"Ruth and Jack": A Conversation Between Art Director & Artist

Ahead of our Photographs Day Sale in New York, Phillips invited "Ruth and Jack" to talk about photography. These emails between an art director and artist took place between 17 – 22 August 2016.

From: Jack Pierson

To: Ruth Ansel

Subject: Photography

From: Jack

To: Ruth

Did you ever have a 'before and after' moment with a work of art or an artist's output where you were left changed or your own vision was crystallized?

Jack

sent from my iphone

To: Jack

From: Ruth

It was seeing Diane Arbus' THE FULL CIRCLE portfolio in Harper's Bazaar. That was in 1961. The power of those images knocked me back. It was a 'before and after moment.' She photographed and wrote brilliantly about five singular people who appeared like creatures from a dream. Unseen people who without her fearless curiosity would've remained in the shows. She changed my vision of the possible after that.

XRuth

To: Ruth

From: Jack

Ha! 

Mine was Diane Arbus too. It was the monograph. A life changing experience. It also made me realize how important a book could be. How was it to work with her? Was The Young Heiresses portfolio the frst project you did with her?

Jack

To: Jack

From: Ruth

Good to know we were infuenced early on by the same person. I really don't remember which portfolio I did first with Diane. But The Young Heiresses was one of the early ones. Working with Diane was easy. Once given the assignment she went off on her own and was given a lot of freedom to come back with the photos she thought best suited the subjects. Usually she was right.

XRuth

To: Ruth

From: Jack

Usually?

Jack

To: Jack

From: Ruth

Yes, usually. She tried very hard on some projects to bring back something to satisfy the demands of the editors when the sorts of jobs offerred her were less adventurous. When she sent in her contacts you knew you were in trouble because she didn't like the shoot.

XRuth

From: Jack

To: Ruth

She certainly maintains a style and content that is consistent and very soulful no matter what her subject.

From: Jack

To: Ruth

I think Richard Avedon is the greatest photographer who ever lived? am I wrong?

To: Jack

From: Ruth

Before I catch my breath and answer that, what have you experienced and seen that convinces you about his work? Is there a specifc photograph or show that has touched you deeply?

XRuth

From: Jack

To: Ruth

And to answer your question about a single image, I can tell you that for a while the Met had a poster of his Marilyn hanging at one of the many little shops that dot that place and I could see it on a par with anything else in the museum. I think about the full range from fashion to reportage. Who else can do that? The 4x5 portraits are great like August Sander but then he also took all those photos for Dior. My main point is that his impact because of magazine work and books had impact beyond the realm of traditional art photography.  Jack

To: Jack

From: Ruth

That Marilyn portrait has always been one of my favorites because Dick not only unmasked her but he left us with an unrivaled portrait of her vulnerability. No you're not wrong, Dick is one of the greatest photographers who ever lived. When you worked with him, you had the feeling you are working on something that has never happened before. Didn't you feel one of the most astonishing photographic triptychs of the 20th Century was Avedon's Warhol Factory? What he did was shed light on our time by being fearless. No one has ever turned photography into social history the way Dick has been able to do. Interesting you bring up August Sander who infuenced both Arbus and Avedon. I believe they first saw his work in the early sixties as I did. It was Marvin Israel who made me aware of Sander's groundbreaking portraits of German archetypes through his book People of the 20th Century.
XRuth

From: Jack

To: Ruth

That's interesting to know. I didn't realize Sander arrived so late in the collective consciousness.

Jack

From: Jack

To: Ruth

Lee Friedlander seems to veer off that course. Yet he still manages to seem 'right' for magazine work. Was he an obvious choice at that time?

Jack

To: Jack

From: Ruth

Sometimes I knew I had to risk taking a chance on an unexpected talent. Lee wasn't an obvious choice at the time. Especially commissioning him to take photographs of the new shiny sexy American cars of the 1960s. Cars were the icons of glamour and fashion, and I wanted to give Lee complete freedom to do whatever he felt like doing. And he did. I loved what Lee said about it later. "He was happy to tell you he knows nothing about cars. I wouldn't know a car if it bit me." So he shot them on the streets of small towns near burger joints, gas stations, along main street and sent in the photos. The editors weren't pleased, he was paid for his work and the photos were returned unpublished, in the same yellow box he sent them in. The best part of the story is time proved my instincts right, many years later a beautiful book was published by Aperture, "The New Cars of 1964" and Lee finally got the recognition he deserved.
XRuth

From: Jack

To: Ruth

Interesting! So even the greats get stories killed sometimes! I thought it was just me. 

From: Jack

To: Ruth

How did it feel to create the 'new look' for Vanity Fair? We've spoken privately about the idea of seduction in photography. How do you seduce with typography and layout?

Jack

To: Jack

From: Ruth

O what a question! It felt like a now or never moment. And let's face it, it's far less sexy to design a magazine layout than it is to make an exceptional photograph or create an original fashion design. But there is a common denominator. It all starts with the seduction of the eye. The way I try to seduce with typography and layout is to first understand the intention of the magazine, and then find a typeface that reflects that spirit. Here's the secret to how it was done...with only 3 weeks to deadline we were able to convert an existing type face by simply cutting of all the ascenders and decenders. That created a whole new look which instantly became the "Vanity Fair" type face and still is to this day. But it is all about how you choose to use three classic elements in magazine design—the relationship between typography and the image, and the white space that surrounds them both. The variation on that theme is what makes my task of designing worth doing month after month. Typography—as you know better than any other artist, is about shape and form as well as meaning. Your word sculptures are a constant inspiration to me. Knowing how to integrate all these elements to embody suprise, wit and grace, is a continual part of the magazine process. It is all about creating new visual connections.
XRuth

From: Jack

To: Ruth

Well it must have felt incredible to you when all the powers of excellence came together for the Bruce Weber, Sam Shepard/Jessica Lange story! What a dream team as it were!
Jack

To: Jack

From: Ruth

Bruce Weber's shoot of Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange in Santa Fe for Vanity Fair in the '80s is one of the best examples of how simply assigning the right photographer with the right subject, photographic history can happen. Eventually Bruce created a very singular book dedicated to just his Sam Shepard portraits which became a coveted collectors item for those of us who love books.

XRuth

To: Jack

From: Ruth

You work in many mediums, one being book design which you've said is a medium you really love. How do you decide to make a book of your photographs rather than devote the photographs to a gallery wall or museum? Or do you do both?

From: Jack

To: Ruth

I'm interested in books and magazines particularly for photography because it's the best vehicle for getting imagery into the hands of the audience. I love ephemera and stuff that any one can have or for that matter do, magazines were the manifestation of that in my generation. Now I suppose those are being supplanted by Instagram which I am a big fan of too. I do enjoy a certain amount of clutter through which printed material provides for nicely. If I were bidding on one of these lots I'd defnitely want the prospectus Arbus created for the portfolio. That's heaven to me.
Jack

To: Jack

From: Ruth

What you just said, is why I've always felt so drawn to magazine design. I am that audience. When I was very young I was always happiest sitting in a dark movie theatre staring up at those glamorous figures on the big screen. Those images telling stories were magic for me then as now. Still photographs tell stories thru a single frame unlike moving images that tell stories at 24 frames a second. But they are both ultimately about time passing, about our impermanence. You could say the movies brought me to magazine design and to photography. If I could give you that Arbus prospectus I would happily do so. My passion like yours is about unpredictable pursuits which often turn into obsessions. 

I've lived surrounded by photographs from the known to the unknown. I've run out of space acquiring all these manifestations of my curiosity yet I can't stop collecting things that catch my eye. It gives me endless pleasure. So it's time to release these particular passionate images out into the universe and move on.

XRuth.

Explore Phillips: Photographs Day Sale on Artsy, and place max bids on more than 200 artworks. Live bidding opens Thursday, October 6th, at 11:00am ET.