Alan Thomas recently caught up with Esthetic Lens to share some of his insights and activities over the tumultuous past year. He discusses curtailed photography projects, demanding publishing schedules while having to work from home, and a belated reading of a late Henry James novel.
1. How are you holding up?
I’m starved for the company of friends and colleagues, for museums and galleries, for the peopled rounds of daily life in the city. As I write, I’m suspended between two vaccine shots, feeling hopeful, waiting for the great reprieve. I’m fortunate that I lost no one close to me during the past year. On the other hand, the pandemic has badly damaged institutions I care about and depend upon. I’m thinking of bookstores, literary and art festivals, galleries, and especially universities, many of which were already on an austerity footing before the pandemic hit. My working life straddles publishing and the arts, but both these worlds are sustained by colleges and universities. Most of the authors I publish at the University of Chicago Press work in the academy, where the jobs crisis and falling enrollments are an existential threat. I also worry for the university-based art programs, galleries, and libraries that nourish the larger culture.
2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?
In normal times, the challenge for me was always to do right by my day job as a publisher while protecting a portion of my focus for my work as a photographer. I had various strategies for doing this, and those all went out the window with the pandemic. The Press’s office on the University of Chicago campus closed, and I started working at home, which means in a home office that also serves as my studio—not a great arrangement for boundaries. My life as a photographer also feeds on travel, which of course has been curtailed. In January 2020, I was in India for the Jaipur Literary Festival, and I went on to Kolkata to resume a photography project I had begun there in 2011. I managed two days of work before getting clobbered by an illness—a weird foretelling of things to come and, for all I know, an early case of Covid-19. I had planned to return to Kolkata later in the year, and also to West Marin, California, where I’ve been working on another series of photographs. Instead, I’ve been doing sporadic work closer to home, including open-ended landscape projects in the rural midwest and Virginia. I also redesigned and expanded my website, a process that forced me to reckon with my archive, especially the portraiture. Not a lost year, artistically, but an attenuated one.
In contrast, my publishing life has been relentless. I work with the Press’s book acquisitions staff—twenty editors and editorial associates—and together we publish about 250 books a year. We miss collaborating in person, and we miss seeing our authors on campuses and at conferences. But for the most part we’ve adjusted and have been able to keep the good books coming. For example, our art editor, Susan Bielstein, has just published a big anthology of Kurt Schwitters’s writings and is finishing edits on a biography of Hilma af Klint. Our digital studies editor, Joe Calamia, is about to publish a book by the photographer Mary Beth Meehan and media scholar Fred Turner entitled Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America. My own projects include a book of essays by the writer and photographer Teju Cole, called Black Paper, which will publish in the fall. Doing all this on Zoom and from home has been enervating, but we’ve made it work.
3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?
No, I’m looking forward to subtracting the things I’ve added, in particular all the screen time. I want to see other photographers’ prints and to do more printing myself.
4. Of the artists you follow, who is handling this particularly well?
I’ve been inspired by my friend Terry Evans’s new work, some of which she’s pursued in a Chicago park that we both love. I admire the photography that Paul D’Amato is doing around Midway Airport, and the pandemic hasn’t stopped him. I have an ambivalent relationship to social media, but I see heartening examples of perseverance on Instagram, for example, Tim Davis, Rebecca Kiger, Jason Vaughn, and especially Marvin Heiferman in his ongoing tribute to his husband Maurice Berger, the great curator who died of COVID last year. I’m also grateful to the photographers who, at no small personal risk, documented the crises of the past year: I think of Ashley Gilbertson, who covered the storming of the Capitol, and Philip Montgomery, who made powerful photographs inside New York public hospitals last April, both for the New York Times Magazine. Among the authors I work with, the most impressive during this plague have been those with young children at home who have still managed to write, even to finish books.
5. Are there any artists, filmmakers, albums, or genres you’ve been drawn to during the crisis? If so, why?
One of the first cancelled events on my calendar last March was Jeff Tweedy’s annual solo concert at the Vic, here in Chicago. His music has remained a constant during this plague, and I’ve also been happy for the diversion of the Tweedy family’s quarantine videos from home on Instagram.
This past winter, I belatedly read Henry James’s The Ambassadors and was gobsmacked by it. When I was younger, I studied the collaboration between James and the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, and I had read a few of James’s early novels and stories. And over my publishing career, I’ve edited some very good critical writing on James. But I had never read James’s demanding later books. I’m binging on him now. And James in turn has sent me back to some of classics of literary criticism–a genre of discernment, by the way, that’s much underrated.
6. What are you looking forward to?
A family reunion, browsing bookstores, gallery openings, and seeing faces in full.
Alan Thomas is editorial director at the University of Chicago Press and a photographer. His photobook, 55×5, was published by Marquand Editions in 2018. He can be found online at his website, on Instagram, and on Twitter.