While we were both reviewers at the recent Filter Photo Festival in Chicago, I had the opportunity to sit down with photographer David J. Carol and talk about his newly formed Peanut Press Books. Having known Carol as a street photographer who had studied under Lisette Model, we had a chance to talk about this new venture into publishing with Ashly Stohl and their first book, “Charth Vader,” along with a look back at his past travels, his own published work and the night we almost met at the opening of Richard Avedon’s “In The American West” exhibition in 1984 at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
Who is “Charth Vader”?
Charth Vader is the alter ego of Charlie, Ashly Stohl’s third and youngest son. Just like his brother, Charlie is visually impaired. He has a condition called Ocular Albinism….even with glasses, his vision is limited. While this can be a great disadvantage, it makes him “see” the world in a totally unique way.
When he was younger, he loved watching Star Wars, and Darth Vader was his favorite. It seemed so unlike him to take the side of the villain, but no matter how much they tried to change his mind, he preferred the bad guy. He wore his Darth Vader helmet all the time, earning the nickname “Charth Vader.”
How did you first get involved with this project?
Ashly and I were working together on multiple photo projects. I really loved the Charth Vader stuff and suggested to her that if she took maybe another 30 or 40 pictures it might make a great first book. The reasoning being that not only would it make a compelling and personal book, but she also wanted to do something to support the Vision Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. She decided to donate all the profits from book sales (and then some) to the Center. That was mid 2014, she agreed and started focusing most of her time on shooting Charlie with idea of the book in mind. I wanted Ashly’s perspective too, so I’ve included her quotes below.
“I wanted to create a book, my first book, and was totally overthinking what it should be, and how it should represent me as a photographer. David’s idea was that my first book should not be such a grand statement about my work, but instead, this one, specific, tightly edited project. It may just have been semantics, but it took a tremendous amount of pressure off. We could then just focus on what the book should be. We knew it should be small and precious, like Charlie, and all the decisions came from that.
Charlie has a disorder called Ocular Albinism, which affects his retinas. He has some vision, but is considered legally blind. His limited vision affects every aspect of his life, from his motor skills, to his sense of humor. This project is about the frustrations that he encounters every single day, living in a world where he has challenges. At the same time, it’s about the frustrations all kids, and grownups, feel as they go through life.
I’ve been involved in fundraising for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for years, and also several other vision-related organizations. I knew I wanted to use this book to help out other visually impaired kids. It was a great opportunity as a parent, to be able to let Charlie have a direct hand in that. I wanted him to learn that no matter what you challenges are, there are people with greater challenges, and that you always have an opportunity to help them.”
How was Peanut Press formed?
From the start Ashly thought this was too personal a project to hand off to someone else, and I think she knew inside that she wanted to self-publish. When we decided to make the book together neither one of us thought about starting a “new” business. I think it was about the time we got our first set of press proofs that Ashly turned to me and basically said, isn’t this fun? I love doing this! Why can’t we just do this with other photographers too? Knowing that she and I had a very similar philosophy about books and photography I agreed. So here we are with a new imprint named Peanut Press Books. She’s the “Publisher” and I’m the “Editor-in-Chief” but really we are partners and we bring different things to the table in a perfect kind of yin/yang way.
What is your vision for the future?
I’ve been buying photography books for over 35 years. It’s a passion and possibly an obsession but it has produced a pretty decent personal library over the years. I not only want to continue to buy books, but it has always been a dream of mine to actually make them. I was very involved with every aspect in the production of my first three books and have learned quite a bit doing it. Our goal is to make books for one reason and one reason only. We will make books to serve the photographer and the photographs only. The books will be of the highest quality, individually designed and produced to bring the photographers dreams to reality. A book they will be proud of and that represents their vision. We plan to only make three or four books a year. This means we will not be able to make books for most people. We are here for that unique photographer that values the final product as an object and a vehicle to show their work.
How will you do this?
I have some very talented friends in the photo world that we will draw from to help us make the most amazing books possible. For example my printer is arguably the best B&W printer in the world, Chuck Kelton (an amazing photographer too) who has printed for everyone from Danny Lyons, Larry Clark, Helen Levitt to Mary Ellen Mark and Lillian Bassman. We will use Kelton Labs for pre-press printing (black and white book) and to make the silver prints for our limited editions. My friend Joe Chanin (again, a photographer) will do our pre-press and be our production manager on press to help guide and educate our clients. Joe is not only the guy holding a fish on Baffin Island in my picture, but he has over 30 years of experience making the highest quality, money no object, luxury brand catalogs and books (Color and B&W). Our printer of choice, Meridian Press in Rhode Island will be doing our printing. They’ve made the books of a few pretty decent photographers, such as Lee Friedlander, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Robert Adams and Diane Arbus just to name just a few. So our vision is to make the most beautiful books possible. The books I myself would buy if I saw one in a store.
How did you first get involved in Photography?
My friend Frank Russo got a camera for his 21st birthday. It looked interesting and cool and professional, even kinda magical. I wanted one, so I bought one too, a Minolta XG-7 with a 50mm lens. I was 19, I think.
Earliest photograph you took with what camera? of what?
As a kid I played with Polaroids. We would take photos of ourselves riding bicycles and motorcycles.
