AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHY 17

Amilus, Inc. New York

American Photography 17 — 432 pages, 9 x 12 in. (22.9 x 30.5 cm), silk-screened vinyl dust-jacket

As part of my stay with Modernista! in Boston I once designed a 200-page pitch book for the Roxio account in one 24-hour sitting. Modernista! co-founder Gary Koepke was my office neighbor at Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Oregon. He knew my workaholic ways. Still, I’m pretty sure it was the Roxio pitch that made him decide to let me design that year’s volume of “American Photography.”

Gary was the jury chairman of the annual photography competition, run by Mark Heflin of Amilus, Inc. in New York. Amilus hosts both the “American Photography” and “American Illustration” competitions and publishes the companion books.

Each year, two people get chosen to create the books, and each year it’s a tour de force of design and production. Gary had designed AP14 himself, and then Stefan Sagmeister won every award under the sun for his brilliant design of AP15. The list of designers is a Who’s Who of graphic design, so for Gary and Mark to give me this assignment when nobody had ever really heard of me was a huge honor and a big chance. I dropped everything else and spent the next four months living and breathing this book.


The jury had chosen 400 entries for inclusion in the book. While “American Illustration” traditionally presents the winners in alphabetical order, Mark encourages the designers of “American Photography” to sequence the images themselves. I printed out index card sized versions of all the images and laid them out on my living room floor, looking for the perfect order for a month. I’d start finding interesting groupings of a few shots, and then put those groupings together into longer and longer strings until I had one unbroken strand that reached from my corridor through the length of the office until it had to spiral around a few times. It was so much fun!

From this bounty I picked a few shots that I thought would make for great covers. Not every great photograph would. I photoshopped my choices onto the blank paper dummy and sent them off to Mark and Gary.

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Platon’s portrait of President Clinton is still one of my all-time favorite photos.  

Gary and Mark immediately responded to Craig Cutler’s condiment packages. I was more smitten with the big soap bubble by Katherine Knight. We talked about it for a little bit, and I did see their point that the condiments had a lot more punch. In the end Mark said, “Well, just let me know which one you want to do. It’s your book.”

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And thus a single tear of thanks and appreciation rolled down my cheek. Unbelievable! Nobody lets you just pick your cover. It just doesn’t happen! (Except 12 years later, but you get my point: It’s freakishly unusual.) I love Mark Heflin.

Craig had originally shot the packets on more faded color backgrounds, and had cropped in much tighter. We got his permission to amp up the color and to extend the background so it would fill the whole cover. The typography would be silk-screened in white on a clear cover, so that you could take the whole thing off and be left with the pure photography. I thought it would make a neat little statement about the relationship between photography and design. I usually think that a photograph doesn’t really come alive until you put some choice type on it, and I’m pretty sure there are photographers who’d disagree with me. This way, we’d both get our way.

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Gary and Stefan Sagmeister had both used a clear acetate dust jacket, and I wanted to keep that look. I asked if we could use a softer plastic, though, and make it into a jacket that slipped onto the book covers instead of wrapping around them. I had seen Tolleson Design use the same material on their beautiful 1999 book “soak, wash, rinse, spin” and I loved the feel of it. Mark loved it, too, and said OK.

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At this point I should explain that these books retail for $60, and that the majority of the edition is usually pre-sold, so it’s much easier to splurge on fancy extras than it would be with a regular publisher. Beyond that financial reality, American Illustration and American Photography have built a reputation for gorgeous books, so it really was an easy sell.

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Mark indulged me further when I asked first for a metallic ink strip along the spine of the book, and then asked him to silk-screen the barcode on the spine and back of the book in black. All of it would have to be carefully aligned with the book itself to work. That kind of thing ain’t easy, and “ain’t easy” ain’t cheap. I got lucky.

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Following the diminutive AIGA/LA Soundblast catalog, this was my first “real” book and as with Soundblast I tried my best to trick out every last corner of the thing. I spent hours and hours typesetting Alison Morleys’ introductory essay. I hid secret messages in clear varnish on divider pages. I mixed beautiful accent colors for the photo spreads, and invested endless time in the layout of the index. I’m not sure if Gary was the first designer to introduce the small mini versions of each image for this purpose with AP14, but it’s where I picked it up.

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A few times along the way I changed my mind on my choice of typeface, type weight, color and size. And each time I went through all 412 pages to change each text box in Quark XPress. Adobe Illustrator had always been my software of choice. I had only accepted Quark once I had to resize ads at Maverick Records a year or two earlier. I didn’t find out about style sheets for another few years. Oh well, I’m sure the meditative effort served me well.

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When the book was released it won a whole bunch of awards. Communication Arts featured it, I got a One Show pencil, and a few months later I received a Yellow Pencil from British Design & Art Direction (D&AD). Which is a big deal. They don’t give out many of those, and it’s the only one I’ve ever won.

The whole thing was a joy from beginning to end. And much to the detriment of my health and personal life, it got me hooked on designing books. Once you get your hands on something so beautifully complex and cinematic, it’s hard to resist the temptation to do another. And another. And another. This opened the door to my work with L.A. Louver, with Jona Frank, and to all of my own books.

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Did I mention that there are photos in the book?
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