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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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The 15th-century Wladislaw Hall in Prague, with its large double windows, is one of the earliest appearances of Renaissance forms in German lands. Yet what is most spectacular about the great hall (above) is what was then most passé: the rib-vaulting done in late Gothic style.

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Friedrich Seidenstücker (1882-1966) didn’t sell his first photograph until he was 46. Trained as a sculptor, he never lost his eye for mass and form. His photographs of Berlin daily life during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s freeze passersby in poses either accidentally graceful or, more frequently, droll and ungainly. In ‘Shine’ (1925), four women clamber out of a swimming pool; the title refers to the wet gleam of the fabric on their behinds. Elsewhere in ‘Friedrich Seidenstücker: Of Hippos and Other Humans, Photographs 1925-1958′ (Hatje Cantz, 327 pages, $60), a man hinges awkwardly at the waist, leaning over a railing to get a better look into a cage at the zoo. Seidenstücker relished confounding man and beast, as in the image of a curious rhino peering at a seemingly captive zookeeper (above). On a trip to Copenhagen, he snapped a man whose splay-footed waddle evokes nothing so much as a penguin—indeed, he is dragging a box of fish down the sidewalk. But the irony on display in the book’s more than 200 images can seem a bit like moral disengagement when one recalls that the era saw the Nazis’ rise, World War II and the dismembering of Berlin itself. ‘This entire period did not agree with me’ was Seidenstücker’s understated explanation—though during the war he sustained a Jewish friend with gifts of food. Even his shots of postwar rubble work hard to avoid the abyss. Kids and picnickers make the best of the ruins, napping amid the broken bricks or heaping them into playful piles.

—The Books Editors

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The coal miners are gone now from Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, deep in the Arctic. But early in the 20th century, the British, Russians, Swedish and Dutch all established outposts along its salmon-filled fiords. Pyramiden—named for the massive peak looming above it—was one such Soviet-era settlement. Though it is now a ghost town, with predatory gulls sweeping its ice-blue skies, evidence of its former purpose is everywhere in ‘Trespassing’ (Moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 117 pages, $40), a study of desolate landscapes that bear the marks of human industry. German photographer Nathalie Grenzhaeuser carefully frames the ground and sky and mechanical constructions, fragmenting space. Orderly rows of metal coils jut from an empty reservoir in front of serrated hills; a wooden armature of uncertain purpose is bleached as pale as the snow that nearly obscures it. Mining operations in the harsh terrain of the Arctic and in the arid west of Australia may once have looked like foreign presences but now have the patina of the indigenous—as well as an aspect of mystery. In one image, a seemingly endless shed of corrugated metal follows a steep slope like a ski jump. Another photo (above) shows the structure’s interior, revealing the rails that carried men in and coal out of the mine itself. We are looking down at almost a 45-degree angle, though it is hard to tell without a figure in the frame. All these scenes are similarly made unsettling by the absence of the humans whose efforts shaped them.

- The Books Editors

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(Taschen)

Ever since 1957, when Vance Packard published ‘The Hidden Persuaders,’ we’ve had the idea that advertisements are a porthole to our cultural subconscious. The massive two-volume compendium ‘Mid-Century Ads: Advertising From the “Mad Men” Era’ (Taschen, 720 pages, $59.99) would certainly have us think so. It tells a more complex tale than the AMC drama invoked in its title, whose nostalgia for lost glamour is typically mixed with a heavy dose of condescension.

The advertisements of the 1950s and 1960s certainly didn’t shy away from casual sexism; the same blonde ‘girl’ sells everything from men’s shirts to Heinz ketchup, and she has nothing on how stewardesses are displayed. (American Airlines in 1967 saw fit to show a comely young woman in her hostess uniform staring directly into the camera with the tagline ‘Think of her as your mother.’) It’s easy to be smug about such ads—and about the brightly optimistic hues that heralded such wonders as tail-finned cars, color television and touch-tone phones.

But as the years flip by, the impression of a new energy in the culture is undeniable, most of all in verbal and visual wit. Most of the ads appear at nearly their original size, allowing readers to scrutinize the (often copious) text and appreciate a level of graphic design and typography that far exceeds anything served up on our tiny screens today. An ad like Braniff airlines’ dynamic presentation of its stewardesses’ outfits is simultaneously astonishing, offensive and an unintentionally apposite emblem of the late-1960s loosening of mores. We should think twice before condescending: When scholars gather today’s ads—for diet pills, direct gold sales, Viagra and worse—what will they imagine our own collective subconscious looked like?

