The Art of the Book
To Steven Albahari ’82, Bennington College was “the cannon I stepped into that launched me and my potential.”
Albahari is the co-founder of 21st Editions, a fine-press book publisher that picks up where Alfred Stieglitz left off. When Albahari founded the company in 1998, he aimed to create a fresh dialogue around photography, creating hand-bound books that pair writers like Pulitzer Prize winners Edward Albee and Annie Dillard with images from art world luminaries. The result is a 63-title collection that is as much a masterpiece in its own right as it is a repository of others’ work.
Albahari credits Bennington in a large part with preparing him for an entrepreneurial career that thrives at the intersection of printmaking, literature, and photography.
“Even ahead of graduate school, my years at Bennington were the most influential of my life,” said Albahari. “It provided a wonderful foundation to work from.”
While at the College, Albahari focused his studies in music, visual arts, and theatre lighting. The one-on-one faculty mentorship he received, paired with the ability to develop self-guided projects of his own, provided him with a “luxurious challenge.”
“At Bennington, if you show motivation and willingness to go after something, there is support for you, whether from faculty, staff, or other students,” said Albahari. “And the faculty there were wonderful because they also crossed boundaries and disciplines, bringing experiences from their life into their teaching.”
Albahari used his Field Work Terms (FWT) to delve deeper into the world of photography. During one, he learned about art preservation as he archived photographic portfolios and prints in the Crossett Library and photographed the paintings held in the College’s art collections.
For another FWT, he first combined his love of photography with art criticism during a FWT with famed writer A. D. Coleman, The New York Times’ first photography critic who penned over 120 articles during his time at the outlet.
As part of his work, Albahari spent weekends on Staten Island, reading ten years’ worth of Coleman’s writing in order to compile a bibliography for Light Readings: A Photography Critic’s Writings 1968-1978.
“I ended up getting into the photography world in part because of that experience,” said Albahari.
In 1998, Albahari, his gallerist John Stevenson, and co-publisher John Wood organized a roundtable dinner in New York with then-Sotheby’s specialist Denise Bethel, fashion and art photographer Duane Michaels, and Coleman to advise and pitch their new venture: creating a journal of contemporary photography that would follow in the footsteps of Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work.
With the help of co-founder Wood, the two-time Iowa Poetry Prize-winning poet who had established McNeese State University’s MFA in Creative Writing, the pair developed their first of six journals.
Now, after twenty years of production and a recently completed 21st Collection of 63 titles, the National Gallery of Art and the University of Minnesota have each acquired a set of the complete collection. University of Minnesota will also be the repository for the 21st archive.
Additionally, over 75 renowned institutions and museums, including Baylor, Harvard, RIT, MOMA, Williams College, and the Clark Art Institute, have titles from 21st Editions in their own collections.
As he expands into his next venture, Albahari is now creating one-of-a-kind projects that "will be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars" to purchase.
For current Bennington students who have a similar desire to marry artistry and entrepreneurship, Albahari advises them to assemble a credible, accountable team of collaborators.
“Much of the attention 21st Editions received at the outset had as much to do with my team of people as with my concept,” said Albahari. “Surround yourself with a team you can admire, and whom you trust, and who have the same passion for what you’re doing.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer