Ever on the crest of a positive wave, creators Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt of Against All Odds Productions have recently published two of their most fascinating and socially relevant books yet. With previous book sales of approximately 5,000,000 copies under their belts, the results of these two new projects are a synthesis of everything that has gone before, and more. America at Home and UK at Home follow in the footsteps of the highly successful America 24/7 that spawned 50 individual books on every state in the U.S., from Alabama 24/7 to Wyoming 24/7.
America at Home and UK at Home offer the same classic quality we have come to expect from their projects plus an innovative bonus to consumers that is so far an exclusive concept in book publishing: custom covers. Buyers ordering the book can upload their own photo and write the caption for the inside cover, custom designing and personalizing their own wrap-around cover. Smolan and close friend and partner David Elliot Cohen spent an enormous amount of time and energy creating the custom cover software, first used for America 24/7 in 2003. To date, no other book publisher has offered the same hands-on interactive option, which buyers have utilized with great enthusiasm for the 24/7 and At Home books.
To try it out, I went online and ordered my own copy of America at Home and followed the steps to design the cover. The process is user-friendly and it was fun deciding which photo to use, positioning the image just so, and writing whatever I wanted to say in the caption. It was a revelation to realize I could put anything on the front of the book I wanted to illustrate my concept of home. The image I chose shows me with a fellow festival-goer, sitting on the floor of the Hotel PAMS, e-mailing and blogging last September from Visa Pour L'Image in Perpignan, France. My thinking was, where is an American more at home these days than in another country with a computer in her lap and hooked into cyberspace? Click on the image of the cover I created to see some samples of the custom-designed covers that buyers created for their own books.
America at Home and UK at Home continue a long list of projects starting with A Day in the Life of Australia in 1981. I remember being at a photo congress in Maine in 1990 where Smolan described the beginning of it all. As a photojournalist he was frustrated the pictures didn't show what you saw when you were there, that editors chose what they expected to see. He said he had this idea of sending a hundred photographers out to cover an area all on the same day. He went around to about 35 publishers and said he basically got laughed at. They said the book would never sell. Instead of giving up, he became obsessed. Once it was done, he said it was real easy for everybody to say, "Oh, what a great idea. It's so obvious."
Smolan's original concept provided the same basic structure for all of the A Day in the Life series and the rest of his prolific book projects, sometimes co-directed with David Elliot Cohen and/or with his wife, Jennifer Erwitt. Altogether the books number around 80, including Passage to Vietnam, The Power to Heal, 24 Hours in Cyberspace, One Digital Day, the 50 individual 24/7 books for each state, and now the At Home books.
Hoping to offer an antidote to some of today's gloom and doom and stress over changing times, Smolan and Erwitt conceived both America at Home and UK at Home with the concept that the home is still sanctuary and the most vital place in the lives of people in America and the UK, be it an ever-so-humble makeshift shelter, trailer, apartment or a luxuriously designed, custom-built architectural showpiece. Both books present copious images and a sweeping compendium of facts and statistics about home, dwellings, how people use their homes, what they collect, what they do, and how they live.
The intimate portraits of Americans and Brits at home were captured not only by the lenses of 100 top professional photographers in the U.S. and 50 in the UK, but also by the subjects themselves. Tens of thousands of images were submitted by amateur photographers in the U.S. and the UK, representing the rising class of what is increasingly being called "citizen journalists." With images from both professionals and amateurs, the result is a stunning look at life in America and the UK that Smolan and Erwitt suggest heralds the new democracy that is reflected on the Internet.
IKEA sponsored both books, with additional support coming from Google, Snapfish, Baby Center, and 11 other corporations. The most notable aspect of these lavishly sponsored projects is that nowhere in either book does any product advertisement appear. Rather, in the back of each book there is a simple acknowledgement of sponsorship. The lack of consumer-oriented product promotion reflects the philosophy of the creators, that home is not about the stuff in the home, but the emotions of home; it is about relationships, not products.
Smolan insists, and proudly so, that there were no editorial compromises made in exchange for sponsorship and that corporate sponsors did not see the books before they came out. In an age when there are almost no photo magazines left and much has gone online, he considers—and we agree—these books may be a sort of last bastion of photojournalism the way it was in the old days.
The images and stories they tell are reminiscent of The Family of Man, an exhibition first shown in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art. That exhibition, later published in a book, was curated by Edward Steichen from almost 2 million images in an effort he described as the "culmination of my career." The work was a revelation in photography in that it successfully showed the universality of the human experience in a way not previously articulated. The book contained an introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, editor and poet Carl Sandburg.
In the tradition perhaps inherited from Steichen's The Family of Man by the A Day in the Life books, Smolan and Erwitt gathered a host of world-class editors to sift through the thousands of images for the At Home books. The introductions are written by luminaries of our own day, Matt Groening (U.S.) and Paul McCartney (UK) and each book contains thought-provoking essays by notable journalists, poets, novelists and screenwriters.
Like many lovers of photography, Smolan grew up reading LIFE magazine and appreciating it as a window onto the world that revealed the intricacies and intimacies of human existence. In the days of LIFE, the world was incomprehensibly vast. Now it emerges as a global village where degrees of separation are fewer and fewer. Smolan notes that whereas most people may still experience a tribal tendency to stay within racial, socioeconomic, religious or political boundaries, home life is multilayered and has an incredible variety of meanings even within a single culture. These books give the reader permission to wander around in the homes of others to witness that variety. The creators constantly pursued the project from that perspective, to reveal and intimately detail that variety in both the image and tediously edited caption for each one. "Even if they were homeless," he says, "you knew what they did. It's not a drive-by shooting of a photograph."
The days of coffee table photography books may be drawing nigh as paper gives way to electronic publication. America at Home and UK at Home are most-appreciated reminders of how good it feels to hold a book in your hand, to peruse it at your leisure and physically turn the pages, to experience the still-sensual nature of photographs printed in ink on paper, and to absorb a beautiful portrait of the universal human experience of home that still is alive and well even in these tumultuous times.
Unfortunately, it may be that the feel-good experience is what sells as far as a book of this nature is concerned. Corporate sponsorship tends to avoid the underbelly of existence when it comes to projects. These books show a couple of examples of homeless life, but when I suggested to Smolan that his next project be about the increasing number of persons who have lost their homes to war, natural disaster or financial collapse, and that he could call it Homeless at Home, he said somewhat wistfully, "Nobody would buy it."
America at Home is available at Amazon.com and at the Against All Odds' Web site. UK at Home, released in Great Britain in April, is available on Amazon.co.uk, and will soon be available in the U.S. Next, enjoy a gallery of images from each book and contemplate the meanings of home.
Buy America at Home from Amazon UK
Buy UK at Home from Amazon UK