—The Books Editors

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Everybody dreams of soaring like an eagle, but few consider that they probably wouldn’t be alone in the sky. The 200 photographs in John Downer’s ‘EarthFlight’ (Firefly, 239 pages, $49.95) offer the exultant wing-to-wing camaraderie enjoyed otherwise only by fighter pilots and birds themselves, juxtaposing graceful avians aloft and stunning landscapes beneath. Six continents and all four seasons are represented: A squadron of barnacle geese cross wintry fields on the south coast of Sweden, the pale shading of their feathers mirroring the snow cover below; a common crane (above) surveys the bright stripes of a Dutch tulip farm in the spring; Andean condors arrive at the Peruvian coast in summer; sleek demoiselle cranes transit the rumpled Himalayas in fall. To infiltrate the flocks, Mr. Downer and his team used an ingenious array of tools that included hang gliders, ultralight aircraft and the ‘vulturecam,’ a miniature remote-controlled plane disguised as a bird. Even more unusual were the tiny cameras they mounted on the backs of trained birds, such as a bald eagle that banked and wheeled above the Grand Canyon. The sight of birds’ placid profiles superimposed upon postcard-ready scenes of famous landmarks such as the Canyon adds a note of deadpan comedy: A brown pelican swoops under the Golden Gate Bridge, while rainbow lorikeets alight in front of the Sydney Opera House. A flock, or ‘chatter,’ of lime-green budgerigars flutter near Ayers Rock in the Outback, and common cranes mingle with hot-air balloons over Loire Valley chateaus. Hovering over the roofs of Rome, a cloud of starlings forms a dark calligraphic blob like something from a painting by Miró—a startling reminder that birds are always there, whether we notice them from the ground or not.

- The Books Editors

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Before he was executive director of the Herb Ritts Foundation, Mark McKenna was renowned photographer Herb Ritts’s camera assistant. In a recent interview Mr. McKenna tells about the making of the iconic image of the model Christy Turlington seen from the back, in a keyhole of white surrounded by the dramatic shadow of black fabric pulling upwards. He recalls that Ritts was “an incredible director of people…not just telling them what to do, but getting them to step in and be a part of the process.”

On this day, there was a sense of “play” in the air, despite the important client, Versace. Out in the Mojave desert, in full sun on the dry lake bed, El Mirage, with a small but able team, Ritts was in his element. As the model Christy Turlington held the fabric in front of her, the crew tied the outer corners to weighted stands on either side. All at once, the desert wind blew up the cone of fabric like an inside-out balloon, and Ritts had his moment. Minutes afterward, a storm rolled in and the crew rushed to clear out. The exhibition Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, opened April 3rd at The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and is accompanied by a book of the same name from Getty Publications.


Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage, 1990. © Herb Ritts Foundation


Christy Turlington, Versace 3, Milan, 1991. © Herb Ritts Foundation


Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Point Dume, 1987. © Herb Ritts Foundation


Male Nude with Socks I, Los Angeles (Mark Findlay), 1990. © Herb Ritts Foundation


Greg Louganis, Hollywood, 1985. Herb Ritts Foundation

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Designing a building is like picking one suit for all four seasons. Hard enough in moderate climes, it’s especially tricky in the far north, where conditions swing annually between endless daylight and frigid dark. In more than 500 photographs, ‘Nordic Light’ (Thames & Hudson, 256 pages) by Henry Plummer catalogs the range of elegant solutions that contemporary architects in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland have deployed to keep the cold out while letting the light in. The glass curtain walls beloved of other strains of modernism are often impractical due to the expense of heating. Thus the 50 buildings that Mr. Plummer documents—some museums and civic buildings but mostly churches, which for reasons of symbolism encourage a thoughtful, subtle treatment of light—tend to use discrete windows shaped like strips, slashes or portholes. Paradoxically, some of the structures that result, like the austere but soothing shiplike chapel in Turku, Finland, are shut nearly as tight as the whitewashed bunkers of the Greek islands. But where the latter’s dazzlingly reflective exteriors keep excess sun out, uniform interiors like the blond pine of the Turku chapel serve to diffuse and sustain what light does enter. This effect is also on display in a beautiful spread of the Grundtvigs Church in Copenhagen (1940), whose Gothic ribs and vaults are rendered modern by the repetitively modular material from which they’re constructed. The yellow-tan glaze of the church’s five million bricks imparts a honeyed tinge to the light that fills the sanctuary. Elsewhere, in a shot of the Männistö Church in Kuopio, Finland, sunlight reflecting off painted baffles casts swaths of green onto the chapel walls. Such indirect illumination is prominent throughout—attempts, perhaps, to evoke even in winter the filmy glow of summer nights when the sun shines from below the horizon.

-The Books Editors


Horten Headquarters, Copenhagen, Denmark.


Saint Henry’s Chapel, Turku, Finland.


Grundtvigs Church, Copenhagen, Denmark.


Myyrmäki Church, Vantaa, Finland.


Grundtvigs Church, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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