Manhattan journalist Choire Sicha has called designer Chip Kidd "the 23 envelope of the book world."
He has recently had a rich plate of delectables to offer design devotees, students of design, geeky comic boys and adoring fans, including Yale University Press’ monograph, Chip Kidd, by Veronique Vienne, that reviews the perky designer’s career. Pantheon has published Mythology: the DC Comics Art of Alex Ross edited by Kidd, as well as the soft cover, "newly expanded" edition of Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz. Additionally, literary portraitist Marion Ettlinger’s Author Photo features a Kidd cover and includes a, uh, playful portrait of the designer. He continues to design book covers for Alfred Knopf and is currently working on the sequel to his novel The Cheese Monkeys and lives in New York and Connecticut with his boyfriend, poet JD McClatchy.
This is my second chat with the effervescent Chip Kidd.
Robert Birnbaum: Now about your portrait in Marion Ettlinger’s new book, which by the way, you designed the cover of—
Chip Kidd: Correct.
RB: When I looked at it I said to myself, "Did he try to get Herb [Ritts] or Bruce [Weber] first?"
CK: [both laugh] Of course. Yeah, they just don’t return my calls. Part of what I think is also interesting about Marion’s book is that many of those pictures are outtakes. They were pictures that she would have chosen for the author photo. At least in the old days, when they were actually paying for them, the publisher would get the say over what image actually gets used as the official one on the flap. Nowadays with budgets being what they are—I think I paid for my author photo—the authors foot the bill more than the publishers do.
RB: Wow. Really, that’s true of so-called upper echelon authors?
CK: Probably not. That’s why they are upper echelon. But my particular photo is something we did as a goof. I was trying to look butch. I don’t smoke, and of course I am holding a cigarette. It was actually something we did—ever see those ads, like, have yourself photographed nude for your loved one? It was a supposedly more tasteful version of that.
RB: You could have added a faux tattoo.
CK: No I hate tattoos. I really do. Piercing, tattoos—they are amazing to me. Especially when I go and teach. I’m going to teach a workshop in Atlanta and I just did one in Duluth…
RB: Hey, you are a far-flung kind of guy.
CK: You know, if people ask me to come and I can work it into my schedule, I more often will do it than not. It’s always nice to be asked, and it’s an interesting way to see the country or the world or whatever. But [Duluth] was fun, and the people are really nice. And they are really grateful that you came.
RB: What did you teach in these workshops?
CK: Well, I gave a lecture on design and showed my stuff and looked at students’ work and critiqued a little bit. But you know you get up and it’s like doing stand up in front of the world’s most sympathetic audience. And I am a big ham.
CK: [whispers] Yeah.
RB: Let me not lose sight of the line I was pursuing.
CK: The photo.
RB: Marion Ettlinger. And you. It would seem that Marion Ettlinger’s popularity and her own visibility or celebrity has made having her take the author photo an earmark of success or achievement for up-and-coming authors. In the same way that, perhaps, Chip Kidd designing a cover for an author may also be a status symbol.
CK: It could be seen that way. Publisher’s Weekly reviewed both of our books together. Which I really thought was interesting, but odd. Because they didn’t link the two. They just paralleled as opposed to intersecting us. They didn’t mention that I was photographed by her or designed her book. They just said—
RB: [laughs] Do you think they noticed?
CK: You know what, I don’t think they did notice. They just said that she’s famous in publishing circles for doing what she does. And he is for what he does. And these two books came out and isn’t that wonderful. But the review also said ridiculous things, like he innovated the idea of putting type with a photograph on the front of a book.
CK: As if this was some seismic occurrence that had never happened before. It was kind of insane. The last word on that picture was this was something that we did to impress my boyfriend, who was repulsed by it.
RB: [laughs heartily]
CK: Absolutely repulsed.
RB: She took his picture also.
CK: I was disappointed that we didn’t appear together somehow. I felt that it was odd that—
RB: Who designed the book?
CK: Someone at Simon & Schuster. It also should be said as a piece of trivia that the back [cover] of the book was actually supposed to be the front.
RB: [laughs] Not so trivial!
CK: The red band aside, [Chip is showing me the Ettlinger book] this was the cover. And she loved it. And Simon and Schuster did not.
RB: A photography book with no photograph on the cover?
CK: Scared the shit out of them. So basically they said we want Truman [Capote], we’ll let you do the type a la this [again points to the cover] only bigger and whatever— and at that point we just kind of said okay.
RB: And whose decision was it to use the Capote picture on the cover?
CK: I believe it was her editor, David Rosenthal.
RB: Who is also Simon and Schuster’s president.
RB: So there you go.
CK: There it is. But you know, she was ultimately happy with it and she emailed me and said that people had said to her that they really loved the cover.
CK: [sniffs] Who can say?
RB: So can we go back to my question—
RB: Which is about whether or not an author picture by Ettlinger or a cover by Kidd is a sign of arrival and status?
CK: Pfffft. I would say that to some people it might be. But a big problem—and I don’t know whether she encounters it or feels this way. A part of what I feel is not great is when authors — or authors and their agents, or agents on behalf of their authors — come to me and they want me to design their books because they think it will solve all their problems for them. And now I can safely say, I designed my own book cover for my novel and it was not a runaway success.
RB: [laughs uproariously]
CK: If I can’t do it for myself there is no guarantee I can do it for you, whoever you are.
RB: According to Veronique Vienne there are authors that have it stipulated in their contracts.
CK: Yes, there are.
RB: On the other hand, in the preface, she related that you can choose what you work on. That suggests possibilities for conflict.
CK: It’s a much more organic and democratic process within the office. For example, we are doing a new McSweeney’s humor collection, and I was not originally working on it. And then [pause] without getting into the details of it, it eventually landed in my lap. And I have been working with Dave Eggers on it, and we have arrived at something that everyone likes. So it all depends. I’ll be working on something and it’s not working out and then it’ll go to someone else in the office. We are pretty—what’s the word?
CK: In a way.
RB: The other note of interest in Vienne’s book was that [art director and CK's boss] Carol Devine Carson, for whatever reason, wasn’t able to respond to her inquiries whereas [Knopf president] Sonny [Mehta] was readily available to discuss you [laughs].
CK: Yeah. I think that was more of a misunderstanding than anything else. When Carol read that she came to me and said, "That’s not true and I blah, blah, blah." Veronique did a very good job.
RB: What would be my stage direction describing your tone of voice?
CK: I am working for the UN right now. I’m Kofi Annan. She delved in to the office politics thing, I think, a bit too much. I don’t think that really has much bearing on the work or not.
RB: I don’t know if the issue was raised in her book or in the Believer conversation you had with Milton Glaser, who has the final say on the cover?
CK: There’s a very complicated answer. For example, I just was working on the cover for an upcoming novel by John Gregory Dunne, which is coming out next summer. And I was working with an extremely talented young artist named Charles Wilkins. His one-man firm is named Automatic Art and Design. He’s really good. Dunne is very particular. We arrived at a cover that we, I, liked, the artist liked, Dunne really liked, Sonny Mehta really liked and Pat Johnson, the associate publisher really liked. And there was a marketing meeting and somebody from the sales force said, "I read this book and I really, really love it. I think it’s great. I think this jacket doesn’t make it look big enough."
CK: Which believe me—and to that I would like to say somewhere on the record, a month ago I went home for my Dad’s 75th birthday in Reading, PA. And they just moved to this new development, and it’s quasi-suburbia and quasi-farmland, but the closest marker of civilization is a Barnes and Noble, which is the size of Rhode Island. And they have a Starbucks in it so you can get decent coffee. So I wander there on a Saturday morning at 10 A.M. and what’s in front, what do you see first? You see all the tables for the discounted books from a few seasons ago or a year ago.
RB: The remainders.
CK: You know what? All the remaindered stuff looked really big.
CK: They all looked big. They all had big titles and they had foil stamping and they had lots of bells and whistles and they were on sale for $3.99 apiece. So, I actually like our sales force a lot, but they read and are dedicated to the books doing well. That’s their job and their sincere wish. But, I don’t need to hear—
RB: If anyone knew the formula that would make a best seller then you would have all best sellers?
CK: [whispers] Exactly. Exactly. Anyway, this doesn’t happen a lot, but Sonny asked me to —
RB: Tweak it?
CK: Well, he just said, "I want you to think about it and work with it." I said, "Does this mean I have to start over, or can I use elements of what we have?" He said, "It’s up to you." Basically, I used elements of what we had and everyone likes it and hopefully it will be a go. Which it will and it looks fine. It looks good and looks—it shouts a little more as opposed to the whispering.
RB: One of the asides with Milton Glaser in the September issue of The Believer —
CK: They asked me to do it and I thought, "I have met Glaser a handful of times. Here is this Titan of design who lives and works about a half a mile away from me, who I never see and I never call on him. And I thought, "What a wonderful excuse." And it was great. Interview? It’s not really even an interview. It’s me shutting up and letting him talk. I am a firm believer, not just in interviews — I don’t do many, but when I am with someone at a party — it’s much better to let someone talk. At their foundation, that’s what people want to do. They really just want someone to listen to them. I thought he was great. He went into this whole thing about his incredible teaching assignments for the School of Visual Arts and that got cut out.
RB: You missed the subtlety of my question. Most interviews in The Believer, the interviewer, as in my case, when I have interviewed people for them, is identified as The Blver in the text. In your case, you are Chip Kidd in the text, talking with Milton Glaser. It appears there is an inconsistent policy.
CK: Yes, there is. What parts of that don’t you understand? Who have you interviewed for them?
RB: Margot Livesey. Jamaica Kincaid. Sissela Bok.
CK: See, I have never heard of any of those people.
RB: Oh please, Jamaica Kincaid?
CK: Is that in Queens? No, just kidding. I don’t know.
RB: Who’s heard of Milton Glaser?
CK: That’s a really good question.
RB: You are a young titan in the world of design, Chipster. How big is that world?
CK: It’s not a question of it being big but a question of it being scattered. There are pockets around the country. Certainly every design student knows who Milton Glaser is, and there are how many thousands that graduate every year? The reason that I am named is that they want a younger generation interviewing an older generation of people doing the same thing, I guess.
RB: You said in that conversation something about why you were in publishing—to the effect that it wasn’t for the money. Why do you work in publishing?
CK: Because I am lazy.
RB: Why do all these projects and fly around the country for workshops and teaching?
CK: Appearances can be deceiving. The first job I got where I was going to be paid to design something was being an assistant to the art director at Knopf publishing in 1986. But the pay was nothing. In 1986 to live and work in New York, I got $15,500 a year.
CK: That laughter went on for eight minutes. And I thought, well, you know, like the numbers actually worked. I was living in a semi-legal unheated loft in Williamsburg for $389 a month with ten other people. All that stuff’s cool when you are twenty-one. But they did say from the beginning you can supplement your income by freelancing — it’s okay, it’s not taboo. So one learns how to do that. I have been very, very lucky, especially since the computer has come along. Things that would literally take five days to even put together take ten minutes.
RB: I took to heart Glaser’s remark that he is happy to use a computer now because he didn’t learn on one. How did you learn design?
CK: I was the last generation of designers before that didn’t have computers to learn on. The one teacher that we had that was part of the composite teacher in my novel, The Cheese Monkeys, who has since died. He was a genius. His name was Bill Kinser. And he knew what was coming, big time. The other teacher who is the other half of the composite of the teacher character is very much a by-hand classical poster maker, still to this day. He was running the department and the other guy wasn’t. And so he was very reluctant. But we did get one of the Stone Age Macs when I was senior.
RB: What could you do with it?
CK: Not a hell of a lot. I remember I made really bit–mappy drawings.
RB: Was there even Quark at the time?
CK: I don’t even know what the program was. We didn’t even use a mouse. It would allow you to make extremely heavily digitized bit-mapped drawings, and it would spit them out and we would color them by hand. Whoopdee do! It wasn’t even a class that you could take. But yes, I was of the T-square, blue pencil and Rapidograph school of design.
RB: Do you do any web-related design at all?
CK: I surf it for porn.
RB: Besides that. Do you ever offer your [design] services to those sites?
CK: That would be so smart. It would save me sooo much money. No, I don’t do any design for the web.
CK: Why do I want to labor and labor over something that gets turned of with the flick of a switch? I have seen some incredible websites — truly, profoundly interesting things that are worth your time — but I want stuff. I want to make a thing and I want to hold the thing and I want to put the thing on my shelf and all of that.
RB: Are you perhaps of the last generation that will collect things like Batman memorabilia? What is the age range of people collecting that stuff now?
CK: I was at the San Diego comics convention this past summer, and parents are taking their kids and the kids are into it. Very much so.
RB: What is it about comics that people continue to be interested into their adult lives?
CK: Well, what is it about the Beach Boys that sustains itself into one’s adult life?
RB: Sometimes there is a calcification of interests.
RB: But beyond your interest in Charles Schultz and Alex Ross you continue to shepherd young cartoonists like—
CK: Chris Ware and Dan Clowes. In the book projects I try to bring something to it. Especially with the Peanuts thing. That was a huge leap of faith on the part of his widow and on the part of United Media, which is about as big a conglomerate as you ever want to be involved with and let me do what I did and it was pretty extraordinary. A, I was making it up as I was going along. And B, everybody was following me there. Then, of course, on the Internet, as there is wont to be, a chorus of discontent with—
CK: Laughter for ten minutes.
RB: This might mean that you are becoming more acerbic.
CK: A chorus of discontent of how the grand master’s work was portrayed. There was one chat room thread that pretty much likened my treatment of Peanuts to an act of necrophilia on Schultz.
RB: Are you almost forty?
CK: I don’t know what you are talking about?
RB: [chuckles] I am just trying suggest that you have many productive years ahead.
CK: I just turned thirty-nine.
RB: That’s what you said the last time we talked.
CK: [laughs] Wouldn’t that be sad if that were true. I just turned thirty-nine. I am used to being the boyish one, the youngest among a group of older people.
RB: You haven’t aged a bit.
CK: It’s the moisturizer.
RB Let me turn off the tape and get your beauty tips?
RB: Do you think and plan about the future?
CK: All the time. And then I keep on doing what I am doing. I have been at Knopf for seventeen years and it’s like, am I reaching my sell-by date? But it’s still too good to leave. There is always an interesting project to work on.
RB: That would be hard pass to up. And you are in a place in this ugly corporate world of which the parent company is a full dues-paying member and prime mover and you are still are able to do things that are original and thoughtful and all that stuff. That must be a counter argument to something.
CK: We’re still intact. Which is pretty amazing.
RB: Two years ago you published your first novel. How many years in the making?
CK: Six or seven depending how you look at it. I didn’t work on it non-stop. And I am trying to write the second one.
RB: It’s not about an older woman that—
CK: I wanted to say that I felt like the biggest shithead. I never should have gone on about that [in Chip Kidd, Part I, CK goes on at some length about the next novel he intends to write.] Because I still would like to do it some day. But there it all is. I went somewhere and someone said, "How is the ballroom dance novel?" And that’s my worst nightmare. That’s why I didn’t tell anyone I was working on the first one until it was done.
RB: This is Side II and still we’re still talking to Chip Kidd.
CK: I can’t find my underpants.
CK: What did you do with them? I mean I have yours right here.
RB: Either standup comedy is your newest thing or you are exhibiting some Tourette’s-like symptoms?
CK: Stop tickling me.
RB: We were talking about the next novel.
CK: Yes, the next novel.
RB: Which is something of a sequel to The Cheese Monkeys?
CK: George Lucas has brought this term into—
RB: ‘Something of a sequel’?
CK: No, Episode II. He’s brought that term into the language and so I am trying to —Scribner is going to publish it and I am working with the same editor that I worked with, Sara McGrath, who is great. I have had this plotted out for ten years now. And I know who the characters are. I know what happens. And I have been stuck on page 30 for a year and a half.
RB: Am I in it?
CK: You are, actually, very briefly before the decapitation.
RB: It doesn’t matter, a moment of glory works for me. I am speck of sand in all of this. And beyond the second novel?
CK: I have ideas for other things I really want to do. The problem is that there is always something else to work on. And the phone rings, and I say yes, and my boyfriend Sandy McClatchy is very finger-waggy at me, "You are never going to get the novel written if you take on this assignment or that assignment."
RB: I take it Scribner’s has not given you a deadline?
CK: Well, as a matter of fact I am contracted to deliver it at the end of ’04. I have to get serious about it real soon.
RB: Maybe you should take a sabbatical?
