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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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Michael Webster

New York

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The mythology of New York is known to anyone who has watched more than a dozen hours of television or skimmed magazines in a dentist’s office. But like ancient Greece, New York is too big to have a single, central story; its myth is carried by its demigods, or what in show business they call types.

Take a type we’ll call the New York Tough Guy. Now, there are tough guys all over the world; wherever you live you probably know at least one of them, and so the term “tough guy” will call him, specifically, to mind. This guy you know who talked about knocking a guy out as if it were nothing, and looked as if he could do it, is a tough guy, for instance.

But link these terms to New York and the focus shifts. The New York Tough Guy, for example, may be someone you saw perp-walked on the cover of the New York Post. Or he may be some actor who mugged a character on a movie you saw that was set in New York. He may be an antique figure with cross-hatched stubble, a lantern jaw, and a black eye-mask like the Beagle Boys wear in Scrooge McDuck comics. Maybe he’s tough in something other than a physical way. Some people (certainly not you, sophisticated reader) think Donald Trump is tough. Some people (perhaps you, sophisticated reader) think Anthony Bourdain is.

In any case, this image you’ve conjured matches the term New York Tough Guy more than the authentic avatars you actually know because there is Tough and then there is New York Tough, which may or may not be real Tough but which is certainly real New York. You almost have to imagine the Tough Guy standing defiantly against a filthy brick wall at night, harshly illuminated by car headlamps, and probably wearing shades, because all the New York Tough Guys wear shades. (Doesn’t Jay-Z? Didn’t Lou Reed?)

I’m not saying these people aren’t real tough guys, though I do think if somebody came at them with a knife a few of them might not react totally in character. I’m saying the Tough Guy, the Fast Talker, the Big Shot, the Wise-Cracking Waitress, the Hard-Bitten Journalist, et alia, are mythic figures. By that I don’t mean that they’re fake, though they often are, but that their usefulness is not to be found in the real world, but in the dream landscape that explains New York to the world and to itself.

This is why you often see people move to New York and immediately start conforming to stereotype. The pressure, whether overtly felt or only dimly sensed, of being part of something as overwhelming as New York blows the mind of anyone who does not have a perfectly solid-state personality, which is to say most of us. So citizens psychically run for cover under the robes and aegides of the demigods of New York myth.

(Where do you think hipsters  — that is to say, New York Hipsters — come from? New York magazine? Pitchfork media? They come from Patti Smith via Marlon Brando via George Cram Cook via Walt Whitman via Edgar Allan Poe via some ur-Hipster whom Peter Stuyvesant had to keep putting in the stocks for shirking.)

You and I could sit here all night identifying the constellations in the New York galaxy, but I wish to draw your attention to the least acknowledged member of the pantheon, who is nonetheless as important as any other: The Out-of-Towner.

The Out-of-Towner, aka The Greenhorn, aka The Rube, belongs to the mythology, too. His is a special role. Because one thing is true of all of the other New York demigods: They are Wised-Up. So they are all pretty evenly matched, and also extremely motivated to get over on one another. If they had only one another to deal with, things would quickly get ugly and stale — like the Manhattan of Escape from New York, an island of madmen with whom the rest of the world cannot deal.

The Out-of-Towner brings some air and light into the action. For one thing, he can be a victim, and replenish the ecosystem with whatever the wise guys can get out of him. He can be a foil, a straight man to set up their jokes and set off their unique qualities, and an audience to flatter the endless self-regard of the true New Yorker. And on occasion and with sufficient motivation, the Out-of-Towner can stick around and, if he has the moxie, become a citizen himself.

Indeed, every New Yorker who was not born there enters the town in this role, and struggles to divest himself of it. Why, for example, do New Yorkers respond so positively to being asked for directions? Because this offers them the chance to show that they’re not Out-of-Towners. (This is especially important in front of present Out-of-Towners.)

But there’s a catch. Every wise guy in New York is in perpetual danger of reverting to Out-of-Towner status. For one thing, the town is always changing — hot spots, catchphrases, top Filipino lunch places — and it’s a struggle to keep up. But more importantly, unless he has become so jaded that nothing at all matters to him anymore, the wise guy will always retain a touch of Out-of-Towner about him. The things that excited him before still excite him — though he has become of necessity very good at concealing it, lest he over-effuse and give his roots away.

All this is to begin to say what I like so much about Michael Webster’s “New York.” I do admire the formal schtick of shooting it all from the top of one of those horrible tourist double-deckers that strafe the streets (ah, there I go, sounding like a wise guy). But it’s more what the schtick reveals that pleases me. The tour bus passengers — sometimes cheaply plastic-slickered against rainy weather — seem anonymous, ordinary, like the opposite of the thing they’re observing. (And those few observed New Yorkers who notice them seem surprised but unimpressed.) But the New York vistas and tableaux that Webster sees are lovely, specific and suggestive at the same time; you could write novels about the five folks waiting for the Seventh Avenue bus, for instance, or just bask in their ennui. And the wonderful thing is, they are as available to those bus-riding Out-of-Towners as they are to anyone else. Like those two well-dressed Indian folks in the front row: They certainly look like they’re enjoying the scene. Maybe they, too, see in New York what we see. Or maybe — you know, we can hardly admit it, even now — they see more.

– Roy Edroso

 

 

Bio

Michael Webster is a photographer currently living in Brooklyn.

 

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Michael Webster

Roy Edroso

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