Illustrated publishing is a calling—and a labor of love. It is something that runs through the blood of the select few who are charged to create, to execute, to produce in paper and inks, to collect stories and lay them bare upon the printed page. Stephen Frailey understands this well. As the editor-in-chief of Dear Dave, an independent magazine published three times a year, Frailey brings together an incredible array of photographic work, beautifully designed and printed to tremendous effect.
Frailey, who is the chair of the photography department at the School of Visual Arts, New York, launched Dear Dave, in 2006 with the support of the school. Since that time, the magazine has become self-sustaining, as it serves a very strong and dedicated community. Available at prestigious locations such as colette in Paris and The Photographer’s Gallery in London, Dear Dave, crosses international borders with every issue.
Currently on sale is the magazine’s nineteenth issue, which features the work of Van Leo, Mark Alice Durant, Tabitha Soren, the NYPD, Ellen Carey, Bill Armstrong, Robert Rauschenberg, and David Brandon Geeting. Among this collective, the work of the NYPD stands out, for one does not think of those sworn to serve and protect as members of the photography community.
As Frailey reveals in his letter from the editor, “Although the existence of the New York City Police Department’s ‘demographic unit’ was revealed in 2012, we thought it was timely to publish some of the evidence of their visual surveillance, and with the aftermath of the terrorist killings in Paris, where attacks on the Islamic community have increased significantly. The images' absence of aesthetic protocol, their banality and muteness recall Ed Ruscha’s witty recognition of street-side facades of 50 years ago. Yet any sense of vernacular charm is undermined by their deep melancholy, their fugitive anonymity (both in the subject and of the photographer), and deeply rooted sense of suspicion and conspiracy. The pictures are imbued with a suffocating dread, and wallow between mediocrity and evil.”
This stunning glimpse into the non-artistic uses of photography reminds us of how powerful the medium really is. When the context of surveillance is removed from the work, what remains is the intention, a stark and clear reminder that Big Brother is always watching.
When discussing the inspiration to create Dear Dave, Frailey observes, “I felt that there was engaging and curious work that was not being considered in the conversation, either from past or present, because it did not fulfill a particular agenda. There was also a strong desire to present photography not segregated into opposing communities and motivations, but as a holistic and plural endeavor, that reflected the diversity of the medium. The photography community is invariably fairly conservative, I think, and I wanted to create a venue that was playful and provocative and did not take itself too seriously.”
Indeed, Dear Dave, features a wide array of stories, as diverse as the medium itself. From fashion to abstraction, Dear Dave, runs the gamut. Yet one thing is clear, from each individual issue to the a larger cumulative series: the quality of work speaks to a deeply knowledgeable curatorial vision.
Frailey, whose knowledge of photography comes from being both a teacher as well as a practitioner, makes for the ideal editor: for example, pairing Vince Aletti to write about the photographs Elisabeth Biondi kept in her office at The New Yorker for issue 10. Looking at photography from this original and fresh perspective is just one of the things that makes Dear Dave, a vibrant space for visual contemplation.
Speaking about the appeal of print media in an increasingly digital age, Frailey discusses what the printed page does for readers that the screen cannot accurately or appropriately convey. He notes, “The printed page has depth and a degree of commitment, and is an institution that warrants continuity. Although it does not have the appealing luminosity of the screen, it is more haptic and physical. The magazine form seems more deliberate in terms of curation and arrangement.”
It is this sensibility that makes each issue of Dear Dave, a singular experience, one which Frailey makes look seamless, though it is by no means an easy task to craft something so distinctive. He reveals, “It’s always a bit tricky to create a balance between genres, sensibilities, motives, and amongst very young photographers to historical figures, but that is the challenge, and the aspiration is that the various portfolios will create a conversation, like a great dinner party, that could not have been predicted. Ultimately, I hope that each issue is a surprise for the reader.”
Frailey describes the criteria for determining the stories that are published in Dear Dave, as, “Work that is original and that has the potential to re-arrange one’s thinking and expectations of the medium. Work that is lively and witty and intelligent, and not broadly recognized.”
This applies to both the visual and the text elements of the magazine, which read as exquisite duets between artist and writer on the pages of the magazine. Frailey pairs the contributor, “By instinct. A sharing of sensibility that will illuminate the work and avoids the usual jargon and rhetoric of art writing. Sometimes a subject is recommended by a writer—Glenn O’Brien had suggested Phillipe Halsman and I was originally dismissive of the work until Glenn emphasized his collaboration with Salvador Dali to create Dali’s persona. Moving ahead, I would like to include more fiction writers who do not generally write about the visual arts.”
It is this creative approach to publishing that is the hallmark of every issue of the magazine, from the selection of work to the design and production, right down to the name. Dear Dave, is evocative, intimate, and charming. Frailey reveals the meaning behind the name, “It was precisely the suggestion of intimacy that you refer to, and a form of tenderness; the avoidance of any obvious tropes. (I had also considered ‘You, Hefner’ as the title but it did not have the affection of Dear Dave,). The comma felt right also.”