Interview: Jack Woody
Jack Woody Talks to Elizabeth Avedon
L’Oeil de la Photographie, April 23, 2013
Jack Woody, NYC © Duane Michals
Jack Woody is one of the world’s most important photo book publishers, yet remains relatively unknown. He divides his time between Santa Fe and New Orleans, continuing to publish books he likes, not taking into account their eventual commercial success. I interviewed this reclusive editor, who until now has rarely spoken.
“I have no patience for using a camera. I can’t stand it. I could never be a photographer…Never trust a publisher who is a photographer because sooner or later they’re going to publish their own photographs.” –Jack Woody
JACK WOODY, editor and publisher of Twelvetrees Press and Twin Palms Publishers, has produced fine photography and art books for over thirty-five years. Recognized for their high-quality papers and printing, small print runs, and award winning designs, Twelvetrees and Twin Palms have published first monographs by artists George Platt Lynes, Joel-Peter Witkin, Robert Mapplethorpe, Duane Michals, Robert ParkeHarrison, Herb Ritts, and Bruce Weber. Other notables include William Eggleston, Lise Sarfati, Philip Lorca DiCorcia, Horst P. Horst, Gus Van Sant, Ken Ohara, Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, and Allen Ginsberg. He’s also presented important documentary work by Danny Lyon, Bruce Davidson, and Dennis Hopper, along with his most controversial and thought provoking books; The Killing Fields: Photographs from the S-21 Death Camp, and Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Woody has also been instrumental in bringing recognition to the work of many contemporary artists; Ryan McGinley, Chris Verene, Debbie Fleming Caffery, Deborah Luster, John Dugdale, John Patrick Salisbury, Michael Light, Diane Keaton, and Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, to name just a few.
Jack Woody’s first published photography book, “George Platt Lynes: Photographs 1931-1955”, was immediately recognized as a classic monograph on this long-forgotten artist. A highly successful fashion and portrait photographer in the 1930s and 1940s, Lynes produced a body of personal work focused on the male nude.
Twelvetrees Press, named for Woody’s grandmother, early Hollywood movie star Helen Twelvetrees, includes her beautiful portraits in his exquisitely printed book, “Lost Hollywood”, along with Lillian Gish, Jean Harlow, Charlie Chaplin, Theda Bara, Erich von Stroheim, Greta Garbo, and Rudolf Valentino by photographers George Hurrell, William Mortensen, Clarence Sinclair Bull, and Edward Weston.
Twelvetrees and Twin Palms highly collectable monographs have used the painstaking gravure printing process to create their luxurious look. Gravure is an old fashioned method, used before WWII, in which an etched and inked copper plate is pressed directly onto the paper to create the image. After the introduction of “offset” printing, gravure was nearly obsolete as printers replaced their aging machines with faster offset presses. The gravure process is labor intensive, therefore more expensive, but it provided rich, full blacks when printing on the uncoated, archival papers favored by Woody. Nissha Printing in Kyoto, Japan, was the last printer to maintain their gravure press, working with Twelvetrees and Twin Palms until 1999. The end of gravure printing coincided with Woody’s interest in William Eggleston’s color work, “It’s like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when the door opens and the film goes from black and white to color!”
In 1996, Woody published one of his most important books, “The Killing Fields: Photographs from the S-21 Death Camp”. “Between 1975 and 1978, the Khmer Rouge brutally executed two hundred thousand Cambodians suspected of crimes against Pol Pot’s regime. This book is a grim yet fascinating collection of Khmer Rouge photographs of prisoners as they were checked in to the S-21 death camp. Harrowed by interrogation and often, torture, these faces betray their fate—forcing the viewer to reckon with the circumstances that ever allowed these atrocities to occur.”
And in 2000, Woody’s most controversial book to date, “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography In America”, was published; “…these images are some of photography’s most brutal, surviving to this day so that we may now look back on the terrorism unleashed on America’s African-American community and perhaps know our history and ourselves better. The almost 100 images reproduced here are a testament to the camera’s ability to make us remember what we often choose to forget.” Richard Lacayo wrote in Time Magazine, “Without Sanctuary is a great and terrible book. It’s an album of peacetime atrocities, during which hundreds of Kodak’s clicked.”
Woody’s paternal Grandmother, Hollywood movie star Helen Twelvetrees, was born Helen Marie Jurgens in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, Williams Jurgens, was also in the publishing world working for the New York Evening Journal. From 1929-1939, Twelvetrees starred in movies with Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and John Barrymore. Her initials “HT” are still inset in stained glass above the original front door of her Brentwood home on Mulholland Drive and Outpost, now home to a current movie star. She divorced her first husband to marry Jack’s Grandfather, Frank Woody, a handsome actor and stuntman in John Ford movies. Woody’s father, Jack, was born an only child in 1932. Twelvetrees and Frank Woody divorced quickly and Woody’s father was shipped back to Brooklyn with nannies, splitting his time between his Grandparents in Brooklyn and his father’s home in Bishop, California, at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
While a sophomore at Barnard, Woody’s mother, who was from a very respectable old Brooklyn New York family, ran away and eloped in Hawaii with his father, who was not considered by her family to be so respectable. Jack was born in Honolulu and the family moved from Hawaii to Northern California, for his father to go to Humboldt State College. During the two years they lived there, his brother Bill was born, before moving to a ranch in Northeastern Nevada. The ranch was located “in the middle of nowhere”, but for a kid growing up there, it was great for the four or five years they lived there, before moving to Reno, where his father started working as a Fish and Game officer after graduation. His sister Carol, 6 years younger than Jack, was born, and then Robert 1 year after Carol.
Jack was in third grade when they moved from the ranch to Reno, and lived there until eighth grade, when his father got a job at The U.S. Department of the Interior and the family relocated to Washington, D.C. for one year. All four kids went to Washington, D.C.’s top schools in Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest public school districts in the country. Their school had it’s own planetarium, and separate boys and girls swimming pools. The following year, the family made their final move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for his father to work on endangered species for the Department of the Interior in their southwest headquarters, and all the kids were enrolled in Albuquerque Public Schools, one of the poorest school systems in the country.
Jacks mother was a teacher. Her specialty was setting up ‘safety net’ reading programs in the Albuquerque public schools, to teach 5th and 6th graders who didn’t know how to read. Because of her, Jack and his brothers and sister each had their own little library. “We always had a lot of books around us. We all had Library cards and mother would take us all to the Library every week and we’d check out piles of books. Even when we lived on the ranch in Nevada, they had a Book Mobile travel around and you could order the books you wanted. My father had all his wildlife books, Audubon illustrations, Fish of Nevada and the West, and Birds of the West. They were kind of academic, but he also had a big library from college. That’s probably where the whole book thing came from, in terms of it being a tactile object.”
NEW YORK: I recently spoke at length with Jack Woody at a friends loft on Avenue B
Growing up around our house, there were my Grandmothers family albums full of movie stills and 8 x10 contact prints from her movies. Steichen and everybody important from that period photographed her. They were extraordinary pictures because they were using large format cameras. It was this fantasy world of where she came from. In one movie she was blond, another a red head or a brunette. She had been in a 1931 movie called, “Bad Company”, married to the gangster played by Ricardo Cortez. There was a huge wedding scene she wore an amazing wedding dress in, with a train thirty or forty feet long that went out into the street from the steps of the church. When I was really young, I thought that must be her wedding, with thousands of people in the streets. I never met Helen Twelvetrees, but the photographs were a big influence.
My brother and I grew up watching Cowboys and Indians. My brother always cheered for the Cowboys. I always cheered for the Indians. The Indians always lost, so I definitely had a sense of what I thought was injustice. My father had relationships through his Dept of the Interior job with all the Native American tribes in New Mexico and they visited the house. They bused kids in from the Acoma Reservation every day in our high school. Now the reservations have their own schools, but then they were brought into town. That may be why I published Danny Lyon’s “Indian Nations” and the Mimbres book, “Within the Underworld Sky: Mimbres Ceramic Art”, just part of being in New Mexico.
When I was in high school I wrote Georgia O’Keeffe and asked to buy a painting and make payments because I didn’t have a lot of money. She sent me back a letter and a brochure of lithographs she had done, saying, “This might be more appropriate for you”. Of course I couldn’t afford them at all. She called my bluff. I finally met her in 1983 when I published a book of photographs of her taken after she moved to New Mexico after Steiglitz died, by Todd Webb. It was kind of a tribute to my past. The same way “Lost Hollywood” was about my grandmother.
A lot of my publishing is autobiographical. My father ran away from home when he was 16 and joined the rodeo – I published the book “Rodeo” by Norman Mauskopf. I was reading civil rights literature when I was 12 or 13, “Coming of Age in Mississippi” and Maya Angelous’ “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, which later on translated to the editorial choices I made like, “Killing Fields: Photographs from the S-21 Death Camp” and “Without Sanctuary”.
