Recently, I had the pleasure of sipping a cup of chai while watching a baby deer lounging under a nearby Redwood Tree in my friend, curator Anne Veh’s Mill Valley garden. Our conversation moved from the beauty of the garden to the two limited-edition artist books recently completed in collaboration with Korea-based Sangyon Joo, founder of Datz Press, Datz Museum of Art, and Gitz Magazine.
Constellations is the second in a series of books on the photographic work of Linda Connor. The book is a compilation of photographic works spanning 50 years, and reflecting the artist’s explorations of nature and her curiosity with sacred spaces. Connor, who currently calls Marin home, has not only exhibited widely, but she has also been awarded prestigious grants and awards, collected by museums, and taught photography at the San Francisco Art Institute for over 40 years.
“It offers a self-guided map of wondrous discovery, illuminating everything from the earliest petroglyph of a hand print to the movement of the celestial heavens, interconnecting a field of relationships and reverence for what is while leaving plenty of room for the unknown,” comments Veh as she describes Constellations in her opening remarks, which preface the essays about the artist by a circle of colleagues, friends and fellow artists who have known her for decades.
Bryant Austin’s book sun, water, being features black and white images that capture the playfulness of the sun moving through nature, painting light on trees and explorations of light and shadow. Like Connor’s work, the experience of viewing is peaceful and connects us to a feeling of awe. Bryant is also known for his ambitious photographs that capture life-sized portraits of whales.
This excerpt from our discussion in the garden sheds light on the process of creating a limited edition artist book, the uniqueness of each creation, and the joy sparked by the turning each page.
AV: When Sanyong is inviting an artist, she sits with the content and the intention for a long time before she makes a decision. A couple of years ago, when she was out (from Korea) for the Photo Alliance Portfolio Review, she had a chance to meet Bryant Austin. She was at first overwhelmed with his work because she found it so powerful. There is a masculine strength of his work, and she couldn’t quite envision a book at that moment. I encouraged her to take time, to get to know him. She and one of her designers had the opportunity to spend two days with Bryant in Carmel Valley. We walked the land, and had an opportunity to visit the Vasquez Ridge where Bryant has been photographing the Valley Oaks for several years.
I think what struck Sangyon is what strikes everyone. Bryant’s work with the whales was so intense. He had a vision of creating life-size portrait, which no one has ever done. He had a commitment and a focus. He says, “I really had this drive. I had to do this work but it was exhausting. It wasn’t sustainable financially or emotionally.” So he came back from that work depleted saying “I just need a daily practice. I just want to start watching the sun.” He began by watching the sun’s shadow cast on the wall of his home. Then he started to go out and play with the sun and the light on trees. It became his daily practice. It was playful. It wasn’t about creating a body of work. That kind of listening was connecting him to something bigger.
AV: In visioning the book, at first the thought was to include only the work with the sun and the trees. Then Bryant called one day to say “Can you come down? I want to show you some of the whale work that I’ve never considered.” The whale wasn’t in focus but the water and sunlight were in focus. I found them magical.
Sangyon had the idea to entitle the book sun, water, being — bringing the sense of presence we all feel in nature.
Linda talks about this (connection) also in Constellations. She was in Ladakh (India) with her friend Helen Stanley and Nawang, their Ladakhi guide. It was the summer solstice, and they could think of no better place to experience it then at the Chortens at Shey (Monastery). They were able to experience the light as it transitioned from light to darkness and then how the light shifted — the Chortens became heavy presences in the moonlight. Linda is able to convey an experience in her work without it being spiritual. She will be the first to say, “I don’t work in the spiritual realm.” And there is a purity to her connection that consistently comes through. I love how the book doesn’t need words because everyone can bring their own experience — it’s universal, it’s timeless. How do you bring words to it? It’s beyond words.
AV: Sangyon had a clear vision for this book, which was challenging for Linda. For her, putting 50 years of work in one book seemed overwhelming and disjointed. It seemed like too much to hold. But the way the final book resolved, is magical. It’s interesting to see the early collage work together with the later Lick Observatory glass plates interpreted with her work in Ladakh or the rock art because there’s a through-line.
Every book has a character, a unique sensibility, and a unique experience. Having the book in your hands, you get a sense of what you’re holding.
– Anne Veh
AV: The artists have such a trust in the Datz and their process. They are held. There is such a reverence for the work, the artist, and the journey. So when Datz is sequencing the work for the book there is a sense of no urgency; there’s no rush. Each image finds its place. They’re able to make pairings that artists or I would never have thought of. Their objective perspective is critical.
AV: These are handmade books. Like with Bryant’s book, the choice that Datz made was to use French folds to bring in a lightness — with air in between each folded page. It’s another element brought into the book, which allows you to slow down and appreciate turning the pages. The quality of the papers adds to the book. Every book has a character, a unique sensibility, and a unique experience. Having the book in your hands, you get a sense of what you’re holding.
Every Datz artist book is unique. They create handmade, limited edition books. Often there’s a special edition. Bryant’s special edition features a handcrafted box that shows the grain of the wood. I love how the blackness of the box, like the void in his photos. Within the special edition is a framed print of Bryant’s work.
AV: There are some very special book fairs like Codex, which is here in the Bay Area, as well as the New York Book Fair and the LA Book Fair. These are some very fine book fairs where you’ll see really unique kinds of books.
AV: Yes. It’s between the press and the artist to define the size of the edition. I wouldn’t say this category is purely photography, but I would say it is primarily photography. Datz also produces a beautiful magazine called Gitz. It’s interesting that Datz means an anchor, and Gitz means a feather. There’s a beautiful balance with all of their work.
Pamela Coddington is a writer and editor. Full disclosure: She is a big supporter of the arts in Marin County and has done work with Youth in Arts, Image Flow Photography Center, di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Smith Andersen North, and Headlands Center for the Arts. Pamela is a graduate of New York University with a B.A. in Art History, and holds a post-baccalaureate degree in writing from U.C. Berkeley. Pamela lives and works in San Rafael with her family.