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Friday, November 19, 2010

Handmade Portraits in the Modern Age

A Conversation with Leslie Williamson

Handcrafted Modern by Leslie Williamson

Every now and then, a book arrives which is not just a handsome presentation of information but also a completely satisfying aesthetic object. This was the case with Handcrafted Modern by Leslie Williamson, which was released a few weeks ago. Her photographs of modernist homes capture something of the inhabitant and his or her pattern of living. But they also reveal something more. Something of the life of the creator of the space.

The linen cover and the layout of the book complement the beautiful photos. Leslie’s informal and personal text adds another layer of witness. Leslie and I met at my office recently to talk about her work.

Q: How did you decide to become a photographer?

A: I grew up in San Jose, and I always did art. From the age of about 8, I wanted to be a fashion designer, but I hated to draw and hated to sew. This was a problem. Of course, this was before the entire world wanted to be a fashion designer. It was rather unusual then.

Out of high school, I was studying fashion illustration, a foundation year at art school, and I just decided to stop. I thought I would change my major to photography because taking pictures was faster than drawing. That was completely wrong, of course, but something about me and photography worked. It stuck.

Sink at Wharton Esherick Home

Q: When and where did you study photography?

A: I took my first photo class was when I was 21 at Foothill Junior College in Los Altos, California. After a year, I applied to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and got my undergrad degree from there. I thought I was going to end up shooting fashion, but I quickly realized that I didn’t want to shoot fashion every day. I liked photographing real people.

Q: Did you intend to shoot architecture and interiors?

A: I have always been into design, but I never shot interiors in any serious way. Most of my work has been shooting people, portraits for magazines and advertising . The closest I got to shooting interiors was doing work for Travel + Leisure. I would shoot a story for them, and it always required a restaurant shot or an interior in a hotel, but that was completely different to my approach to shooting interiors for my book. I don’t consider myself an architectural photographer.

Q: How did the idea for the book come about?

A: I needed a break from photography, so I took a job at William Stout Architectural Books. I was in charge of interiors, photography, and furniture design books—all of my loves.

Q: You mean downstairs?

A: Yeah, downstairs was my domain. I still get emails from clients who ask me about photo books. I would still take interesting photo assignments when they came, but most of this time, I was at the bookstore full time.

I think the idea was already in my head before I worked there, but I visited Palm Springs and got a little obsessed with Albert Frey’s home. This was April 2005. I started asking around and found out that you could gain access to his house for architectural study and research. Frey had left his home to the Palm Springs Museum so that one of his buildings would be kept intact architecturally. I got the idea then, but I figured we would have a book like that at Stout.

Albert Frey's Home

So when I got back, I looked around at the bookstore thinking that this kind of book would exist. But it didn’t. There were a few books on architects’ homes. I like looking at those archival images, but I wanted something more. How do designers live with their own work? What sits on the bedside table? What books do they own? The images in my book are all portraits of people through their home. I shot the book that I wanted to buy.

Early on, and through much of the process, I just called it the Book Project. I never sat down and made a plan. I am not sure I knew what “doing a book” really meant. If I had thought it out, I might have never finished it. But I just couldn’t stop shooting this once I started. It was a rather organic process. When I got a big job, I would shoot a house or two. I only had a publisher for the last year or so.

Q: After Frey’s, what was the second house you shot?

A: Gropius’s was next. That was when I realized that everything had to be in the house, as intact as possible. It is about the house and the stuff. Gropius’s daughter arranged the house just as it was on a day in the 60s. It is sublime in its detail.

Walter Gropius's desk

Q: How did you connect with Rizzoli?

A: I met Dung Ngo, one of the senior editors, at the bookstore. I told him I was working on a book, and he was very kind. He had just started at Rizzoli, I believe. Whenever he came back to San Francisco, he came into the store. I sent him contact sheets throughout the project, and he would encourage me to keep going.

Q: Did you know you were a writer as well as a photographer? I really enjoyed the text.

A: I knew I was an OK writer, but I had not done it since college. My writing the book was a matter of necessity. It turned out that the money for the writer would come out of my advance. I needed all of the advance for the photography expenses. I shot everything on film. Plus there was travel, shipping, and of course all the film processing. Most of the time I was working at Stout’s. I couldn’t afford to stop.

So I said I could write it and sent Dung a writing sample. I wrote four chapters in the third person and threw them all away. Luckily, I figured out I had to write in the first person for it to be any good.

Q: But the text doesn’t seem overly personal or self-centered.

A: That’s because I am a fan. I just love these people. I get choked up. And meeting them makes you love them more. Just being able to spend time in the houses and look at their life through their possessions and how they lived.

Even though I am not an expert or a historian, I realized that I had to be the one writing because no one else had my experience being in these homes for two days. Whatever I know is because I look and observe and wonder what the story is. If something piques my interest, I am like a dog with a bone.

Q: What were your criteria for including a house?

A: At the most basic level, I had to really love the house—how it looked, I mean—and the work of the designer who lived there. But other criteria formed as the project went on. Nothing crazy and rigorous…

Q: What kind of camera do you shoot with?

A: A medium format. Mamiya RZ67.

Q: Why do you still use film?

A: I think it’s richer. It’s more beautiful. But also, I started the book on film, so I was adamant that I had to finish that way.

Q: How did you get into all these incredible houses?

A: For the first few, I wrote formal letters. That would be Frey, Gropius, Esherick, Nakashima, and Russel Wright. Honestly, it wasn’t that difficult. And once I had those five, it got easier.

 George Nakashima's Home

Q: Some of the houses are relatively well known, like Eames’s or Gropius’s, but others are not.

A: After I had shot about seven houses, it started to get a bit harder. I had big names, but I wanted unknown gems that no one knew about. So I researched. Irving Harper I knew about, and he had not been seen that much. He has a computer, but he doesn’t use it. So I called him.

Once you start shooting, people start telling you about other houses. I would get a name and research them online, and of course I was spoiled at the bookstore. My friend Cathy Bailey at Heath recommended a couple of places.

 Irving Harper's Studio

Q: Were there some you didn’t get?

A: There are a lot I didn’t get. I wanted to do Oscar Niemeyer but couldn’t. I even got the OK to photograph Finn Juhl’s house. I was all set to go to Copenhagen, but the house got broken into. Then they were handing it over to the Danish Government and asked me to come on really short notice. So it didn’t happen. But it became clear that because of budgetary reasons, this book would focus on just North America.

Russel Wright's Home and Studio

Q: What links all of these houses and designers?

A: I guess the main thread is that I was in love with the house and the work. The interior told a story about the person. But also, there is a thread running through all of these designers—whether furniture or product design or architecture—in that most are from the same general era, except for Wharton Esherick.

Vladimir Kagan's Apartment

John Kapel's Home

Q: Where did the title come from?

A: I didn’t have a title for a long time. Of course the houses are not all handcrafted. The Eames house is basically prefab. The title is not about the structure of the house in every case, but about what you make of the interior of the house over time and how it evolves. There was talk of calling it Handmade Modern, but that didn’t feel right to me. These homes were more handcrafted over time. That title stuck. Handcrafted Modern.

The Eameses Living Room

Q: What about the outtakes, about what we don’t see?

A: I shot 250 to 300 images per house. That’s a lot of pictures! In doing the book, we edited it down to what gave the best idea of what it feels like to be in the house. I ordered it so it was a walk through the house, but there is only so much space in a chapter. I am putting some of the outtakes on my blog.

J.B. Blunk Home at Sunrise

Q: Did you work closely with the graphic designer?

A: Dung knew I had to work with somebody here because I was going to be so hands on. I worked with Adam Brodsley and Eric Heiman of Volume Inc. They totally got the idea. They found this gorgeous typeface and came up with the concept that you are looking through a keyhole, which can be seen on the title page of each chapter. I thought it was perfect.

Q: Over the course of working on the book, what changed in you?

A: I feel like I really found my calling shooting this book. I have no doubt I will continue documenting and shooting homes in this way for the rest of my life as well as shooting these people’s portraits when I can. I think that the way I shoot makes these people more accessible and human. I hope the way I shoot shows these people’s humanity as well. I don’t want to shoot just designers and artisans either, although that is where my heart tends to go. I just like people who are passionate about what they do. Don’t get me wrong, it helps to have great furniture and a cool interior, and these homes I shot for Handcrafted Modern have that in spades. But there are other places I am dying to shoot that have nothing to do with design at all. I have a list started. It is getting pretty long.… I really want to shoot Winston Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms in London. I literally dream about that place.

Self Portrait at Henry Varnum Poor's House

More info can be found at:


All photos courtesy Leslie Williamson

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