HOLLYWOOD: Twelvetrees Press
After graduating high school, I decided to go to L.A. and see my Grandmother’s star on Hollywood Boulevard. I hitchhiked a ride from Albuquerque to LA with a trunk of books and clothes. I started working in a great old bookstore called Pickwick Books on Hollywood Boulevard. I was in charge of the Photography and Art section. All the Hollywood Studios had their accounts there. I waited on Orson Wells, Peter Finch, Tony Randall, and Shelley Winters. I worked there about a year, then I moved down the street to Hollywood Book City, a new and used bookstore, which was much cooler, with Antiquarian books – Literature, Art, and Photography. I lived in a little apartment right off Hollywood Boulevard with a Murphy bed you pulled out from the wall. It had been an old twenties hotel, now run by two old sisters in their 80’s who had been in Vaudeville.
I was in the bookstore working and David Hockney and Nicholas Wilder, the leading gallery director in Los Angeles at that time, came in. David was going to Fiji and they were looking for tour books. It wasn’t my section, but they came over and talked to me awhile. They invited me to a Christmas party at Director Tony Richardson’s house where I met Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Tony was then married to Vanessa Redgrave, so their daughters, who were very young, were there. We all played charades. In one fell swoop I met this expat community, I left the bookstore, and Nick hired me to work at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery. I worked there for a couple of years.
Nick was friends with Helmet Newton and had a small Helmet Newton show a year or two before I started working there. It was Helmet’s first show. I asked Nick if I could show photographs in that small gallery room and he said sure. So, in 1978, I became the Director of Photography, which I just made up, for the Nicholas Wilder Gallery.
Duane Michals had done a portfolio called “Homage to Cavafy”, a portfolio of 10 photographs. I contacted the French publisher, bought one of the portfolios, framed the 10 pictures and I did the show, Homage to Cavafy. It was this huge thing. Duane was so sweet, he came to the gallery and we became lifelong friends. He was born the same year as my father, so he became my honorary ‘Father of Photography’.
We went to lunch and he told me, “There’s someone really out of fashion, a photographer named George Platt Lynes, you might be interested in.” For some reason I remembered that. About six months later someone called the gallery and said, “There’s a man in Berkley that wants to sell an album of approximately fifty photographs. Most of them are male nudes.” I went to San Francisco to meet Samuel Steward. George Platt Lyons’s had given him all of these photographs in the ‘50’s. It was $5,000 for fifty photographs. I had gone with a dealer from San Francisco, so I put up $2,500. and he put up $2,500. and we bought the album. That became the basis for my first photography book, George Platt Lynes: Photographs 1931-1955 (Twelvetrees Press, 1981).
I loved books. The first book I published was Christopher Isherwood’s beautiful journal called “October” (Twelvetrees, 1980). Don Bachardy, Christopher Isherwood’s lover, was a portrait painter. He did a portrait everyday in the month of October, and every day Christopher would do a journal entry, so we paired each journal entry with Don’s portraits of Gore Vidal, Joan Didion and everybody who was anybody in L.A. Then I found a little printer in the valley, Cunningham Press. A couple of old guys ran it and took pity on me because they knew I was completely out of my mind. That was about 1978 or 1979.
At the same time I was doing that, I decided I wanted to do the George Platt Lynes book. I had the collection of fifty images, but I wanted about a hundred for the book. I spent two years tracking down all the living models and accumulating their photographs for this book – I borrowed some and some I bought for $50. Back then they weren’t worth anything. No one even knew who this George Platt Lynes was. I applied to the National Endowment for the Arts for a grant for the book and I got $12,500. from one of the non-profit arts organizations in LA. The bill to print it was actually $23,000. so I gave Cunningham Press the grant money as a down payment, pretending I had the rest, for a duo-tone printed book. I found out there was no one in America that could bind an 11” x 14” book except yearbook binders. I found a yearbook bindery in Pomona California, but they screwed up a bunch of them, so I ended up with 1,000 hard cover copies and 1000 paper bound and I numbered every single one – 1 over a thousand, two over a thousand…it was completely hilarious.
I sold them by hand to the Strand and took them to Rizzoli on 57th Street in New York; they bought like fifty of them and put them in the window on Fifth Avenue. I went home and got a call from Andy Grundberg of the New York Times. He said, “I saw your George Platt Lynes book at Rizzoli. Could you send me a review copy?” I had no idea what a review copy was, all I knew is it was free. I said, “What is it for?” He said, “I’d like to write a review”. He gave me The New York Times Fed Ex number, so I sent it to him. He wrote this amazing review, and it just exploded and I was able to pay my printing bill.
