by Brian Rose •
For several years I have been teaching a course at the International Center of Photography (ICP) that combines making pictures and bookmaking. The class is called Photographing New York: The Lower East Side. Each student chooses a subject or theme focused on that famous immigrant neighborhood now undergoing rapid change, and together we edit, design, and produce a collaborative class book using a print-on-demand service. The class runs for ten weeks – barely enough time to shoot and print a book – and although I’ve got the schedule down to a science, it is always nail biter. At the end of the term, we present the finished book to the ICP library and celebrate our accomplishment. There are now six student-made books on the library shelves alongside the work of prominent photographers who have also photographed the Lower East Side like Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott, and Helen Levitt.
The idea for doing this class came from my own experience creating book dummies and self-publishing a book of my photographs of the Lower East Side. Not that long ago, self-published books were regarded primarily as vanity projects, and publishers worked almost exclusively with established photographers and institutions like universities and museums. In recent years, the publishing landscape has been transformed by economics, technology, and the emergence of smaller independent publishers, and some of these new publishers are artists themselves. Publishing has become a more democratized industry, for better or worse, and the process of bookmaking, once shrouded in mystery, is now available to all.
While this democratization may result in some photographers getting ahead of themselves in the inflated belief that their work deserves a book, I generally think that the process of bookmaking is a positive one for most photographers. To start with, bookmaking demands a critical assessment of one’s work, but further, it encourages conceptual thinking, and it challenges one to think in terms of connections, themes, and narrative.
In my ICP class, the simple fact that a book is the outcome of the students’ work brings a profoundly different level of seriousness to the whole undertaking. I begin by discussing the history of the Lower East Side and its relationship to the history of photography. The development of documentary photography proceeds directly from photographers like Riis and Hine and leads through to contemporary work by photographers like Ken Schles and Nan Goldin. Schles’s 1988 book, Invisible City, recently rereleased, and Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency are personal documents of life on the Lower East Side that are now regarded as classic books. I emphasize to my students that we are following in the footsteps of these innovators, and are adding a piece, however small, to that legacy.
Most of the students in my class are experienced amateur photographers, but not all at the same level of ability. All of them, however, are capable of coming up with solid photographs to fill six or eight pages in a collaborative undertaking. I’ve learned to keep things simple – usually presenting each student’s work as mini-portfolios – though sometimes I will break things up by dropping in graphically strong images between sections. While most of the images are shown one to a page, many benefit from more creative layouts, and sometimes pictures are allowed to bleed to the edge or cross the gutter of the book. Typically, I take the lead in editing and designing the book, but every decision is hashed out in class, and ultimately, I want each student to feel satisfied with how his or her work is presented.
Photo Copyright: Esther Rose
Because this is only a ten-week course, it is necessary to get students shooting right away. Many of them live outside of the city, and their familiarity with the neighborhood may be limited. So, I hand out a fairly comprehensive list of possible subjects to consider, and we discuss how certain themes and ideas might link with others. I encourage the students to think of their chosen topics as assignments with a deadline, something that professional photographers have to deal with all the time. The critical moment comes at about week five, halfway through the term, when the students realize that everything needs to be wrapped up in short order, ready or not. Often, a lot of scrambling takes place at that point, and in rare cases, I’ve had students fail to complete their “assignment.”
Photo Copyright: David Lykes Keenan
Weeks six and seven are when the book design and sequencing takes place. I introduce the class to Blurb’s software, and we talk about working with InDesign and Photoshop as design tools. Although there are now a number of good print-on-demand options, I find Blurb the easiest to work with, and it provides consistently high-quality printing. Most important, Blurb can turn around book orders within a short time frame. In week eight, we finalize the book layout in class, and then after going over everything one more time, I upload the book for printing.
Photo Copyright: Nina Kling
Photo Copyright: Todd Boressoff
The final class is essentially a book party, but I usually invite someone from ICP to accept a copy of the book on behalf of the school and to talk to the students about the history of books and photography. How together, they are integral to the development of the medium. Photographing the Lower East Side, in particular, connects to that history as well as to the history of New York and the immigrant foundation of America. As I tell my students, this is not just an exercise. We are contributing something tangible to an important ongoing story.