On Vulnerability: In Conversation with Antihero’s Mathea Millman and Photo Editor Paige Viti
On Vulnerability is the first publication from Antihero Press, an independent photo book publisher founded by Mathea Millman in 2018. The zine is a curation of images from artists around the world celebrating vulnerability in quiet moments through photography. Originally inspired by a talk titled 'On Vulnerability' given by writer, Busra Erkara, the zine aims to find a commonality of tone and theme through a compilation of artists and genres. Featured artists include Reggie McCafferty, Damien Maloney, Marcel Merwin, Kate Stone, Gillian Zinser, Lucie Rox, Yosigo, Taylor McIntyre, Dino Kuznik, Bastian Thiery, Valentine Furtwangler, David Möller, Aaron Stern, Bea De Giacomo, Boe Marion, Travis Rainey, Corey Bao Nguyen, J. Turk, Annie Powers, David Lurvey, Monet Lucki, Kyle Weeks, Phil Donohue, and David Foster Nass.
Below is a conversation between Mathea and friend and fellow photo editor Paige Viti on the making of Antihero and how visualizing vulnerability came to be.
Paige Viti: So can you just take me through On Vulnerability a little bit? How did you decide to curate this zine on this subject of vulnerability?
Mathea Millman: I actually started working on this zine over two years ago. My friend Busra Erkara gave a lecture called “On Vulnerability” and it was right before the election a few years ago, when everyone was on edge. Her work is thoughtful and sensitive and in the lecture she talked about the nature of vulnerability in a very humanistic, interpersonal way and how it resonates in art and between human beings. And I thought it was very illuminating and it touched on a lot of topics that I think many people think about in New York but really don’t talk about very openly. One of these topics was the idea of vulnerability and how it permeates what we do and how we think, operate and move and create, especially pertaining to art. So a spark was lit within me and I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea of vulnerability especially in my own work and life. As a photo editor I make other peoples’ creations come to life but I felt like I had something else to say that I wanted to express through this project.
Paige: What was your process of finding the images? Did you know you wanted certain photographers?
Mathea: Well this process took a really long time because I didn’t really know what it was going to be. I guess I initially imagined making this into a photo zine at some point but basically I started looking at my friends work first—the people closest around me.
Paige: Is this through Instagram?
Mathea: Yes, and with people I know and interact with in my daily life. Slowly I started looking at other photographers’ Instagrams. I was interested in a mix of people whose work I would see in other magazines or editorials and also with people who I knew about in a general sense. I would look at their websites and cross reference their Instagrams and go digging for images. I really wanted to find those special images that conveyed a sense of vulnerability, which was honestly just based on my visceral reaction to their work.
Paige: The project came alive as you were selecting each image...
Mathea: Yes, and having worked on this over such a long period of time, there was a lot of curation and rounds of edits as I kept finding more images.
Paige: You said you started this two years ago when the presidential election was happening so it was a very dark time. Did you ever stop and pause on this project? I know you recently launched your own publishing company, Antihero Press. Can you tell me a little about the publishing company? Did that impact or push you forward to start this book on vulnerability? Which came first?
Mathea: The book came first and the publishing company came second.
Paige: So the publishing company came from this project on vulnerability.
Mathea: Yes, exactly. When the book was coming into focus and I had more of an idea of what it was looking like, I brought on my friend Jess Solitrin, who designed the beautiful cover and helped volley ideas back and forth for layouts and pairings. But basically I made this book and then I realized I needed a way to get it out in the world so I had to figure out what the next step for it was. And so Antihero was born.
Paige: You definitely chose such strong images that show vulnerability. How did you pick this one image of an umbrella? I can immediately see the vulnerability in the scene.
Mathea: That specific image is by Valentine Furtwangler. She’s someone whose work I had been following for a while on Instagram and I kept thinking about her images in relation to this zine theme. So I ended up scrolling [through] her archive for the right pics because I knew that the tone of her images was right for this project. Just the idea of a balcony being a public place where you can be seen was interesting to me and then having this huge umbrella shielding the apartment from any unwanted eyes, and acting like a barrier or wall had this very overt sense of vulnerability. That the owner was somehow hiding from something.
I was really trying to find photographers whose work was authentic and wasn’t bordering on cliches. I was trying to avoid the stereotypical tropes of what vulnerability looks like in a picture and tried to distill it down to the poetic aspect of the feeling and the images. I was really conscious of finding images that didn’t speak to any cliches.
Paige: And I think with the layout, putting the images together, they really relate to each other and complement each other in different ways. Was it hard narrowing down which photographers you used? Was your list a lot longer? How many photographers are there? Twenty?
Mathea: Twenty three photographers and J Turk who wrote the beautiful text on the cover. I did a lot of image pulls before I actually reached out to anyone to confirm. There were points where I had a great image and knew I needed to find the right one to pair with it so in some cases I would go hunting for the pairing for a specific image.
Paige: I was wondering about the process and you use Instagram and social media which is such a great way to contact people and it gives photographers such a great platform to get their work out there especially if they don’t have agents. This is your first zine with Antihero. Did you feel vulnerable asking these photographers, which kind of goes with the whole theme, to use their work in your zine? Can you take me through the process of approaching people to ask to use their work.
Mathea: Well luckily and surprisingly, everyone I reached out to was enthusiastic about the project and allowed me to use their work. There has been so much trust with this project and I think maybe the topic just really resonated with people right now. I also chose this topic because it was something that was so personal to me. I was feeling so vulnerable in my art and as a creator. I work with all these amazing photographers all the time and I wasn’t making any work of my own and that made me feel so vulnerable.
Everything that I wanted to express in this book was how I was really feeling and so through the process of reaching out to all these amazing artists and having people be on board has changed me and the way I create and curate. I DM photographers I don’t know to make connections and it makes me feel good to champion photographers’ whose work I really believe in. And the plus side is that I get to feel creative as a curator. And me and other artists can have these ongoing conversations about what being vulnerable means and what their art means and that’s one of most important things that I’ve gotten out of this project.
Paige: And these are photographers from all over the world?
Mathea: Yep! About half the photographers in the zine are US-based and half are international.
Paige: Was there a design element that you were going back and forth with or did you have an initial idea for the design of the book?
Mathea: I think I knew how I wanted to design the book and had an overall design sense in mind. I wanted things to feel organic and really listen to the images. I knew I didn’t want the images to be the same size on each page in the same place. It’s kind of like a song in a way. The images and the pairings—it was apparent to me how they needed to be placed based on a feeling. Each picture dictates how big they should be or where they should be placed. There’s no formula.
Paige: This whole creation has been a topic in both your art and in your personal life influencing each other.
Mathea: At this point, it’s impossible not to have what I care about effect what I end up curating or create. And I’m lucky enough to work with photographers and designers whose work is dealing with something that resonates with me. Antihero is a personal project and I’m excited for all the new projects I have in the works.
Keep up with Antihero on Instagram and you can buy On Vulnerability at their release party this Wednesday, February 27th from 7-9PM at 198 Allen St. in Manhattan.