Then the Robert Miller Gallery did an exhibition of George Platt Lynes prints and after the exhibition they gave a big party. A guy comes up to me, all in black leather, and starts talking to me. It was Robert Mapplethorpe. He said he really loved the book, thought it was great and wanted to know if I’d be interested in working with him on a book.
I don’t think it ever occurred to me at that time I would do another book. I just wanted to do that one and spent so much time working on it and it was so much agony. And then it clicked – maybe I could actually make a living doing this. So we did. We ended up doing a book together, “Certain People: A Book of Portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe” (Twelvetrees, 1985), with gravure plates printed in Spain. He’s on the front cover in leather and the back cover in drag. Susan Sontag wrote the text. It took awhile, it wasn’t published until 1985. At the same time, I met Bruce Weber because he was showing at the Robert Miller Gallery. I did his first book, “Bruce Weber”, in 1983. That was a huge success. I think we sold 10,000 copies in a couple of months.
I was very much into the whole collectability, because I had done the first printing of the October book as a leather bound, linen cased edition of 100 copies. Later, after I made a lot of money on the successful George Platt Lynes book, I made a paperback edition of a thousand paper copies of October. I thought I wanted to publish small limited editions of handmade books – letterpress, mould made papers, leather bindings and french linen slipcases, etc. I realized right away that was way too precious. It was $400. a book for the October book. I wasn’t interested in continuing to be that kind of publisher, I was looking for a larger audience.
Around that time, I published the Mimbres Book, “Within the Underworld Sky: Mimbres Ceramic Art in Context” (Twelvetrees, 1981). It was from a collection of a very wealthy man in Arizona. I found a gravure printer in Kyoto, Japan. I started doing research, I educated myself, I was learning about all of these things, like printing, and had it printed in gravure.
I first saw Joel Peter Witkin’s photographs at the Jeffrey Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. That would have been early 1984. Jeffrey gave me Joel’s phone number and it turned out Joel lived in Albuquerque. I went to see him and we did his first book, “Joel Peter Witkin” (Twelvetrees Press, 1985). Also at that time, I did a second George Platt Lynes book, “Ballet: George Platt Lynes” (Twelvetrees, 1985). Starting in the 1930’s, George Balanchine hired him to do all his photographs for the New York City Ballet. Then I published William Claxton’s, “Jazz”, and Dennis Hopper’s, “Out of the Sixties” (Twelevetrees, 1986). Then it all kind of exploded.
When you start something like this, you just reach critical mass, where one person leads to another person and another and there’s a kind of frenzy, and it gets white hot in a way, and all of a sudden I’m publishing George Platt Lynes, Bruce Weber, Robert Mapplethorpe, Joel Peter Witkin, and then everyone’s in touch with you. There’s just a kind of frenzy around it. It happens so fast you don’t even really realize it. It really did happen like that. It was completely out of my control.
I lived in LA for 10 years, from 1978 – 1988 for all of this. When the Wilder Gallery closed, then I started just working on the books. I worked out of the house I bought in 1979 in Pasadena, Ca for $30,000. I was also selling different things to make money. I met a guy who was friends with Manuel Álvarez Bravo and would go to Mexico and bring back Bravo prints. I was buying and selling Bravo prints and making a commission on those. I started collecting Photography at that time.
In 1987, I thought I would do a more commercial press, so I formed Twin Palms Publishers. In theory that’s what Twin Palms was going to be, although it didn’t change at all. To be more commercial, I published Herb Ritt’s first book, and it was in a way, because it sold 30,000 or 40,000 copies. It was the first of three Herb Ritts books I published.
I also published “Lost Hollywood” in 1987, which was a tribute to my grandmother, Helen Twelvetrees. When I moved to Hollywood, I collected old movie stills of that most amazing period of the twenties and early thirties from the shops on Hollywood Boulevard. I wrote the introduction about my grandmother, collected all the photographs and researched all the different photographers. I think it was about the town and how it creates an image of itself through these photographs. It sold out. They all sold out. It was a very successful time. A moment – a right moment. Then I just kept publishing.
Allen Ginsberg considered “Photographs” his definitive book (Twin Palms, 1991). He wrote all the captions for the book, he wrote all the biographies for the photographs and he worked on it for three years. It’s a huge show at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C now.