CK: Well, we are going to take a month in Italy next April. But I have to do something seriously before then. We have a couple of trips planned.
RB: When you do sit down, do you write quickly?
CK: No, I stare at the screen. The other thing is that designers— when I am speaking to designers, they always laugh when I say this. Maybe you’ll laugh too because you know what it is —excise this if I said this the last time—but I write in Quark. It’s such a bad habit, but now I’m locked in. Like this trip: I am barely in Boston for 24 hours and I am going to Philly and then back to New York. And I thought, "Should I take my laptop?" Which weighs a ton. And I didn’t. But that means I can’t write, which is pathetic. It’s crazy.
RB: One of the outstanding features of the talk you had with Milton Glaser was about the "I love NY" campaign and subsequently after Sept 11 his —
CK: "I love NY more than ever."
RB: He’s never made any money from that creation and he almost got sued for his second version. Do you do pro bono public service projects?
CK: Do you realize that you are interviewing me about an interview?
CK: I do work for a theater company called The
I do all the covers for the Paris Review. Lord knows that’s pro bono. But you know what, it was truly magical. I was invited to all the parties and I got to know him [George Plimpton] and I had not one but two book parties for my books at his apartment. That was great.
RB: Do you ever see a public service campaign about an issue that you feel strongly about, but that is so bad that you want to take it over?
CK: No, I can’t be bothered. [laughs]
RB: [CK raises his right eyebrow]
CK: Although a couple of the porn sites—I should probably help them out a bit. If I were a better person I would probably apply my skills that way. If friends were—
RB: Would you consider doing the cover of my book a public service?
CK: You see, this is what I was about to say.
CK: Yes, it would actually be community service. Like I was caught drunk driving, and to avoid jail time I would have to design your book cover. Seriously, friends say, "I am publishing a book, I have no money, and can you do the cover?" I always say yes. Fantagraphics, I do stuff for them for free. The cartoonist who did our portraits in The Believer — Tony Millionaire — he’s great. He does a strip called "Maakies" and I have been designing his books for Fantagraphics for years.
RB: I really liked the line sketch of you that was used for your paperback instead of one the photos I took of you.
CK: By Ivan Brunetti? I am going to try to publish him at Pantheon. He’s a Chicago cartoonist. He’s like the love child of Charles Schultz and the Marquis de Sade. He does these one-panel gags where these adorable characters are just saying and doing the most appalling and horrible things to each other. The book is called "Haw!" and it’s brilliant.
RB: Vienne’s introduction to her monograph Chip Kidd emphasizes your love for photography and your unique use of photography in book-jacket design. Of course, when you have a chance to use a photograph of yourself for your own book, you use a line drawing.
CK: Part of that is because it’s being printed on cheap newsprint. It goes back to Schultz — the cartoons work better. And I wanted something different, and Ivan had done that.
RB: No doubt on a napkin?
CK: Yeah. Did I give you that? I had a napkin
printed up with that. That’s so funny that you said that. I have
an official napkin.
RB: So is the Pantheon graphics imprint flourishing?
CK: Yes, I am sort of kept blissfully unaware of the hard numbers. I don’t get sales sheets everyday. But I keep aware. All the comics stuff we do either breaks even or makes money, and in some cases makes a lot of money.
RB: Mythology [new Alex Ross] should be very successful.
CK: Yes, it should. We kept the costs down.
RB: Is there any white space in that book?
CK: I think there are two square inches.
RB: That’s not a design concern. I just want to know where you are going to sign my copy.
CK: There is one place that is not technically white space but you can sign there. It’s very clever. Yeah, that’s the aesthetic that—even with the Peanuts book—and in that book no inch is untouched, or I would say unconsidered.
RB: Is Ross a cartoonist?
CK: This is the subject of intense debate among a very small number of geeky comic book fan boys.
RB: And is there a Chorus of Vitriol on this issue?
CK: Oh yeah, big time. Even more so than the Peanuts thing. The web chat people have lots of time.
CK: There is this question of "Is what Alex does comics?"
RB: He paints.
CK: He paints, but what I really try to show in the book —you are so used to seeing the final product of what he does— is how he gets there. He pencils and inks, and he’s incredibly good at it. There are a series of line drawings of Superman that he did for fun—
RB: I like the little puppets he made when he was a kid that you persuaded him to include in the book.
