Portrait of America
High-tech photo book captures scenes of modern life
In our story for today, there is a book, there is a project, and there is a friendship. Let's start with the friendship.
In the early 1980s photographer Rick Smolan, whose work had regularly appeared in Time, Life and National Geographic, invited David Elliot Cohen to Australia to work on an ambitious photo project. "Smolan's grandiose scheme," writes Cohen in his travel memoir One Year Off, "was to bring 100 of the world's best photojournalists to Australia, spread them across the country, and have them all snap pictures in a single day." Cohen, a young manager in the press photo agency that assigned Smolan much of his work, leapt at the chance.
Unfortunately, there were problems. Logistical problems. Money problems. Cohen and Smolan skated on thin ice. They tap-danced a half step ahead of their creditors. But in the end they pulled the rabbit out of the hat. A Day in the Life of Australia was a critical and popular hit. The book established a process and a template for future projects. More than that, it marked the beginning of a beautiful pairing, an intense and very creative friendship.
"We were best friends for seven years during the creation of the Day in the Life books," Smolan says from a cell phone as he drives across the Golden Gate Bridge to his office in Sausalito. "We're both adrenaline junkies. We both like wondering what's going to happen on the next page. When things are too safe and predictable well, there is no upside."
"Rick and I are both good at very specific things," Cohen adds during a tour of the busy waterfront hive that serves as headquarters for the pair's astonishingly ambitious new project, an eagerly anticipated collection titled America 24/7. "But the things we're good at cross lines, overlap, which makes it hard for people to understand."
Smolan illustrates with a story: "We were in Hawaii once and we were stuck behind this big truck that was spewing out fumes. Our car just filled up with fumes. So I rolled my window down to get some more fresh air. And at the same moment, David rolled his window up to keep more fumes from coming in. We both started laughing. It was the perfect definition of our partnership: both of those things were rational things to do, but we had completely different instincts on how to solve the problem."
Cohen and Smolan are each a little vague about what eventually destroyed the friendship. Something to do with success and youth. In 1986, the two produced A Day in the Life of America. The coffee-table photo book was a smashing success, the first book of its kind to reach number one on the New York Times bestseller list and then linger there. The pair subsequently sold their company and the Day in the Life franchise and became employees of the company that would eventually become HarperCollins. Things then fell apart. The two lived within a dozen miles of each other and didn't speak for nearly 15 years.
Then a couple of years ago, while he was in London working on A Day in the Life of Africa, a project whose profits went to fight AIDS in Africa, Cohen picked up the phone and called Smolan. "I said, Whatever it was we fought about, it's probably over now,' " Cohen recalls. Though both had spent the intervening years producing successful, large-scale photography and photojournalism projects, each now admits to missing the friendship with the other.
Still, according to Cohen, it took a confluence of events to energize the pair for a new project - rumors that another photographer was poaching in the Day in the Life domain, a nasty legal wrangle with HarperCollins over noncompete agreements, and the persistent needling of 90-year-old publishing legend Oscar Dystel, who reminded the boys over and over again that they'd blown it big-time by never doing Day in the Life books for all the states in the Union.
Well, Smolan and Cohen have finally succumbed to Dystel's prodding, and in a huge way. During the week of May 12-18, 2003, the pair's America 24/7 project sent almost 25,000 citizen-photographers, including 1,000 professional photographers (36 of them Pulitzer Prize winners) out into neighborhoods and communities in every state to document the lives of friends and neighbors and to explore what it means to be an American at this moment in history. Some 250,000 digital images flooded back to project headquarters via the Internet. Weeks later, Cohen and Smolan gathered top photo editors from publications like Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated to cull through the images and select the very best for publication in the national book, available in bookstores this month. Also planned are 50 state-specific books and a growing number of city books that will all be published on the same day in 2004.
Smolan believes that he and Cohen have always had a special relationship with the zeitgeist. The timing certainly seems right for this project, which Smolan says will run between $15 million and $20 million dollars (in keeping with the adrenaline-producing traditions of their partnership, the project is slightly over budget, and Cohen and Smolan tap-dance beside the financial precipice without seeming to worry). First, judging by the beauty of the photographs in America 24/7, digital photography has clearly come of age. Second, the Bay Area's dotcom bust has allowed the pair to hire some of the region's most talented editors, writers, and graphic designers to work on the books, and it shows. And third, they may just have found the "killer app."
The brainchild of 23-year-old Josh Haner, a longtime intern with Smolan and now one of the pair's business partners, America 24/7's website (america24-7.com) allows people to create their own covers for the book by uploading an image and caption and paying a nominal fee of $5.99 plus tax. "It sounds like a stupid gimmick until you try it," Smolan says. He's right; the web tool is easy and fun to use, and the resulting covers are stunning. Smolan emphasizes that readers can try the tool out, and even produce a miniature cover image in jpeg format for free, by visiting the America 24/7 website.
And the book America 24/7 itself? It's large, it's beautiful, it's interesting, and it's just a little bit strange. It has 304 pages and more than 1,100 images, many of them arresting and absorbing. The book's captions are artful and informative, often little stories in their own right. America 24/7 includes fine essays by Roger Rosenblatt, Robert Olen Butler, Barbara Kingsolver and others.
What's strange is the America that the 25,000 digital photographers decided to record for the project. It is, as Smolan points out, an intimate America. The book documents small towns, family moments, Little League games and young ballerinas. This is not the America of global marketeers, anti-terror warriors or reality-TV stars. "The surprise of the book," Cohen says, "is that in a post-9/11 world, a dangerous world and a dangerous time, when Americans don't like the messages that our media and the government are sending to the world about us, they want to show their lives in a sort of mythic, iconic fashion."
Whether this is the real America, a dream America or something in between hardly matters. America 24/7 presents a fascinating self-portrait, and rewards a long, lingering look.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.