Making a Picture Book: How TIME Does It


Kelly Knauer is the editor of TIME AMERICA: An Illustrated History book.

This is a giant of a book—about half as big as your common Casement window. How many people did it take? And how long did it take?

Incredible as it may seem, this book was created by a staff of only five people, one of whom worked part time. The entire process took about nine months—three months for preliminary picture research, then six months of more picture research, while the process of design and writing moved forward. The names and titles of the staff are included on the masthead:

* TIME Managing Editor Rick Stengel wrote the Introduction
* Editor - Kelly Knauer
* Designer - Ellen Fanning
* Photo Editor - Pat Cadley
* Writer/Researcher - Matthew Fenton
* Copy Editor - Bruce Carr

How complicated is it to pull together all of these pictures? Did you have to sift through thousands to find these?

Yes, we certainly sifted through thousands of pictures, and we wish we had had time to look through twice as many. The challenge is to select precise subjects for picture research, in order to avoid wasting time by casting too wide a net.

There's something old-fashioned about the book. It's a kind of a celebration of America, even though it includes disturbing pictures as well as obviously patriotic and iconic images. How does this book bear the stamp of the 21st century-or does it? Or, to put this another way, would this book have looked the same if you had, say, published it in the 1950s?

You have answered your own question, in part: we worked hard to offer an unblinking look at American history, warts and all. A book from the 1950s might have touched upon slavery, but it might not have included a full chapter on the subject. Another difference lies in the book's emphasis on cultural and social history, rather than simply political history. The current emphasis on "everyday" history is a product of the 1960s and 70s; a 1950s approach might have been more top-down and concerned with hierarchies, in politics and elsewhere.

What does this book say about us, as Americans?

That we are still struggling with the same basic questions as the first colonists in Jamestown, 400 years ago: Who gets to be an American? And what are the rights and responsibilities that are invested in those who call themselves Americans? The book opens with the collision between Native Americans and European colonists. The next-to-last spread in the book shows Mexican nationals attempting to enter the U.S. illegally.

Who's the market for the book?

The old, the young and everyone in between!

There's a picture of Donald Trump that's at least twice as large as the pictures of any recent president. I spotted just one large picture of a 20th century president and that was Teddy Roosevelt. Are you trying to tell us something?

Yes, per the comments above, we sought to create a bottom-up picture of America, rather than a top-down, Beltway-centric version of American history. We strongly considered breaking away from a chronological approach, as well, but a book with such vast ground to cover needs a very strong organizing spine, and a thematic approach, though appealing to the editor in its potential for surprise and fascinating juxtapositions, might not have served the reader well.

On page 140 there's a picture of the labor radical Alexander Berkman addressing a crowd of thousands. The caption features the best line I have ever come across in a book like this: "Before America was born, it had labor pains." Do you remember who wrote it?

Sadly, Matthew Fenton, our chief researcher and "No.2" writer, wrote this terrific line - as opposed to the one who is typing this response, the "No.1" writer and top editor, Kelly Knauer.

How important are words in a picture book like this?

Words are exceptionally important in a book like this; our age is already saturated in a visual smog of images that are, to quote George W.S. Trow, "in the context of no context." We worked very hard on the text, hoping to put the necessary ballast behind the images to make them not simply astonishing, but also illuminating and informative. This is a hallmark of TIME journalism; as Henry Luce put it, the goal is "to get the information off the page and into the mind of the reader.” Pictures can't achieve that goal; words can.

Thanks for the fine questions, Rick - and thanks for noticing!

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