Elizabeth Avedon, a conversation with Douglas Stockdale •
Elizabeth Avedon, independent curator / photo book and exhibition designer, including the retrospective exhibition and books: “Avedon: 1949–1979” for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; “Avedon: In the American West” for the Amon Carter Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.
I have known Elizabeth Avedon for many years (& where I need to confess my personal bias as she selected two of my self-published artist books in 2014 and 2017 for her Best Photography Books annual list), and we finally met in person when we were both Portfolio Reviewers for Los Angeles Center of Photography (LACP) EXPOSURE Weekend event a few years ago. Since we both will be Portfolio Reviewers for LACP’s 2019 EXPOSURE Weekend this September and Avedon will provide a one-day workshop “Self Publish your Own Photo Book with Elizabeth Avedon” on photobook design during this year’s event, it seemed this would be a great opportunity to spend a little more time getting to know more about this book & exhibition designer, curator and writer.
Douglas Stockdale (DS): Elizabeth, you are pretty well known for the beautiful photobook and retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum you designed for your former father-in-law, Richard Avedon; AVEDON: PHOTOGRAPHS 1947–1977. Tell us about your background growing up and what brought you to photography and in particular, photobook design?
Elizabeth Avedon (EA): I came to NYC from Texas to go to Parsons School of Design. I took photographs all of the time, although I thought I was going to study painting. I ‘borrowed’ my fathers Leica’s to bring with me and was fortunate to have Tod Papageorge assigned as my photography instructor. Papageorge has since received two Guggenheim fellowships and two NEA Visual Artists Fellowships, as well as having directed the graduate Photography Department at Yale for over 3o years. I count my blessings as he was such a traditionalist and Leica lover.
In Papageorge’s world there were only a few true photographers worth studying – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Atget, Koudelka, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and his best friend, Garry Winogrand! It may only be my imagination, but I think Papageorge stopped speaking to me years later when I started working for Richard Avedon, who at that time (in the early ‘70’s) was considered “only a fashion photographer”.
I was introduced to Avedon through another Parsons instructor, Marvin Israel. Israel was the former art director at Harper’s Bazaar, a true artist, a painter and a highly regarded photo book and exhibition designer. You would know him from the brilliant Aperture book he and Doon Arbus edited and designed (with the twins on the cover) for Diane Arbus – An Aperture Monograph, published just after Diane Arbus’s untimely death in 1971, and the accompanying Museum of Modern Art exhibition. The Aperture book is still currently in print almost 50 years later.
At first, I assisted Marvin Israel and Richard Avedon on the enormous task of editing 30 years’ worth of Avedon’s contact sheets. It took many printers working round the clock, several years just to print all of the thousands and thousands of contact sheets that were then put into cartons listed by month and year. The cartons took up an entire room stacked to the ceiling. The first year we worked only a little on the editing and I worked for Avedon as the Studio secretary, ordering lunches for the then daily Vogue crews and whatever else. I was disappointed on how little time was spent on the “book project” I was promised to work on and I left after a year to work freelance for Marvin Israel. He would usually quit a book design project early on over some artistic objection with the publisher or photographer, then insisted that they hire me to finish the design, which is how I became a book designer.
We had a lot of fun though. Israel and I worked on a book-dummy once a week for a year in the ultra glamorous Fifth Avenue apartment of Princess Lee Radziwill. At tea for the Princess’s sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, we presented the work in progress, which contained many family photographs. Mrs. Onassis took one look at the personal photographs from her childhood, had us pack it all up in a trunk in the basement, never to be seen again!
About this time, Israel and Avedon had an artistic disagreement and I took over the “fashion book project” working full time at the Avedon Studio. In between the fashion book project, I worked on advertising campaigns and magazine layouts that came into the Studio, including designing the cover of Avedon’s iconic portfolio of the U.S. political, media and corporate elite, “The Family 1976”, for Rolling Stone magazine and his book, “Portraits” (Farrar Straus & Giroux) from his Marlborough Gallery exhibition that Marvin Israel designed. I continued editing the thousands of contact sheets with Avedon for several years until we were down to the best image from each sitting, then the best sittings from each year, then by decade, etc. It eventually evolved into a book as well as a retrospective exhibition. I redesigned the huge space he was given at The Metropolitan Museum to showcase the work by decade and style and then redesigned the space at the many Museums it traveled to after.
