The Publisher at the Forefront of Photographic Literature
By Olga Yatskevich
The Image Text Ithaca (ITI) Press at Ithaca College is a publisher with a unique vision that brings together, in an innovative and experimental form, writing and photography. It was founded in 2015 in Ithaca, New York (as the name suggests), by Nicholas Muellner and Catherine Taylor, both of whom feel that literary and photographic visual worlds run parallel in certain ways but rarely speak to each other well. Muellner and Taylor have different backgrounds, areas of expertise, communities, and insights, yet their roots are shared and their differences turn into strengths. Taylor is at the forefront of experimental literature, the world she has been immersed in for a long time, and the same is true in regard to Muellner’s involvement with photography. As they work on publications, they equally participate in both aspects of the books while respecting each other’s larger field of knowledge. The press is an integral part of a broader Image Text Ithaca initiative at Ithaca College, which includes an MFA program, workshops, and symposia.
Nicholas Muellner has been experimenting with text and images for over a decade now, finding innovative ways to initiate conversation between these two artistic fields. He has authored five of his own photobooks, and each of them offers a thoughtful body of work where visual and textual narratives overlap, creating exciting layers and dialogue. Muellner’s latest book, In Most Tides an Island (SPBH Editions, 2017), is a clever example of photographic literature, bringing together an interlocking set of short stories and images. He also eagerly plays with form, as in the Self Publish, Be Happy Pamphlet series he curated and edited. Each pamphlet, designed by Antonio de Luca and published by Bruno Ceschel, combines a commissioned photographic work with a short original text. For one of them, photographer Jason Fulford and writer Chris Mills separately visited the apartment of a photobook collector. Their photographs and text on the visit, published on a single sheet, provide an example of a simple yet effective platform for a conversation between the two forms. Muellner also organizes performance-like book launches that mix readings with visual slideshows, expanding viewers’ experience of image and text-based work.
Words are Taylor’s territory. She is a writer and editor working in a wide range of nonfiction forms, including journalism, lyrical essays, poetics, and other hybrid-genre writing. At the beginning of her career, Taylor worked as a producer and writer on a number of documentary film projects in New York City. She completed a PhD at Duke University, and her time there had a profound influence on her work; her book Apart (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012) mixes archives, history, family memoirs, and personal reflections in a complex discussion of the political history of South Africa (where she and her family are from). In 2017 she released her third book, You, Me, and the Violence (Ohio State University Press), a memoir and analytical essay on “drones, power, and feelings of powerlessness.”
When Muellner and Taylor were introduced, both were teaching at Ithaca College; they immediately discovered a mutual interest in each other’s work. Initially they planned to work together on a book, but their collaboration ended up going way beyond that: in 2014 they started an experimental workshop, held in a restored barn in Ithaca, as they decided more conversation was needed around the intersection of photography and writing. They brought together an inspiring group of both established and emerging photographers, publishers, writers, editors, and artists. It was a unique opportunity for these groups to engage in a meaningful dialogue, as the two fields rarely intersect, especially in the academic world. It was a collaborative exercise and participants were each asked to come up with an idea for a publication; the workshop thus served as the first step in the foundation of the Image Text Ithaca initiative.
ITI Press was officially launched during the 2015 LA Art Book Fair with the release of a limited-edition poster, an adaptation of the 2014 video poem Zidane produced by poet Claudia Rankine and filmmaker John Lucas. The poster’s concept, which was also conceived during the workshop, set the relationship between text and image to boldly reflect Rankine’s poetic pace in the video.
Now in its fourth year, ITI Press has published ten titles to date, ranging from monographs and posters to pocket-size series of image-text collaborations, collective titles, and a thesis sampler. ITI Press works with Elana Schlenker, whose vision and sensitivity help successfully unite writings and photography in the book format. In 2015, ITI published Dark Archives by Andre Bradley, a book that brings together the personal and the private as Bradley revisits childhood memories through writings, photographs, and the family photo archive. Another title, Tessex? (by Emma Kemp and Daniel Wroe, Bobby Scheidemann, Analicia Sotelo, and Thomas Whittle), was the first collaborative publication that evolved from the 2014 workshop, described as “equal parts manifesto, fiction and travelogue, wrapped in a glossy tabloid package.” Grind (2016) is an art-text collaboration between Muellner and poet John Keene, which takes as its foundation found text and images from the queer online dating scene. Muellner and Taylor mindfully consider the people and projects ITI Press takes on. Their recent publication Wood River Blue Pool (2018) brought together photographer Jo Ann Walters; Laura Wexler, a cultural historian; and Emma Kemp, a young experimental nonfiction writer. Walters’s photographs, taken between the late 1980s and 2016, pay nuanced attention to the overlooked lives of women and children in small, working-class towns; the text by Wexler provides a contemporary take on the historical and social context of the photographs. For this project Kemp was sent on a writing assignment to Alton, Illinois, Walters’s hometown. She was given complete freedom, and her text, which integrates art criticism with a murder mystery, couldn’t be more exciting. It has been published in a companion volume Blue Pool Cecilia; the two books complement each other while functioning as individual publications, a type of collaboration that brings together diverse voices and invites multiple audiences into conversation.
Another ITI book released in 2018 is My Birth by Carmen Winant, copublished with Self Publish, Be Happy. Winant’s work was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s Being: New Photography 2018 exhibit, as an archive of images installed on two facing walls with strips of ripped blue painter’s tape. While the floor-to-ceiling installation created a visually striking experience, the book treats the material quite differently, deliberately intertwining images and texts in a format that allows for a more intimate and engaged experience. Taylor, who herself has published a book on a related subject, Giving Birth: A Journey into the World of Mothers and Midwives (2002), was excited to work closely with Winant on the text. Winant’s spare but impactful writing sets a powerful and engaging tone for the photobook narrative: it opens with a number of direct questions, instantly grabbing our attention and then pushing us into the visual sequence. The text is also used to break up the intense visual narrative, bringing in a pause and a continuation of the verbal conversation about the experience of giving birth.
From the very beginning, collaboration has been vital to the ITI philosophy, which was essentially born out of a collaborative experience. Taylor and Muellner always envisioned their publishing enterprise being closely connected to the Image Text Ithaca MFA Program, which was established in 2016 as an exploratory and innovative program focusing on the cross-disciplinary and experimental integration of creative writing and photography. While the program takes advantage of the academic environment, it is not constrained by academic models, creating a unique learning space. Every year Taylor and Muellner invite additional faculty members, artists whose practice complements the ITI vision, among them Lucas Blalock, Bruno Ceschel, Justine Kurland, Tisa Bryant, Melissa Catanese, and Ed Panar. While students don’t necessarily have to work in both fields all the time, they learn how to operate with and share a common language. The MFA program works closely with ITI Press, allowing students to get involved in and learn certain stages of the publishing process. The first class graduated in the summer of 2018, and as a part of their graduation project, students jointly released a publication including eight booklets, housed inside a fabric-wrapped case, showcasing the work of each student.
ITI Press sees its mission as opening up the audience across visual and literary spaces, creating new vibrations and expressive possibilities across reading and seeing. As they work on publications, Muellner and Taylor keep asking: “How do you ensure language is not an afterthought to image, and image is not an afterthought to language? How do you make them interdependent and stronger than the sum of their parts?” This is the challenge. Considering that three of their monographs were shortlisted for the Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards (by Andre Bradley, Jo Ann Walters and Emma Kemp, and Carmen Winant), and that Bradley’s book was also shortlisted for the 2016 Photo-Text Book Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles, ITI appears to be meeting that challenge, by bringing publications to the photobook community that are urgent and new.
Ultimately, Image Text Ithaca Press wants people to look at what they publish and feel like “I haven’t seen this before,” “I haven’t felt this before.” On their to-do list is to publish a novel with no pictures, and a book of images with no text at all; Muellner says that they want to prove that thinking about language and images together can also mean that sometimes you may decide that one of them is unnecessary. With its continuous push to find innovative approaches to integrating words and photos in thoughtful and bold ways, and to collaborate with both established and emerging artists, ITI Press is one of the publishers that not only sets a particular and focused agenda for the bookmaking scene, but also uses its resources to create an engaged community around its practice.
Olga Yatskevich is a cofounder of 10×10 Photobooks, a multiplatform project that highlights photobooks and engages the photobook community. She coedited the most recent 10×10 publication, How We See: Photobooks by Women (2018).