s happening there in terms of design discourse. But I’m not sure if a limited number of characters lends itself for in-depth debate.
When people read back issues of Emigre, they’re always struck by the intensity of the debates, particularly in the letters to the editor section. People spoke their mind, and sometimes it got downright nasty. But you could get a sense that people really cared about what they were doing. And these debates would play themselves out over numerous issues and even spill over into other magazines like Print and Eye and vice versa.
Anyway, I hope this lack of engagement doesn’t cause you any regrets of having made this brave career move to go back to school, and that you’re still happy to have carved out this space and time to indulge yourself in photography. Which brings me to my next question. Now that you have created this space to do what you like, I’m waiting for you to publish your first photobook. I can’t think of a better equipped person to partake in what is now a huge market for photobooks. I’m talking about the kind of book that is not just a catalog with reproductions of photos, but the kind of book that is an art object in and of itself, and perhaps even the final and only manifestation of the photographs. You are able to wear all hats necessary to produce such a book. It would feature your photography, design, and writing in a seamless union. It could be a Bordertown with only one voice speaking. What’s keeping you from jumping into that suddenly bourgeoning field?
M: No regrets at all... I feel engaged in the work I'm doing and can see it expanding and developing rapidly. Not sure where it will lead, but every day my mind is racing with ideas. A photobook makes a lot of sense to me, too. But I have held back on that for several reasons. First, I think that at this moment, if I took up a book project, I would quickly switch back into designer mode, which is my comfort zone. I want to strengthen myself in the photography world first, become articulate and confident there before I bring it into a publication. I might try combining those worlds over the summer or in my second year here.
Second, you can imagine the pressure that comes with making a book of your own work, especially if the book is part of the work itself rather than a compilation of finished work. Everyone around me will have the same expectations that you have, at least in my imagination. And that includes me. In some ways, it's easier to wander through the photo world because I can claim to be a novice. But not so in the world of book design.
As an aside, all Cranbrook students have to create a final thesis book. I did thirty years ago, and the graduating students still do it today. Of course the technology is vastly improved now, but not necessarily the design knowledge. Most of my fellow photo students seek out external designers to assist them, which is funny to me because it is easy to forget that I am not in a design program, where book and typography knowledge are (usually) a given. Some students have made books as part of their practice. There's a lot of advice I could offer them, but it is usually met with resistance in a critique. That surprises me. If the lighting in one of my photographs was poor, I hope someone would tell me and I would definitely welcome the advice.
The relationship between the photobook and graphic design is an odd one. I've watched Zoom webinars about making your own photobook. Graphic designers are almost never invited into the discussion to give suggestions or work strategies. So decisions are rarely considered from a designer's point of view. Books containing bold design are rare, but wonderful when I stumble across one.
R: Just to be clear, you are not implying that the only way for a designer’s point of view to be valid is when it includes the use of bold graphic elements and a strong personal voice do you?
And I don’t see the relationship between photobook and graphic design as odd or lacking. Sure, there are bad examples, that’s been true throughout the history of the profession. But if you visit Aperture.org, for instance, (the very active foundation that was created to advance photography), they even have a publication called the PhotoBook Review, with in-depth discussions about photobook design featuring professional graphic designers. There are a number of graphic designers and studios that specialize in designing photobooks. And if you visit the Art Book Fairs, which have exploded onto the scene, the numbers of amazing high quality photobooks of all kinds are just staggering. And just the sheer number of photobook publishers is impressive. Publishers like Roma and FW Books, which are run by designers, come to mind.
But you’re right, the books with bold graphic elements like Bordertown are rare. Perhaps that’s simply a sign of the times. Styles and methods change. Like you said, Bordertown was published in 1997, “at the height of the ‘designer as author’ explosion, which was a key tenet of the Cranbrook sensibility.” Perhaps designers have moved on.
M: I agree that there are many photobooks that are exceptionally designed. What I feel is lacking is in the general conversation around the book as a designed form. I realize that my exposure is limited, but I wish there were more opportunities for photographers and designers to collaborate together. Maybe the idea of design as a collaboration could be emphasized more in education. A year ago, I designed a book for my friend, photographer Andy Mattern (https://aint-bad.com/product/books/andy-mattern-average-subject-medium-distance/). We are good friends and respect each other's work. The project felt like a genuine collaboration, and was a pleasure to create. Although the formal work was his; as the designer, I felt that I contributed to the content as well. The entire project was an extended conversation between us.
There is a new program beginning at Cornell, an Image Text MFA which sounds exciting to me. I would be curious to know how many applicants come from writing, how many from photography, and how many (if any) from design. A program like that could be a place where the next Bordertown might be born... if I don't get to it first!
R: Needless to say, I’m enjoying this conversation very much. And since your career is so fascinating, traveling down so many different paths, I could ask questions forever. But all things must come to an end, so here’s the final question. Earlier you mentioned Tom Bonauro's work, and how much hope it gave you in terms of the possibilities of design as a cultural force. You also mentioned the Push Pin Group as a favorite of yours, and their cultural and political orientation in the 70s. Who inspires you today? What designers or photographers give you the feeling you felt when you saw Tom’s work in the early 90s or Push Pin in the 70s?
M: Finding inspiration is a tricky thing, isn't it? There are many artists whose work I like and appreciate, but I am especially drawn to artists who can illuminate their work and process by how they speak about it. There are some artists who have nothing to say, or prefer to remain elusive and cryptic. There are others who seem to pretend their work is more significant with overblown and preposterous artist statements. These always disappoint me. I feel that liking their work is an obligation rather than a genuine connection.
When I began my initial exploration into photo abstraction I was working completely in the dark. At first I was just amusing myself, but, when I began more serious study, I looked for others who were challenging the typical definition of photography in ways that were sympathetic to mine. I was, as usual, looking for permission and validation. As it turns out, there is a lot going on in all aspects of photography, and that is why I love the medium so much. Abstraction has always been a hard sell in the field, since the essence of “the photographic” for most people is fidelity to an exterior world. Nevertheless there have been a lot of unsung masters who have championed this branch, and they have paved the way for a fascinating group of contemporary artists, including Lucas Blalock, Erin O'Keefe, Erin Shirreff, Sara Cwynar, all of whom combine aspects of many media into their work. There is also Pacifico Silano, a young photographer in New York who, to me, is like a young Tom Bonauro. Where Tom's work is ethereal and heavenly, Pacifico's work is earthbound and sensual.
When I was living in San Francisco, I was wandering through the DeYoung Museum and stumbled face-to-face with a large Louise Nevelson sculpture. I had known of her work ever since my undergraduate art history education, but on that particular day, I was suddenly aware that she was creating, in her cobbled together constructions, what I was attempting in my photo work. She was repurposing outcast materials, and refashioning the bits into large rhythmic worlds. It was a revelation, one that has led me to study her work and her life with enthusiasm.
But, for me, perhaps the brightest star in the firmament is still Ed Fella. I think he was, is, and will always be, one of the greatest creators of works on paper, and still one of the most adventurous and fascinating typographic artists in the world. I've always admired those who can draw the most. To be able to conjure worlds out of thin air with the most modest of materials still amazes me. Even at his age, Ed's output is tremendous and is more adventurous than any of his younger counterparts. And to say that he can speak thoughtfully about his work is an understatement!
R: I couldn’t agree more with that final sentiment. And that’s a wonderful homage to close the interview. Thank you Martin.