John Madere: Portrait of the photographer as a letter-writing gallery-goer

[Alyson Kuhn] Photographer John Madere lives in Manhattan. He frequently visits galleries for inspiration. In February 2008, Madere went to see designer Stefan Sagmeister’s exhibition at Deitch Projects. He loved it. In his mind’s eye, he saw Sagmeister sitting with one of his gigantic inflated monkeys. This became the inspiration for his new work, John Madere: Portraits of Design.

How did you approach Stefan Sagmeister about taking his portrait?

I looked up his mailing address and sent him a letter with some examples of my work. I said I’d like to photograph him at his exhibition. I mentioned having seen a couple of his TED Talks on video. Stefan called me back the next day, and we arranged to meet at the Deitch gallery.

On your blog, that photo shoot looks like a lot of fun. What happened next?

Doing Stefan’s portrait got me excited about the possibilities. Paula Scher was an obvious next choice because of her maps fine art series, which I’d seen at Maya Stendhal [Gallery]. So I sent Paula a letter and some examples of my work. I had worked with several art directors at Pentagram over the years, but never with Paula directly.

Once I got started, it became much easier to approach the next designer. After I had shown Paula the results of her shoot, I was able to approach Seymour Chwast through her.

How did you decide where to have the non-gallery shoots?

These designers are all so busy, and we had very little conversation before the actual shoot dates. I usually scouted the locations days in advance, and I also did a bit of research about what was important to each designer. For example, I learned online that Seymour had a new book coming out called Seymour. The launch of the book coincided with the shoot. I thought the photo might be helpful to Seymour in publicizing the book — and then, when I saw the cover, the ideal shot instantly became obvious.

I’ve always taken location-scouting pictures just for purposes of remembering. In retrospect — since deciding to start my blog — I wish I had been a bit more artful. For this project, the scouting photos were only meant to help me plan the concept for each portrait.

This piece was designed by Lynda Decker of Decker Design. I know you’ve worked with her on many client projects. Was the collaborative process on this project different?

Absolutely. Lynda suggested “content” in two ways. First, when I became intent on doing a series of portraits, she recommended additional designers for me to consider. Then, after hearing me — over the course of a year-plus — talk about scouting the locations for each portrait, Lynda suggested that I write notes about my process. I enjoyed writing about the shoots much more than I had expected. I like to tell stories. My assistants and my friends seem to enjoy my e-mails quite a bit. The combined encouragement inspired me to finally start my blog. I’m trying to justify to myself the time it takes — but I’m definitely enjoying it.

Portraits of Design was printed by Sandy Alexander. Did you go on the press check?

I did. I’ve been on a few press checks, but I’d never been to Sandy Alexander. I really enjoyed seeing my work being printed there. I thought they were obsessive in a very good way. Ultimately, they brought out more in my photographs than I ever thought possible.

Alyson Kuhn highly recommends John Madere’s new blog.

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