CK: Yeah, yeah. [In a meek voice] "I don’t want to show those." "C’mon." Anyway, I don’t know why I am doing this for a verbal interview. I’m really silly.
RB: Let the record show that Chip is flipping through the book showing me some black and white line drawings. Fondling them.
CK: Touching them. Making love to them with my eyes. But you know he can do this too. He’s more interested in the other. But this is really hard. This is really hard to do and make it look this good. And these weren’t published anywhere and he saves everything—thank God—as opposed to Schultz, and I came across these and I said we have to show this stuff.
RB: So is Ivan next in the series?
CK: I’d love to do him, but he is not notorious for being prolific.
RB: That’s some sentence.
CK: Yeah. I have been talking to him, literally, for years. And this I can identify with because of the writing — he knows what he wants to do. He knows what it’s about. He knows how it would work— three separate books that would go into a slipcase and it’s all about his childhood. And it sounds great. And maybe someday, hopefully he’ll do it. At Pantheon, we are publishing a cartoonist named Mark Byer.
RB: I remember him from Raw. And I think, actually, Pantheon might have done a little book of his.
CK: We did a book called Agony. It’s kind of an interesting story. He became the Salinger of comics. In 1992 he dropped off the face of the Earth, and I was doing a panel in Philly with Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware and all these guys, and instead of taking live questions we have everybody write the questions out on index cards. Anyway someone wrote, "What ever happened to Mark Byer?" I thought, "There’s a question," and I threw it out to our esteemed panel, all of who should have known something. Nobody knew. So then — power of the press — the entire panel was transcribed for the Comics Journal, which published it two or three months later. Somebody who knows Mark read it and passed it on to him. I get an email, and it’s from Mark. He did a weekly strip on and off for the New York Press and a couple other alternative presses which I knew at the time, because I was really into the NY Press, and I remember I was thinking, “these are really amazing and I should be clipping and saving these.” And then I thought, “at some point somebody will collect them and do a book, and I’ll get it then.” And, of course, now it’s us. It’s three hundred strips. It’s a major collection!
RB: Black and white?
CK: Black and white.
RB: People like Byer and Charlie Burns, who now does stuff for The Believer, started with Raw?
CK: Charles Burns — I’m going to publish him. He has been working on an epic story called Black Hole, which is —it’s about a massage group—no I’m just kidding. He’s has been publishing it serially through Fantagraphics. I probably shouldn’t say it. But Pantheon would like to publish it and he knows that.
RB: Are there other Raw alumni that have gone on to some success?
CK: Well, Gary Panter. He continues
RB: He was Pee Wee Herman’s art director.
CK: Right. He is a big Dante fanatic actually. He did this whole version of Dante.
RB: And Ben Katchor?
CK: We still publish him. We are going to be publishing a new book of his called The Cardboard Valise, and I am not sure when it is coming out. I design all his stuff.
RB: Is he going to put into book form his Cafeterias of the Great Art Museums lecture?
CK: He is hilarious. The truly astonishing thing about him is that one to one you think—
RB: He’s sedate and low key and somewhat deadpan.
CK: You would never imagine that this is human being that can get up in front of other human beings and make noise, let alone human speech and it’s amazing. He’s brilliant. Raw people, I don’t know. I forget. Kaz. I love Kaz, but we are not publishing him. They all seem to be chugging along.
RB: First there is a group of artists that are underground, then they are viewed as ‘underground’ and published in esoteric journals and then the next thing you know you see some like Charles Burns doing a cover of The New York Times Magazine. Is that a shift in aesthetic or a natural evolutionary progression? Or a shift in personnel at various publications?
CK: The shift in personnel. In 1984 when Raw number whatever came out and Charles Burns did the cover, the idea that in 15 years that he would be doing the cover of the New Yorker seemed to be completely unthinkable except for the fact that the art director of Raw # whatever and the art director of the New Yorker fifteen years later are the same person [Francois Mouily]. That’s what happens, you get people who know and understand in these positions of being able to hire and use these people. It’s amazing.
RB: Do you do photography?
CK: I used to and I should because now it’s the whole digital thing, it’s so easy. Again, like I said, I really am lazy.
RB: They are so small.
RB: They are so small.