I love the gravure printing I was doing. It’s a very dark and moody kind of printing. I definitely gravitated toward those kinds of books. If you look at Ken Schles, “Invisible City” (Twelvetrees, 1988); Duane Michaels, “Nature of Desire” (Twelvetrees, 1986); Diane Keaton’s, “Mr. Salesman” (Twin Palms, 1993); or Gus Van Sant’s, “108 Portraits” (Twin Palms, 1993), they were very moody and kind of beautiful, velvety and strange because of the gravure printing. It was something I really loved and no one else was doing it. I gravitated towards subjects that I felt really worked in gravure too.
SANTA FE: Twin Palms Publishers
It’s most ironic I changed the name from Twelvetrees Press to Twin Palms to be more commercial. Changing the name wasn’t what I should have done; changing myself is what I should have done.
Around 1988, I moved back to New Mexico, to Santa Fe, not Albuquerque. But I wasn’t absolutely convinced I wanted to be there, so I left the business in LA., going back and forth. I didn’t move the business until 1991.
I was very aware of what was going on in Photography. I was looking for things that interested me. I look at things from the past I’ve done – they don’t interest me anymore. Things I ended up not doing, maybe would have been something I would have done later, but things came to me at the wrong time sometimes. It’s evolving. I’m not the same person I was when I started. I’ve been doing it for thirty years. I think what I wanted consistently throughout is they should be kind of beautiful, special, have a kind of theatricality, a kind of magic, and a weight somehow.
There was always controversy around the choices I would make. When we did the “Killing Fields”, I remember designing it and I thought it was one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever done, but people went crazy. They thought it was just horrible. Why are you publishing all these pictures of all these people who were murdered, it’s so inappropriate. MOMA ended up doing a little show of the portraits. And right after “Killing Fields”, I did “Without Sanctuary” and people were horrified, but that’s my best selling book ever. “Without Sanctuary” has been in print since it was published in 1999.
In 1999, I was in New York and saw William Eggleston’s 2 ¼ Images at the Cheim Read Gallery. They are his first color photographs taken around 1965 – 1966. The negatives were in horrible shape, so they had to be totally put back together. William Eggleston never really took care of his photographs. They have mold on them, they have emulsion damage. I think these images had been in an office for thirty years. They had already done that for the images in the show, but I went back into the negatives and picked another fifteen images and that became the book “William Eggleston 2 ¼”. There were forty-five images in that book altogether. That was my first color book. That was 1999.
I had never been that interested in color before. I didn’t have a prejudice against it; I just never really saw anything that I would publish. Most of my books are in color now. I made that transition. It’s like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when the door opens and the film goes from black and white to color!
Black and white is much harder to print and make it look beautiful. The other thing happening at the time was gravure was basically dying. Nissha, my gravure printer in Kyoto, contacted us and said they were closing down all their gravure printing, “You can reprint any of the gravure books we’ve done with you up to the next year and then that’s it. It will be gone.” In 1999, I did 3 gravure books, “Disfarmer: 1939-1946 Heber Springs Portraits”; Bruce Davidson‘s “Brooklyn Gang: Summer 1959”; and Danny Lyon’s, “Bike Riders”. I tried to get other publishers to use it, but it was a too expensive and nobody understood it. There were no production people who knew what it was. That was probably part of my turning to color because I realized I was losing the gravure. Ken Ohara’s One-Hour Portraits is a book I would have wanted to do in gravure. Matt Mahurin’s book was the ultimate book for gravure printing. That’s a beautiful book. Beautiful, rich, dark – there’s a whole school of people who copy his work now. He’s gone back to painting. Also around 1999, another early color, an important book, was photographer Mark Morrisroe. He came out of the Boston School with Nan Goldin, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Jack Pierson. He died of AIDS.
Eggleston’s color was followed by Chris Verene, Family; Sheila Metzner, Color; Philip-Lorca diCorcia, A Storybook Life; Lise Sarfati, The New Life: La Vie Nouvelle; and Jean-Luc Mylayne. Anthony Goicolea is the first artist I worked with that exclusively uses computers to create his art. I did some painting books along the way. They didn’t sell well, they just didn’t have the market, but I had fun doing them. They are beautiful; Alexis Rockman, Guyana; then I did Frank Moore, Between Life and Death; Jack Pierson, Every Single One of Them; and Francesco Clemente, India, came to me through a friend of Clemente’s, Raymond Foye, publisher of Hanuman Press. I met Allen Ginsberg through Raymond and knew him pretty well.
