markets & careers
Publish-it-yourself philosophy has made winners of several books by Bob Adelman
Having a book published is the eternal fantasy, the ultimate dream of many creative individuals. Despite the plethora of books (and non-books labeled as books) spewed out yearly in the multithousands, the dream for most remains just that. But, for Bob Adelman, an inventive, adventurous, imaginative, voluble photojournalist, the dream has become the multiple reality. Not content just to complain about the state of photojournalism, Adelman has successfully orchestrated a sequence of self-packaged books with a collaborator, Susan Hall. Their most recent success under the Prairie House imprint is Gentleman of Leisure, which documents the private life of Silky, a pimp, and his group of prostitutes.
The book-packaging philosophy of Bob Adelman can be summed up as the epitome of rugged individualism. Although recognizing the legitimate functions of the publisher as to issuance, distribution, and sales, his missionary commitment is to creative individuality and artistic control over the end product. “Photographic books are high-investment but low-risk projects because they travel well,” says Adelman. “Photographic books are susceptible to being put into many different formats and can always be redeemed with a cheap reprint issue. For example, a novel can just die, but a picture book can have a life of its own. We’re living in a visual age, and there are many people who want visual books.
“Most books are issued, not published. Publishers are fairly passive about most of their books, putting their energies behind the books which have the greatest investment. The rest of the list just grinds itself out.” He adds, “Initially I thought it was somewhat arrogant to suggest that I would deliver manufactured books. I found out a lot of books are done that way. Publishing is a backward business, but the publishers are becoming aware that a large audience exists for photographic books.”
Adelman believes that other photographers can apply his techniques to controlling their own book destinies. He suggests that much more should be done by photographers in regional publishing. A sym-
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pathetic printer, an interested Chamber of Commerce, or a “rich cat” can help bring the book to fruition. “It often doesn’t require so much money. Sometimes you might be better off making a small investment in your own project, as Charles Gatewood did. Let it happen. Much more of that kind of publishing should be done— the photographer can make his own statement in his own way. It isn’t as formidable as you might think.”
Adelman thinks that many photographers are “self-indulgent prima donnas who should learn that what interests them may not be shared by other people. They should learn to work with writers and designers. What ultimately makes books work is finding exciting, original, dramatic, pulsating subject matter—subjects perhaps that are risky to do, with investigative photographers going into places that are difficult, uncomfortable, and perhaps even dangerous.
“Photographers have lost their sense of adventure and impetus to capture gritty reality that may be shocking, surprising, or even disturbing, but which serves to grab readership. Photography is a branch of naturalism, and naturalism breeds on revealing things we have never seen before. If photographers come up with projects like that, they will find receptive publishers.”
Adelman shares my conviction that the most difficult part of book publishing starts with the development of the book idea. He believes that none of the production problems equals the difficulties posed by the thinking and discovery process and the shaping of the work into a creative whole. “Publishers seem intimidating to authors and photographers because people have been deceived into thinking that what publishers do is much more complicated than the actuality. Part of the wacky thing that happens to people who are authors is that they believe that the publisher owns the book. The author (photographer) is the creator, and your creation becomes more clearly yours if you take care of the whole thing. The more you do for yourself, the more you possess the whole thing.”
Adelman sees a lack of exploration of new areas and ideas by photographers. I asked him to spell out one editorial idea that he thinks has been neglected and would produce visual excitement.
“The rich,” Adelman responded. “Slim Aarons’ book, The Good Life, is the official version of that segment of our society. Where are the insights we see in Fitzgerald and Hemingway? Where is the decadence? Where are the people who have used their wealth well? There are millions of pictures putting the microscope on poor people and how they live. I’d love to spend a month at Pocantico Hills! [Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s estate . . . EdJ I’d love it. The people who have access to the rich, like Slim Aarons, are people who are Celebrators.
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“We have all these annual reports and no truth. I’m not against rich people. The Gatsbys of the world anticipate the lifestyles of the future. The Gatsbys represented in their time a very privileged world, the pool in the backyard and motoring into town. Today it is more representative of the middle-class world.”
The Adelman odyssey from studio assistant in 1961 to book-packaging photojournalist and entrepreneur of the 1970s is replete with evidences of strong commitment, ideals, social conscience, and commitment to documentary photography. He looks back on his studio apprenticeship as providing a great laboratory for craftsmanship and the grounding in technical things which have helped his growth and development of professional disciplines. When he talks to young photographers, he cautions them that they should learn how to photograph a room, how to do portraits, how to work in difficult light circumstances, and how to fulfill assignments. “America,” he reflects, “is not a great place to grow in, since people don’t have much patience for growth. We have instant coffee and instant photographs. I don’t believe that a photographer’s vision and his sense of pictures automatically come on demand. Time and conviction and hard work provide the perception.”
The decade of the 1960s and involvement in documenting the civil-rights struggle provided Adelman’s first contact and encounter with the frustrations of working with publishers. Even in the halcyon days of Life and Look, he had always considered books as the final repository for his pictures. The problem for him in dealing with magazines was that he lost control of his work. A project combining Adelman’s civil-rights photographs with Lillian Smith’s text came a cropper because of reproduction problems.
He subsequently lost control of a book project that included a series of books based on his invention of a technique for teaching children to read, which is currently in use in public schools. Ambivalent feelings of sadness related to his eventual separation from the project are balanced by satisfaction that the series was done, that it has contributed to the humanization of the educational process.
It was in 1970, in connection with a children’s trade book, that Adelman realized that he wished to control hisfuture book projects on every level. The catalyst for the decision was based on unnecessary delays, a cheapening of the book by utilization of the wrong paper and the wrong printer. “I thought that the only way I can get the book I want is by manufacturing it by myself,” he says in retrospect.
Down Home, Ladies of the Night, and Gentleman of Leisure represent the three most successful results of the Susan HallBob Adelman collaboration. Although that collaboration no longer exists, Adelman speaks of Susan Hall’s contribution
with enthusiasm. Their ability to produce books in the cinema-verité tradition was assisted by her “terrific ear for language” and her ability to edit language to distill what people were saying. Her film-editing experience, her organizational skills, and her formidable contribution assured the editorial success of the project.
What do books about prostitutes and pimps have to do with Bob Adelman? Was it the money to be made or a prurient interest? I find his story of the experience a provocative stimulation for all photojournalists who suggest that everything has been photographed, that there are no new frontiers of editorial ideas.
“I met a madam, a chance meeting in a social situation. I immediately wanted to know what it means to really sell yourself, to sell your body in a commercial society where everyone sells himself. I never could get anybody to talk about that because people didn’t think that way. One girl said something which to me seemed emblematic of what was going on—she started out in the business to make money. Now she paid the bills for her furniture, her car, etc., with her body. She started out looking for money, and she became money. She became a form of currency. I thought that was one of those total alienations—to become a thing.
“The human implications of the work were many. My technique was and is Marxist in that you see people where they are and let them describe their situations. The conflicts and tensions of their lives suggest the result.
“We tried to approach the prostitute in terms of this large abstraction, but also asking ourselves the question of whether people could do this work and it could be meaningful work to them. That was one of our perspectives. We found some people to whom the work was satisfying, but unfortunately, they internalize the societal judgment—that they are whores or outcasts. The pimp exists because he accepts the prostitutes, and then the pimp lives off them and they live off the pimp.
“The book has gone beyond just being a financial success. It is used in colleges for informational and sociological purposes. Prior to our book it was always thought that the women were coerced by pimps, but our research showed that the relationships were voluntary and, in fact, were highly romantic. The book has contributed greater understanding of a part of our society where we use these people and then condemn what they do.”
Will Bob Adelman use his experience in book packaging to take unto himself projects of other photographers? Except for an occasional involvement that stems from friendship or admiration for a photographer, he is not interested in taking on outside book-packaging projects. He is currently involved with Bruce Davidson in the preparation of a book compiling Davidson’s great essays. He feels that the pictures should be preserved and that, if he
hadn’t become involved in the project, the book might have wound up in “the photographic ghetto—a nicely printed book, but one which would appeal only to a rather limited audience.”
In a previous column I expressed my strong convictions that the picture book remains the primary creative and expressive outlet for the journalistic photographer. Picture books continue to become more respectable in publishing circles as the audience expands. Bob Adelman has proved that the photographer can successfully adapt the publishing business to his thinking, his needs, his individuality. The same can be true for the photographer who is willing to make the commitment to break ground with daring ideas that deeply reflect the world in which we live. O
BOOK REVIEW IN BRIEF—Creative Camera International Yearbooks 1975 and 1976, $17.50 each. Available from Coo Press Ltd., 19 Doughty St., London WCIN 2PT, England; and Light Impressions, Box 3012, Rochester, N.Y. 14614.
For over 10 years Creative Camera, published by Colin Osman and co-edited by Osman and Peter Turner, has been the best journal devoted to the art of photography to come out of Great Britain. Last year Osman and Turner published the first Creative Camera International Yearbook, a beautifully printed and sensitively edited book that contained major portfolios by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, and Robert Frank, as well as a generous selection of smaller portfolios by lesser-known photographers. The text (with the notable exception of a pretentious and sophomoric essay on photographic education by A.D. Coleman) was almost as good as the pictures, and it was obvious that the book was a must for inclusion in any serious photographic library. Now the second Creative Camera International Yearbook (1976) has appeared and it, in every way, lives up to the high standards of the 1975 edition. In both books the editors have managed to produce large portfolios by important photographers with whose work we are likely to feel familiar and yet include enough surprising new images to force us to look at the work of those photographers in a fresh way. A major portfolio of 32 beautifully reproduced photographs by Lewis Hine contains many images that have not generally been seen as well as a few of the classics that are associated with this great photographer. Smaller portfolios by leading American photographers Ansel Adams and Lisette Model are more familiar, but even these contain some surprises that are equal in quality to the better-known images of these artists. A major portfolio by the Mexican photographer Manuel Alverez Bravo covers a range of his work from 1931 to 1975 and serves as a reminder that this photographer who, at least to me, has seemed as much a part of photography’s history at Atget or Strand, is still produc-
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ing powerful photographs.
Another one of the joys of the current yearbook is a large and diversified portfolio (36 photographs) by Kurt Hutton, a German-born British photojournalist whose fine work spanning the late 1930s to the mid-1950s might have faded into complete obscurity had it not been rescued by editor Osman.
Both of the Creative Camera International Yearbooks have included a section on a major photographic theme, showing how a number of different photographers approach the same type of subject matter. In the first yearbook the thematic section was devoted to “The Nude,” and the emphasis was on contemporary work. This year’s section is on “The Landscape” and includes a portfolio by John M. Whitehead, a Scots pictorialist of the early 1900s as well as contemporary portfolios reflecting trends in landscape photography in both Britain and the United States.
As in the first yearbook, informative essays precede each section of photographs, and other text pieces of interest are included. The 1975 yearbook included a useful article on archival processing while the technical section of the 1976 edition contains an informative section on the daguerreotype process including useful information on the restoration and cleaning of daguerreotypes.
An addition to the second yearbook is a section giving biographical information on the photographers including the present addresses of the living contributors.
I consider the first two Creative Camera International Yearbooks essential for anyone seriously interested in the art of photography and look forward to more of these fine annuals in the years to come.
—Charles Reynolds O