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TIME Photo Department

Yolanda Cuomo is the curatorial voice behind some of the 20th century’s greatest photographic books. This year, alongside Melissa Harris, Cuomo is co-curating the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Va., June 13 – 15, 2013.

One word comes up again and again, like a shared mantra, when talking with Yolanda Cuomo, or when discussing Cuomo with people who know her: collaboration. Hardly surprising, perhaps, in light of the talent that, at one time or another, the 55-year-old art director and designer has worked with — including creative icons from Avedon and Sylvia Plachy to Twyla Tharp and Laurie Anderson. But one quickly gets the sense that, in Cuomo’s world, collaboration is not simply one way to approach a project; it’s the only way to approach a project.

As her longtime friend (“creative soulmate” might be a more apt description), Aperture Foundation editor-in-chief Melissa Harris, puts it: “Yolanda is simply one of the greatest people I know. She is so full of ideas, and our collaborations [on books, magazines, exhibitions] have been so fantastic because we always approach each project from an utterly fresh perspective. And we laugh,” she adds, making it clear that humor is an integral element of their long-time, enormously fruitful partnership. “We laugh a lot.”

The driving force behind the celebrated Yolanda Cuomo Studio, Yo (as all her friends and colleagues call her) has helped envision and produce some of the most striking and influential art and photography books of the past two decades, including Diane Arbus’ Revelations, Gilles Peress’ Farewell to Bosnia, Pre-Pop Warhol and scores of other titles.
(Incredibly, it was only within the last year, with New York at Night, that Cuomo got what she calls her “first spine.” She’d done 85 books through the years, she told LightBox, “but Norma Stevens and I published New York at Night in 2012 and, holy shit, there was my name on the spine!”).

A graduate of Cooper Union, Cuomo got her start in the publishing world as a junior designer at Condé Nast in the early 1980s. Under the mentorship of the legendary art director Marvin Israel, she not only was introduced to many of the people who would become part of her vast and cherished professional extended family — Plachy, Avedon, Peress, Nan Goldin and others — but also got her very first lessons, from a master, in the power of collaboration.

Yolanda Cuomo at her desk in her Chelsea studio, New York NY, February 4, 2012.

Pete Pin

Yolanda Cuomo at her desk in her new Chelsea studio in February.

“Marvin was so brilliant,” Cuomo says, “and one of the key things I learned from him — by his example, not by his making a big deal out of it — was that bringing other peoples’ voices and sensibilities to a project can make it so much stronger and more wonderful than if only one person holds sway over everything.”

The reason Cuomo got the job at Condé Nast in the first place, meanwhile, is emblematic of another type of creativity altogether.

“I lied,” she says, her mischievous laugh all these years later suggesting that she still can’t believe it herself. “When I was interviewed [for the Condé job] I told them that of course I knew how to do mechanicals. Then I went right out and immediately called a friend and was like, ‘What’s a mechanical?’”

Regardless of how she got her foot in the door, Cuomo learned the ins and outs of the art and publishing worlds from the very best. A quick study, she was eventually asked to oversee a new project by the Village Voice, and in 1985 Yolanda Cuomo was named art director of the Voice’s short-lived, tremendously creative fashion magazine, Vue. There, she and her small staff were afforded the sort of creative freedom that, for anyone working in magazines today, must seem something from another, near-mythical age.

Courtesy of the Village Voice/Yolanda Cuomo Design

Courtesy of the Village Voice/Yolanda Cuomo Design

Cover and spreads from the September 1986 issue of Vue. Photographs by Amy Arbus.

“It was total carte blanche,” Cuomo recalls. “We had to fill 32 pages that came out once a month. We sat in a room and just said to each other, ‘Okay, let’s call up people we love.’”

The names of those people they loved comprise something of a Who’s Who of talent of the era — each one of whom brought a unique sensibility to the pages of Vue. For one shoot, Sylvia Plachy photographed models posing in the trees of a New York cemetery. For another, Nan Goldin commissioned a pregnant bodybuilder friend to model lingerie in the East Village’s Russian baths. Phrases like “creative foment” seem to have been coined to describe exactly the sort of atmosphere that existed when Yolanda Cuomo was learning her chops.

The Voice shut down Vue after just a half-dozen issues, but its young staff, thrilled by what they’d accomplished together, was not ready to quit working as a team. With her assistant and two others, Cuomo found a small office space in Manhattan, and her design studio was born.

The studio’s first photo book was Unguided Tour, a collection of work by Sylvia Plachy.

“When we work together,” Plachy says of her collaborations with Cuomo, “we both have an intuitive sense about editing and designing. Yo is open to new things; she responds to things in the moment. She doesn’t force her point of view. Instead, it’s a free-flowing enjoyment of the evolution of the ideas, and moving toward something new and exciting.”

For Cuomo, inspiration can come from anywhere, from any time and from anyone. An old French book about the Eiffel Tower, for instance, discovered in a bookstore in Paris decades earlier, might influence the design of a photography book today. Closer to home, while making Paolo Pellegrin’s 2012 artist book — designed in a single, breakneck week — Cuomo found a visual muse in her assistant designer’s workspace.

“Bonnie [Briant] had a little color copy of a dog photo that she loved taped to her notebook on her desk, and I saw it and thought, ‘That is so beautiful.’”

