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Q&A: Jason Fulford

The co-founder of indie photo book publisher J&L Books releases two new offbeat selections and talks about his own photography career.

By Chris Gage - December 5, 2003

Photographer Jason Fulford has contributed to Harper's, Life, and The New York Times Magazine, but when it comes to putting out collections of his work, he's only been published by one person: himself. Together with his partner Leanne Shapton, he runs J&L Books, a small press that publishes collections of art and photography. Like tiny publishing philanthropists, their intention is to put out quality books that wouldn't necessarily get published by traditional venues. Their choices are somewhat idiosyncratic, highly individual affairs. There's a buoyancy about their work—maybe it's just their excitement about getting people to see the photographs they love. Followers of Fulford's own work tend to put faith in J&L's releases because they know the work has been refined and vetted by a voice they trust and count on for certain tones or styles.

Fulford's photos—of empty motel-room doorways, street signs, and, most famously, people dancing—cast ordinary objects in an extraordinary, almost haunting light. His pictures come across like an accidental documentary, like you're seeing something you maybe shouldn't. J&L is releasing two new books today, and each one has an otherworldly quality all its own: Beautiful Ecstasy, a collection of photos from the '70s by Michael Northrup, and Chart Sensation, a collection of PowerPoint charts-made-art by Michael Lewy. Fulford spoke to about reading photography, editing photography, and dancing for the camera.

The name you've made for yourself is often the reason people buy the books you publish by other photographers. Who's buying J&L's books? Do you know these people?
It's a bookish crowd, but one that is young and energetic. We did an event at Housing Works Used Book Cafe, here in New York. We didn't have anything with text coming out, and Housing Works does mostly readings, but I wanted to do an event there. So we just decided to do a variety show and to bring in people we knew. We had a slide show, a rock band, a short film screening, keyboard players. Housing Works gets a specific crowd that works for us. People laugh at poetry there. Our audience seems to be people like that—slightly bookish, but photographers, graphic designers, illustrators, writers. It seems to be book people as opposed to artists.

The first thing one notices about your own work is that, aside from Dancing Pictures, your book of black-and-white photos that are just that, people dancing, you rarely shoot people. The hotel rooms, the landscapes—they're all empty. Any reason for this?
My pictures aren't really directed. When you're shooting people, you're directing it and creating something, and I think my pictures are more like things you've found. Sometimes people can energize a place or add a quality, but it's never really about those people.

So what compelled you to do Dancing Pictures?
The dancing thing was kind of a hybrid project. Truthfully, I didn't like that book very much. It started because Leanne and I used to dance and take pictures of each other in front of a black backdrop. We'd double expose the film so we'd both be in the shot. It was kind of narcissistic, but also fun. We thought it'd be more fun to shoot other people and have them bring music they wanted to dance to. Doing that was a fun two weeks. We danced a lot. But there were two reasons I didn't like the finished product. First, it felt a little too easy as an idea. I kept wanting to add another concept, and Leanne was fighting me on that. I never figured out a good enough concept to juxtapose, though. That was one reason. The other reason is that the image quality is in some strange, mediocre place. It wasn't great production quality on the shooting and printing, and it wasn't totally crappy, and I felt it should be one or the other. But maybe people looking at the book don't even think of that. We made a thousand copies, and I wanted to drive across the country and put them in public bathrooms and Salvation Armys. People love that book. We want to make a bunch of different kinds of books, but, usually, the packaging and the title tell you how seriously to take the book. Dancing Pictures, that's what it is: It's this paperback you put in your bathroom.

Of course, you also publish other people's books. How do you decide what to publish?
We've been getting so many submissions these days. Most of the books we've published in the past have been people we sought out. If I can't see anyone else publishing this great photographer, then we'll go after them. For example, Mike Slack's book of Polaroids, OK OK OK, he emailed to me. His wife had bought my book Sunbird, because she thought he'd like the pictures. So originally, we started emailing just about photography, and then eventually he sent me a bunch of Polaroids. He wasn't even pitching a book. But when I saw all these Polaroids he had done, I decided to do it. It's been a big seller. That book is a little more accessible to a broader audience. The pictures have a candy quality. They have other layers too, but you don't have to go deep into it. You can totally appreciate it on a graphic level.

OK OK OK is a fairly accessible book; people look at it and think, "Oh, it's Polaroids, I could do that"—whether they could or not. But not all your releases are like that. Some of the books you publish are much less accessible, even difficult, if you will.
Yeah, Jubilee, by Ted Fair, we knew was going to be different. I edited that selection from 400 or something prints, and it's a hard one for people to read because it's a book that needs to be read in a specific way. People often don't read photo books like a story or a poem. And that book is a poem; each page is like a word in the poem. You have to read them all, and you get a sense or a feeling from that, from the four different motifs that go throughout, repeating themselves.

On a book like that, would you ever consider putting in an introduction or explanatory text?
No, we're pretty minimal with that, although we did it for Gus Powell's book, The Company of Strangers. He put a long quote in the beginning that serves as an introduction, and then he wrote an afterword. There's a forthcoming book where we might have to do something with more text. It's a Chinese photographer, and the work is very Chinese, but I want people here to see it. I think there might need to be some writing, just to give you supplemental information so that some of the subject matter will make more sense.

It's easy for people to understand what editors do for books or magazines, but when you edit something like Jubilee, what are you doing? How do you edit? It's not as if there's a clear right and wrong, like grammar, which is editing in its most simple and basic sense.
The way I usually do it is I'll take a box of photos and go through them. At some point, I'll start to feel something—and this sounds real new-agey, doesn't it—I'll start to feel some narrative or idea that ties certain pictures together, so I'll pull those out. Then I'll go through the whole stack again 10 times, and at some point there's one stack that's out and one stack that starts to feel like something. Then I show the photographer, and we talk about it. As the process goes on, it's totally refined. Some photographers can't edit their own work. All they can do is produce it, and they'll admit it. They may be fixed in the moment of each image and they can't see a bigger package or a bigger context for them. Or they'll have a hard time not using pictures that they're personally attached to. I don't think a lot of photographers think about editing, and it's so important. But schools don't have classes about it and there's no place to learn it.

When you get edited by a magazine that's publishing your photos, do you get more involved with the whole process than most photographers, because you are an editor yourself as well as the photographer?
I work with the art director. Usually, we both work on it and then pass it back and forth. It's different because you're already given a story to work from. A lot of jobs end up about half from my archives and half pictures I shot after reading the article.

Do you take direction from the art departments, or do you not care and take the photos you want to take?
I try to get as much direction as I can. I try to separate the pictures I take into different categories: editorial, personal, and advertising. It helps me deal with it. There are certain jobs, like ad jobs, where I'll just consider myself a tool. I understand that these people have something they're trying to do, and I'm the hired help, I'm the plumber. I've done some ad jobs where you would never be able to tell it was me who shot it. Some of them are pretty big productions—there'll be a van, assistants, caterers, props people, and stylists. Those are really fun. I enjoy those jobs. You're running around making sure everyone is doing their thing. I've gotten kind of relaxed about it. I don't know if that's good or bad, but it all has your name on it in the end.

Chris Gage, a production editor at John Wiley & Sons, is a frequent contributor to Photo stolen from, which presumably stole it from a contributor's column somewhere else.

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