The Digital Journalist
Nuts & Bolts
February 2004

by Bill Pierce

Anybody who reads this column knows I love photo books. Books last longer than tear sheets and reach more people than exhibits.

I'm lucky that a lot of friends and associates have done books. A great many of the books on my shelves are reminders of some good people. One of them is Jonathan Elderfield. I worked with him at one of the early Eddie Adams Workshops. I thought it would be interesting to people just starting out in professional photography to hear the story of how he went about getting a book published when he was in the same situation. (By the way, it's a good book.)

These are his words.

I attended The Eddie Adams Workshop in 1992 while I was working as a photo researcher at Black Star. It was a good entry-level job in the industry fulfilling picture requests from magazine and book publishers. I got to look at a lot of work by some great photographers: Chris Morris, Anthony Suau, the Turnley brothers, Lynn Johnson, Joe Rodriguez, and many others. I also to got to talk to some of them about shooting which was great most of them were very open about giving advice and ideas. In 1993 I shot a project in B&W on New York Youth at Risk an early attempt to produce a documentary photo essay. It wasnt published in essay form and was very hard and challenging work for me but I learned a lot from it: How to spend a lot of time with the subjects and how to work a situation to make a variety of different looking pictures.

Philadelphia Mummers in parking lot during spring show of shows.

Photo by Jonathon Elderfield / Living Under South Street
In 1994 I left Black Star to work as a photo editor, also in New York City, at GammaLiaison as it was then known. I was there for 3 years during which time I continued to shoot. It was frustrating to be doing lots of editing and only to have vacations and weekends to shoot. But I didnt see any way at that time to pay the bills only by shooting. My attempts to get assignments from magazines didnt prove to be too fruitful. So I mostly shot on spec for the agency and slowly started to make a little money on resale. During this period I did a B&W essay on gay fathers. It resulted in some good pictures and Kathy Ryan at The New York Times magazine came close to publishing it but it didnt happen as if fell too closely on the heels of some other pieces on gays issues that they had done. It was a boost to have the interest from the magazine but tough for it not to happen. Many of the pictures did sell through Gammas overseas network of agents. So it was exciting to have some sales and see that serious work could sell even if it wasnt too lucrative. At the end of this period (1997) I was able to convince Michel Bernard who ran Liaison to allow me to start working part time as an editor (setting my own schedule) and to start shooting for the agency.

Two boys sit on abandoned couches in front of a closed store in a strip mall

Photo by Jonathon Elderfield / Living Under South Street
So in 1997 I embarked on being a news photographer for the agency. I shot news in New York and the region as well as features and in the summer of 1997 I also started shooting celebrity events. And I started to make some money.

I think what is interesting about this point in my career is that shooting is what I had been trying to do for 7 years since college and starting at Black Star in 1990. While I enjoyed much of the work I think I also started to lose interest in it. Doing politics was very interesting I covered New Hampshire last time around with the republicans, mostly McCain and Bush. But I also started doing a lot of celebrity work including movie premieres and parties. And this is where most of my sales came from. But I didnt have time to pursue the long-term documentary work that I was most interested in. Also the hustling and trying to get assignments from magazines like Time and Newsweek was very hard. A few came in but not too many.

A young woman playing around with a friend on the steps of a row house.

Photo by Jonathon Elderfield / Living Under South Street
The good thing about the celebrity work is that it ended up funding my project on South Philly and helped make the book possible. It often takes several months for agency sales to make their way back to the photographer. So sales of photographs I had taken at the end of the 1990s ended up being paid during the time I was shooting and printing the images for the book project.

During 2000 I covered the Republican convention in Philadelphia and I think did a really strong job working now with Gamma Presse as GammaLision had split apart due to Liaison being purchased by Getty. I realized while shooting the convention how hard it was to compete with the wires and newspapers. Obviously I was working a different market - magazines and Europe and working on spec, not on assignment - but seeing the wires and newspapers with so many shooters was disheartening. Also I was shooting film and everyone was now going digital.

I decided to try to get a full time shooting job for a paper in the US. So I sent a bunch of resumes around to papers across the country. Mike Smith at The New York Times called me for an interview not as a shooter but for freelance picture editing. I had seen while I was working at the agencies how hard it was to make the switch from agency editor to magazine or newspaper editor so getting work at a top paper seemed hard to ignore. My wife and I were also planning to start a family and liked the idea of the regular income. So in the fall of 2000 I started work as a picture editor on a freelance basis for The New York Times.

Two people sitting on lawn chairs next to a South Philly park in the afternoon.

Photo by Jonathon Elderfield / Living Under South Street
My work at The NYT coincided with my Philly project. When I knew that I would be going back to the office life after shooting for about 3 years I felt it would be a good time to start a long-term project. I also felt that I wouldnt be working that many hours initially at the Times and could have plenty of time to shoot and it did work out that way.

