The PhotoBook Review
#010, Spring 2016
Designer Spotlight
Publisher Lesley A. Martin in conversation with Antonio de Luca

Lesley A. Martin: Antonio – tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to be a designer and art director .

Antonio de Luca: I studied classical graphic design at the OCAD University in Toronto. It was a formal 2-D and 3-D training, pre-computer. Silk-screening, guache, hand-lettering. It was an applied arts school, but one that a number of well-known conceptual artists, like General Idea, came out of.

Do you think that having that kind of training has been useful to you—is still useful to you?

It has allowed me to keep a haptic connection to the type of work that I do. I’m interested in work that has a tactile soul. In German, haptic means the soul of texture not just the sense of touch. It’s the soul. A lot of books that I’ve done with SPBH possess some haptic sensation to the work. I originally got into art school as a painter, not as a designer. But I was also being groomed as an artist representative so early on I began to learn the idea of art and commerce. School by day and evenings, all-nighters, and weekends at an agency called Reactor Art and Design. Through that work, I got my first job as a junior designer at a newspaper. It was a real “fake it till you make it” situation.

Because you hadn’t been trained for that specific job or the design tools?

I was trained, but I needed way more hours on the software to really handle a daily and a weekly. What I really relied on was my training at Reactor. The woman who hired me, Friederike Girst explained that I didn’t have to really design the whole weekend section of 48 pages that I was working on—all I needed to do was to art direct it. And because I had connections with this whole catalog of illustrators or conceptual artists that the agency I had been working for represented, I just reached out to that community and started to commission work.

You do both hands-on design and creative or artistic direction. What is the difference between those roles.

They’re not so different – I’m a designer at the end of the day. If the designer doesn’t show up, I’ll just do it. Creative direction is really about empowering people’s personalities and making them feel that they are part of the creative process. It’s about allowing them to see a reflection of their own interests, their own beliefs, their own rhythms within the work. And then it’s about managing monies. That’s a really big thing. Later, when I was hired as creative director at The Walrus, for example, we had a very limited budget—yet somehow we made stories happen. I was sending people to Kabul outside the Green Zone. I sent Rita Leistner into a mental institution to seduce the warden and hopefully to get the keys to the institution so she could make pictures of the women there.  I sent Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin to Hotel Rwanda and asked them just to photograph flower bouquets because I thought perhaps they possessed some of the aura of the atrocities (which too place there) within their compositions – just crazy things.

Your work as a creative director, in part, seems to be about marshaling resources then – whether it’s money or people or ideas, especially while working at big monthly & weekly publications like The Walrus and Saturday Night, Canadian publications akin to Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine. What led you to take the turn toward designing photobooks?

I had been working with photography quite a bit, mostly photojournalism. I ended up moving to New York around 2007 and took an apartment in Brooklyn on Kent Ave., where a bunch of Magnum photographers lived. I would end up looking at Chris Anderson’s work and commenting. Alex Majoli, Stanley Greene, Paolo Pellegrin—they all came through the doors. It was the Bush era. There was war going on. There were a lot of correspondents coming through. Writers who were really disturbed. Photographers who were exhausted from what they had seen. And that made for these intense conversations. Even if I wasn’t working on someone’s book, I’d get involved in conversations about whether the books they were working on were too big or too long– how many should be printed; where were they printing it. This was exactly the creative community that I had left behind in Canada, and which I wanted to put myself back into somehow.

Would you say you were able to engage in those conversations through the design you were doing? How did that lead you to work for SPBH?  I know that SPBH didn’t originally set out to become a publisher. ...

I thought maybe by eliminating all the advertising and the publisher and the distribution – eliminating all of that might help and that it would be a way of having an intimate discussion with the photographer and their work—through the book format.
        Around that same time, I was introduced to Bruno Ceschel. We came from a similar, frustrated, editorial past and thought there should be something that we could work on together. I remember saying to Bruno from the very beginning that we should take our own advice and self publish—or just publish—if we’re encouraging other people to do so. Bruno never really wanted to become a publisher. And rightly so. If you really want to do it, you really have to go in and do it full force.

But hasn't SPBH ended up as a publisher, in fact? And not just of Self Publish Be Naughty, or of limited-edition books but of “proper” photobooks like Fire in Cairo and Dalston Anatomy.  

Incrementally. It wasn’t as though we started out making those type of books. Originally we didn’t want to make the type of books we’re making now.

What type of books is that? How would you describe them?

We wanted things not to have a front, a middle, and a back. We didn’t want it to be structured like what we see now in, in truth, in the books that we’re making.

Let’s take Matthew Connor’s Fire in Cairo as an example. It has a very disorienting beginning, middle, and end.  You don’t really know where you should begin and where you end.  

That is quintessentially a great photobook, but I don't think we would have thought about making that type of book at the beginning. The disorientation you’re talking about was done consciously—and that effect was even more extreme in earlier designs I did. Matthew asked us to pull it back, to make it a little bit calmer, I guess. Which I think was probably right.

What triggers your entry point into a body of work that you’re presented with? Where do you start in thinking about the design and shape of it?

I view pretty much view all the books I do as cinema. And the concept with Matthew’s was essentially based on static shots that you see all the time in film. It’s a slow zoom, closer and closer, and then next thing you know you’re full frame and the viewer didn’t even realize it. I also thought about Matthew’s work as pure fashion.

Is it not also about revolution? I see this body of work in direct conversation with Matthew’s earlier work from the Occupy movement—it’s political. How do you reconcile that with fashion?

The revolution is there, for sure. But there were all of these other images that dealt with attire, and smoke and light and the textures and the postures of people. I would love to see him shoot a really high-end fashion campaign and take those sensibilities and apply it to that. I found that particular work – at least the work leading up to the scenes of revolution— very dreamy. It feels like you’re floating through Cairo. A lot of that had to do with the edit, which was a combination of Bruno and Matthew’s efforts – it’s really brilliant.  

How do you negotiate those different roles and ideas – the editor, the photographer, the designer? How do those come together in your process?

They’re clearly defined. We trust one another’s task. We play that game where everyone lays the photographs out on the table. It has to start in the physical dimension; we cut out everything and lay it out in this dimension – not inside the phone or computer. We don’t design the book on a computer. Never. The computer is more like a production tool. Making a book is more about making things with your hands and about holding something in your hands.

This leads very nicely to the work you’re currently doing, which is the complete opposite – you’re the lead product designer for the New York Times online which means ... what, exactly?

Designing what the New York Times looks like online. And art directing or creating experiences – virtual experiences that only exist in the virtual world. The type of artwork I’m commissioning will never be seen printed on a piece of paper. The intimacy of book making really satisfies my hunger for print; but I also come from the newspaper world, which offers the opportunity to be part of a daily zeitgeist.

Tell me a little bit more about some of projects you’re currently working on for the Times – for example, the project that was ongoing during Black History Month, in which previously unpublished images from The New York Times picture morgue were shown contextualized, and open for reader comments.

That’s part of a section that I’m art directing called Race/Related. We’re going to begin having discussions with America about race online. It’s really about presenting a forum – a platform – for the public to have these discussions about themselves.

You’ve described this to me as working with a feedback loop – a triangulation between an editorial team, the audience, and the material. I feel like this also takes us back to Self Publish, Be Happy—because that’s about a community and its input as well. You designed the recent Self Publish, Be Happy manual. How does that encapsulate the world of Self Publish, Be Happy that Bruno and you created?

That book intentionally really feels like our studio in London. Not only because it represents the SPBH book collection and experience, but even the table that the books are photographed on is the same table we photograph everything on. It’s the space itself.

Would you say that there’s a SPBH look? Where does it come from?

It comes from the collective. There are a lot of people that make up SPBH. People assume that it’s a small group of people putting it together, but in fact it’s huge. We don’t just reach out to the Facebook & Instagram community for the sake of promotion; we actually ask them to come help us make things. We have parties together, we go out together, we dance together. I don’t think SPBH could be what it is if it weren’t for all of the people who have been there along the way. SPBH is not only a publisher. It’s also an organization that promotes a lot of different skill sets and platforms.

You and Bruno are the designers-slash-creative directors-slash-editors of a community.

We interchange those roles. Bruno’s a great art director, I’m a great editor. You know, a lot of SPBH’s initial work established that idea of the feedback loop I’m applying at the New York Times now. Take a project like Self Publish Be Naughty. That publication was pre-Kickstarter; early crowd-sourcing. We emailed people and posted on Facebook asking people to send us their naughty pictures. We received almost 7,000 photographs. Bruno came to Amsterdam, where I was living at the time, and the design happened in one afternoon. For the typography I wanted to use a really basic font, Arial Narrow. I’ve always wanted to design a magazine or book just using Microsoft Word. The design philosophy of SPBH Editions is kind of like that. I practice a default design philosophy. The less options you have, the more creativity comes out of it. I think certain familiarities occur when the public sees something they also see on their own interfaces. “I know that!”

They feel a certain amount of empowerment that they can do something like that too.

Yes, it becomes a call to action. It tells people to just get on with it. The first success story for a self publisher is that you take the leap of faith to make something and materialize it into this physical realm. We were somewhat shocked by the success of Self Publish Be Naughty. The idea of that book reminds me of what people are talking about now with The Life of Pablo, the new Kanye West album, where the unfinished is the new finished. That book played on all of those themes, where you were allowed to take the book apart, change the sequencing. Every book is different—they all went out to different people with a different order. You could remove pictures. They could be thrown away, or put up on your wall. The idea of that book came from the question “How do we look at a book now?”  Even now, when I commission artwork for the Times, I say that the incomplete is the new complete. Let’s somehow make it transparent, or at least show the public that this piece of work might have flaws, it’s not quite complete. SPBH is like that. Everything’s pretty honest. Establishing yourself with an open philosophy encourages people and attracts them to be a part of it.

The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.


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