It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the publishing industry, like all things cultural these days, has succumbed to box-office fever. Profits, though always king, have become, it seems, the sole criterion of success these days. The upside, if there is one, is that this monomaniacal obsession with the blockbuster has created a vacuum in fine-art publishing that’s being filled by boutique outfits like Twin Palms/Twelve Trees, St. Ann’s and Nazrael, whose CEOs have offices in their living rooms instead of limos purring outside their Greenwich Village brownstones.
One L.A.-based company currently throwing haymakers in the cause of good coffee-table fare is Greybull Press. Three rabid bibliophiles — Roman Alonso, Lisa Eisner and Lorraine Wild — launched Greybull in 1999, with the mission of creating DIY-style art books for a market sorely lacking in worthwhile offerings.
“All of us buy tons of books,” Alonso confesses, sipping Tejava in his house and office overlooking Hollywood on a recent afternoon. “And more and more we were finding that so much of what we were buying were out-of-print titles. The books currently being published just weren’t interesting to us.”
Being hands-on kind of people with formidable résumés in publishing, design, fashion and PR, the Greybull Three decided that, while endlessly trolling bookstore aisles was good clean fun, it was time to put out a few books themselves. Over the past five years, Greybull has gained a cult following for titles such as Rodeo Girls, Height of Fashion, 1712 North Crescent Heights (by Dennis Hopper), and R. Crumb’s Gotta Have ’Em.
Alonso says Greybull’s genesis goes back to 1998, when he suddenly found himself jobless after his boss, designer–cum–media darling Isaac Mizrahi, announced that he was calling it quits. Eisner, who had known Alonso socially and professionally for years — they worked together at Mizrahi — insisted that he move out to L.A., where she had been living since 1987.
“I was like, ‘You grew up in Venezuela and Miami, what are you doing in New York? That place is like a shithole!’” recalls Eisner, finishing Alonso’s story — something they both do a lot. “You’ve got to move to California. This is like Utopia. And we can start a publishing company together!” Feeling like maybe it was time to take a breather from the NYC grind, Alonso signed on for a temporary tour.
“L.A. has this whole ‘Wild West’ thing going on where you can totally reinvent yourself and really be anything you want. I wanted to do something different, and a leap like this seemed impossible back in NYC,” Alonso says. “I’d worked in PR at Barneys and for Isaac, and it was just like I was in this little box. Out here, it’s like nobody really cares. It’s the Wild West.”
Lorraine Wild met Eisner through gallerist Shaun Regen of Regen Projects. Later they would work on an eventually scrapped ad campaign for Mizrahi, but the initial collaboration was formative.
“I remember coming to meet with Lisa, and we starting talking books, and I could tell right away just by the books that were stacked up on her coffee table. I was like, ‘Aha, we are sympathetic,’” Wild says of her first encounter with Eisner.
The burgeoning outfit, taking a fully democratic approach to various duties, from design to branding, quickly put together a portfolio in a hand-bound box that included three 20-page book proposals, a logo designed by Wild, and also a mission statement. The intention was to sell the package to publishers as an imprint. “But all the publishers, although they liked the ideas and wanted to sign on immediately,” Alonso recalls, “wanted to control production, and since we all loved books and collected books and knew exactly what we wanted and liked, we were just like, ‘No way, we can’t live with that.’” Adds Eisner: “I mean, with books like this, what do you even make on them, like five dollars? If we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it because we love it.”
A meeting with Lee Kaplan of Santa Monica’s Arcana bookstore subsequently led to a meeting with Sharon Gallagher of D.A.P., the fine art book-distributing giant in NYC, and soon the tide began to turn. “She was like, ‘Listen,’” says Alonso, “‘if you publish these books, we will sell them.’”
“And the thing that’s interesting about that,” Wild says, “is that you have all of these big publishers and this formulaic way they work, but actually if you’re willing to take the risk and publish [books] yourselves, you’re allowed a great deal more leeway. That’s what we’ve been trying to do at Greybull. Not just in the
subject matter but in the way the book actually looks and feels.”
Greybull made the leap from aspiring imprint to full-blown publisher, and those three initial proposals — Rodeo Girls by Eisner herself, Height of Fashion, and Kustom by photographer/director Dewey Nicks — became the company’s first three releases.
Rodeo Girls was an underground hit right out of the gates (and continues to be their best hardback seller to date). Eisner’s portraits of women in the world of rodeo combined an iconic immediacy with an almost family album–like intimacy that has set the thematic precedent for most every Greybull book that’s followed. When Madonna came out shortly thereafter with her own all-American cowgirl thing, it appeared that Eisner’s book had paved the way for the Chameleon Queen’s latest fashion statement.
Next came Height of Fashion, wherein friends — and then friends of friends of friends — were asked to send in pictures of themselves at what they believed was their personal fashion apogee. “We had no idea the kind of response we’d get,” Eisner says. “We basically sent out this letter that said, ‘Send us a picture of yourself at the exact moment in your life when you knew you were the most magical person in the room.’” The result was a kind of yearbook, sentimental and maybe even a little haunting, each image imbued by a sense of self-mythology and the fleeting nature of a moment.
The first four books Greybull did were with friends (the fourth, Human Nature, was a collaboration between the writer Glenn O’Brien and the artist Richard Prince), “which turned out to be a really good thing because we had no idea what we were doing and we figured that working with friends was a way of hopefully putting ourselves into a slightly more forgiving scenario,” Alonso says of Greybull’s initial offerings.
Following that pattern, Alonso was on the phone with friend Marin Hopper when he suggested that she put together a book of her father’s images (the Greybull Three were all fans of Dennis Hopper’s photo album Out of the Sixties). “I had worked on this project for the Whitney about the Beats,” says Wild. “And we would talk to people and they would be like, ‘Hopper?’ And yet everybody knows his images, and I think especially with people out here in Los Angeles when they see the book, they see it not only as this great book of pictures but also as this visual history of cultural L.A. during that time.”
With 1712 North Crescent Heights, Greybull produced another cult favorite. Between Hopper’s ex-wife Brooke Hayward’s old-world L.A. roots, Hopper’s art-world past, and their life together with the Easy Rider/Raging Bull film crowd, the book captured in pictures a life in Los Angeles that managed once again to be intimate, sexy and at the same time iconic. With the momentum gathering behind Rodeo Girls, Crescent Heights, and Dewey Nicks’ Kustom — a bizarro meditation on the me-culture of Southern California — it was clear that the budding press was establishing its own take on the West Coast aesthetic.
“Los Angeles is untapped,” says Eisner. “The flea market here is a perfect metaphor. You go to the flea market, and there are amazing things. In New York, you go to a flea market and it’s all crap and everybody’s been through it already. It all feels picked over. Out here, you can still find untouched things.”
And untouched things are exactly what excite the Greybull trio. “There is no greater joy for us than sitting together over a stack of contact sheets and just for hours on end discovering something,” Alonso says. Eisner likens the process to perusing the pages of someone’s diary: “Anything intimate, that’s what we love. Going into somebody’s mind. We’re not into the whole general thing.”
Greybull’s current release is Teenage by Joe Szabo. Several years ago, Arcana bookstore’s Kaplan turned Eisner on to Szabo’s original photo book, Almost Grown, a bittersweet paean to early ’70s high school years on Long Island shot by Szabo. (Szabo taught photography at Long Island’s Malverne High from 1972 to 1999; his work was selected for the Venice Biennale in 1975.) Drawing from material in Almost Grown as well as from the years that followed up into the early ’80s, Teenage exists in the days just prior to the consumer blizzard that buried individuality under the excesses of fashion branding, piercing, tattoos and the Uzi. It is a glimpse back to an era when how you wore the Lee jeans your mom bought you said much more about who you were than Gucci or Prada ever could.
Anchoring the book is an essay by Cameron Crowe that includes a poignant song list the author psychically gleaned from a flip through. True to form, Teenage has the Greybull buried treasure/time capsule quality about it. Even if you weren’t there during those years, Teenage’s evocation of your own delicious, treacherous teen longing will more than likely visit you in a melancholy daydream like a good song did before MTV co-opted your imagination.
All nine Greybull releases to date have printed between 3,000 and 5,000 copies, and several of the books have also come out in limited-edition box sets — typically editions of 100 — that include actual prints of an image from the book. Gotta Have ’Em by R. Crumb came out last spring, with a magnificent signed 14-color serigraph of Crumb’s wife, Aline. The idea is to keep the runs manageable and somewhat exclusive.
“There are a lot of other, bigger publishers like the Taschens of the world that will give you the soup-to-nuts, everything-that’s-ever-been-done-on-it version of a book,” Alonso says. “We feel that what we want to do is give you the version that has our point of view. Working with the kind of budgets we work with, it would be silly to try and compete with those bigger companies, and a waste of everybody’s time. We wouldn’t even know what it would mean to make a book that sells 50,000 copies.”
Not to mention that the limited press runs allow Greybull to keep the emphasis on their primary concern — artistic integrity. “Like with Teenage,” says Wild. “Right now, a big publisher would never even think of publishing that book with a black and white cover, just never, but that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Aside from the release of Teenage, the Greybull Three keep busy both together and apart. Wild is finishing work on a book for the L.A. Philharmonic about the Frank Gehry–designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, while Alonso and Eisner — who collaborate on six features a year for The New York Times Sunday Magazine — have been working with trend forecaster DeeDee Gordon to put together the premiere issue of Look-Look, a not-for-profit magazine comprised of photos, drawings, paintings, poetry and prose submitted by young people from around the globe. “It’s the kind of project we feel aesthetically in sync with,” says Alonso. “The material being used is from nonprofessional young people, and we’re getting a chance to help elevate them and get it out into the world. And what’s even better on this is that the money that’s being made will go back [in the form of grants] to the young people.”
Greybull will also participate in “Re-Presenting the Black Panthers” at the UCLA Hammer Museum, a film series and symposium sponsored by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. A lecture on Saturday, November 8 by Kathleen Cleaver, Eldridge’s widow, will include a slide show of images from Greybull’s 2002 release Black Panthers 1968.
That Black Panthers came out a year ago and Alonso has doggedly continued to work the project speaks volumes about Greybull’s raison d’être. “For us, it’s a desire to keep the subject alive for as long as possible,” he says. “It’s not really about book sales. Our book will more than likely be out of print by the time of the event.”
Wild puts an even finer point on it. “There’s a lot of photography that you just kind of look at it and that’s it. When you spend as much time as we spend on a book, it can’t be about a topic that we think is trivial. We have to be engaged socially and culturally. I mean, if you look at the subjects we’ve worked on, they’re all pretty loaded in regards to where we’re at culturally. What we look for is something that we think actually resonates. It’s just too much trouble otherwise.”
Good Art Comes In Small Packages
Want to launch your art collection, but only have about twenty bucks of disposable income? In that case, a little underground art mag in East Hollywood has answers for you.
Every three months or so from a covert storefront, Scott Andrew Snyder and his wife Tracy Forman crank out a “site-specific” art publication called Arkitip (“Archetype” was already trademarked, so they opted for the phonetic version). The mission, Snyder says, was not only to give artists a medium in which to be totally creative, but also to provide consumers with a product “more affordable than a single original piece of art but still collectable and original in and of itself.”
Started in 1999 with not much more than a Docutek copying machine and a hand stapler, every issue of Arkitip offers 12 pages to each artist it features, and also spotlights a single showcased artist who creates front and back cover art and an “art supplement” done in collaboration with Snyder. Past supplements — they come polybagged with each issue — more than worth the magazine’s $20 price tag have included a Phil Frost mini-beachball, a Mark Gonzales mobile and Kevin Lyons’ Tupac Shakur drink coasters.
Arkitip printed only 50 of the first issue, but collector and advertising enthusiasm has enabled Arkitip to stabilize at a steady run of 1,000 where, for now, they plan to stay put; big enough for a market presence but still small enough to retain both financial and creative control. “My hand is tired enough numbering 1,000 copies each issue; I can’t imagine 10,000,” laughs Snyder.
Snyder’s last straight gig was as art director for Joyride snowboards, known for its artsy graphics and ads, and Forman worked at ’90s indie-mag publisher Raygun Publishing, Fader magazine, and briefly ran her own consulting and custom publishing company. Combining their connections, they primarily draw from an underground talent pool that’s currently popping up in big-league galleries and museums all over the world. Arkitip alumni include Harmony Korine, Barry McGee, Rostarr, Kaws, Evan Hecox, Mike Mills, Space Invader and Ed Templeton, to name just a few.
The Arkitip format provides ample whitespace for these artists to go wild with work created exclusively for the magazine. Flipping through any issue is like checking out a micro-museum retrospective or even a freshly-bombed warehouse as opposed to more conventional publications where maybe the artist is given a single spread to exhibit his or her skills.
Eighteen issues since they bound those first 50 by hand, Arkitip is complementing its word-of-mouth base with an emerging online presence, including “Arkdistribution,” which will enable choice artists to sell their wares through the company’s Web site. As the magazine continues to fly off the racks at local aesthetic hot spots like Hennesey & Ingels, Rudy’s Barbershop and the MOCA store, Snyder and Forman plan to sink profits back into the product. Says Snyder: “I don’t think it will ever be Hermès bags [as the art supplement], but you never know!” Either way, the determined duo is basking in a kind of round-the-clock, sweat-equity heaven: “I am a huge fan of magazines,” Snyder says. “And if I didn’t make Arkitip, I’d be its biggest fan.”