I chose South Philly for a few reasons. I had some friends who lived in center city Philadelphia and I could stay with them anytime they also had introduced me to South Phillys Italian Market which I found to be a strange weird place that felt like turn of the century pictures I had seen. I am a fan of Italian food and espresso also, so that made it a draw for me too. I got to know the area a bit from when I had been shooting the Republican convention. I liked the small narrow streets where people hang out and really live outside. One of the main reasons was that I was attracted to shooting there was that it wasnt in New York then my home. I knew things at home would distract me and that in Philly (only 2 hours away) I wouldnt be distracted. I felt almost as if I had traveled abroad. I was also fascinated by the Mummers parade Phillys New Years parade that features strangely costumed string bands performing dance numbers as well as other assorted weirdness. Many of these groups were based in South Philly.

Young people hanging out on house steps and doing each other's hair.

Photo by Jonathon Elderfield / Living Under South Street
So I started work in December 2000. At first the shooting was very hard. It was winter very cold and not many people were on the streets. I drove around or walked until I found something interesting to shoot. In some ways it was good that the streets were empty. I was able to explore without feeling too much of an outsider and to figure out the different parts of the neighborhood. I hung out on some street corners with some kids drinking and smoking. My first instinct was to try to get in with some of the people of the neighborhood and to try to gain entry to peoples lives. But that didnt seem to be working too well and I started to concentrate more on street pictures.

I think I was feeling that I wasnt emotionally ready to enter peoples lives in the way you need to make the kind of documentary photo essay that I had previously attempted. While the street pictures were by no means easy they were easier on the emotions than spending so much time getting really involved with small groups. So I cruised the streets and asked people to shoot or just shot from the hip. The work was at times very grueling. Some days Id spend 8 or 10 hours walking around and shoot only a few frames. Id get very frustrated and down on myself feeling very low self esteem. Other days would seem magical in the space of an hour or two, I could have 5 or 10 rolls and many strong images. I think the good pictures resulted more often from my mood than what I actually found out in the world.

Young boy sits on the streets of South Philly during a several hour long domestic dispute. Shot with xpan camera.

Photo by Jonathon Elderfield / Living Under South Street
Shooting from the hip became a very good method for me. It felt easier to avoid confronting people with asking them whether they would agree to be photographed and I felt more and more that I could get a good photo without disturbing the scene. So I often shot with the M6 a 35mm lens at a small aperture using the motor drive and shooting low. I also used the Hasselblad xpan during later parts of the project often in the same way.

As I got to know South Philly I found good corners or blocks that often had good scenes. My one rule was that anything I shot in the neighborhood would be my story of South Philly but I tried not to cover the area in the traditional form of a photo essay. I wanted to achieve a kind of looseness with the images that I felt I often dont have in my shooting. I also took a class at ICP with Ellen Binder when I started the project and she was a good guide during the early parts of the work.

So the shooting took a bit less than 18 months I think about 250 rolls of TriX and TMZ 3200. I had all the processing done at MV lab in NYC and they printed the 8x10 work prints and 11x14 final prints.

I bought Quark XPress and taught myself then made a book dummy. Several friends and colleagues helped me with image selection and order. I secured oral agreements with a poet and also with a writer from The Philadelphia Inquirer who knows South Philly to get text from them if and when I had a contract with a publisher. Then I started shopping it around to publishers such as Aperture, Powerhouse as well as some European ones. I did not have any luck getting interest in the project. After about 6 or 7 months I decided to go the Frankfurt book fair in October 2002 to shop the book to a wider audience.

I did a lot of research on the art/photo publishers who would be there. I made a few appointments and also cruised the booths for interesting publishers. I ended up with two offers to work with me and one seemed to be a good fit.

Kehrer Verlag, based in Heidelberg turned out to be great. About 11 months after Frankfurt (including time for contract negotiations with Kehrer and the authors) I went to Heidelberg to produce the book. They scanned the 11x14 prints and then over 10 days I worked with a designer and image specialist doing the design and printing. I was involved in all aspects of the book production from layout, type style, to going on press. The designer and publisher assisted me with the final image selection

That leaves us in the present. I am about a month into a new job as an assistant picture editor at The Chicago Tribune. I plan to start doing some work on a B&W project in Chicago starting later this year. Jonathan Elderfield February 2004

LIVING UNDER SOUTH STREET by JONATHAN ELDERFIELD has just been published, with 54 duotone illustrations and text by Murray Dubin and W. S. Di Piero is published by Kehrer Heidelberg and is distributed in the US by For more information see my website,

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer