An old-school gonzo photojournalist tells the story of leaping from a career in magazines to a venture involving large-scale documentation of human life -- in coffee-table-book form.
In the 1970s, Rick Smolan quit the magazine business to launch A Day in the Life Inc., a creator of lush coffee-table books. Beginning in Australia, Smolan commanded 100-photographer teams that would swarm countries and capture their souls in 24-hour shutter sessions. After selling that business, Smolan and his wife, Jennifer Erwitt, founded Against All Odds Productions in Sausalito, California. The company's new book, The Human Face of Big Data, deploys text and images to present the world as a perpetually measuring, analyzing, feedback-looping organism. The images presented here are from the book. --as told to Leigh Buchanan
In 1978, Time magazine sent me to do a story about children in Southeast Asia fathered by American GIs. What I saw was very upsetting, but the story they published was whitewashed. I tried to do a similar story for a magazine called GEO, this time focusing on six children. The editors took out the hardest-hitting pictures. Later, I was sitting in a bar with some older photographers in Bangkok, bitching about my damn editors. And I realized that I could end up like these guys: bitter and cynical. I needed to do a project where I had control from beginning to end.
I said to them, "What if we got together all our heroes and our peers and went to Australia and spread out over the country on one day and said, 'On your mark, get set, go'? We could create a book with no editors. Just photographers." They said, "That's good, kid. You go organize it and tell us when it's ready."
I met with 35 publishers. Every single one of them told me what an incredibly stupid idea A Day in the Life of Australia was.
Through my work, I had become friends with the Australian prime minister, and he offered to introduce me to the heads of the Australian offices of major companies: Qantas and Kodak and Hertz, and a start-up called Apple. I said, "Why would you do that?" He said, "You are going to ask them for free airline tickets and film and cars and computers." I said, "Why would they give me those things?" He said, "Because you are going to put their logos in the front of your book."
I met with more than 100 companies, six of which said yes. I raised something like $40,000 and a quarter of a million dollars' worth of stuff. But I couldn't get the book into any bookstores, because I didn't have a publisher. So I met with the director of business development at an Australian newspaper chain and said, "What if I gave you an exclusive for four months and the book was only available through your newspaper group?" This guy bought 60,000 copies of the book in that meeting.
To produce the book, I formed a company with a friend, David Cohen. We called it A Day in the Life Inc. We folded the business after the Australia project and came back to the States.
Just as I was getting ready to go back to being a photographer, I got a call from the office of the governor of Hawaii. He had seen our book at a hotel in Sydney and wanted to know whether we could do one for the 25th anniversary of Hawaii's statehood. We relaunched the business. The office of the king of Spain called. They had lost Euro Disney to the French and wanted to give us some of the budget they were going to spend on the theme park. Then Gorbachev's office called. Could we do A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union?
Sometimes a government funded our projects. Sometimes corporations did. Sometimes it was a mix. The company produced 11 books and sold about five million copies total. The most successful was A Day in the Life of America. It sold 1.4 million copies. But the whole thing was getting boring. We were solving the same problems over and over again in different places. In 1987, we sold the company.
My father said, "You should do A Day in the Life of Medicine. A book about how the human race wants to heal itself in new ways." I said, "Dad, I just sold the company, remember?" He said, "I don't care about that. Start a new company that looks at emerging topics that are really important but that people don't understand very well." So, in 1990, I launched Against All Odds Productions with my wife, Jennifer Erwitt. Our first book was The Power to Heal. We were funded by 11 drug companies. They gave copies out to a third of the doctors in the United States.
About a year ago, I was looking for the next project. I said to Marissa Mayer, who was still at Google, "I keep hearing about Big Data. Can you explain what that is?" She said, "Some people describe it as so much data that it doesn't fit on a personal computer." That sounded completely uninteresting. She said, "Other people describe it as data from two or more sources that you overlap and see some sort of pattern." I didn't think this one was for me. Then she said, "Some people say Big Data is like watching the planet develop a nervous system." I said, "Say that again."
We spent 18 months figuring out how to tell the story. I knocked on so many doors trying to get funding, I almost gave up. Then I was introduced to this young guy who is chief marketing officer for EMC. After we talked for two hours at a coffee shop, he said, "I want EMC to do the book and the website and the student version and the app."
Sergey Brin has said to me like 10 times now, "Why do you bother doing books? Why don't you just put all this stuff on the Internet?" It's because 10 years from now, my book will still be sitting on someone's coffee table or in a waiting room. Any other form of media disappears. We're doing an iPad version of the book, and the pictures are gorgeous. It's got little movies that play, and you can spin the medicine bottles around. But I still don't find it nearly as satisfying. I love the physicality of books.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan