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Interview with Jessica Helfand:

"Mine is a family of obsessive collectors..."

Jessica Helfand photoJessica Helfand collects other people's scrapbooks - 200 so far and still accumulating. As her collection grew, so did her fascination with these idiosyncratic "visual biographies." In part, she credits her interest to her parents. Her mother collected portraits of all description, while her father amassed an equally diverse mass of printed medical ephemera. In the introduction to her seminal book, Scrapbooks: An American History, Jessica wrote that scrapbooks were a marriage of her parent's interests, "an ideal hybrid of humanity and paper: ephemeral portraits."

Jessica’s interest in scrapbooks reflects her talents as a storyteller and a visual designer. In 1982, she received a combined B.A. in Graphic Design and Architectural Theory at Yale University. A year after she graduated, in an unexpected turn, she began exploring her storytelling urge by writing scripts for daytime TV shows like "Guiding Light" and "Search for Tomorrow." Within five years, she was back at Yale to pursue her M.F.A. in Graphic Design, which she received in 1989.

After graduate school, Jessica joined the staff of a respected magazine design studio, and soon moved on to become Design Director for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine. She credits those years of relentless photo layouts with teaching her the fundamentals of visual storytelling. In 1992, a seminar on computer imaging sparked her interest in new media, and she began to envision creating her own studio. By 1996 she was back at Yale, this time beginning her long-term faculty association in graphic design with the School of Art, where she is now Senior Critic.

© Jessica Helfand and
William Drenttel
Jessica Helfand and Willam Drenttel
Her husband, designer William Drenttel, shared her dream of establishing a studio, and in 1997 they founded Winterhouse in New York. Focusing on new media and cultural institutions, they were soon designing everything from book jackets to corporate identities to film titles, for a client list that now includes prestigious organizations such as the Archives of American Art, Teach for America, the Norman Rockwell Museum, the New England Journal of Medicine, The New Yorker, the NYU Institute for the Humanities, the NYU School of Journalism, the Paris Review, the University of Chicago Press and the National Design Awards. They co-edit a journal of visual culture, Below the Fold, administer the annual AIGA Winterhouse Writing Awards, and contribute to many national publications. In 2003, with two colleagues, they co-founded one of the leading blogs for design and cultural criticism, Design Observer. The U.S. Postmaster General tapped Jessica in 2006 to serve on the Stamp Advisory Committee, where she helps evaluate stamp proposals as chair of the design subcommittee.

Jessica is the author of several other books on design and cultural criticism, including another study of ephemeral artifacts, Reinventing the Wheel (2002). This book visually explores the history of volvelles or wheel charts, a type of circular reference tool constructed of paper with rotating parts.

© Jessica Helfand
Scrapbooks: An American History
Scrapbooks: An American History cover photo
Scrapbooks: An American History was published in 2008. In it, Jessica examines and analyzes the evolution of scrapbooks from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. Named best coffee table book of the year by The New York Times, it was awarded a gold medal in ForeWord Magazine's 2008 Book of the Year Award in the Crafts & Hobbies category, and shared a a Bronze medal in the 2009 Independent Publishers Book Award for How-to (Crafts/Hobby) books.

Researching and writing Scrapbooks: An American History was a three-year endeavor to understand the who, what, when, where, how and ultimately the why of scrapbooking. "The scrapbook," she writes, "was the original open-source technology, a unique form of self-expression that celebrated visual sampling, culture mixing, and the appropriation and redistribution of existing media." Her closing words for the book hint at the journey she took: “To spend any time at all with these scrapbooks is to fall a little bit in love with the people who created them. They remind us who we are, where we’re going – and perhaps why, in the end, it might actually matter.”

Articulate and analytical concerning both the history and current status of scrapbooking culture, Jessica’s writings have stirred up excitement and even some controversy. When we talked with her in July 2009, she was eager to describe about her experiences surrounding Scrapbooks: An American History:

VIC: For choosing the scrapbooks to feature in Scrapbooks: An American History, your first of five selection criteria stated that the scrapbook "needed to be beautiful." What were some qualities that made a scrapbook beautiful to you?

© Jessica Helfand
Marybelle Harn's 1920s scrapbook
Marybelle Harn scrapbook photo
"I tend to be drawn to scrapbooks that are chaotic and eclectic because that's much closer to what real life is like, for most of us. I was and am mesmerized, too, by the kinds of visual experiments made by people who had no idea what they were doing, yet constructed these remarkably compelling compositions nevertheless. Every once in a while I'd stumble across someone spectacularly gifted artistically — Marybelle Harn, for instance, who studied music but had beautiful penmanship and could draw anything — or Kitty Baker, a high school girl in Virginia whose densely composed pages are nothing short of magical. Scrapbooks with only one type of thing — albums filled with birthday cards, or just photos or only press clippings — were far less interesting to me."

VIC: Through the book, you describe some individuals creating scrapbooks for themselves alone, while others seem aware that they are creating for larger audiences or for posterity. How do you think these motivations affect the process and the creative result?

"I'm not actually all that sure that they do matter: it's probably more a reflection of the individual. Some people were like Gertrude Stein (who used to say that she wrote for herself) while others were, for any of a number of reasons, more engaged with a public or shared notion of their own identity: Zelda Fitzgerald was a perfect example of this personality type! For her, scrapbooks were an ideal medium, because they were so flexible and so forgiving, and so by definition unfinished! For countless others, scrapbook-keeping was more like an autograph book — or even a "slam" book — which enabled the individual to take random polls of friends' habits or preferences or opinions. But it bears saying that the more shared a book is, the more neutral it becomes visually. At the opposite end of the spectrum are scrapbooks that are truly three-dimensional snapshots of an individual's life. Those tend to be more emotionally rich, more idiosyncratic, and more surprising as a result."

VIC: The popular Brownie camera, introduced by Kodak in 1900, had a profound impact on family documentation. How did it impact the autobiographical process to be able to include your own, changing likeness in your scrapbooks?

© Jessica Helfand
1900 Kodak Brownie camera ad
Kodak Brownie camera ad 1900
"There are many scholars who've written on this subject, who are far more equipped to answer this fascinating question than I am! But briefly, the Brownie changed picture-taking by putting the technology in the hands of real people. On a larger scale, the phenomenon that it sparked had everything to do with authorship, with no longer needing to rely on publicly available images to replicate one's likeness. (Studio portrait photography was clearly impacted from a commercial point of view, though it soldiered on, I believe, in the form of things like photo booth image strips.) Along with "Kodaking" as it was sometimes called in those early years, people began editing and sequencing and even omitting photos in their scrapbooks and albums to tell different kinds of stories. They were thus able to experiment with perspective and point of view, with voice and personal identity, with narrative, with autobiography, and with one another. This was fundamentally a seismic shift from the formal and somewhat distant portraiture that pervaded albums in the Nineteenth-Century."

VIC: Chapter by chapter, you sift through the eras of scrapbooking fashions to find the "why" of it all, citing motivations of posterity, introspection, and a need to organize among others. What do you think in the primary driver behind the urge to create a scrapbook?

©Jessica Helfand
Lydia Blanchard's 1920s scrapbook
Jessica Helfand, Lydia Blanchard scrapbook
"The study of material culture, as a subset of social history, is long and complicated (and fascinating) but in my opinion, all autobiographical efforts, including but not limited to scrapbooks, stem from an individual's need to stake ground, to say "I was here, I mattered, I bore witness." Susan Tucker, a scholar at Tulane, has written thoughtfully about the Antebellum notion of Carpe Diem ("seize the day") and the degree to which people turned to diaries and scrapbook-keeping in the wake of the Civil War as precisely such a gesture of permanence.

"I believe scrapbooking moved to the forefront as America’s fastest-growing hobby as a consequence of the events of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of tragedy, it is a documented fact that people yearn for protection from loss, steeling themselves against time. What better way to do that than by writing, photographing, making something that documents your presence, however fleeting, in a world spinning out of control? I also think this is one of the things that makes scrapbooks so timeless — this basic humanity evident in the pages of a scrapbook; the fact that a young mother whose husband was fighting in the Civil War was just as vulnerable as a young mother today whose husband has just been deployed to Iraq."

VIC: Give them time and Americans will make a "kit" out of any activity: cooking, building, gardening, and of course, scrapbooking. How did the introduction of pre-chaptered "memory books" after the turn of the century change the way we kept scrapbooks - and how did they contribute to the scrapbook styles of today?

© Jessica Helfand
Jessica Helfand memory book photo
"Memory books were extremely popular at the turn of the century, and the lexicon used in them shifted over time to reveal different kinds of social mores. For example, "stunt books" were a feature of the 1920s, when parties included games and themed activities. For a period in the 1940s, publishers went a little batty, producing memory books with preprinted rubrics inviting the user to save everything from their parents' dental records to their fingerprints, and to plan — weddings, baptisms, burials, you name it. It got a little creepy, actually — and oddly gendered, as there were books for women to plan their gardens and others for men to plan their hunting expeditions. These weren't "kits" so much as a highly directed series of user manuals, that made capturing memories feel more like a chore than a creative pursuit. (Which was itself a very 1940s thing to do: 'Just buckle down and get the job done!')"

VIC: You've written observations about how scrapbooking practices are changing today, from the proliferation of commercial supplies and embellishments to the shift from it being primarily a solitary activity to more of a family or group activity. How do you think these affect the personal motivations and rewards of creating scrapbooks?

© Jessica Helfand
Jessica Helfand Scrapbooks:An American History
"I've been wrongly quoted as being really negative about contemporary scrapbooking, when I am, in fact, a huge supporter. My criticism, if I have one, is directed at the homogeneity that results when people worry too much about what their scrapbooks will look like; with fretting over "getting it right" rather than just embracing who you are and what you care about. The best scrapbooks — of any generation — are the ones that are simply honest reflections of the individuals who created them. They're messy and goofy and homespun, funny and real, honest and true.

"If you sit down at the kitchen table at the end of the day — with receipts from the grocery store, an envelope from a friend, a drawing your child did, a newspaper photo that made you laugh, whatever — and you paste all those things into a scrapbook, annotating, editing, circling, drawing, adding captions, ripping out the parts you don't like — you'll be left with this crazy yet compelling snapshot of the day you just had. Sure, add a beautiful piece of ephemera from vintageimagecraft.com — or from Michael's or eBay — or whatever, because embellishments can be beautiful and who doesn't want a little beauty in their scrapbooks? But my view — the "grab what's on your kitchen table at the end of the day" view — well, it's sustainable. Anyone can do it. It's green! And in the future, it's so much more vivid a snapshot of who you were and what you did than, say, buying a "kit" to help compartmentalize and clean up your life. Life is messy. Why can't scrapbooks be?"

VIC: Your bibliography includes sixty contributing references and resources. Do you have a single recommended book for someone who might want to look deeper into the history and implications of scrapbooking?

"The best resource is The Scrapbook in American Life, by Katharine Ott, Susan Tucker and Patricia Buckler. Ott's introduction alone is nothing short of brilliant."

VIC: In your book's introduction, you refer to your 2005 blog essay of critical observations about current scrapbook practices - and the firestorm of popular response that ultimately led to your writing this book. What has been the aftermath, following the book's publication and your subsequent writings?

© Jessica Helfand
2009 Art Directors Club exhibit
Jo Packham, Where Women Create magazine cover
"The biggest fury came following an interview I did in Salon, and I have to say here, that while I am indeed critical of scrapbooking on some level (more on that in a moment!) I am not the elitist that some scrapbookers have made me out to be! First: let's separate the Design Observer post, in which a good deal of the incendiary comments came from professional designers and not from me. Second, as a working mother who both needs and appreciates the benefits of having a creative life, I'm not about to disparage the efforts of others, especially other working mothers. And finally, while as a professional designer I will often be called upon to critique the work of professional designers, I am not in the position to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of other peoples' scrapbook pages on the basis of success or failure. Scrapbooks are not graphic design: they borrow formally from some of the components of visual language, but they are personal, autobiographical efforts that should be judged as such. What I can do, and must do, is write about what I believe. On that score, I believe all scrapbooks are reflections of their authors. THIS is why I am opposed to the reliance on store-bought kits and "getting it right" and an advocate of being who and what you are."

VIC: You have now created definitive volumes on two ephemeral artifacts, vovelles (Reinventing the Wheel in 2002) and scrapbooks. Is there another book in the works along similar lines, or shall we look for something completely different?

© Jessica Helfand
Reinventing the Wheel (2002)
Jessica Helfand, Reinventing the Wheel cover
"This is the start of a book-gestation period. I'm teaching a new class at Yale this fall based on Scrapbooks, which is going to keep me pretty busy through Christmas. In the Spring of 2010, we're taking our children out of school for 5 months: my husband and I will be residents at the American Academy in Rome, where I intend to spend ten weeks in the studio doing something completely different. Painting, most likely. I'm excited and, truth be told, a little bit terrified.

VIC: We are capturing more and more snippets from our daily lives, but not in the old tangible forms of scrapbooks, journals and albums. Video recorders, cell phone cameras, YouTube, and Facebook are the next generation of autobiographical media. What do you think it all means for posterity?

"It's not clear yet how the YouTube video glimpses and Facebook status updates will be archived to reveal the kinds of lives we lead in these bizarrely multitasked, mediated times. Scrapbooks, on the other hand, are palpable. There's something uniquely pleasurable in being able to hold a picture of your grandmother in your hand. (That's my grandmother, Minnie Reed, on the cover of my book, incidentally!) On the other hand, archivists are struggling to find a way to preserve real scrapbooks which have a tendency to disintegrate over time. (Today's scrapbook enthusiasts have a wide range of acid-free materials to choose from, a benefit which, arguably, will keep future disintegration at bay: at least we think it will.) In the end, I'm not sure there's a black-and-white answer for all of this. I know for myself, I'm an equal-opportunity journal-keeper: I write, draw, paste, shoot pictures, make films, and keep my fingers crossed that some of it will survive long enough so that someday, my grandchildren will get to look at/touch/click through at least some of the madness I call my life."

Jessica Helfand, The Daily ScrapbookLearn more about Jessica Helfand; her designs, writings and publications, and her love of scrapbooks at The Daily Scrapbook, Design Observer, and Winterhouse. Jessica's books on ephemera and collecting, including Reinventing the Wheel, and Scrapbooks: An American History are available from bookstores, craft stores, and at Amazon.com and other online retailers.

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