Interview by Douglas Stockdale •
Caleb Cain Marcus: born Colorado and resides New York City
Introduction: Recently I noted a convergence around the photographer and book designer Caleb Cain Marcus, beginning with the arrival of his stately photobook, A Portrait of Ice, a series of ambiguous glacier landscapes. Most recently is his series of mysterious color landscapes A Line in the Sky and A Brief Moment After Death (reviewed on PhotoBook Journal). Likewise, during a series of book reviews we noted the inclusion of Marcus’s book design and separation studio, Luminosity Lab in NYC. My curiosity was aroused. Realizing that Marcus would be a Portfolio Reviewer with me at the LACP Exposure Weekend in Marina del Rey in September (2019), I knew that this would be the perfect opportunity to have a photobook discussion with this inspiring photographer and book designer.
Douglas Stockdale (DS): Caleb, you have an interesting mix of developing and publishing your own photographic projects while working with other creatives at your NYC studio, Luminosity Lab. Tell us about your background growing up and what brought you to photography and making photobooks?
Caleb Cain Marcus (CCM): I grew up thinking America was covered in mountain ranges. In school a plastic three-dimensional topo map showed my country as mostly flat — I was shocked. It’s a different kind of life high up maybe it’s the thinner air, the depth of the blue sky, or the vast layering of atmosphere. Whatever it is, being surrounded by high mountains and organic shapes instead of human-made ones deeply influenced my visual understanding of color and space.
Perhaps because we didn’t have a TV, a telephone or even neighbors, I spent hours during my childhood observing the unfolding of the environment. The movement of animals, the arc of leaves during a storm, the glittering sun through rain clouds, the tiny, bright alpine flowers.
Seeing was central to my life. Initially my observations were woven into poetry and short prose that when pieced together became handmade chapbooks. Toward the end of college my path shifted toward making visual images.
Caleb Cain Marcus, Iterations, published by Damiani Editore
DS: What subsequently brought you to NYC and opening your own design studio? What does your normal day look like?
CCM: New York’s energy originates from people who dream. It’s also a city that can devour these dreams. I quickly observed that too many young photographers, out of a necessity to survive, took on menial full-time jobs which left them with little time or energy to do their own work. Others tried their luck at headshots, food and weddings which redirected their aesthetic to be client driven.
I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t take a full-time job or commercialize my photographs. I would guard my vision at all cost — Apple wanted to license photographs to use in their new OS as desktop backgrounds I was honored they asked me and I needed the money, but I never wanted to have my photographs used this way, with icons and folders spread across them. I told them no, I don’t think they were very used to that.
I started making prints for exhibitions and working on book design which was well paid and didn’t require me to sign up for a regular work schedule. It also kept me connected to the community and allowed my photographs to evolve without the pressure to monetize them.
Client: National Academy of Science, Jonathan Wells layout
DS: How has the various creative projects you complete for clients through the Luminosity Lab affected your own creative project work? I would assume that there are some synergistic effects.
CCM: I’ve come to know a lot of photographers such as, Robert Frank, Mary Ellen Mark, Donna Ferrato, Ralph Gibson, Lucien Clergue and Dodo Jin Ming. Through often intense and demanding conversations we explore together the physical attributes of their prints and their philosophy in life and art. The final print is a blend of philosophy, technique and color, but the most important thing is the print’s presence. I’ve learned a tremendous amount by understanding how other people see.
Client: Mary Ellen Mark – printing proofs
DS: Currently there is a lot of discussions about the importance of a book designer to the success of a photobook. How do you see this continuing to evolve?
CCM: Design is like the wind, if no one sees it carve the canyon then it’s successful.
Sarah Hadley – Lost Venice; book design by Marcus, published by Damiani Editore
DS: You also have the title of Roving Acquisitions Editor for the Italian book publisher, Damiani Editore, located in Bologna, Italy. What does this position entail? Do you accept unsolicited submissions from artists or do you monitor what is occurring to selectively approach a photographer about a project? What are the types of projects that Damiani is really interested in publishing?
CCM: Damiani publishes renowned photographers next to early and mid-career photographers which is rare. I’m a set of eyes focused on America. It’s a way for me to give back to the community and to connect photographers with a publisher that I’ve enjoyed working with over the years. I like to meet people before looking at proposals. The success of blind submissions is low, it’s always better to develop a relationship with someone. Damiani has a wide range of projects the best way to get a feeling is take a look at a current catalog which can be found online.
Rohina Hoffman – Hair Stories ; book design by Marcus, published by Damiani Editore
DS: What are the current trends in book design you see developing and which are those that are becoming a bit too over-utilized, such as using a swiss binding that does not seem to have any bearing on the book’s concept?
CCM: Before your question was finished what came to mind was swiss binding. The designer is there to make the artist’s work sing. Books are a physical manifestation of thoughts, ideas and concepts. It’s always a collaboration and sometimes the artist wants the swiss binding even if it’s not relevant to the context of the book. They think its hip or cool but when it doesn’t fit the body of work, the artist’s personality, or the concept, then the book loses some of its soul. A beautiful book takes a special collaboration between the minds of the artist and the designer.
Sarah Hadley – Lost Venice; book design by Marcus, published by Damiani Editore
DS: Do you have advice for artists and photographers thinking about creating a photobook?
CCM: Edit your images frequently, always looking for what to cut. Proof relentlessly, image quality is essential. Write tirelessly to strengthen and clarify the concept. More advice does not achieve a better outcome, too many opinions create a weaker result. Surround yourself with talented people who you like.
Bernd & Hilla Becher – Gas Tank, book design by Marcus
DS: What are some of your proudest achievements?
CCM: Achievement typically means a difficulty was overcome and my family’s philosophy was there were no difficulties, you deal with everything as it comes up and every action was regarded as having equal weight. My mom ran mountain races, one of the races was seventeen miles with 5,000 feet of elevation gain, she also climbed Denali, the highest mountain in North America but she wouldn’t say these were achievements. She did them because she wanted to. I could say things to try and sound impressive like climbing a 14,000 foot peak at the age of six or getting work into the Met and Getty collections, but they don’t seem like achievements, they just are.
Client: National Academy of Science – Klett and Wolfe, book design by Marcus
DS: Is there something that others may not know about you?
CCM: I’ve been lucky to engage in long conversations with a number of people at the top of their fields and had experience which will stay with me for a lifetime like staying with Robert Frank in his cabin perched above the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia and deep conversations with the sculptor Richard Nonas and writer Richard Ford.
Theater, Hiroshi Sugimoto, book design by Marcus
DS: Any last thoughts?
CCM: Love making books — they live in the three-dimensional space of everyday lives, sitting on shelves and tables. Touched gently or briskly as pages are turned. Shape, color, scale, thickness and tactility create an object that can feel trendy or sacred. We are drawn or repelled by books based on the way they are fashioned as an object. What kind of message does it send out?
Shared Space, book design by Marcus published by Damiani Editore
DS: Caleb, thank you for the opportunity to discuss your interesting photography work and how it relates to your book projects.
CCM: Thanks Doug. It’s been good to chat.
Bio: Caleb Cain Marcus’ landscapes express an emotional experience instead of a representation of reality. His work explores the digital print as a medium, juxtaposing it with pencil, oil stick, watercolor, gold leaf and varnish to build up layers of translucent and reflective color that change with the shifting ambient light. His photographs simplify form and distill color to disengage the normal patterns of looking, to quiet thought and cultivate a space for a kind of seeing, a kind of being that exists when thought is absent.
Caleb grew up in a log cabin in the Rocky Mountains watching the movement of the sun, moon and stars. He studied poetry before taking up photography which landed him in New York where he now resides in Brooklyn near Prospect Park.
He has exhibited, in recent solo exhibitions or as a featured artist at the Ross Museum, the National Academy of Sciences in DC, Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, the Houston Center for Photography, Tufts Art Gallery, and Palm Beach Photo Center. His work is in many museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Museum, the High Museum of Art, Norton Museum of Art, and Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
His work has been published in contemporary photography journals such as PDN, Musée, American Photo and Professional Photographer and mainstream magazines Conde Nast Traveler, Orion and Audubon as well as online journals such as Feature Shoot, Fraction, F-stop, Slate, Lens Culture, Smithsonian, My Modern Met and Hyperallergic. Caleb is the author of six books including A Portrait of Ice (2012), A brief movement after death (2018) and Iterations (2019).
Marcus is the owner of Luminosity Lab; which is one of the world’s smallest design and print studios. Our work encompasses design for art books and the creation of exhibition prints. We have worked closely with institutions, artists and photographers at every stage of the artistic process. We become our clients greatest advocate as we help to build their visual story through objects that have a place in the world. Our belief is that excellent design occurs through passion, intelligence and the fostering of relationships. We use our technical and artistic knowledge to create beautiful objects that reflect the internal dialogues of their creator.
Personal Website: https://calebcainmarcus.com
Luminosity Lab: https://www.luminositylab.com
I have been busy doing research on photography as a medium of abstraction for a new book. What I do see here, is most enjoyable, informative and beyond what I hoped to find. In general, photography is still rarely considered as a medium in fine art in my country. Sadly – but perhaps understandably so.