Eliot Dudik is a man of many talents—photographer, educator, bookmaker, and the list goes on. His most recent endeavor, One Day Projects, is a collaborative book-making experiment with photographer Jared Ragland. With only 24 hours to conceive of, photograph, edit, sequence, print, and bind a thematic book—in editions, no less—the duo push the boundaries of artistic collaboration, bookmaking, and their own sanity. Eliot and Jared granted Don’t Take Pictures Editor-in-Chief Kat Kiernan an interview about their work and process.
Kat: Let’s start at the beginning, how do you two know each other and how did One Day Projects take shape?
Eliot: We met at the Society of Photographic Education 50th anniversary national conference in Chicago, back in 2013. We stayed in touch and shared work and ideas as we met up at conferences and events around the country. Over dinner at a regional SPE conference in Greenville, South Carolina, we determined that we were both going to be at the 2015 PhotoNOLA conference, and we began to discuss ideas of creating something together while in New Orleans. We started by putting some parameters on ourselves: one day, New Orleans. But the ideas quickly became exciting and snowballed into: “and we could make a book!” and then, “let’s do it in one day and have it ready for the panel on self-publishing at the Contemporary Art Center!” Jared and I share a pretty healthy work ethic (read: we perpetually bite off more than we can likely chew), and we are both always looking for ways to move forward and experiment in our practice. So, we decided to do this kind of crazy thing, really, just to see if we could do it.
K: Why choose books as the medium for your collaboration instead of, say, photographing, designing, and mounting an exhibition in 24 hours?
Jared: We both are heavily influenced by photobooks, and the act of making books informs our practices in significant ways. I think the act of editing and sequencing and considering the presentation of images and ideas in book form forces an economy of making and provides unique opportunities to build complex relationships in pictures. Through the sequencing of a book, an artist can move back and forth between acts of revelation and obfuscation, build picture relationships that hopefully leads to something greater than the sum of their parts, and, when combined with informed decisions on craft, presentation, and design, engage an audience in ways unlike any other.
K: You have completed two books so far, Bras-Coupé and Or Give Me Death. Each one has been produced as part of a photography event, and both titles have been influenced by the cities they were created in. Is the site-specific element a critical part of the work, if so, in what way?
E: Connections to history and place are important to both our individual practices. Place provides a backdrop and context from which to draw and expand into contemporary concerns. In the case of our first two projects, place laid the foundation for us to consider important historical and even mythical narratives that relate to current issues while providing a platform to discuss political and social issues. With only 24 hours to work, its important to focus our efforts and time while keeping our path open enough to allow discovery. For that reason, our initial parameters have been set within a relatively small geographical location. As I’m sure site-specificity will continue to be important in many of our projects, we hope the books might form a broader yet related meditation of our contemporary experience, not unlike Alec Soth’s LBM Dispatch. However, we are also interested in expanding and altering the way we work as much as possible, so future projects may be about many places at once or not about any place at all.
K: Your first title, Bras-Coupé, was produced during the 2015 PhotoNOLA festival and features photographs inspired by the Louisiana folk tale of Bras-Coupé. Could you talk a little about the folk tale and why and how it inspired the book?
J: New Orleans can be a difficult place to make pictures. Everyone has photographed there, and the city has deep photographic connections. Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, and William Eggleston all made pictures there, and of course there’s the great history of E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville portraits, Clarence John Laughlin’s surrealist images, and the contemporary work of artists like Deborah Luster, Debbie Fleming Caffery, Jonathan Traviesa, or Sophie Lvoff. While we knew we would have to dig deep to get past the layers of what’s been done before, as well as dodge the many, many potential pitfalls of cliché, I think we also intuitively knew that the work we made should live in a kind of combined tradition of the photographers who have worked in New Orleans before. The little known folk tale of Bras Coupé seemed to be a great story to work from—a point of inspiration that would allow us the opportunity to explore New Orleans’ rich history but also engage in a conversation on contemporary issues. According to legend, Bras-Coupé (translated: “Cut-Arms”) was a one-armed runaway slave turned outlaw brigand. Multiple myths surround the character—from boogeyman to folk hero, talismanic figure to cautionary tale. It was said that he could disappear into smoke, was impervious to bullets, and couldn’t be killed. The story of his life led us from Congo Square, where he danced on Sundays with his fellow slaves, to the marshes of Barataria, where he hid out and acted as a sort of Robin Hood of the swamp. The story allowed us an opportunity to wonder in the mysteries of forgotten history yet also reflect on how violence continues to be played out upon the black male body.
K: Or Give Me Death was photographed, printed, and bound for the Candela Books + Gallery Indie Photobook Showcase this past May in Richmond, VA. Can you talk a little about what it was like to take on this project in 24 hours and to work out of Candela’s Gallery space—with an audience?
J: It was a real joy to work with Gordon Stettinius and Ashby Nickerson at Candela, particularly as artists-in-residence during their Indie Photobook Showcase exhibition. Alongside the making Or Give Me Death we were also able put together an installation that reflected the work and the process of making the book, and we also took part in a panel discussion with fellow indie photobook publishers. Gordon and Ashby were incredibly supportive—allowing us to come and go at all hours of the night and make a mess of the gallery, and feeding us really, really well (they turned us on to Saison Market, home of the world’s greatest—and likely most expensive—chicken biscuit. We must’ve eaten a dozen or so of them during the residency). Most importantly, they connected us to the people and places across Richmond that made the book possible, including introductions to RVA’s infamous raconteur Harry Kolatz Jr., a visit to a hidden, secret plantation home, and access to the wonderful people at Preservation Virginia, who lets us traipse through Patrick Henry’s attic.
E: From Bras-Coupé we learned that it’s nearly impossible to shoot, edit, sequence, print and bind an edition of 50 books in 24 hours while staying sane and remaining friends, so for Or Give Me Death we decided to concentrate Wednesday, the first 24 hours, on the photographs. We then busied ourselves in our pop-up studio behind the storefront windows of the Candela Gallery for the next day and a half as we continued editing, sequencing, designing, printing, and binding the books. We had decided to double the edition size for this second book to 100, so the extra day or so didn’t really provide us with any additional sleep. We worked nearly straight through and into the art-walk reception on Friday evening, which was packed. I really enjoyed working on the books throughout the opening, where we kind of blurred the lines between production, performance and presentation. It was an engaging, interactive installation that inspired a lot of conversation about the book and the process of book making. The time in residence also allowed us the opportunity to try a different printing process, produce a more involved, double-sided printed cover. We still had to overcome a long list of frustrations and hiccups along the way, but in the end, as with Bras Coupé, we learned a lot, produced an object we were proud of, and felt a little different about the world then when we started.
K: Publishing a book, even a handmade one in a small edition of 50 requires an investment. How do you determine a budget?
E: So far we’ve taken the fiscally irresponsible approach of working first and figuring out how much we spent later. The projects are self-funded, and we have the faith in ourselves to make good work, make good books, and hopefully recoup costs through book sales. So far, fortunately, we have been able to break even. We can’t ask for much more than that, particularly in today’s book publishing climate. We do intend to continually try different things with all aspects of these projects. Future projects may cost much more than these past two did, and we may seek other forms of funding. Some projects may not cost a dime.
K: Collaborations are wonderful ways to use the strengths of each participant, how do you divide the work?
J: As soon as we come in from shooting, we divide and conquer, and the work divides pretty naturally. Eliot is a master bookmaker, so he typically takes the lead in binding and assembly. I’ve had a career as a photo editor and imaging specialist, so while Eliot is folding and cutting I’m on the computer editing, color correcting and building Indesign layouts. We come together to select and sequence the images, and through that process discover images that each other made, which is one of the most exciting parts of the process. We find the ways the images work together, and argue over other decisions as the direction of the edit takes shape. Frustration can mount, but we know we both want what is best for the book and for each other, so after a nip of whisky or a cigarette we work through solutions and have a better book because of it.
E: While we are aware of each other’s strengths and the first two books were produced through similar divisions of labor, it is important to us to evolve as we take on future projects without falling into a rut. We’re not looking for a formula that works and we repeat over and over. That’s not fun for anyone, and runs counter to our reasons for doing these projects in the first place.
K: Why limit yourselves to 24 hours? With such a short time frame, there must be a lot of pressure. Do you feel inspired to take risks with each book, or is it tempting to play it safe?
J: While our individual practices and photographic style can be very different, our approaches to making work are similar in that we both often work within defined parameters. I believe we both find freedom when having a pre-determined conceptual structure or physical limitations; the location-specific subjects give us a defined space within which to explore and experiment and work intuitively and responsively, and the 24 hour time period provides a strict deadline that inspires us to take certain risks while trusting our instincts.
E: The risk involved in the process and the pressure to meet the deadline keeps us focused while also providing the opportunity to exercise and practice our craft. The projects would look a lot different if we had weeks, months, or years to complete them, but we believe that working within the 24 hours provides us with a certain kind of freshness, directness, and honesty. We put ourselves through this brutal process, but there is an understanding that when we walk away we have this tangible object that not only documents a specific time at a specific place, but also reflects where we are at that particular moment as artists. When we first started talking about doing this, our intent was to have fun and find new ways to practice our craft. We have to remind ourselves sometimes during the process, but it really has been a lot of fun. And I’ve been very excited to notice how these new ways of seeing and working filter into my other, long-term projects.
K: What did you learn from Bras-Coupé that you applied to Or Give Me Death?
J: We learned that this crazy idea of shooting and make a good book under such restrictions was actually possible. Through Bras-Coupé we discovered a camaraderie and mutual trust in each other and in the process. We understand that each of us brings specific strengths to the process; we accept that, rely on it, and then try to build on it. For Bras-Coupé we had a pretty directly related, linear sequence of pictures and a simple cover; with Or Give Me Death we pushed into a more challenging nonlinear sequence, relied on some fairly obtuse historical references, incorporated appropriated imagery, and made a double-side printed cover.
E: On the practical side, we also learned that it’s nearly impossible to make 50 books on a pair of inkjet printers. We actually killed one in the making of Bras-Coupé. For Or Give Me Death we printed with a laser printer, which was faster and gave us many more paper options, but also came with its own set of color management issues.
K: How do you see One Day Projects evolving and where will you go next?
E: We want the projects to always be challenging in new ways. We have considered moving away from books for some future projects, and we’d like to coordinate exhibitions while also expanding our collaboration to include other photographers. We also hope to find opportunities to go beyond traditional modes of publication and exhibition, and we’re looking at ways to build projects specifically intended for online and through social media platforms. We’re interested in trying almost anything, as long as we don’t know where we’re going or where we might land before we start.
Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures. She would never attempt to make an entire book in one day.