…I is another – Arthur Rimbaud
The International Center of Photography Library over the last few months has been presenting an investigation of vernacular imagery in the photobook. Je est un autre: the vernacular in photobooks. These are books that utilize the found photographs, snap shots, archives and collections of others.
There is a great interest for this folk photography and for the publication of photobooks which utilize and re-appropriate this wealth of materials.
One of the most successful vernacular photobooks and certainly one of my favourites is Conductors of the Moving World by Brad Zellar.
Conductors of the Moving World was published by Little Brown Mushroom in March 2011 in an edition of 500 (30 pages, french-fold, 6.625×7.875in, custom side stapled, B/W offset with 17 hand-tipped, color photographs) and designed by the brilliant Hans Seeger. The story was constructed by Brad Zellar and according to the LBM website it is a tale that began in the autumn of 1972:
In the autumn of 1972, a delegation of Japanese police officials visited the United States to study traffic control in several large cities, including New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. The unofficial photographer for the delegation was Eizo Ota, an inspector with the law enforcement department of the Yamanashi Prefecture, and he produced a record of the group’s travels that might best be described as forensic tourism. Using Inspector Ota’s snapshots as launching points, Brad Zellar plundered traffic manuals, haiku anthologies, the Watergate transcripts, and The Godfather for textual inspiration. The mysterious result is a Zen travelogue through 1972 America. From a collection of 60 C-Prints, a mix-and-match assortment of 17 will be hand-tipped into individual volumes, making each book a singular work of art.
The story of “Conductors of the Moving World” began in 2008 and with the publication of the Suburban World and the meeting of Brad Zellar and Alec Soth.
MC: Brad, how did the Conductors book come about? How did it happen? How does a project like this begin? In 2002 you had unearthed a collection of Norling’s negatives from the archive of the Bloomington Historical Society and in 2008 published a selection of these images in your book the Suburban World, so you already had a history of conjuring up stories from images, but how did this project come into being?
BZ: Neither Alec nor I can remember how or when we first met –that’s how memorable we both apparently are. At any rate, I don’t think we really knew each other by the time the Norling book came out, but I was a fan of his work. It was pure serendipity that he ended up writing the foreword to “Suburban World (The Norling Photos).” One of the Coen brothers was supposed to be doing that job, but bailed at the last minute, and someone from the publisher contacted Alec and asked if he could turn something around in a hurry –seriously, I think he had maybe 48 hours to write that text. And he nailed it.
We met briefly at the opening of the Norling exhibit; I remember that. After that things are sort of foggy, but at some point he contacted me about this box of photos he’d received from the granddaughter of Eizo Ota, the ostensible subject –and photographer– behind “Conductors of the Moving World.”
MC: Was this a collection of digital origin or a shoe box of found materials? Is it real? Was it real? Has it become real? What happened to these folks? Did you ever get to meet them?
BZ: Little Brown Mushroom was just getting started about that time, and Alec asked me if I thought I could make a book out of the Ota photographs. There were quite a few more of them than we could use, and I remember trying all sorts of failed approaches to create some sort of narrative around them. One of those approaches was biographical, and entailed hunting down his son and some former police colleagues in Japan. Eizo was deceased, it turned out, and nobody I talked to had many concrete memories of what he might have been up to on that trip to the U.S. other than that he was supposedly studying American traffic control systems.
MC: It is so mysterious and that gives the narrative a fantastic energy.
BZ: The photographic record of that trip was super mysterious. though; interspersed with all these strange and inexplicable technical photos were a large assortment of more typical tourist pictures –beaches, street views of NY, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, and a bunch of terrific shots of stewardesses, motel rooms, diners, and desolate stretches of highway.
I couldn’t figure out how to make any kind of narrative out of any of it, however, until I hit on the idea of ordering a bunch of old manuals on traffic control from the internet. When I started reading through these things I was struck by how aphoristic and almost Zen so much of the writing was, so I also rounded up a pile of books on Buddhism, and ended up making up fake Zen aphorisms incorporating the language of traffic systems and, eventually, all sorts of other really clipped and spare texts that came to mind.
BZ: We made those books by hand in Alec’s studio, and every single book in the edition of 500 has a different and randomly-chosen set of photos. There are also some little in-jokes and a hidden text incorporated in Hans Seger’s amazing design. I love that book so much, and made a few copies that incorporated my own favorite photos and sequences. Alec’s studio manager, Carrie Thompson, also made me a special backwards version out of a dummy that was misbound.
MC: “Conductors” is great. You gave all the money to the tsunami relief right?
BZ: We had the release party for “Conductors” at ICP in NY, and the book sold out pretty much before we got back to the Twin Cities, so it’s one book Alec and I did together that a lot of my friends never saw. Oza’s granddaughter, Kei, who brought the photos to Alec’s attention, was at the release party, and her father –Oza’s son– flew in from Japan as well. And yes, this was right around the time of the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan, so we donated all the proceeds to the Japanese Red Cross.
MC: ICP opening, yep I remember it, [see the pic below of crazy bloke pointing at book signing].
BZ: There’s a really funny story regarding the business card that is embossed on the front of the book, by the way. It was in the box along with the photos, and since it was in Japanese –and an English version of Oza’s business card was also in the box– we just assumed it was the Japanese version. So the card on the front of the book is reversible –the English on one side, the Japanese on the other. Anyway, Oza’s son arrived at the signing and someone handed him the book. He had this puzzled look on his face and asked –through his daughter– what the story was with the Japanese business card on the cover.
“It’s your father’s business card, isn’t it?” I said.
“No,” Oza said emphatically. It turned out the card we used on most of the covers was for some Japanese fellow who ran a souvenir shop in Niagara Falls.
MC: I think that LBM seemed to be at the height of its powers at the time of publication. You had all series of books out and you were like rock stars. What happened? [lol] – but yeah, I mean the band – you and Alec went on to do some marvelous things and then the band split. How is Alec these days? Are you blokes still in touch? Get along? What was the back story to that? Is the band ever getting back together again?
BZ: Alec and I ended up doing a run of projects after that one, all of which involved trying to find ways to incorporate words and pictures. They were all amazing experiences, and I’m really proud of the work we did together, but by the time we did the last LBM Dispatch I think we were both ready to get back to the reality of trying to make a living. I mean, Alec was on an amazing career roll, and here he was out pissing around in a van with me putting out our fake little newspaper.
I love the guy so much, and he’s an amazing artist. The real wonder, though, is that he’s got a work ethic and an ability to make stuff happen like nobody I’ve ever met. We still get together and the conversation just seems to pick right up where we left off, but he also has a crazy travel schedule and a family, so I don’t see him nearly enough.
MC: What are you up to these days Brad?
BZ: I basically went right back to pounding out words in obscurity –my natural inclination is to play my piano in the closet, as I think Salinger put it. Turns out, though, that there’s no money in the closet piano gigs, so I need to scrape up some new projects.
At some point I’m going to write a book about the Dispatch experiences –that was always the plan; there were so many incredible photos and stories that didn’t make it into the papers, and by the time we wrapped it up we both had the sense that there was this overarching thematic narrative that sort of tied the whole thing together. It felt at the time like this almost hopeful State of the Union portrait of a remarkable country trying to hang onto old notions of community in this weird age of ersatz and often discouraging (and lonely) virtual connection. I felt inspired. And then, you know, Trump.
MC Lastly: What is your astrological sign?
BZ: I’m a Scorpio, of course.
Alec Soth: Ha, so great to see this, and to read Brad’s comments. I don’t have much to add other than I just love Brad so much.
. . .crazy bloke at book signing for “Conductors” at the ICP March 2011