This is the fourth in a series describing my Publishing Timeline; the events, experiences and occupations that have somehow shaped my business life up until today.I had been gone from the city for several years, and in the meantime had joined the spiritual group of which I was still a member, run my first company, Godspeed Graphics, and spent years studying the history of printing and set up the letterpress hand printing operation for the group, the Renaissance Press.
Moving to New York in 1979 was a challenge personally and professionally. I had large responsibilities for the group that had sent me there, yet I also had to earn enough money to support the life you live in a townhouse about a block from the mayor’s residence, Gracie Mansion.
It was the first time I really had to take stock of my assets in an attempt to package myself for some imaginary market into which I would throw myself in an attempt to find someone foolish enough to pay me to work for them. This is what I had:
- Experience in offset film work, making halftones and color separations
- Firsthand knowledge of letterpress printing
- Graphic design portfolio from my work at Godspeed Graphics
- Good typing ability
I worked for the first six months at Lawford Press, a commercial printer in midtown Manhattan that had a specialty doing resumes. I was put at a desk and set to work designing resumes, menus and the other ephemeral work that makes up the day to day printing of a commercial printer.
Lawford Press used the IBM Selectric Composer to do their incidental typesetting, and my familiarity with the machine is certainly one of the reasons I got the job. Because the jobs at Lawford needed to move through the production process pretty quickly for the company to make any money, I was constantly encouraged to work faster. My skills at typography needed to increase just to keep up with the pile in my inbox.
Commercial work wasn’t that satisfying and didn’t pay very well either. I spent most of my time at Lawford sneaking my portfolio into the office and going on interviews at lunchtime. It proved impossible, with no formal education or agency experience, to get into the advertising business, my first target in New York.
I fell back on my experience in printing prodution and answered an ad for production director at a small publishing company—Aperture Books, a non-profit publisher founded by legendary photographer Minor White.
Having endured an extensive series of interviews—including being interviewed by past holders of the position—I was hired as the Production Director at Aperture, the preeminent photography book publisher in the United States. The next period in my work life would be an intense, trial-by-fire introduction to book publishing.
Aperture was run out of a small office on the east side of Manhattan with a skeleton crew. Many days there were only Carole Kismaric, the brilliant photography book editor, and myself. The main business office was upstate, and the publisher, Michael Hoffman, would come down for one or two days a week and use the conference room for an office.
I got a chance to meet many famous photographers, and to examine hundreds, maybe thousands, or original prints by Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Eugene Atget, Diane Arbus and dozens of other photographers. I delved deeply into the best quality printing papers and the most advanced printing technologies of the time to find better ways to reproduce these works.
Long Days, Long Nights
The ethic at Aperture was that we would inspect every photo in every book before okaying the press run. In practice this meant that I would be taking the subway downtown at 1:00 a.m. with a box of prints disguised somehow, headed for the printing district and Rappaport Press or some other high-end duotone printer, to look at their work.
When printing out of town, I might find myself in a motel in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, groggily answering the phone at 2:00 a.m. to hear a cheery pressman telling me another form was ready and to head on down to check it. This tends to wear on you.
Of all the books I did at Aperture, the one that stands out most in my memory is Lisette Model. It would turn out to be probably my “finest hour” at that job, and a real achievement, although few knew just what it took to get the book done. At 15″ x 12-3/8″ it was a mammoth book, a real challenge to produce. At Aperture I really learned a lot about book publishing and book printing, about the way books are constructed and how they are sold. I will tell the story surrounding this book production separately, it’s really that good.
I also discovered a lot of things about myself. As a young man and a newcomer to book publishing, I had to take responsibility for a big budget and for being the person who was responsible for Aperture’s sterling reputation for quality. There were at least two times when, looking at a form on press, I had to tell the pressmen to shut the press down and take the plates off, because they were wrong and needed to be remade. One one print job, I had to call the paper salesman in and tell him to send the entire carload of paper back to the mill because it just would not print correctly, and we all knew the paper was at fault.
This was tough. Being the only person standing there, with 4 pressman, the pressroom foreman, the owner of the printing plant and assorted onlookers, it wasn’t easy to reject what they had worked pretty hard to do. But I knew it had to be done, and I’ve never regretted those decisions.
Unfortunately, I also learned that most positions in the publishing industry didn’t pay all that well. At that time it was a refuge for women who wanted to work, but weren’t all that welcome in other fields. I was regularly told by Michael Hoffman that we worked as hard and as long as we did for the “psychic” rewards. I guess I swallowed the Kool-Aid on that one, because I was happy to do it, at least for a while.
Between the incessant press checks and the low wages (about $17,000/year) I started looking for my next move. Over the time I had been at Aperture, I had produced many books of photography, the regular issues of Aperture’s quarterly journal of photography, established agreements with printers to secure Aperture’s future relationships, devised new shipping methods for some of the products, and I had also gotten to know quite a few people in publishing, printing, paper manufacturing and learned an enormous amount about what it takes to produce really good black and white reproduction.
I had several attractive offers in publishing, but I wanted to make up for lost time. I made a fateful decision: I would become a salesman. And that’s where I’ll pick up the story next time.