Lesley A. Martin, who has been with Aperture off and on for the last ten years and has been executive editor of the book-publishing program for the past four, was recently promoted to Publisher. Her promotion was "reinforcement," as she put it, that the revamping of the book-publishing program that she has spearheaded over recent years is a vital part of Aperture and its mission to be the premiere not-for-profit arts institution dedicated to advancing fine photography.
American Photo recently had the chance to speak with Martin to discuss her promotion, how she approaches the refined art of bookmaking, and the overall developments happening within Aperture offices on 27th Street in Manhattan's burgeoning Chelsea district. But first, a look at two upcoming fall titles.
Shaolin: Temple of Zen, Justin Guariglia
Darius Himes: Ok, can we please talk about Shaolin: Temple of Zen. What an amazing project and book, on so many different levels! There are lots of very particular details that jump out at me about the book, let alone the amazing photography. Can you walk me through some of these details and the reasons behind them?
Lesley A. Martin: I loved working on this project. When I first started working with Justin, I knew he had an amazing story and some fantastic images, but it wasn't immediately apparent how that book might be shaped. There was no maquette or any firm idea of shape or size or structure. So, we went back to the contact sheets. There are some books that come to us as very fleshed-out book dummies. This was a much rawer project.
DH: The cover is a flexibind with orange colored boards and the endpages are a very specific type of dusty blue. They offset each other so elegantly, as does the subtle image printed on the endpages.
LM: The orange and blue are meant to resonate with the saffron of the monk's garb and the blue of his socks. The photographer was really obsessed with all of the details of Shaolin culture and with Zen. So we wanted to take the material -- his photographs -- that can be viewed in a fairly traditional documentary light and give it a new treatment, a new sensibility. The choice to use the uncoated paper was very important, because there is a very tactile quality to it that engages the senses. Justin's work is grouped in a lot of different series, and so the question of how to present and structure and build the book around these series became important. We wanted to reveal a sense of what these monks dedicate their life to, and how their actions emanate from the spiritual core of their teachings. The book can be peeled back metaphorically like an onion and in the middle is a section of images that are printed on velum; there is a combination of texture and a conscious overlay of layers.
In this inner section of the book, the Kung fu action portrayed grows quieter and then you come to a section that shows hand symbols, all of which have very special meaning. We wanted the book to be about this documentary process and also about the phenomenal access to the historical temple that he was able to get. Shaolin monks and Kung fu have been such pop culture phenomena but you rarely have access to the real deal. I had a lot of fun sequencing in this book. It was a real challenge putting it together with Justin and the excellent designer we worked with, Lorraine Wild from Green Dragon, who also loved the subject matter.
DH: If I weren't looking at this book, I would think, well, the subject matter is about movement, about Kung fu fighting, about an exterior and physical movement that has spiritual ramifications. How in the world do you convey that on an immobile, printed page?
LM: To me, the answer lies in creating a coherent core.
DH: Oh. Such a perfect answer! … Now, to get back to the secular world again, how do you see it in terms of its crossover potential and sales potential?
LM: We absolutely see it as something that will expand the audience for good photography. And sometimes that means working with subject matters that aren't driven solely by the quality of the work, but that are also about what it is that they describe. There are all these other pop permutations of Kung fu, from video games, and the movie The Matrix, as well as the hip-hop group Wu Tang Clan. That's all very cool. But this is one of the books that seems to have more crossover appeal. We want to find work that can hold its own as a really solid documentary photobook and that can appeal to many people including those people who haven't known of Aperture before. As you can imagine, too, we are also enthusiastically promoting this book in Asia and elsewhere.
DH: What sort of text did you include?
LM: Mathew Polly, who has recently published a book about his experience in a Shaolin temple, contributes an essay, and the foreword is from the abbot of the temple. He gives a little context about what Shaolin is, and had some very nice things to say about Justin's commitment to this topic, which he's been covering for 8 years now. And then Matthew's text talks about Shaolin practice and how it crosses these borders and how it has become international at this point. I think there are many different directions this book could have gone and one of them could have been something very quiet, such as a haiku on one page and an image of someone fighting on the opposite page. This could so easily veer into the area of the cliché. Instead, I'd like to think it is shaped in a way that is appropriate to the subject and still retains some of the rigor of a documentary project.
© Hans Eijkelboom / Courtesy Aperture Books
Click photo to see more images from Paris-New York-Shanghai, by Hans Eijkelboom.
Paris-New York-Shanghai, Hans Eijkelboom
DH: Ok. Let's completely shift gears and talk about this book, which is actually three books in one. I've never seen anything like this!
LM: This is a very different type of project from Shaolin, where the photographer came with a fully realized maquette. As an artist, he has used the book format (like Hans Peter Feldman or Ed Ruscha) as a way of manifesting the work in its final form for many years now. So the question for us was really how to take something that was basically an artist's book, but to turn it into something that we could mass-produce. It's ingenious how you can fold out and do a comparative read of all three projects at once. And it is actually four books in one, because you have this little text booklet slipped in a pocket inside the front cover of the book.
DH: What is Eijkelboom up to here? The project is clearly typological in nature, and he is surveying people in these three major cities, correct?
LM: Yes. He has a long-standing history of creating these projects that are based on this kind of framework. So, for example, he'll set out with a pretty basic idea: "I am going to go out today and ask people 'who's pretty and who's ugly' and I'll take pictures of each and publish them in a book." For the last 15 years (culminating in 2008) he has developed this idea of on-the-fly typology where he goes out in the street almost every day -- five days a week -- and he photographs based on these spontaneous frameworks.
He'll photograph people that share a characteristic, such as a clothing style, or based on a type of bag they are carrying or what they're doing. He has mainly shot in Holland, but for this project, which culminates a 15-year practice, he's gone to Paris, New York, and Shanghai and has incorporated comparative landscape into this mix as well, which is relatively new for him. In this case, the grids aren't based solely on the experience of a two-hour period, but built over months of activity and travel. The three cities represent a cultural era of sorts: Paris, which was the 19th century capital of the world, New York as the 20th century capital, and Shanghai as, possibly, the capital for the 21st century.
DH: You asked Martin Parr to contribute a foreword. What was his take on the project?
LM: Parr is very generous at pointing out talent in other people. We just knew that he would be somebody who could talk about the work -- he already knew about it and loved it. Also, the text by Tony Godfrey is really wonderful and useful. He has written a great piece on the groundings of this body of work and of Eijkelboom's work as a whole in conceptual art.
DH: And the Velcro in between the three segments?
LM: Well, you know, in the end, you don't want the book falling off the bookshelf! We do have to be practical, too, after all.