Internet deep-dives and albino ferrets

by Kitty Drake in September 2019

For art director Bobby Doherty, the process of finding images for American Chordata has a sweetness that reminds him of his teenage years: “There’s this feeling of being a teenager or a pre-teen on the internet, where you like open your third eye and just delve into the rivers and find really cool stuff. I feel like as an adult it’s harder and harder to tap into that feeling.” No picture in the magazine has been commissioned specifically to illustrate the text it sits next to. Instead, Bobby spends his time mining the internet, while editor Alison Lewis separately gathers fiction and poetry, and then they spend an evening together right before layout and find interesting pairings. This makes for jarring contrasts — the first few spreads of issue 9 go something like this: poem about insomnia; picture of a New Year’s Day skyline; picture of an albino ferret sniffing a rose.

Bobby favours art that “gets to the point of what it is you’re looking at”; there’s something thrilling about the brashness of these images, and the uneasiness of their relationship to the text. The nature of making a magazine is, in its purest form, just putting pictures next to words, and American Chordata has a knack for doing this in a way that feels fresh.

Bobby and Alison talked us through some of their favourite transitions in the new issue.

Karolina Jabłońska’s ‘Puddle’ vs. the opener to Rémy Ngamije’s short story ‘From the Lost City of Hurtlantis to the Streets of Helldorado (Or, Franco)’

“This is a story about bromances, and the inherent melodrama following a break-up, so Bobby and I wanted to open it with something sappy and aware of its sappiness. Much later, after we’d published the issue, I was re-reading the story for the umpteenth time and was suddenly struck by this line: ‘When Franco came back from the atrium, homeboy’s long-ass eyelashes looked like wet spider legs after rain.’”

A page from Anna Lidia Vega Serova’s short story ‘Muse-O-Mine’ translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Shyue, vs. Cecilia Poupon’s ‘Another Hydra (ongoing)’

“This grapefruit is almost too beautiful to be real. It looks like jewels! And the ants are enormous. It was a perfect fit because this story is full of sickly sweet compliments which turn out to be lies, and extreme self-satisfaction: the narrator uses the word ‘exquisite’ to describe herself and her husband as a couple. So you can feel the ickiness of the insects crawling over a sparkly, ripe fruit. There are scenes, which I find fitting for this photo too, of very glamorous violence: the husband slits the throat of his wife’s parrot with a marquetry knife, and she drops a crystal paperweight on his head.”

Tatu Gustafsson’s ‘Road 14, Savonlinna, Laitaatsalmi’ vs. a page from Angela Woodward’s ‘Decoy Animals’

“This is a strange one. It comes from a series of photos where the Finnish photographer Tatu Gustafsson has placed himself within automated weather camera footage. Looking at these from the US, I immediately think of security cameras, although in Finland possibly they are read in a less sinister light. In the earlier photos of the series (the way we’ve ordered them), it’s harder to recognize whether or not there’s a person in the photo. But here, towards the end of the story, you can see that it’s definitely a person. It’s jarring and creepy but, like this story, not obviously so — it takes time and looking closely to get an inkling of what’s going on.”

Jonathan Wilson’s ‘Halo’ vs. Zoe Contros Kearl’s poem ‘Guilt and Self-Laceration are Indulgences’ (titled with one of Jenny Holtzer’s Truisms)

“There is an element of callousness in the scene this poem depicts: the word ‘fucking,’ the pile of furs. I liked the sharp flashes of light in this photo, the confounding net of branches. It feels ice cold, which is true of this poem to me as well.”

Iringó Demeter’s ‘Calla’ vs. opening to Patrick Clement James’ essay ‘Jill’

“Sometimes matching art and text takes a long series of trials and errors, and sometimes it’s immediate and instinctive. We knew right away this photo should open the essay ‘Jill.’ It’s so elegant. Jill is the narrator’s mother, who wears designer suits and dabs Vitamin E under her eyes every night. She approves of being compared to Catherine Deneuve. There’s a heartbreaking moment, after her son’s funeral and the long reception in their beautiful house in South Jersey, when she finally takes off her heels and carries them with her up the stairs to bed.”

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