Give me a sort of history of your photography career to date?
Well, photography has been my only source of income since 1982. What is that, 33 years? My first couple of gigs was shooting bands. I shot the Ramones, Violent Femmes, Jonathan Richmond and some others. I actually spent my teens hanging out at CBGBs so I was very comfortable being around musicians and that scene. I was in SVA (School of Visual Arts) at the time and it was a way of making money. It wasn’t enough to pay tuition though. I dropped out of art school with maybe $300 to my name. I figured if I’m going be broke anyway, why not be broke in Paris like George Orwell. I sold a camera and bought a one-way ticket to France. Upon my return I got a job at The Image Bank, did a bunch of different jobs for them including, a slide numberer, production manager and even shooting some events. In 1985 we worked out a deal and I became their first assignment photographer. Gig of a lifetime… I learned how to be a photographer working for them.
How many books of your photographs have been published?
Well, I have six books under my belt. My first book, “40 Miles of Bad Road… was a great start. I take great pride in that book for many reasons, but especially because Anne Wilkes Tucker wrote the afterward for it.
I remember “40 Miles of Bad Road” was a ten year retrospective of your personal work from 1993–2003. When Anne Wilkes Tucker wrote the afterward, she was then the photography curator for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. That is so cool. What are some other highlights of your career?
Hmmmm…well, that’s interesting. As I said, one of the biggest highlights was Anne writing the essay for my first book. But I think the biggest highlight has been the fact that I’ve gotten to travel the world and meet interesting and talented people specifically because I take pictures. Photography has made my dreams come true…it has given me a life.
With your ability to closely observe the world, what do you look for when you give workshops or a walking tour to shoot?
My goals in everything I do as an educator, portfolio reviewer, workshop giver, photo walk tour guide are always the same. To help photographers understand how to express their ideas, opinions and thoughts in a photograph. There are many ways to get there. I try to lead them to the ones that work best for them. When it works, there’s nothing more satisfying.
You’ve been very generous on social media in giving people a chance to win a book or a print.
The reasons I do these “give aways” is complicated. The short answer is I love giving things away to people that appreciate it. But it’s really more complicated. I don’t really know why, but it probably has a lot to do with being very poor at a certain point in my life. A few key people were generous to me and I still remember how it feels to get “something” for free. It didn’t happen often, but I remember the feeling when it did. It makes me feel good to do that for others.
Several of your photographs have become iconic images fixed in our collective unconscious. For me it is the man in the snow holding a frozen fish. Where was that photograph taken?
Ahhhh yes, “Joe with the Fish”. We were on Bylot Island, north of Baffin Island, in the Canadian Arctic. I had been up to the Arctic a few times on assignment and basically fell in love with the place. Yes its -40 centigrade. Yes its windy and it takes days to get from point A to point B, but it was so unique, otherworldly and authentic I had to keep going back. My friend Joe had seen my photos from previous trips and wanted to go too. He actually offered to pay all my expenses if I would go with him in the middle of winter. That’s crazy since its dark and even colder that time of year. I agreed to go in mid March since there is some light then.
Okay, so this photo. We were traveling to the tip of Bylot Island just because I hadn’t been there yet, which is pretty much the motivation to do most absurd things in my life, and along the way we stopped to sleep. That morning Joe found out that an Inuit family was going fishing not too far away and asked if he could join them. They agreed. He came back with a fish, a frozen solid Arctic Char. We ate that sucker on the spot. It was the best Sushi I’ve ever had!
You know, as I talk about Joe and myself in the Arctic, it reminds me of years ago when life was “simpler” and we would do cross country road trips, basically living in his 1963 Volvo wagon. Traveling through the Arctic in a Kumatuk is really the same as those types of road trips, just way more expensive and colder. Anyway, Joe and I would go on these cross-country explorations. You would meet great people and see things you never saw before. I remember once we broke down in Huntsville, Alabama and went into a strange Chinese Restaurant to figure out what to do next. This wonderful couple, The Browns, took us in and fed us while our car was being repaired.
But here’s what I’m going with this – I don’t remember the year, maybe 1983 or 84, but we were driving through Texas and came upon the Amon Carter Museum. There was an opening going on. We somehow got into the event, I’ve always been inspired to go into places that are forbidden, and it turned out to be the American West show of photos by Richard Avedon. Not only was there free food and cocktails, but it was an AVEDON show! It was absolutely amazing. It felt so “elite” and “highbrow”. I looked more like the folks in his images then I did the other partygoers. So there I was with very little money but with a full belly of opening snacks so I figured, screw the money I’m getting this book. Early evidence of my obsession with books. I had to have “In The American West”. I bought the book and also an enormous poster from the show of a freckled girl and a sketchy looking dude side by side. I still have that book and poster.
Hey, I was there too!
Really, and I think you designed them both, right? Cool, is it too late to ask you to sign my poster?
Photographs by Ashly Stohl
Limited Edition of 100
64 pages, 28 photographs
hard bound, cloth covered, foil stamped presented in a cloth-covered box, signed and numbered by Ashly Stohl with a 6″x 8″ limited edition gelatin silver print of “Charth Vader vs. Swimming.” Profits from this book benefit the Vision Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.