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Glazer's Camera

Rick Smolan: Reinventing the Picture Book

PhotoMedia's 2009 Photography Person of the Year: Rick Smolan PhotoMedia's 2009 Photography Person of the Year: Rick Smolan
© Adam Tow

Through the use of interactive media and print-on-demand technology, Rick Smolan has pushed the limits of the photography book and brought the world closer together.

In the assignment photography world, the best in the business tend to thrive on pressure — the pressure of looming deadlines, tight travel schedules, difficult access, impossible working conditions, live ammunition. But all of these factors pale in comparison to the toughest challenge a photographer faces: lack of control.

In just his third assignment for Time magazine, a young Rick Smolan landed a color cover story on the famously intimidating opera conductor Sarah Caldwell in 1975. "I had never shot any color film before," Smolan now admits. "I was completely overwhelmed."

His plans to photograph Caldwell outside in open shade were scotched when he got to Boston and the sky was dark and rainy. He was forced to shoot in her tiny and dimly lit house, something for which he wasn't prepared.

"It was so obvious I didn't know what I was doing," Smolan recalls. "I remember having that sinking feeling: This was my big opportunity and I completely blew it. I'll never get another assignment from anybody for the rest of my life."

As luck would have it, a CBS "60 Minutes" TV crew arrived to do a story on Caldwell and lit the entire house. "I couldn't believe it," Smolan remembers. "I was like, ‘Thank you, Lord.' It was so amazing."

In the nearly 35 years since that 90-minute assignment, photographer and publisher Rick Smolan has dedicated much of his efforts to retaining control of his art, and also to giving other photographers more power over the use of their own images. During a career that has included stints at Time, Life and National Geographic magazines, Smolan also helped found Contact Press Images, a photo agency headed by Robert Pledge, whose roster of luminaries included Annie Leibovitz, Eddie Adams, Douglas Kirkland and David Burnett.

Through his publishing company, Against All Odds Productions, Smolan — who describes himself as a "photo entrepreneur" — has created a series of best-selling, stunningly illustrated coffee-table books that have not only featured the work of some of the world's top photographers but also changed the face of publishing by incorporating leading-edge, interactive technology.

Smolan's method of collaborating with hundreds of photographers at once on a single project has led to a diverse list of books, ranging from the wildly successful "Day in the Life" series to the latest, the print-on-demand "The Obama Time Capsule: World History in the Making." For these achievements, Smolan has been named PhotoMedia's Photography Person of the Year.

"I think he is a true visionary," says Smolan's colleague Roger Ressmeyer, an award-winning photographer and founder of Science Faction Images. "He always looked further than the rest of us, who are just trying to solve this year's problems. He's trying to solve next year's problems and invent new ways to do business. He also had the guts to see beyond what other people would view as impossible and then go ahead and do it."

Atypical picture books

"Against all odds" is a particularly apt description of the first few years of Smolan's publishing career. After years of shooting assignments worldwide for publications, he decided he wanted more influence over his work, so he turned to book projects with a goal of capturing a particular time and place. But it turned out to be a tough sell at first.

The concept that would become Smolan's "Day in the Life" series was simple in design, but vast in scale: Gather 100 photographers, send them to a particular spot on the globe and give each of them thematically and geographically diverse assignments simultaneously on a single day. Smolan would then gather their assigned images — plus anything else the photographers found interesting — and arrange the best ones into a book to provide a multidimensional snapshot of the location.

After the concept for the first book, "A Day in the Life of Australia," was rejected by some three dozen publishers, Smolan worried about how he was going to finance the project. "There was a lot of terror involved in putting it together," he recalls. "I had no way of paying the bills unless it became a best-seller."

Refusing to cut corners or lower his sights by producing the book in paperback, printing the images in black-and-white or using stock photography, Smolan persevered. Eventually, in 1981, he self-published the book and surprised the publishing world by selling 200,000 copies in a market that considered sales of 5,000 copies to be a major coup.

The "Australia" book was planned as a once-only effort. "I thought I was going to do that one book and go back to being a photographer," Smolan confesses. "I had no intention at all of starting a company or a business. I could barely add up my expenses at the end of an assignment."

What followed, however, was a string of hits that helped redefine the photography book publishing industry. Along with his friend and frequent collaborator, David Elliot Cohen, Smolan produced a series of "DITL" books that captured the human face of a dozen countries around the world.

Smolan and Cohen also created "America 24/7," a 2003 project that involved 1,000 photojournalists and 25,000 stringers in what was described as the largest photographic event in American history. The resulting book (see 247mediagroup.com) became Smolan's fourth New York Times best-seller.

Gadget junkie

Smolan hasn't limited his publishing efforts to just the printed page. In 1992 he was the first publisher to include an interactive CD-ROM in a book, "From Alice to Ocean: Alone Across the Outback." The book featured his photographs, originally shot for National Geographic, of 26-year-old Robyn Davidson's 1,700-mile trek across the Australian Outback by camel.

A CD-ROM was also included in 1994's "Passage to Vietnam: Through the Eyes of 70 Photographers," which was named best CD-ROM of the year by both the Software Publishers Association and NewMedia.

"I'm a gadget junkie," admits Smolan, who, along with his partner and wife Jennifer Erwitt (daughter of noted Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt), runs Against All Odds Productions in Sausalito, Calif. "The thing I love about technology is that it amplifies your ability to do things."

"Rick is the person who has forever cut his teeth on being on the cutting edge of everything," says Karen Mullarkey, a longtime friend and former director of photography at several major publications. "It makes him a most unique talent. He always took risks that no one else was willing to take."

For instance, Mullarkey points to Smolan's early embrace of the internet in 1996, when he created a digital time capsule of online life in "24 Hours in Cyberspace: Painting on the Walls of the Digital Cave." The project, which included an "instant" online website, was produced at a time when some people, including Mullarkey, were asking what the World Wide Web was all about.

Smolan soon followed up with "The Planet Project: Your Voice Your World," the largest real-time online poll in internet history. Some 1.5 million people in more than 240 countries were polled over four days in the fall of 2000 about what it meant to be a human being at the dawn of the millennium.

"He's got the most curious mind and he's an observer," says Mullarkey, who has worked as a photo editor on Smolan's books and earlier hired him as a photographer. "He really pays attention to what's going on in the world outside."

Following #44

In some of his more recent books, Smolan again pushed the boundaries of technology. In two published in 2008, "America at Home" and "UK at Home," he added an interactive feature that allows readers to customize the dust jackets of their books with their own images. This year, he took the technology a giant step further with "The Obama Time Capsule."

In this remarkable account of Barack Obama's improbable run for the White House, Smolan contacted 140 photographers who had been covering the campaign and asked them to submit what they considered their best images.

Smolan says he was "stunned" by the quality of the 40,000 photos that were turned in, many of which had never before been published.
"People were so excited about the possibility of having their work presented in a way that wasn't going to be thrown away tomorrow or next week in the newspaper or the magazine," he says.

What sets the "Time Capsule" apart from other photography books, however, is that it also allows readers to customize the book with their own images. Using print-on-demand technology from Hewlett-Packard, those who order the book (in an exclusive arrangement through Amazon.com) can upload photos, text and artwork, which is then woven in alongside the professional images to create a one-of-a-kind, personalized keepsake. (For more information, see TheObamaTimeCapsule.com.)

Smolan also reached out to photographers from overseas who had been on the campaign trail covering the historic election but whose work was not being published in the United States.

"We wanted to have that ‘outside looking in' perspective," Smolan explains, "from photographers not from this culture who weren't interested in the daily news cycle and were looking at this [presidential campaign] with a fresh approach."

Out of his shell

A mostly indifferent student and a painfully shy youngster, Smolan started shooting when he was 14 while on a trip to South America with his history professor. He found that being behind a camera gave him entrée to the world.

"It was the first time in my life that I could talk to people," he says. "I could walk up to girls and actually have a conversation. A lot of my male photographer friends told me that was also their motivation for getting into photography."

While spending his junior year abroad in Spain, when he was 16, he persuaded a shopkeeper to teach him how to develop and print film. By this time, Smolan's career path was practically set.

Smolan's father, however, was dead set against the idea of his son becoming a photographer, to the point of making sure he attended Pennsylvania's Dickinson College, a school that did not have a photography program.

Even so, the ever creative Smolan talked his art professor into letting him create his own photographic major. "For my English class, I photographed my friends and wrote essays," he says. "For geography, I'd photograph rock formations. I mean whatever it was, I was going to take a picture of it."

He also worked on the school newspaper and yearbook while attending Dickinson College. After graduating in 1972, a fortuitous series of events led to his big break at Time, where he was hired by then-picture-editor John Durniak.

Unique vision

It's not everyone who can invent his own career, propose cutting-edge book projects and execute them with such skill. The magazine world has also taken notice, as many of Smolan's projects have been featured as cover stories in Time, Newsweek, Fortune, U.S. News and World Report and dozens of others.