To complete this karmic circle. . .decades later while Avedon was shooting In The American West, he and Israel reunited and Israel went out West on the road with him. Two real New Yorkers in the West together. That was perfect. Unfortunately, Marvin unexpectedly passed away while they were in Texas. I included Marvin Israel in my design credit in the final book, “In The American West” as he was always my mentor and always present in some way.
After the “In The American West” exhibition opened at the Amon Carter Museum, I redesigned the exhibition to fit six other top Museums across the country. I then worked for three years going through Avedon’s archives – starting from his earliest snapshots and photographs using his sister as his model – searching out personal, photo-journal and editorial images that had been overlooked over the last forty decades. These images, and many of the layouts and sequencing I created, became the foundation for many books that followed in the ‘90’s after I had left.
DS: How does your past experience translate into your teaching “Book and Branding” in the Digital Masters program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) and your LACP workshop during 2019 EXPOSURE Weekend?
EA: Over the years, I’ve worked as art director on many national advertising campaigns, worked as designer and photo-editor for magazines, represented photographers in one way or another, worked as the director of a photo gallery, and have been a very active reviewer at the top portfolio review’s internationally and throughout the states for over a decade now.
I think the combination of these many experiences gives me a broad understanding of what emerging photographers will be challenged with when going out into the professional community. That is what I try to teach my SVA students, as well as working on designing their photobooks, promo leave-behinds and business cards. There is much to learn when a student views their work in print.
DS: From my past teaching experience, a one-day workshop you are planning for EXPOSURE Weekend is a pretty brief duration to try to teach all of the complexities and design nuance’s that a photographer will need to develop their book project. What are the key aspects that you hope that a participant will take away from the 2019 EXPOSURE Weekend workshop?
EA: Of course I don’t expect each participant to create Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment” or Robert Frank’s “The Americans” in one day, but I hope to give them the tools to try to (!) by breaking down creating a book into the simplest steps and giving them the information to use as tools to work with. By printing just one copy of a book for yourself, you can see where your work is strongest, weakest and where you should be heading.
All of us remember what it felt like when we created our websites, which took so much more work than we expected, and how we felt about our work once the site went live. Wasn’t it thrilling? Did I really take all of those photographs, design all of those books, or write all of those essays? I think putting your photography, either a series or a portfolio you are working on, into book form and receiving it back printed by one of the several self-publishing sites out there (which I will give a list of and recommendations to the workshop participants) serves the same inspirational purpose.
Some participants are looking for a way to make a small self-published promo ‘leave-behind’ or a mailer to expand their network. As a result of receiving these items at reviews over the last decade I think I have some helpful advice towards creating these promo pieces.
I will briefly cover interior design decisions, editing, sequencing, typography and cover design and explore what comprises good design from bad, developing a framework for the participants to build upon with their own book project. And, I’ll discuss the self-publishing companies available.
I hope to try to view, possibly edit and sequence, some of the workshop participants photographs. That will depend on how many are in the workshop and how much time we’ll have.
DS: Do you have advice for photographers thinking about creating a photobook?
EA: It’s important that the work they put out into the world has matured, has a point of view, and is ready to be seen. Think about who is your audience, what type of publisher will be the best fit, and again, is the work ready? That’s why I suggest starting out making one that is a printed copy for their selves first. Everything looks pretty good onscreen, but in a printed copy you can see the mistakes, the missing images, where your sequencing is weakest, what images don’t hold up against the stronger ones, before presenting it to the public, to reviewers or to potential publishers.
DS: What are some of your proudest achievements?
EA: Personally, I’m most proud of my two sons. Professionally, receiving a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Griffin Museum of Photography. That was something special I never expected.
DS: Any last thoughts as we close?
EA: I love photography and the history of photography. It’s still a magical realm to me, never bores me. I look forward to each new generation or group of emerging photographers I meet, as well as the long-time career photographers working to keep us informed visually.
DS: Elizabeth, thank you for the opportunity to discuss your background and interesting book design practice.
EA: Thank you!
Bio: ELIZABETH AVEDON is an independent curator, photo book and exhibition designer, and writer. She is a sought-after consultant for photographers; editing, sequencing, and advising towards their exhibition, book, and portfolio projects. She serves as faculty for both the BFA Photography and Video, and Masters in Digital Photography departments at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Elizabeth Avedon Journal: http://elizabethavedon.blogspot.com
Introductory photograph, Elizabeth Avedon, portrait copyright Jerry Atnip