Artist, critic, poet, performer … model? While David Antin’s iconic image has adorned the covers of many of his most famous publications—from the stark black and white photograph of the author in a safari jacket on talking at the boundaries (New Directions, 1976) to the Colonel Kurtz-on-the-roof shot of Antin accompanied by an assistant in stonewashed denim jacket on A Conversation with David Antin (Granary Books, 2002) —few might realize the careful consideration behind this striking framing (though Caroline Bergvall has a great piece at Jacket on A Conversation that leads with an exploration of the cover image). Many of these images were shot by the American photographer and longtime Antin collaborator Phel Steinmetz and Antin’s most recent collection Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, 1966 to 2005, proves no exception—in fact, the decision to run a black and white cover was even an homage to the use of Steinmetz’s earlier images on Antin’s previous volumes.
We asked Antin to share his thoughts on the discussion that went on behind the scenes before he decided on the image that now graces the cover of Radical Coherency. Antin responded in his characteristic conversationalist tone, imbuing his thoughts on this process with larger reflection on what this particular kind of image might embody:
When it came to thinking about a cover for Radical Coherency, I called on my usual team—Elly and Phel. Elly [Eleanor Antin] had designed my first book definitions and consulted on all the others, and Phel Steinmetz had shot the photo images for four of my earlier books. So we got together over coffee in our dining room and started to work it out. Radical Coherency was not like any of my other books. It was a Selected of past works from 1966 to 2005. So I wanted a cover that carried the sense of me looking at my past. That meant it was going to be a photograph with me in it. Elly thought it should be shot in the southern California landscape around our house. “You’re a Southern California poet and that’s where you live.” I thought it could be a shot of me coming up our rugged driveway and Phel agreed but thought a shot taken behind the house might be just as good. We decided to try both places. But then Phel said he had an idea he was toying with but didn’t know if it would work out. He would take two shots of me—one a full length, facing the camera, and the other a close-up over my shoulder—that he could combine to give the sense that I’m looking at myself. We all liked the idea but I wondered whether the over the shoulder shot would read clearly as me. “You just wear that old Safari jacket,” Elly said. “The one you’ve been wearing since Phel shot the cover for talking at the boundaries back in ‘76. Who else looks like a bald poet in an old safari jacket?” Phel took the shots and came back with different scale versions of the two of them, laid them out on our dining room table, and we picked the two we liked best. But in the frontal shot I was carrying the safari jacket, not wearing it, and the over-the-shoulder shot was too close up for certain recognition. Studying the combined image, I realized I wasn’t sure which shot represented the present and which the past, and even whether the Buddha-like image of the over-the-shoulder shot was really me. So after all that planning, it was ambiguous—like nearly all the artworks I’m interested in. And we liked that and decided to go for it.