For well over a decade, the non-profit publisher Daylight has helped “revitalize the relationship between art, photography, and the world-at-large.” This unique organization, sitting at the intersection between the documentary and fine art traditions of photography while working across a wide array of media, has served as an invaluable hub in the community.
Below, we talk with co-founder Michael Itkoff. Besides publishing, curating, magazine-editing and teaching, Itkoff also finds time to photograph his own work. He touches upon all these topics and more in this wide-ranging conversation.
LC: You started Daylight in 2003—while still an undergraduate? Quite a bold undertaking for a student! At the time, did you imagine you would still be running it almost 15 years later? Looking back, to what do you attribute its success/longevity?
MI: A little boldness can get things started, but neither I nor Taj Forer (my co-founder) had any real grasp on the amount of grit we would need to stay relevant. Daylight needed to evolve continuously in order to stay afloat. Ultimately what carried us through the various iterations of Daylight was a strong intuitive grasp of where the photo world was going and the type of work that would hold up over time.
Specifically, from the get-go, Taj and I were curious to explore the way that documentary photography was evolving—specifically how artists were adopting the mode as a storytelling strategy. To that end, we saw Alec Soth’s work as a perfect representation of this and, in fact, we were the first US publishers to feature Sleeping by the Mississippi (in March 2004). We also sent cameras to Iraq in the spring of 2004 to be distributed amongst civilians living in the midst of the insurgency. That project was published—alongside seminal documentarians like Susan Sontag—in the second issue of the magazine; it later became a touring exhibition with the help of Fred Ritchin and Pixel Press.
LC: Still looking back at the origins of Daylight—you decided to start a print publishing house just as the world was moving digital (Facebook was founded in 2004, for example). Seemingly a crazy idea! At the same time however, the early 2000s coincided with the (still ongoing) rise of the “photobook” as a widely appreciated (even fetishized) object. Given the twin explosions of digital + print publishing, where do you sit on this divide today?
MI: We were distributing the magazine all over the world before we had fleshed out our web presence! Now we stand firmly rooted in our printed book program while continuing to experiment with a wide array of formats, usages and applications for digital storytelling. In 2007, we began publishing multimedia features—we have over 60 narrated slideshows available for public consumption—and in 2010, we began publishing digital features. These pieces consist of images, text, audio and video sequenced into long-form immersive experiences; they gave us the opportunity to work with artists within and without the book publishing program.
We continue to publish about one of these features per month. We are putting out a lot of content these days, so I might suggest that your readers sign up for our newsletter to keep track of all of our releases!
LC: As a book publisher, one of the key questions you think about is the relationship between form and content. It’s hard to generalize, of course, but are there some bedrock principles you find yourself returning to time and time again when working on book projects at Daylight?
MI: Our program is oriented around working closely with each artist to realize the full potential of their project in book form. We have a set of design principles overseen by our Creative Director, Ursula Damm, and we generally prefer to create visually-driven objects that seduce first and then inform.
Photography has a profound ability to change the way we feel by changing the way we see. Of course it can also teach us—which is one reason we so love exploring documentary work—but I think it is more effective to first embrace the emotional power of form.
While I place a huge importance on context, we typically try to let the images themselves carry the reader through the book. One way to accomplish this, for example, is to place the captions at the back of the book in a grid, or find some other way to de-emphasize them. But each project is treated individually and we do not follow a formula. Ultimately, we want the book to be a vessel for the work—a place for it to live.
LC: On the subject of building visual narratives, I was particularly taken by your series “Wrecked.” What I like is that it doesn’t have a long statement or personal (written) story, but rather builds up a space through the strong images alone. Can you say more about how you approached this series and how it developed over time?
MI: “Wrecked” began one night in the summer of 2006 when I stumbled upon my first demolition derby in rural Pennsylvania. The sheer energy of these cars spewing flames and kicking up mud got my heart racing; I wanted to get as close as I could to the action. I ended up devoting three summers to finding and shooting demo derbies all over Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
Originally my idea for the project was to use long exposures on a tripod to present frenetic action within the clean lines of the arena. As I continued to shoot, I began popping off a handheld flash to add some visual cacophony. Eventually I just took the camera off the tripod and stopped caring about technical considerations altogether. I myself became swept up in the spectacle of the demo derby and I hope some of that energy comes through!
LC: Photographically, I know that Joel Sternfeld was/is very important to you. I suppose it helps that he taught you in college! Can you say more about the ways his teachings influenced you and some of his lessons that you feel are worth passing on?
MI: Taj and I are so privileged to have studied under Joel; we consider him a mentor in more than just photography. Joel taught us many things, from how to look for the best light to the importance of creating a “body” of photographs. This is one of the lessons that has clearly carried over in my own work and in my pursuits with Daylight. Sure, I love looking at strong photographs—but my own deeper understanding of photography came about while looking at photo books. A sequence of images can do and say so much more than any single photograph.
Especially in this age of visual glut, there is something to be said for arresting our attention within an immersive, sequenced, flow-based experience.
It literally multiplies our brief, momentary encounter with a photographer’s work and allows visual ideation to blossom. Besides deepening our understanding and love of photography, Joel charged us to look within ourselves to try and figure out exactly what was at stake for us in life and in our work.
LC: After graduating with a BA, you took several years to work out in the world, from diverse places like Aperture to Rizzoli while also building up Daylight. Can you talk about your decision to go back to school for an MFA? When is getting an MFA (or more generally, studying photography in a classroom setting) the right move, when is it the wrong move? Any recommendations for someone who is hesitating about their next move?
MI: I believe the value of real world experience cannot be overstated. It is so hard to figure out exactly what you want to do, and how, without exploring various avenues towards those goals. In short: there really is nothing like wearing out your soles pounding the pavement!
However, there came a time for me when I wanted a different type of friction; namely, ongoing critical engagement within the bounds of a peer group. I can’t offer any blanket advice but would suggest that all aspiring photographers seek both types of exposure as they advance in their careers and lives.
—Michael Itkoff, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ note: This spring, Michael Itkoff is teaching an online course through the ICP titled, “Portfolio Building/Development.” Enrollment is open until January 23, 2017. He also as a personal website and Instagram.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like one of these previous features: an interview with Alexa Becker, Acquisitions Editor at venerable publishing house Kehrer Verlag; advice from Simon Bainbridge, the British Journal of Photography’s Editorial Director; and Notes from Aperture, an interview with Michael Famighetti, Editor of Aperture magazine.