Liz Cohen, Bodywork. Michael Schmelling, Atlanta, James Mollison with Rainbow Nelson, The Memory of Pablo Escobar


“. . . he pursues the thought, although it might be more precise to say that he anticipated it, because, knowing as we do that thoughts are fleeting, if we content ourselves with pursuing some thought, we shall soon lose the trail, we shall still be inventing the flying machine only to find it has already reached the stars.”—José Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon

I have been reading two books lately, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Both of these books use excerpts from speeches and other texts, noting effective communication for their respective reasons. One quote which Fish uses is from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In one section, King, calling for change in an unfair system, states injustice after injustice, each divided by a semi-colon causing a dramatic pause which then smoothly transitions into the next statement of maltreatment and ends in “then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait”. The effect is dramatic. Although not wanting to minimize the content of his letter, I started to compare the strength of grammatical devices like semicolons, commas and periods in forcing the reader to pause, reflect or as an opposite effect, quickly and smoothly move among connected ideas with how elements in photobook design could cause the same reaction. Content aside, there are analogous relationships in literature to the design of certain photobooks: Richard Misrach’s Chronologies is like the writing of Ernest Hemingway, sentence (image), period (blank page) and then repeat again; Lee Friedlander’s New Mexico (and many of Friedlander’s books) are like the long seemingly unending sentences of José Saramago-- enjoying the ride, but wishing for period to catch your breath. Photobooks should lead the reader to the end as a great piece of literature, flowing in and out of great dialogue of literal imagery and ideas.

Among many books in my collection that are well designed, as this is one of the motivating factors when adding to my collection, are Atlanta by Michael Schmelling, Liz Cohen’s Bodywork and The Memory of Pablo Escobar by James Mollison with Rainbow Nelson. Why I point out these particular titles is for the co-relationship of text and images in the design, the tactile qualities of the book as object and their ability to communicate the idea of the project. When it comes to writing, technical style can ramble on and on with sentences packed full of information, protest language can have a cadence marching along to the final point and poetry can lead through a wondering path dealing with concepts, ideas or emotions. Like these styles, book design can take many routes to seduce the viewer into opening its pages and leading through to the end.


© Michael Schmelling, Atlanta cover


In an NPR story, yes NPR, I learned that most of the hip hop and rap musicians in Atlanta use strip clubs as a testing ground for new songs with the claim that where else in the city can you find such a wide demographic to use as a test market. The city of Atlanta has a new mystique all of its own and how does one get all that character, attitude and charm into a bound book? The "Dirty South" does not translate well into such a neat and tidy package, but Michael Schmelling's book Atlanta captures the wonders of this music-related aspect of this city.


© Michael Schmelling, Atlanta


© Michael Schmelling, Atlanta


The title is broad, but in the hip hop world the word Atlanta now carries "street cred" and just opening the book narrows the meaning of the word to Schmelling's subject. With the help of Rodrigo Corral Design, Schmelling uses a great typewriter font face to illustrate the photos with interviews and essays to add depth to the project. The photos vary in sizes including full-page bleeds and collages of flyers, live music scenes, tattoos, strippers, pit bulls, song lists, cars, and bling. They jump from B&W to color and varying formats of photographs. Its informality makes it Schmelling's hip hop scrapbook from of the city of Atlanta.


© James Mollison, The Memory of Pablo Escobar cover


Designed by UK-based designer Fernando Gutierrez when he was with the design firm Pentagram, The Memory of Pablo Escobar measures 360-pages and includes seven archives relating to Escobar’s life from press photographer Ivan Restrepo, the newspaper from El Espectador, the albums of Edgar Jiminez, a.k.a. El Chino, a friend and unofficial photographer of Escobar’s daily life, and various official archives including one of the two DEA agents assigned to Escobar’s case and General Hugo Martinez who was the head of the elite team that lead the final raid resulting in Escobar’s death.


© James Mollison, The Memory of Pablo Escobar


© James Mollison, The Memory of Pablo Escobar

  Each section has an introduction related to each chapter. The book finishes with the Aftermath of Pablo’s wake documented with Mollison’s photographs. The book maintains the integrity of each archive instead of attempting a chronological record of Escobar’s life. I know what this book is about and how to use it.  

© Liz Cohen, lizcohenbodywork cover


Liz Cohen's Bodywork is a mass-produced artist book largely designed by the artist. The project stemmed from Cohen's desire to make an East German Trabant into an El Camino. It follows Cohen's simultaneous reconstruction of this vehicle while she also transformed her body into that of a pin-up girl. The exterior boards are matte black paper and the photo documentation, replete with mechanical notes in her handwriting, fills the interior pages. Inserted into the auto manual style bound book are full-color glossy heavy stock plates that show proof of Cohen's personal physical transformation. She is often shown scantily clad spread across the hood of the partially disassembled Trabant or shown in sexually charged scenes with fully clothed men around "manly" power tools.

© Liz Cohen, lizcohenbodywork

The book is a masterpiece of design and the project is filled with symbolism and conflicting stereotypical gender roles. The book and project represent masculine and feminine-- rough cover, black edges, b&w interior paper stock contrasted with the glossy inserts that can be literally pinned up as separate objects form the book. This book is genius in its construction.

What makes a great photobook? Well, sex, drugs and hip hop seem to help. Secondly, a great title with contents to match. Many other factors make a photobook: the strength of the photos, paper choice, printing method, but if the book does not meet its purpose it fails. Those who produce it must know its purpose. We can not represent the qualities of all these books in this piece through words and representational images online. They must be seen, smelled, heard and touched and this can not happen without holding the book. The physical qualities of photobooks are why we love photobooks and why photobooks will not be conquered in the digital arena. They may become endangered (which might not be a bad thing from the looks of some books I have seen), but never go away. With the ever-growing online archive, our mental visual catalogue is getting filled to capacity. Where the longevity of many photographers’ work rarely rivals the lifespan of some insects, the well-designed and conceived art book will only fade as quickly as the paper on which it is printed.



Melanie McWhorter