"In some people it would be a psychological dysfunction to have such grandiose ideas," Ressmeyer says. "But with Rick, it was never grandiosity. It was always just pure, brilliant forward-looking chutzpah."

 Ressmeyer credits much of Smolan's success to his personality. "He's one of the most likable guys, one of the most eloquent speakers and is one of the most PR-savvy people on the face of the planet," he says. "No one is his equal at that in the photographic community."

Mike Davis, a former White House picture editor during the George W. Bush administration and now photo editor at The Oregonian newspaper, says Smolan has the ability to see the whole picture, exploring culture through photography.

"He's able to recruit a team of people like no other and from vapor produce something real concrete," says Davis, who has worked as a picture editor on several of Smolan's book projects. "It's a bit like somebody who has a crystal ball in a back pocket all the time. Everything he's ever done has been ahead of the curve."

Smolan likes to compare his projects to a relay race, with one "runner" completing a lap and then handing off the work to the next person. "We go out and raise the money. Then we go out and get the photographers. Then we pass their images on to the picture editors, then pass that over to the writers and designers and then to the publicity team," he explains.

He credits that team effort for the success of his projects. "Other people have done big projects emulating or copying the ‘Day in the Life' concept, and most of them have just been disasters. Many times they've even hired the same photographers," Smolan says. "I think it comes down to great picture editing and great designing. It's everything."

The final cut

Smolan compares the book editing process to putting together a jigsaw puzzle without seeing the image on the cover of the box — a process he finds especially intriguing.

"I really think that these books are made by the designers as much as by the photographers," he says. "If you have a million pictures to choose from and there's only 200 in the book, the art of picking the right picture and then juxtaposing it with the other right picture and then putting it in the right order and the right size with the right words, that's an amazing three-dimensional challenge."

 One of Smolan's heroes is Christo, the artist known for "wrapping" urban and rural environments. "It's the making of it which is really the art," he says. "Wrapping the thing is really the by-product of the organization. The problem-solving is really fun, especially when you get people with all different skills together."

Smolan has utilized some of the best photojournalists worldwide for his book projects. Even so, there are no guarantees that what they shoot will be included in each publication.

"One of the things we said at the very beginning of our projects was that the books were not going to be fair," he says. "We're not going to include every photographer who shot on the project simply because they shot on it. If some kid on our staff outshoots a Pulitzer Prize winner because of luck or timing or whatever, that Pulitzer Prize winner doesn't get in."

For the photographers involved in the projects, some of them with 30 or 40 years of experience, that means the pressure is on. Many of them report that they feel they have produced better work shooting for Smolan during one intensive day or week of a project than on a regular assignment.

"When you know you're up against 99 of your peers, it's pretty daunting no matter how famous you are or how many awards you've won," Smolan says.

Looking ahead

At age 59, with two young children of his own (a son, 7, and daughter, 9), Smolan says he's intrigued by family issues. "Once you have kids, you start thinking about your parents and how everybody fits into the spectrum of life and the life cycles, so this whole concept of home and home environment kind of fascinates me right now," he says.

Smolan is already looking ahead to publishing his next project, a very personal story he has worked on for more than 30 years.

As Smolan told the story at the 2007 TED Conference, the project began in 1978, when Smolan was 28, as an exploration of the issue of children living overseas who were fathered (and abandoned) by an American servicemen. He began photographing an Amerasian child named Eun Sook Lee in South Korea and later helped arrange her adoption by Smolan's friends in Atlanta after Eun Sook's grandmother passed away.

The resulting book, "Natasha's Story," due out next fall, will chronicle the amazing journey of the woman, now 42 and named Natasha, who currently lives near Smolan in California and has two children of her own.

He has also set his sights on yet another major project, one that would actively involve a million people worldwide on a single day. By keeping his eye on emerging technologies to deliver stories, Smolan says he hopes to produce one book a year, with each project more ambitious than the last.

"Some people seek comfort. I actually seek adrenaline," he says. "I like being a little bit scared. Not too scared, but I sort of like that feeling of having to figure out under pressure how to solve a problem."

He looks back fondly on that out-of-control cover story assignment for Time when he was saved at the last minute by a TV crew.

"I always think to this day that if that crew hadn't walked in at that moment, I would have been so screwed," he says with a laugh. "My friends will say this kind of stuff happens to me so often. I wish I could take credit for it. But it's just so often that element of luck. I still pinch myself sometimes, wondering if this is some kind of dream and I'm still back in college. I'm doing exactly what my fantasy was way back at the very beginning."

P.J. Heller
Story Author: P.J. Heller

P.J. Heller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Southern California.

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