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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 1939 edition of Robert Frost’s Collected Poems contained an introductory essay that wasn’t in the first edition. In that article, entitled “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost wrote, “Like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere.”

Though he didn’t know it at the time, acclaimed photographer Joel Meyerowitz began hurling his own experiences ahead of him in 1962. While working as an art director at an advertising agency, Meyerowitz met photographer Robert Frank who was shooting a clothing brochure. Meyerowitz watched Frank move while he photographed, and he had an incredible epiphany. On the way back to the office, Meyerowitz walked the streets of New York for more than an hour. “I felt like I was reading the text of the street in a way that I never had before,” he says.

When he returned to the office, Meyerowitz told his boss, Harry Gordon, that he was quitting. He wanted to be a photographer. Gordon then asked him a crucial question: did he have a camera? The answer was no, so Gordon lent him a 35mm camera and Meyerowitz embarked on the great journey of his life.

Over the next 50 years Meyerowitz exhibited at the MoMA, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, published books and taught photography at Cooper Union. But there was always one place where you had a chance to run into him and become immortalized in his gargantuan body of work. Meyerowitz is, first and foremost, a street photographer. Though he has shot street scenes in France, Germany, Atlanta, Ohio and dozens of places in between, the chaotic streets of New York City make up his favorite studio. “Fifth Avenue is my boulevard,” he says. “No street in the world, and I’ve traveled a lot, has for me the kind of sexy, improvisatory collisions between elegance and lowness. You can see bike messengers and models, billionaires and hustlers, and it’s all out there every day.”

That first day with Robert Frank served as more than just a catalytic inspiration; it laid the foundation for how Meyerowitz would record street life. He bobs and weaves through the throngs of people, searching for that serendipitous moment that becomes a great photograph. “The way someone makes a gesture on the street or the way couples react to each other or the simultaneity of two things happening at the same time and the relationship between them,” are some of the elements he looks for. “It was the wonder of human nature and this incredible capacity for things to keep showing themselves to me,” he says.

 Taking My Time (Phaidon Press, November 2012)

Phaidon Press

Joel Meyerowitz: Taking My Time (Phaidon Press. Limited Edition including signed print, November 2012)

When he is shooting on the street, there isn’t much time to contemplate each moment. “Photography takes place in a fraction of a second,” Meyerowitz says. “There isn’t a lot of time to think about things. You have to hone your instinct. You learn to hone that skill and timing so you’re in the right place at the right time.” Although he has made images that have moved audiences for decades, that has never been his true motivation. “I’m not out there to make another ‘great picture,’” he says. “I’m really out there to feel what it feels like to be alive and conscious in that moment. In a sense, the record of my photographs is a record of moments of consciousness and awareness that have come to me in my life.”

This year, the 50th anniversary of when he first took up the camera, Meyerowitz compiled hundreds of his favorite images for the two-volume collection, Joel Meyerowitz: Taking My Time (Phaidon Press). The project isn’t just a greatest hits collection. “It’s easy to make a book of your very best things and not necessarily have a narrative arc,” he says. “I wanted to stick strictly to the chronology as precisely as I could and show my own development.” The result is a visual biography of an artist who for half a century has snapped moments–fractions of seconds–and preserved them forever. Each tells a unique story that Meyerowitz has used to pave his life. Through the images of people and places and tiny moments in time, one can see a remarkable line of purpose he has created, one that runs fluidly across the experience of his life.

Joel Meyerowitz is a New York City-based photographer. Beginning Nov. 2, his work will be displayed in a two-part solo show at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York.

LightBox previously featured Meyerowitz’s photographs of the destruction and reconstruction at Ground Zero.

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In this week’s photos from around New York, people and pets enjoy the warm weather, a building collapses in Harlem, Cooper Union students drop eggs, and more.


A building in Harlem collapsed during demolition on Thursday morning, killing one worker. (Rob Bennett for The Wall Street Journal)


A rally was held in Union Square on Wednesday in honor of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen whose shooting death has stirred outrage among civil-right activists and some politicians. (Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal)


Police examined a van believed to have been involved in an incident in which three people were shot at the corner of 129th Street and St. Nicholas Terrace in Manhattan Monday. (Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal)


Beachgoers walked along Brighton Beach under heavy fog on Thursday. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)


David Katz, 18, a freshman at Cooper Union, watched as Daniel Bach, also a freshman and his teammate, launched their entry in the school’s annual ‘egg drop’ competition Tuesday afternoon on East Seventh Street. Messrs. Katz and Bach won. (Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal)


A runner took off her top layers Sunday before the New York Road Runner’s Half Marathon, which started in Central Park and ended at the South Street Seaport. The winner for the women’s division was Firehiwot Dado of Ethiopia, and Kenya’s Peter Kirui won the men’s race. (Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal)


Scientist Jason Head stood Thursday at Grand Central Terminal with a model of the Titanoboa, a giant prehistoric snake, believed, at 48 feet long, to be the largest that ever existed. The model was constructed from Styrofoam, fiberglass, textured epoxy and paint. (Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal)


In Washington Square Park Wednesday, New York University student Melissa Cronin, center, 21, assembled one of 45 new bicycles that the university is adding to its bike-share program. (Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal)


Over the past 13 months, Paul Archer, Leigh Purnell and Johno Ellison have traveled more than 32,000 miles around the globe in a 1992 LTI 2.7 liter diesel FX4TK, better known as a London Black Cab. Earlier this week, they were in Times Square. (Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal)


Chris Jansing, the anchor of ‘Jansing & Co.,’ at the NBC studios in Midtown Manhattan on March 16. (Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal)


Edwin Bellanco, chef at Vitae, 4 E. 46th St. in Manhattan, prepares a country salad at the restaurant. (Byron Smith for The Wall Street Journal)


Helene Alonso, director of exhibition interactives and media at the American Museum of Natural History, played with part of the ‘Creatures of Light’ bioluminescence exhibit. The exhibit opens March 31. (Daniella Zalcman for The Wall Street Journal)


New Yorkers—including Taylor Stanley and his Shiba Inu, Theodore—enjoyed the city’s warm weather in Central Park Tuesday. (Daniella Zalcman for The Wall Street Journal)

Abel Ferrara, director of '4
Abel Ferrara, director of ’4:44 Last Day on Earth.’ The film arrives in theaters Friday. (Ramin Talaie for The Wall Street Journal)


Slices of kale, quinoa and herb quiche at Smile to Go, 22 Howard St. in Manhattan. (Byron Smith for The Wall Street Journal)


At the tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere, the Frank Gehry tower at 8 Spruce St., left, the developers are gambling that wealthy New Yorkers will pay dearly for a trophy apartment with sweeping views—even if it is only a rental. (Daniella Zalcman for The Wall Street Journal)


John Mark Rozendaal performed on the Wall Street 4/5 subway platform as part of Bach in the Subways Day on Wednesday. (Daniella Zalcman for The Wall Street Journal)


A bird perched against a blue-sky background in Central Park Tuesday; New York saw unseasonably warm weather this week. (Daniella Zalcman for The Wall Street Journal)

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