A team of 200 photographers shoot a stunning scrapbook of the U.S. on a single day
November 24, 1986
by Michael Ryan
We are frenzied and happy and hopeful; we are zealots and zanies and high school kids just starting to wonder what the world is all about; we disagree on issues that sear the soul, and our hearts melt at the sight of the President's puppy. We are America, and the photographs on these pages are our family album.
The images come from A Day in the Life of America (Collins, $39.95), a best-selling book that seems destined to find its way underneath thousands of Christmas trees this year. Yet just a few months ago, this exceptional production‑272 pages, hundreds of photographs‑was only a notion. "It's a very superficial idea, that you're going to say anything about a country in one day," says Rick Smolan. But it was his idea, and Smolan, a 37‑year‑old photojournalist, was determined to see it through. "The only thing that could make it work was very talented people working on it," the New Yorker believed.
"Dear Photographer," began the letter that Smolan sent to colleagues around the globe last March 1, "… We want to position two hundred of the world's best photographers throughout America and give each photographer the same 24‑hour period to capture a typical American day on film." Nobody could have expected to assemble, say, 200 of the world's greatest lawyers or doctors or opera singers on such ludicrously short notice, but photographers are a footloose and suggestible breed. Just nine weeks later, the 200 were at work, recording the events of May 2, 1986, from sunup in Maine to sundown in Hawaii. That Friday, as Americans traded options and feted politicians, modeled, married, mugged a derelict, levitated in one swimming pool and baptized born‑again Christians in another, Smolan's shooters were on hand to document the moment. "We always choose a Friday," Smolan says, "because we always want to show people working during the day, then relaxing for the weekend."
Smolan says "always" because America isn't his first "Day," just his most monumental. Eight years ago, while working on a story Down Under, he conceived the idea of A Day in the Life of Australia. One hundred fellow photographers liked the concept, and the book that resulted set Australian publishing records. For that project Smolan recruited the organizational talent of David Cohen, 31, a Yale‑educated onetime bookstore clerk, photo agency editor and an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Sierra Leone. They subsequently published similar volumes on Canada and Japan before tackling their native land. The America photographers were paid in Apple Computers and Nikon cameras for their work, courtesy of the manufacturers. But if America continues to do well ‑it is No. 3 on the New York Times best‑seller list this week- the co‑directors stand to make their first profit on any of their projects.
Smolan and Cohen persuaded six large corporations to lend support that ranged from free airline tickets to free film, but the printing bill alone still cost the publisher $3 million. Suitably bankrolled, they imported talent ‑including nine American Pulitzer prize winners from 33 countries. One participant is a staff photographer for the New China News Agency; another is a Jesuit priest from Nebraska. That diversity guaranteed maximum confusion. "The Europeans had a completely different idea of what they thought America was than we did," Smolan remembers. Says Cohen: "Basically, if a photographer was from France, he or she wanted to shoot cowboys. You can't send 30 French photographers to shoot cowboys. They watch Dynasty and Dallas and they think that's America." Says Smolan: "We told all the photographers that the experience they had while taking the pictures was what we were interested in. What we want is for people to pick up the book and say, 'Imagine what it must have been like to be one of these 200 photographers.'"
Many of the images evoke just that response -pictures that were clearly taken by people dangling from high above a Dallas skyscraper or wading in a waterfall at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Many other, striking, images will never meet the reader's eye. When it came time to edit the book, 18 picture editors from the U.S. and Europe were ordered to winnow down the 235,000 frames of film to only 1,000 possible contenders for the roughly 300 places in the book. (Smolan, his sister Leslie, designer of the series, and Cohen made the final selections.) "The first rule of all this is that you can't be fair," Smolan says. "You can't get every photographer into the book; you can't get every city or state in. Four states are left out -Virginia, Arkansas, Delaware and Wisconsin."
In St. Petersburg, Fla. photographer Mary Ellen Mark encountered Eddie Moultsby (left), a 23‑year‑old blind street musician who idolizes Stevie Wonder, and his 18-year‑old wife, Regina. "There is obviously so much love between them," says Smolan. "The irony is they will never be able to see this picture. "
Smolan insists that the work was completed without any untoward outbreaks of envy. "Photographers have always been each other's biggest fans," he says. "There's a sense in which other photographers are the only family you've got in the world. If you travel 11 months a year ‑from one dangerous or isolated situation to the next‑if you live in hotels and every relationship with another human being is a two‑week relationship, the only other people who have any idea what you're going through or how strung out you are are other photographers."
Smolan and Cohen try not to wax too philosophical about what their book means ‑although both are developing a good line of talk‑show chat. "We didn't know this for sure when we started," says Cohen, "but I think you can look through this book and look at this country with all of its problems and warts and come to the conclusion that it's a pretty good place to live." Then he adds self‑mockingly, "That's fairly sappy." As Rick Smolan puts it, neatly forgetting the all‑night work sessions, the deadlines and the harrowing logistics, "The biggest thing to remember is that doing this is a lot of fun. I hope that comes across in the book."