A scan of the notebook — Scotch tape and scratches included — became the cover of the Pellegrin book. “That’s the way I like to work,” Cuomo says. “Spontaneously inventing.”

The fact that Cuomo has a full life outside of her work — a life that helps inform everything she does — speaks volumes about her ability to find balance in both the spontaneous and the thoroughly predictable. Living in Weehawken, New Jersey, Cuomo rides her bike every day from her home to the ferry, which she takes across the Hudson River to the West Side of Manhattan and her studio. At day’s end, she heads back across the river, to her “big old Victorian house,” her garden, her family — in other words, to a world that adds meaning and color to her vocation as an art director, designer and teacher.

In the end, that might be the greatest collaboration of them all: the way Yolanda Cuomo weaves family and work, leisure and labor, vision and vocation into a fully realized world of her own making.

Alissa Ambrose & Ben Cosgrove

See more of Cuomo’s work at Yolanda Cuomo Design.

Alissa Ambrose is a freelance writer and photo editor based in New York. Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.

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TIME Photo Department

TIME LightBox presents a new monthly round-up of the best books, exhibitions and ways to experience photography beyond the web—from the Reportage Photography Festival in Sydney and a new Mitch Epstein book to Martin Parr’s ‘Life’s a Beach’ at Aperture in New York and an André Kertész show in London.

‘The Guide’ on LightBox will be published monthly. If you have submissions or suggestions for upcoming round-ups of the best books and exhibitions, feel free to pass them along via email before May 10. We’ll also be updating this gallery throughout the month.

See the previous Guide for April 2013.

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Liv Siddall

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Are you a young, gangly man who smells of smoke and carries a guitar around stained duvet and fag-end strewn flats? Do you find yourself in dingy basements covered in your own, and other peoples’ sweat most weekday evenings? If so, there’s a high possibility that you have been snapped by the legendary Hedi Slimane and added into his colossal online diary.

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Einstein brain

Researchers at Florida State University have gotten a close look at unpublished photos of Albert Einstein's brain that collectively reveal the brilliant physicist's entire cerebral cortex. 14 images in all were analyzed, with most taken from "unconventional angles" according to a study published today. They reveal some striking physical differences between Einstein's cranium and that of your average person.

First and foremost, Einstein's prefrontal cortex is described as "extraordinary," with experts surmising this may have contributed to his astute cognitive abilities. The photos also dispel earlier beliefs that Einstein's brain was spherical in shape; it was not. All in all, the research suggests such anomalies may have "provided...

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Benoit Mandelbrot was one of the most influential minds of the 20th century. His career spanned many disciplines, but he's perhaps best known for his groundbreaking geometry work in defining fractals, a class of shapes that "mimic the irregularities found in nature." In The Fractalist, Mandelbrot's memoir, the late scientist reveals his journey, from fleeing Poland as a young boy in 1936 to working for IBM and meeting with Noam Chomsky. Through the course of his career, Mandelbrot influnced a number of disciplines, and the impact of his work is likely to continue to be felt for many years to come.

According to The New York Times, "to read The Fractalist is to examine a brain that can seem to reside in a jar," as few references to the...

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Can you really find out what you need to know about a job candidate in an hour-long interview? Probably not. No amount of interviewing, reference checking, and psychological testing is a substitute for actually working with a candidate on a real project. Next time you’re hiring, consider giving your top candidates a constrained project to [...]

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The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble & Levon Eskenian | “Chant from a Holy Book, Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, ECM RecordsMore information about this release at NPR and here is a review of it by my good friend and colleague, Lee van Laer.

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“Every Jew has two requests of God: a place in paradise in the next world, and a place on the Tel Aviv beach in this world,” wrote Sholem Asch, the Polish-born novelist, in 1937. Stretching five kilometers from its southern tip at the old port city of Jaffa to the new cluster of high rise hotels and condos at its northern end, Tel Aviv’s beach (or Tayelet as it’s called in Hebrew) probably looked a little different in Asch’s day. But I think of him as part of a long legacy of both travelers and natives who have sought refuge in those sands from Israel’s political dramas, which can gush like a Texas oil well. At the beach, I discovered Israel in all its vitality, without the conflict.

I have been photographing in Israel for almost ten years. The beach is where I go to escape. I walk the full expanse of the shoreline, stopping every few feet to capture a moment. Others are there to escape, too: an eclectic mix of people—old, young, skinny, zaftig and maimed—interact there unlike anywhere else. Arab and Orthodox Jewish women, covered nearly head-to-toe, splash ecstatically in the waves. Suntanned Israeli men parade like peacocks in tiny speedos and large jewelry. Bespectacled, pre-pubescent Americans on teen tours, relatively new Russian emigrants, even newer Ethiopians, and the newest residents—exhausted Philippino or Chinese foreign workers. Everyone is there, and for the same same purpose: to take a break.

This is a nation filled with serious conversations and serious consequences, bad omens from the past and dire warnings of the future. But not on this sliver of sand. Only Tel Aviv’s beach has that unique ability to free Israelis from the yoke of daily turmoil, letting them frolic, flaunt and laugh—a joyful, if temporary, exhalation under a pure, blue sky. The beach, I’ve come to realize, is where the country comes to breathe.

Gillian Laub’s book Testimony, which features portraits of Israelis and Palestinians, was published in 2007. She is currently at work on a book and documentary about the American South.

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