2000 TO NOW: It Became a Business
At some point if you’re successful, you’re building a kind of machine
The machine is built and was producing and I was feeding the machine these projects and they were coming out the other side and turning into money and whatever else. It wasn’t anything I ever thought of for myself, I don’t consider myself a businessman, so I’m always surprised to walk into an office, and it’s my office, my employee’s. I think the thing I did was always keep it very small. I never had more than one or two people working for me at any time. There’s always pressure to publish more books, and get bigger, and I‘ve always resisted that. I tried to really have the focus on the creativity and on the books. Even though you have to have an accountant, you have to have a lawyer; you don’t want that to end up becoming the most important part, where you have to make a certain amount of money just to pay everybody. Then you would have to start worrying about making money. I never wanted to have to make a decision based on “will this book make money?”
William Eggleston hadn’t had a commercially successful book until we did 2 ¼, now that’s his best selling book. It’s been in print since 1999 and we’re just printing the 5th edition. All his books were remaindered before 2 ¼. Now people know you can sell a William Eggleston book because the other ones we’ve done since have all been successful. We just published his new book, “For Now”, and it sold out in six weeks.
[Email sent to me, Mar 18, 2011, at 9:44 PM, JBW wrote: in the second printing of 2 ¼ the printer did not change the colophon from the first edition, so there are two printings of the first edition. the book dealers all know and can tell the difference between the editions by the ink color on the spine which I darkened in the second printing to make it more legible. J]
I have kind of a soft spot for friends. Maybe I haven’t made the best decisions editorially with them. I can’t really talk about mistakes because then I’d have to say I wouldn’t have published this or that. It’s not so much mistakes, you change, and when you look back over the things you’ve done, you don’t necessarily think the things that meant something to you at a certain point in your life, mean anything anymore.
My sentimental favorite would be the George Platt Lynes because it launched the whole thing. Some become favorites because they are almost historical at this point. The Robert Mapplethorp book, the Allen Ginsberg book – these have become historical documents. Then the documentaries, Without Sanctuary; Bruce Davidson’s, Brooklyn Gang; The Killing Fields, which I still think is an amazing book.
I can’t predict my own direction much less the direction of Photography
When looking ahead, I don’t make plans because – I just don’t know. I can’t. I’m always looking around for things, and I’m always working on projects. I usually have five or six projects I’m working on right now. The closest to press is the new Ryan McGinley book. We’ve been working on that since 2004. (chuckling). Some books take longer than others. Our first emails with him are from 2004. I’m not very good about schedules either. I’m famous for publishing books in January. People say, “Oh, you missed the entire holiday season.”
Antonio Lopez’ new book is coming out soon. The man who inherited all the Polaroid’s showed me the collages and I thought they were great. As a fashion illustrator he used an instamatic camera to make these collages. They’re grids of Polaroid images, usually 8 to 12 pictures of ‘Everyone’ from the 1970’s New York Art/Fashion scene. Most have never been published.
Deborah Luster’s book, One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, 2003, came about when I was talking to a class at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. She tagged along with the instructor who was a friend of hers, photographer Raymond Meeks. After the class, the students were looking around the bookstore and she came into my office, separate from the bookstore where we work. She had a little 4×5 box. She was working on a book with another publisher she was very unhappy with. Then she opened her little box and showed me these beautiful portraits from Angola Prison, The Louisiana State Penitentiary. She told me the story of how she got into the prison. She said she took the Disfarmer book I published and showed it to the warden and said she wanted to do a project like that. Nobody had ever gotten in there before, but he let her do the project. I said I would have published this, and that was the end of our conversation. About 6 months later I got a call from her. She’d left the other publisher. That’s how that happened.
I remember when Without Sanctuary came out – it was this huge sensation. I only printed 3,000 copies. I just wanted to do it; I didn’t think anybody would buy it. We had a small show in New York at Andrew Roth Gallery on the Upper East Side. He took 1000 copies of the book, Amazon bought 1000 copies of the book, and we sold 1000 to bookstores all within the first 3 days. The New York Times wrote a huge feature on it and it exploded. Oprah Winfrey came to the show. There were so many articles about it all over. People said, “You could have sold 100,000 copies if you’d printed them”, but who knew and that wasn’t really the point. Since then we’ve published 100,000 copies. Everyone who wanted one has gotten a copy – it just took 10 years, instead of a few months
Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Avedon