CK: Oh, I thought you said I was so small. I should have one with me at all times. I did that for a while —a digital video cam. And I when I went to Japan I took a digital camera with me, and I took lots of pictures, and they are still on my disk and I have never downloaded them. I get stymied with certain things.
RB: Yeah, as I suspected, for many of us there is so much visual information, and you who is drawn to so many visual details are overloaded—
RB: Unlike other sensibilities, this is an infinite universe of categories— numbers on doors, car wheels, refrigerators of the ’40s—when would you stop?
CK: I feel irresponsible that I am not doing that [constantly photographing]. But I am not.
RB: Are digital images photography?
CK: Of course. It’s a certain kind of photography. But it’s undeniable that it’s photography.
RB: When I use my digital camera, I take digital images. When I use my film cameras, my end use is a print. When I use my digital camera—
CK: You think of it more as a tool—
RB: —it’s a different visual information. The images are not as precious to me, for some reason.
CK: I work with this incredible photographer Geoffrey Spear on all my visual books. We shoot 4 x 5 film.
RB: Ah, the trusty Linhof view camera.
CK: And that’s why they look the way they do. And he has a digital camera, and we have done projects with digital photography. But [with film] there’s just that little something.
RB: Quality aside, as mega-pixel resolution continues to improve,
CK: There are digital cameras and there are digital cameras. I should also add that those pictures that you took of me were some of the worst I have seen.
RB: [laughs] I am going to improve on that.
CK: I hope so. I sympathize. I am the hardest person to photograph well on the entire planet, because I have horrible features, but boy, you really did a number on me.
RB: I am so sorry. And what a testimonial to your tolerance and magnanimity that you still speak to me.
CK: Yes, I do speak to you.
RB: And have accepted my offer to let you do the cover to my book. [laughs] Which will never be published.
CK: As payment for my sins.
RB: So what haven’t we talked about? We have talked about Ettlinger, Mythology and the Pantheon imprint, your Yale University Press monograph, the Milton Glazer conversation—
CK: I know what I should add, if anyone cares.
CK: That whole book is strange.
RB: The monograph?
CK: I gave them my full cooperation. I sent them copies of everything I have ever done
RB: 1200 covers?
CK: Well, I didn’t send them 1200 covers. The thing about the 1200 covers is that’s everything. That includes the crap, and there is so much crap. There’s a lot.
RB: Maybe there is an opportunity for me to do the expurgated, unauthorized Life and Times of the Chipster?
CK: We’ll talk. But anyway, that was it, as far as input that I was able to have. I wasn’t able to choose what was in or not in. I wasn’t able to design the cover [pregnant pause]. Finally, they had to give me a Xeroxed copy of it to fact check and I wrote back and said you don’t have the cover of Katherine Hepburn’s autobiography Me in it. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. London Fields by Martin Amis. And yet you have x, y and z authors—no one has ever heard of but it’s a cool cover. I think that’s weird. I think the cover is not especially strong. Which is weird. And they wrote back that, "we would have been so disappointed if you liked the whole thing."
CK: Gee. I said, "Don’t worry, you won’t be disappointed." So it was a little strange.
RB: You are so young there will be other monographs.
CK: Not if I die tomorrow. Who can say what will happen? It was just odd. I guess that’s some sort of disclaimer.
RB: Yeah, but who likes their own photograph and who likes their interviews and other people’s representations of them?
RB: Any projects that we haven’t covered except for your overhaul of some porn sites? Movies?
CK: Of the book?
RB: Is there a movie forthcoming of Cheese Monkeys?
CK: There is always talk about it and I am meeting with a director in a couple of weeks. I would love to see it done— only if it’s done right. The first year Dustin Hoffman optioned it because he wanted to play a teacher and was trying to sell it to Disney. And I did the whole "sell your soul thing" and thought, "The odds are they are not going to get this off the ground. " And lo and behold they didn’t. So I heaved a great sign of relief about that. Now, I think that the only way it could be done right is to keep it small and independent—that whole route.
RB: Given you are a visual polymath, any thoughts of doing your own movie?
CK: Any visually oriented person thinks about that at some point. Yeah, I’d love to.
RB: Well, who knows. Thank you, again.
CK: Thank you. And you look [DELETED] than ever, I should say.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing