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On Margins is a podcast about making books and book-shaped things, hosted by Craig Mod.

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Asia Grace & Vanishing Asia - cover


Kevin Kelly, photographing and backpacking through Asia in the 1970s

Kevin Kelly

Asia Grace & Vanishing Asia

Technologist, futurist, author, and photographer Kevin Kelly discusses traveling during the golden age of global exploration. We cover how photography has changed over the years, his decades cavorting through Asia in the 1970s and 80s, and how he self-produced (eventually getting it published by Taschen!) his Asia Grace book in the 90s.

Full Transcript

Craig Mod: You’re listening to On Margins.

I’m Craig Mod, and this is Episode 003. We made it to three episodes. I know that’s not a lot, but I’ve been moving around a ton and doing a bunch of other projects in the background, so to get to three feels pretty good even though … it’s kind of a nothing number.

Today, we’re talking with Kevin Kelly. Now, man, Kevin is known for many things. He’s the co-founder of Wired magazine. He worked with Stewart Brand on the Whole Earth Catalog. He’s the author of half a dozen books on technology and futurism, a few of which have made him even kind of a superstar in China, replete with young fans who have Kevin Kelly tattooed on their shoulders. It’s kind of crazy.

I know Kevin most of all for his Walking, actually. Long walks sometimes in the city, sometimes in the countryside, Kevin walks, and he photographs with a quiet deliberation and an endless curiosity and generosity of heart. In this episode, I speak with Kevin not about the future of technology, not about the dozen books he’s written on what technology wants, but, instead, about his travels in Asia in the ’70s during what you could kind of call a heyday of indie world exploration.

Kevin Kelly: Someone like myself who had almost nothing could, for very little, arrive in these places, which really hadn’t changed at all. They were completely medieval, cities like Kathmandu and Nepal, which was a city of, I don’t know, maybe half a million, three quarters of a million people without any cars. I mean, a city without cars. There are towns in Northern Afghanistan that had no electricity. Not just a village. I mean, a town without electricity, so it was running with kerosene lamps being lit by a lantern lighter at night and stuff. It was medieval in that sense or, at least, pre-industrial.

Craig Mod: Kevin shot thousands of rolls of film over the years. In the late ’90s, he made a book, Asia Grace. We’re going to be talking about that today.

Craig Mod: Kevin Kelly, thank you so much for making the time to be here today. It is so good to have you here with us.

Kevin Kelly: Hey, Craig, so great to hear your voice.

Craig Mod: Oh, man, it’s good to hear your voice, too, Kevin. Even though we are separated by the Pacific Ocean, I feel like you’re close. I just want to jump right into the book. You traveled extensively in your youth throughout Asia, and in 2002, many years after all that travel, you released a book through Taschen of those travels. I really want to dig into that today, what those travels meant, and how you put this book together. When were the bulk of the images taken? When was the bulk of that travel undertaken?

Kevin Kelly: I would say most of them, and there is maybe 4 to 500 images in the book, that most were taken in the ’70s, the late ’70s, and there was a smattering taken in the ’80s, and another batch taken in the ’90s, early ’90s. But the genesis of the book certainly took place in the ’70s.

Craig Mod: This was when you were traveling alone through Asia for months, for years?

Kevin Kelly: For years, yes. I was a kid with a camera, and a kid with a camera was actually pretty unusual back in the ’70s. We’re just coming out of a time, for instance, my own family, where there might be one camera per family and you had a roll of film, 24 exposures. It might take you a year, it might take 24 images a year, because you get the film developed and there’d be a picture from Easter and one from graduation, a couple from graduation, and then two or three from Halloween. People were taking maybe a couple dozen images a year.

When I said I was with camera taking lots of pictures, this was relatively very, very unusual. It was just kind of the beginning of the SLR, the single-lens reflex, moment when people were just beginning to get into it and to kind of treat this seriously, meaning that you’re taking a lot of pictures. I was an early photography fan, and I set off to be a National Geographic photographer and photograph Asia. The only thing I had in my backpack was film, basically, and what you needed to bring. It was bulky and took a lot of space and it was very, very, very expensive relative to now. One snap of the shutter, one shot, was three or four dollars, maybe even more.

I was taking two rolls, which is 70 pictures a day, and when I told people that, they were absolutely gobsmacked, astounded, incredulous. They didn’t understand how you could take 70 pictures a day. It just seemed crazy because, as I said, they were taking maybe a couple dozen a year, so this is a completely different mindset than today’s world with ubiquitous camera phones and people take 70 pictures a day without blinking. I was doing photography at a time, we were just at the beginning of that moment in our culture before everybody had a camera, when it still required a lot of kind of technical skill, a little bit of money. I would do a lot of the processing black-and-white in a dark room myself to print the images. My travels in Asia were mostly to photograph.

Craig Mod: As you were traveling, you had this backpack full of film. You were sort of mailing boxes of it home, as you shot it, to your parents.

Kevin Kelly: Right, because I didn’t have enough money to process it. I barely had enough money to buy the film, and barely enough money to travel, and no money to process it. So went home, my mom stuck it in the freezer … I read that if you froze it, it would last, and so it would stick in the freezer until I would come home and then get a job, so being at home, the job was to pave for money to get it processed. Each time I got some payment, I’d send another batch to Rochester, basically. Here’s the thing. I’m getting to look at these images years after I took them, which is a really, really bad way to learn. I mean, it’s a very terrible feedback loop because I’m shooting blind, basically. I don’t have any idea if my exposures are correct. I’m hoping that my focus is correct. You have to really pre-visualize, which was the term that photographer Ansel Adams talked about. You had to learn to pre-visualize what that was going to look like before you took it. Considering all that could go wrong, the fact that I didn’t have an automatic focus or even automatic exposure, everything was done manually, which is another thing, I did pretty good because I am manually setting exposure, and I’m photographing people. There’s no second choice, or second chance, rather. It was a long processes. Yes, I’d send the film home. I wouldn’t see it until I stop traveling, basically.

Craig Mod: That’s crazy. It’s so disconnected from where we are and how we shoot today. What kinds of film were you using? Did you have any specific techniques where you … Shooting with the Ansel Adams Zone System, for example, when you’re out there in the field?

Kevin Kelly: I had done the Zone System somewhat in my large-format black-and-white, but I was shooting color slide, which … I had two camera bodies. One had Ektachrome in, which was slightly higher speed. The other one had Kodachrome, the classic color, which is very, very slow. It was Kodachrome 64. 64, and what we would call now, today, an ISO 64. I was shooting in natural light. I was squeezing slowly and always just at the edge of having too slow a shutter speed because 64 is nothing in terms of speed, and I’m shooting in homes or wherever.

The Zone System doesn’t work really well with slide because you don’t have control over the processing. Mostly, what I’m trying to do is make sure that I have enough light and make sure that I don’t have too much light if I’m shooting outside. I’m shooting for middle gray. I mean, I’m exposing for middle gray, basically, just in terms of the tactical thing just trying to achieve a middle gray and then exposing for that, which is what it does automatically. Technically, when you are shooting today with modern cameras, you get far more control over the whole pathway than when I did with kind of a manual camera with slide film. You have one chance to get it correct, and that’s about it.

Craig Mod: Right. Well, even just today, the dynamic range, I mean, you can miss an exposure by two, three, four stops and still save the photo, which is kind of … It almost feels like cheating.

Kevin Kelly: Right, yeah, in the old days-

Craig Mod: It’s too easy.

Kevin Kelly: Right. And then, since we’re talking technique, part of what I would do every couple months is I would buy some black-and-white film locally, send a role through my camera, have it processed just to be sure my camera was working, because it was a mechanical device with mechanical shutters and there’s no maintenance needed light, there’s no little warning light saying this isn’t working, it stopped working. You wouldn’t even know it.

Craig Mod: Right. Right. Right. What were you shooting with? Were you on a Leica or were you carrying around a Nikon or were you-

Kevin Kelly: I’ve been shooting pretty seriously for 40-some years, and I have never used a state-of-the-art camera. I was shooting a Nikkormat, which was the amateur version of Nikon, because I couldn’t afford a Nikon. I’ve never had a professional camera. The lenses were pretty generic, not very fast lenses, because I couldn’t afford it either. I paid for all my travels myself. I was a kid without a career doing hourly wages, saving at money. Cameras were relatively expensive at that time and even something like a Nikon was just way out of my league. I just couldn’t afford it.

Craig Mod: Right. Well, and what’s kind of cool to think about is that, back then, they were just light-tight boxes for the most part. It’s not like the pros had a more light-tight box than the amateurs, and film was the sensor of that day. If you wanted to shoot the same film, have the same sensor that the pros had, you could get it. You just got that expan or you got that Kodachrome, and you’re shooting on the same level that the pros were to a certain degree.

Kevin Kelly: Right. Yeah. Yeah. They had little faster lenses. Very soon, they had auto advance so they could take a couple pictures in rapid succession and things like that, but, yeah, you’re right, that was a far more equitable difference between an amateur and a professional, and so I wasn’t hurt that much. The other way of saying that is, is I would have died to have a camera … The cheapest camera that you could buy today would have been just completely insane back then.

I shoot today with the point-and-shoots. I use point-and-shoots. First of all, for the kind of work I do with people, they’re silent, which is like a huge, huge thing because I’m not disturbing people. Maybe they don’t even know I’m shooting. It’s fast. The sensors in this thing are just amazing. They’re cheap because I’m not carrying film around and I can take as many pictures as I want. The clarity of the digital is so crisp and clear and the colors are so vibrant. They really do. They don’t fade. That’s another issue that I’ve had with the film was if it gets a little hot or even a lot of hot, the film can start to be affected and, over time, definitely affected.

I think even when the Kodachrome was fresh, it did not capture the colors as vividly as I think the digital sensors. That’s my opinion. In every way, digital photography today is miles superior to film. If you want to make a film look, I can add a filter and get that film look on a digital file, but you can’t go the other way round. You can’t have film make it look like digital. Anyway, I logged two camera bodies, five lenses, 500 rolls of film in my backpack. That was what photography was. It was very laborious, I would say, having to then slides with your hand, so you can’t go that fast. It’s making a huge racket.

Craig Mod: Well, and then, like you said, too, it’s like you’re not learning in the moment, right-

Kevin Kelly: Yeah …

Craig Mod: … Because it’s like, “Okay, I can write down the F-stops for each of the slide numbers if I wanted to and then go back to that and reference it when I get the stuff developed,” but if you’re getting it developed years later-

Kevin Kelly: Yeah, it’s tough.

Craig Mod: … It’s not a very tight feedback loop.

Kevin Kelly: The story really is one of hardship and difficulty, and I was there doing that for eight years or so first time around, over the period of eight years, and coming back to work in between to earn money to keep going. It wasn’t a single trip. I was having to earn money in between and living, of course, extremely cheaply.

The one other thing I would say about that general time in my life and then in the world of photography was it was an incredibly special, exceptional, never-to-be-repeated event in the history of this planet, which was, in the end of the, I would say, by the end of the ’60s and maybe until the ’80s through large parts of the world, somebody with very little money like myself could enter into areas of the world that had not changed since the medieval era. Previous to that time, if you wanted to mount an expedition to go into Tibet or into Afghanistan or somewhere, you needed to have some means. You needed to be someone with money and connection. No ordinary person could just sort of venture on because there was no support. Maybe even getting visas, you needed permission, you needed all kinds of things. But then the world began to change in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Someone like myself who had almost nothing could, for very little, arrive in these places, which really hadn’t changed at all. They were completely medieval, cities like Kathmandu and Nepal, which was a city of, I don’t know, maybe half a million, three quarters of a million people without any cars. I mean, a city without cars. There are towns in Northern Afghanistan that had no electricity. Not just a village. I mean, a town without electricity. It was running with kerosene lamps being lit by a lantern lighter at night and stuff. It was medieval in that sense or, at least, pre-industrial.

And then shortly after that, the world began to change very rapidly and, of course, anybody could visit anywhere, but it had been transformed. There was a decade or two where it had not yet transformed and it was accessible. I was traveling during that time, and so I got to enter into this time machine and see an era, just see a time when people really were living in a way that we would find very difficult to believe now, and not just materially in terms of living without electricity or plumbing, but, actually, their mindsets were completely embedded in that kind of a medieval perspective, pre-industrial perspective. They felt like that. They lived that way fully in terms of their culture and their traditions.

And so I, in some ways, became really aware of the reality of progress because I had the experience of having lived in these countries and seen with my own eyes them progress 200 years’ worth of progress in my lifetime, and so I know their progress is real. This is a kind of a side note, but there was this time when travel permitted someone to travel in time not just in space.

Craig Mod: Right. Right. Right. When you started traveling in the ’70s, did you immediately pick up on that, or did you realize as years later or decades later or …?

Kevin Kelly: My first trip was to Japan, of all places, or Taiwan first and Japan. I got this sense in Taiwan, but Taiwan was already somewhat leaving that era. During that same trip of Taiwan and Japan, I went to the Philippines, where I had an inclination. It was really on my second trip to Burma, Bangladesh, India, and then the subcontinent when I had the full immersion and I realized … So the answer is, no, it was not evident. I didn’t know that before I went out, and it was really only my second trip when I understood this.

I think, while I was very appreciative and really wanted to capture it, I don’t think I had an inclination of how fast it would change because it seemed as if … It just seemed impossible that the change would come to these places at any speed. If you had tried to bet me, say, in 1970 that within 30 years the street sweepers of India would be carrying cell phones, mini super computers, it was like, “There is no way. That’s never going to happen.” I think I was surprised by the speed at which things were transformed.

Craig Mod: Right. What’s so cool about it, too, is, as you travel those countries and especially Southeast Asia, it’s like everywhere on display are just people using tools, right, people using technology in kind of like funky, interesting, creative ways.

Kevin Kelly: Yeah. It was all transparent, all out in the open. The sense of privacy is very, very different from the west, so I would boldly wander onto people’s fields, into people home, the barns, whatever it was, looking to see what was going on. You could see how things were done and you could see the new coming in as well. That was the other lesson was this education in how things happen, how the world works, because everything was on the street, basically, or at least, open in a kind of a garage way where you could see how things were done. To kind of tie in a little bit about this travel and the book was I was on a self-assignment to … By my second trip, I kind of knew what I was doing, which was to document this stuff because I knew that wasn’t going to be there forever. I could see that. I didn’t realize it was going to disappear so fast, but I could tell it was going to disappear. I started to document it, in part not of any sense of nostalgia of trying to prevent it from happening, but just because there was a certain beauty to it. I always imagined it as a book, but, again, this was a different time when to do a book of your photographs … There was maybe five nationally famous photographers who could sell enough books-

Craig Mod: Sure, to justify, yeah.

Kevin Kelly: … Who were famous enough to justify a photo book. The possibility of me who had … I was absolutely nobody … Of having a book of my own was a dream. That was just like, “Well, someday.” I came back. I got a job in publishing, of all things. The images, while I still added to them every year, were still sitting there waiting for something, and then gradually, I would say at about the days of Wired in the ’90s, I realized that the tools for making a book were now accessible to me. I didn’t have to wait to get permission, basically, and so that I could do it myself, that I could prepare a book with my own labor.

Again, the thing about a photo book isn’t just that you can type some words and put out photos. Had this elaborate process of the reproductions of making the halftones, of having to tweak and optimize the color separations, they were called. It was a very, very expensive process that, I mean, literally was like thousands of dollars per image in the past. That was the cost of preparing an image for printing was thousands of dollars per image. That cost, and that’s not even talking about, say, the designer and the topographers and everything, so all of a sudden, the new tools of self-publishing made it within reach.

Craig Mod: When you say the new tools, you mean things like Quark or Photoshop?

Kevin Kelly: Yeah, Photoshop and Quark were basically the originals. I saw that from Wired, in the Wired days, where Wired was very early to adopt these tools to print produce a color magazine. We were outside, because we were just a startup, we were outside the whole publishing printing business industry, which still had a lot of old-fashioned quality-first kind of things, demands that we were ignoring, and still giving great results. I saw with my own eyes that Wired could print state-of-the-art photography using Quark and Photoshop.

Craig Mod: Right, and a light went off. Bing. Oh.

Kevin Kelly: Bing. It was like, “Okay, I could do his book, and the way I’ll do it is I will do the book. I would do all the work. I would do all the photo separations. I would do all the preparation, the layout, the design, and now print it out. I will prepare everything, and all they have to do is print it like we do the magazine going to the printer.” That was the solution, and so it was … Because when I submitted my book to Taschen, I was basically a photographic nobody. I have very little published. I had a couple pieces in Life, I had a couple pieces in some magazines here and there, but I didn’t really have a reputation as a photographer. I didn’t have a huge portfolio. I certainly didn’t have a name. What I did have was a completed book that was ready to be printed that looked gorgeous, and so it was very hard to say no to.

Craig Mod: I like that you presented them with this option that would just have been stupid to turn down. You say, “Everything is done. Here’s the book.”

Kevin Kelly: Everything is done. It didn’t need any translation, because Taschen is a German publisher. It didn’t need translations. It didn’t need really anything. It didn’t need proofing. It was just really ready to be printed.

Craig Mod: How did you put it together? Did you put it together in your library in your house in Pacifica or-

Kevin Kelly: Yes.

Craig Mod: … Were using the Wired offices or …?

Kevin Kelly: No, I actually had a little shed in the backyard. It was a kind of a shed, which I finished off, and had my studio there. It was literally, I don’t know, 10 feet by 10 feet. I mean, it’s really tiny, had no heat, which was a issue during the winter, and I had a Mac Plus … No, a fat mac. A fat mac, yeah. Fat mac.

Craig Mod: A fat mac? Was that a clone or-

Kevin Kelly: Yeah. I had a 10 meg disc. I had to save to these floppies and things. Doing a whole book on this … And I had my slides scanned at a scanner that did something, they weren’t high res because I couldn’t afford it, they were called For Position Only. They were basically low res versions. They were done cheaply for a couple dollars apiece and they were meant just for position only, but I also knew that for about the size that I would be publishing in the book that they were probably going to be sufficient. I didn’t need to super high res, which today would not be super high res but kind of like the ordinary thing. I hated Quark the entire time we were using at Wired. I made the very early jump to InDesign, the first version of InDesign, just because, well, InDesign was just a better designed interface. I wasn’t master of Quark’s. I wasn’t losing all the implicit knowledge that Quark people hated to lose even though InDesign was better because I was starting fresh.

Craig Mod: InDesign, it was more visual. It was actually representative of what you were going to get in a way that Quark wasn’t. I was at the very tail end of Quark’s kind of reign. I used it for one semester, and then switched over to InDesign.

What I love about this whole story and your adventures here is that it’s just kind of a set of hacks upon hacks upon hacks. In the ’70s, when you were traveling, like you said, it was this kind of golden age of you don’t need a lot of cash in a way that you would’ve a hundred years before, 50 years before, 30 years before. It would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars of equivalent cash to go on these adventures. And then once you arrived, the cost of day-to-day wasn’t that high.

Kevin Kelly: Yeah. Yeah.

Craig Mod: Like you said, film was the biggest expense, and then being at Wired and realizing, oh, there’s this publishing set of hacks that I can tap into as well.

Kevin Kelly: Yeah, it’d be equivalent of taking your Canon and making a movie that appears on Netflix. Getting a Netflix original that you shot with your Canon, somebody is going to do that if they haven’t already, and, yeah, you don’t need a million dollars to do these things. There’s always going to be these hacks that you can kind of work around because a lot of what these professional tools and the professional qualities give you are insurance. You can achieve similar result if you are willing to have to redo things or to accept a certain cut that a professional want or accept a shortcut or something, some imperfection. People are a little bit more forgiving than professionals think. Professionals are often trying to please themselves, which is perfectly reasonable, but things that look handmade often have a certain allure to themselves, too, and then that’s another thing.

Craig Mod: One of my favorite movies the last 20 years is Primer. Have you seen that?

Kevin Kelly: No, I haven’t.

Craig Mod: Primer, it’s this incredible sci-fi movie about time travel. It all takes place in a garage, basically, in Texas. Yeah, the whole movie, it was scored, it was shot, it was written, and the main actor, it’s all the same person. It’s phenomenal.

Kevin Kelly: I think we’re going to see more of that. I think we’re just at the beginning of that. I think people will go into VRs and start to film in other worlds that people … In worlds that they haven’t made that are available to them in some ways. I think the era of the auteur, the amateur filmmaker, we haven’t yet entered into that space, but we will, and it will be really almost as easy to make a film as to make a photo book, say, now.

Craig Mod: When you were doing Asia Grace, so that came out in 2002, you were putting it together in ‘99, 2000, 2001, around there?

Kevin Kelly: Yeah.

Craig Mod: I mean, obviously, back then there was no Kickstarter, there was no Patreon, there was no real … I mean, there was sort of print-on-demand but not really for a photo book like that, and so your option was, okay, I spend a summer kind of putting this thing together using the hack of low res cheaper images and get it all designed using InDesign, send it to Taschen, say, “Hey, the book is done, you guys want to publish it?” They said yes and they put it out.

Kevin Kelly: Right.

Craig Mod: That’s one process. If you had all the data today and from tomorrow, you’re like, “All right, I’m going to make this book,” how would you do it today versus how you did it 16 years ago?

Kevin Kelly: Well, actually, so I am doing it. I am doing it today. I am doing a second Asia book. My first choice is to go back to Taschen. I’m doing it very similar where I’m doing the entire thing. This time, actually, this book is going to be even bigger. I mean, it’d be insanely huge. I’m going kind of a little bit like I’ll make something that’s a beautiful artifact, that it is a very large, huge experience, heavy, maybe a little unwieldy, but when you open up the pages, you have a billboard that you’re looking at. You’re looking into a huge window. That process, so, in between, have done a couple of Kickstarter books, also very high production values, lots of color, lots of paper and stuff, but I did that model of the Kickstarter.

Asia Grace, I’m going through this process of, okay, what does it want to be for this book? I am going to go back to Taschen in part because, while I could kickstart it, Taschen is an art book empire, and they will get the book into a lot of places beyond my circle of friends. I can still point those fans to Amazon or whatever, and so they still have it. I won’t have the control over some aspects of the distribution, but Taschen will get it far wider than I could, and so since I am trying to maximize the reach … It’s not a book for everybody, but the real trick these days is to find those true fans.

By my calculation, whatever you are interested in the world, there’s going to be at least one in a million people who it’d appeal to. If there’s 20 million people, that means there’s going to be at least a thousand of them in the world. To finding the thousand true fans or 10,000 fans, whatever, is real art these days that sort of cultivate them, you grow them, but there’s still in my mind, because I don’t do this full-time, it’s not my full-time thing, I feel there’s still 10,000 people out there that I haven’t yet connected with that Taschen would help me connect with.

Craig Mod: Yeah, well, I think and that gets underestimated or that gets overlooked a lot is that, yeah, I mean, these big publishers do have this incredible reach and these incredible networks. Especially when you’re talking about art books, for example, there’s a lot of art bookstores out there that you are not going to be able to get it in on your own as a Kickstarter person. That’s interesting.

The thing, I was rereading your 1,000 True Fan essays, the new one and the old one, last night. I think what’s so powerful about them is that they’re just mathematics. That’s what makes them so exciting. You read it and you get energized by it because you’re like, yeah, it’s just math. I can inspire one person a day to kind of follow me and come on board, and in three years, I can have a thousand of them, and I can start putting things out. With the ecosystem today, I mean, it feels like the big ones are Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Patreon, and Indiegogo, I guess. Those are the four main ones. What’s fascinating is you referenced an older Kickstarter in your original post. That was called Funded or something like that.

Kevin Kelly: Yeah.

Craig Mod: It’s funny that Kickstarter is the one that took off because I think that this idea of patronage and micro-funding had been around for a while. Now, I think, actually, Patreon is the most exciting out of all of them. There’s something about having people say, “I’m opting in not to get some physical object from you all the time, but because I support the work that you’re doing.” And that when you put out something ephemeral, and I think this is the real twist is that you get a lot of these going back to video and independent video production. YouTube channels today are so phenomenally fascinating, The Primitive Technology guy, the Every Frame a Painting. To have those Patreon fans say, “Look, maybe you put out a video once a month, maybe it’s once every three months, maybe it’s once a year, it doesn’t matter to me. But when a video comes out, don’t even ask me, I’m going to give you five bucks,” I think that’s an incredible system.

Kevin Kelly: After traveling in Asia, I came back and I started a mail-order travel book business where I’m selling budget travel guides, the things I had encountered on my travels that nobody else knew about, things that were very, very rare at that time. There was a publisher in Australia called Lonely Planets. Maureen and Tony Wheeler were the people behind it. I was promoting these unknown books that I encountered. He had one book called Europe Through the Back Door. I was selling these things and doing a magazine about walking, but I sold those to work for a magazine called the Whole Earth Review, the Whole Earth Catalog. What’s interesting about that is that, unlike almost any other magazine in America, we carried no ads. It was entirely subscriber supported. We didn’t have Patreon, but we would have had if that had been available, but the power of being supported directly by your fans on a regular basis is really incredibly … It’s potent. It’s really-

Craig Mod: It’s freeing.

Kevin Kelly: It’s freeing. Right. You have a bunch of people who are saying, “We’re paying ahead. We’re going to pay ahead. Amaze us for the next 12 months.” “Okay.” You have a second customer, which is the advertisers, and they take over. Basically, your second customers take over and they take over many ways.

Here’s a little bit inside stuff from the magazines, and I always objected to this, which was that when you have a magazine that you’re only going to subscribers, you can do amazing things with the cover, because the covers are all designed for magazines on the people who don’t subscribe. We’re trying to win over people who are not your fans, and so all the people who are your fans, you’re ignoring them. That’s just one of the ways in which things are warped by having the advertising based. That’s one of the reasons why I’d been doing Cool Tools as a blog. 98%, 95% of our revenue is not from ads, unlike most other sites. It’s Amazon affiliate, which has its own aspects to it and problems, but it’s very freeing because we don’t have the customers of the advertisers to have to listen to.

I think if you can escape from that, and Patreon and Kickstarter, all these things, are ways to ride the power of your fans directly. I think, as you say, it’s really liberating when you can do that. When you’re going to a publisher, or studio, or label, something, you don’t have that direct power. Again, you have a second customer, so to speak, which is you’re kind of having to please them as well. Doing something yourself directly with your customers, there’s really no other medicine like it.

Craig Mod: Right. Well, and what’s so insidious about the advertising stuff online is that, like you said about the covers of magazines, online, every single page is the cover of the magazine, right?

Kevin Kelly: Yeah. Right.

Craig Mod: Every single page is the entry point, and so you see-

Kevin Kelly: Right, exactly, so articles are being the same click bait as covers used to.

Craig Mod: Right. Right. Everything has to be a cover now, and if you’re trying to get people’s attention, you’ll do anything to get that attention. It’s really sad.

Kevin Kelly: Yeah, and it works against the people who are already subscribers or already fans.

Craig Mod: Right. Right. The thing about platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter, too, though, that’s great, is it normalizes the idea of paying for things, right?

Kevin Kelly: Yes.

Craig Mod: 15 years ago, doing a micropayment to someone online was kind of tough. I mean, I guess you could PayPal, but, whatever, it wasn’t automatic and was kind of sketchy and you didn’t really know how much money was being collected. Now, we’ve had about eight solid years of paying creators online for us, and it’s just become normal.

Kevin Kelly: Right. Exactly.

Craig Mod: That’s really exciting.

Kevin Kelly: Yeah, it is. I’ve done books. While I just had a New York Times bestseller in my last book, The Inevitable, which came out in paperback-

Craig Mod: Congrats.

Kevin Kelly: … That was a main line, standard, mainstream publisher. I forget what it’s called now. Penguin Random House Viking. It’s one big thing. I used to be a Penguin and Viking … It’s something else now, but it’s basically the same publisher. At the same time, I just did a book called Cool Tools that was self-published. Now, we didn’t do a Kickstarter because we have this blog, which has been going on for 14, 15 years, and so there was kind of a fan base there, but it was self-published in a sense that I did all the work, hired all the work. I sent it to Hong Kong to be printed. It was sent back. We sold it on Amazon.

Again, here’s another tools. The Amazon marketplace is another of these democratic, easy, low-barrier access because you have a global market available to you for basically nothing. That book did very well. I mean, I made more money from Cool Tools than I would have going to any publisher.

It’s interesting because the reason why I self-published that originally was for speed. I came out and I wanted to have this book out for Christmas that year, and I was just finishing it in September. If I had gone to a New York publisher and said, even in the spring, if I had said I have a book I wanted in Christmas, they’ll say, “You mean, Christmas next year or two years from now.” “No, no, this coming Christmas.” “It’s only six months away,” and they would say, “That’s literally impossible.” Self-publishing, it wasn’t impossible, so I could finish it in September and have it printed in Hong Kong and come back in time to be there for Christmas. Originally, it was speed that was a choice because I would have gone with a publisher because it has better reach, but they were talking about like a year-and-a-half away. It’s like that’s crazy.

Craig Mod: Right. Well, the caveat is American publisher, right? If it’s a Chinese publisher, maybe they’re a little bit faster.

Kevin Kelly: It is. In fact, they Chinese published my latest book. They published it before the English publisher because, the same thing, they could translate it and get it into the bookstores within six months instead of a year-and-a-half.

Craig Mod: Which is amazing. It translate and publish it and get it out there.

Kevin Kelly: Exactly. Right. Right. I think that’s something to keep in mind. Time is a factor as well as expense, and that when you’re thinking of these different options about making books or publication, speed is one of the huge factors. How long will this take? If I go slow, what do I get for going slow, et cetera? For me, that’s a big element in these things.

Craig Mod: Well, and Asia Grace, too, is sort of … There’s no reason to rush with it. I mean, you sent me that presentation of your recent photos. You have 230 images in there, and you framed it as it’s a time machine. You’ve taken a time machine, Southeast Asia. Looking through the images, what’s astounding about is it’s this incredible ethnographic and aesthetic peek into this kind of, like you say, it’s a world that’s rapidly being lost. There’s no rush to get that out. The images are done. They’re kind of frozen. They’re in place. You said earlier something about there’s kind of a beauty of being witness to these sort of moments that you knew were fleeting. Why is that compelling? Why does that feel beautiful?

Kevin Kelly: Yeah. I spent a lot of my own money and a lot of time traveling in Asia for the second issue, but trying to cover all the Asian countries between Turkey and Japan, which is all the Asian countries. In a certain sense, there’s no reason for me to do this. There’s no grand world saving reasons. There’s no economic reason. I fairly concluded recently that this is a compulsion. This is absolute art as its basis that I can’t help but do this. It just pleases me. It may not even please others as much as it pleases me like you got to watch this little show. I tell you, when I watch it, I am just happy. It’s all because it pleases me and it’s really why I’m doing it.

Yes, this stuff is disappearing. I have no nostalgic for it. It’s a lifestyle that pleasing to me to visit, but I would never want to live. What’s disappearing, it’s harsh, it’s unequivocal. I mean, there’s so many things wrong with this as a place that you would have to live your life so that I’m not really sorry to see it go in that sense, but there is a beauty to it that I see in it that has to do with … It’s the beauty of being naked, okay. What it’s naked of is naked of all the recent … Okay, here it is. You mentioned this video of the Primitive Technology guy, the guy in Australia, New Zealand, who is making things using, basically, he’s using stone tools to make these amazing things.

There’s a beauty in that, in that it’s naked in a sense that he’s using nothing but what’s found, and a lot of what I’m photographing has that same kind of beauty of like being done with the most elemental things, and yet, huge variety and a gracefulness with these very, very primitive things. It’s a similar kind of beauty of how much can you do with the simplest of things: Wood, fiber, ground stone? You can make amazing things with this small amount, and kind of what I’m photographing is the very rich cultures that were built around the most elementary little things as tools.

It’s like Primitive Technology. No, he’s not starting a revolution. There’s nobody going back to live like that, right? I mean, there’s just a kind of a beauty that you could make a stove and make tiles for your roof just with mud in your backyard. That’s the kind of beauty that I’m kind of exploring with these images is like, well, they’re making not just a shed in their backyard, but you’re making temples, you’re making entire cities that are built by hand with the same kind of mud, the same technology. That’s sort of what I’m celebrating is this … I just find it, like the Primitive Technology, I just find it beautiful.

Craig Mod: Right. Well, of the 230 images you showed me yesterday, I think only four or five of them don’t have people in them.

Kevin Kelly: Right. For me, the ideal photograph in my books is a scene that could only have been photographed in that place. It’s a scene that has people in a costume in an architecture doing something that could only have been done right there. You couldn’t fake it in the studio. You couldn’t make it somewhere else. It had to have happened in a very, very particular place. The entire scene, in a fractal way, all the things reflect the fact that this had been taken in Tajikistan up in the mountains because of the clothing, their architecture, the animals, and it couldn’t have been nowhere else. People are part of that.

You also know that’s the most that people were kind of in what I would call costume. They were in native things, and so it’s reflecting the fact that you couldn’t … And you also couldn’t have taken it a different time. You couldn’t have taken it now. No, this could only have been taken at one place. This is very, very distinctive by the fractal nature of the things. People are something that’s hard to fake, right, so you can’t really fake that very well.

One of the things I have noticed about costumes where people get it wrong, say, in movies, is that even in the most ancient time when people were wearing clothes, every person dressed differently. There was no uniform. There’s never been a uniform. If I would go to even 200 years ago in a random Afghan village, there’d one guy with a vest, one guy would have a long robe, one guy would have like a overcoat, one guy would have short sleeves, one guy would have stripes, one guy would have …. It’s like there’s no uniform. They have certain things, a certain kind of a grammar, fashion grammar, but they’re not wearing the same thing. That kind of veracity, that kind of detail would be missing if somebody tried to fake an image these days that you don’t see in the images that I take.

Craig Mod: Well, and looking at your images, too, I mean, there’s kind of almost like a … There’s like a true dustiness to them, right? You can’t fake the atmospheres either. It feels so cool. While I was looking at them, I was thinking of Wim Wenders’s book, Written in the West, which was this photo book that he put together when he was scouting out his Paris, Texas, movie. His book, it only has one person in it in the whole thing. It’s otherwise just these kind of shots of storefronts or bits and pieces of these cities. He wrote about that, that for him, the act of photographing was seeing something and recording it as if it were the last possible chance do so even for those most mundane moments.

Kevin Kelly: Right. The reason why I have people is I’ve decided this is kind of like a hierarchy of loss. There’s an order in which the traditional things disappear. The first thing that disappears is actually costume, and then the second thing that disappear will often be architecture, and then food, and the last to go is language. And so because costume is the first to go, I take a lot of pictures of people with costumes because I could go back later and the architecture would still be there. If you take the people out, it will look very similar, but once the people are in there, then you realize that it has changed. People is another way of kind of grounding it in this very rich time.

Craig Mod: Right. You think the costumes going first is just sort of like a diminishing return on time required to produce that sort of stuff or?

Kevin Kelly: I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve been working on this other theory that we may be headed towards a global convergence in certain things like clothing, apartments, curriculum, media, where I was talking to Jan Chipchase about trying to design a global survey. My little task would be to have millennial aged kids around the world draw their ideal apartment, their ideal living space, or even maybe their ideal life. I’m willing to kind of bet that a lot of them look very similar.

Craig Mod: What do you think the qualities are?

Kevin Kelly: Well, I don’t know. That would be the thing is like, what are they going to include? What would be in the room? The way you kind of draw, well, kids draw a little house, the roof and little chimney, maybe the room has a little picture on the wall, and maybe it has a refrigerator. I don’t know. That’s what I’m interested to see whether there’s going to be cultural or regional differences. This struck me that, if you take a picture of a random person on the street today, it’s really hard to tell where you are. Do you know about geoguessr.com?

Craig Mod: No. No. What’s GeoGuessr?

Kevin Kelly: Geoguesser.com, it gives you a random place on Google maps and you have to identify where it is. It puts you on a street, and then you get points for how close you are to the actual … It’s really hard to tell in a city. It’s easier to tell out in a country, but in a city, in the urban areas, which are becoming more and more … It really is like people dress very similar most of the world. The young people, I’m talking about.

Maybe part of what my photography is about is celebrating those differences that are … My new book is going to be called The Vanishing Asia. These are things that are vanishing. Again, I’m not nostalgic about them, I understand why they’re vanishing, I choose to vanish them when I have a chance, but there is a beauty to those things that are vanishing. Doing traditional dress maybe is expensive. I don’t know why people have decided to wear T-shirts all over the world. Maybe because they’re cheap. Maybe because they’re comfortable. I don’t know.

Craig Mod: Well, I think your point about creativity and I think your point about raw materials is really at the heart of it, right? I mean, you’re witnessing this moment where people weren’t connected, but they all had the same raw materials, and they all had to make the same kinds of things like you needed a house to live in, you needed a shirt to put on to protect you from the sun or whatever, but everyone chose to do it in their own unique creative ways.

Kevin Kelly: That was a lot to do with they didn’t all have exactly the same materials. Different weathers, climates, and so they would use mud, but based on how often it rained, what kind of rain, how hot or dry, they would make different architecture. The clothes were often partly influenced by the width of their looms, what kind of materials they had to weave from, which would make different kind of clothes, when they wear the clothes, the climates, whether it got cold or not.

There was a similar set or pool of different elements to choose from, but I think what happens, technology in some ways, that’s the whole point of technology, it buffers us from those localities. We really live in a place that gets hot in the summer and cold in winter, we don’t want to be hot in the summer and cold in winter, so we use technology to make this room temperature. If you have something in room temperature, why not make it a square box that’s dry because square box really works at room temperature? If you can air-condition, yeah, a square box, it doesn’t work if you don’t have air conditioning.

Craig Mod: Right. Right. Right. I was hiking with a friend in December, at the end of last year, and he turned to me and he said, “God, with all these technologies, you think it’d be easier to stay warm.” He was cold. I just went, “Are you crazy? We are able to walk anywhere in the world with a few layers on, essentially, and our sweat is wicked away, and when we get inside, it’s not arduous to take everything off. We aren’t in like spacesuits.” The fabrics and the technology that we have to sort of swaddle ourselves to go out to the world, it’s so advance today. It’s like you’re complaining because your cheeks are cold. It’s not only does technology buffer us, but it causes us to acclimate in a way that we forget how easy and comfortable things really are.

Kevin Kelly: Yeah, and we go camping and stuff to be hot and cold and sweaty and wet. That’s the entire purpose is basically to remind ourselves of what we have. I think people who go camping or hiking a lot probably make that complaint less because they understand what they’re getting. They understand the subsidy that we get from technology.

Craig Mod: Right. Well, so in your book, Vanishing Asia, that costume, that kind of architecture, in a way it’s sort of a really nuanced, like data visualization of that environment, of those people.

Kevin Kelly: Yes. Right. Yeah. In a very holistic … I mean, it was a very holistic approach. It came at great ingenuity of, again, we go back to this video, the Primitive Technology guy who has just a stone tool, that you could produce such amazing things with very, very small set of tools, and using just natural muscle power is really amazing. There’s a huge variety that came out of that, again, depending on the circumstances.

The other thing, too, I realize about costumes and looking at historical stuff is there was fashion even a thousand years ago, meaning that they changed, the costumes changed over time, not centuries, but decades. People would be wearing something, and then the next decade they wouldn’t be, and they would be pointing to the people who were a decade behind, and so all these traditional costumes, when we think of traditional customs, were in tremendous flux. They aren’t static at all, and what is traditional is just really traditional for some time period, whether it’s in the 1700s or the 1500s or the 1000. That was another kind of a shock is that people had fashion even back then.

Craig Mod: Right. Well, and maybe that’s part of what is so beautiful about bearing witness to that is it’s this weirdly fundamental human thing to care about aesthetics, right?

Kevin Kelly: Yeah, right.

Craig Mod: There is function to it, but once the function has been settled, we go deep into the aesthetic realm for whatever reason.

Kevin Kelly: Right. Right. We have aesthetics in books, and other things, in photography. All the arts have styles, which you can kind of often date things because it’s very hard escape that fashion.

Craig Mod: Right. When is Vanishing Asia set to launch?

Kevin Kelly: It’s not set to launch right now. I mean, it’s still even too early to have a date. I’m wrestling. I’ve been doing some designs. The other cool thing that has advanced in terms of tools that are available, when I submitted my work to the first Asia book, I gave a Inkjet printout, which did not have a true correspondence with what was going to be printed. These days, the color space and the color management systems have become so sophisticated even, again, for the layperson, for you and me, that I had an offer of the tech guy at the National Geographic to do some proofs of me at National Geographic of some of my test pages, which I had also proofed at FedEx or Kinko’s, and they were exactly the same.

Craig Mod: Oh, man.

Kevin Kelly: So, yeah, right, exactly. You take it down to, you know, and have them do their best quality thing, and that’s exactly what’s going to be printed.

Craig Mod: I think that just says more about the state of National Geographic than …

Kevin Kelly: No. Yeah, well, maybe. Maybe it does. No, that’s another tool that has moved in where you, and I know this from doing Cool Tools and Silver Cord and other books were printed in Hong Kong, we can now get a pretty good idea of how to pre-visualize what it actually look like when it’s been printed, and also, the printing quality has continued to increase to be very, very consistent to match what your proofs look like. I’m only mentioning that because that’s the stage I’m in, just in terms of designing the pages, the design of the pages, proofing, making the work flow, getting the color correction right. I have at least a year’s worth of work to design these pages.

Craig Mod: Wow, and how many photos in total are you culling from?

Kevin Kelly: There will probably be close to 10,000 images in the book.

Craig Mod: Oh, my god. In the book?

Kevin Kelly: In the book.

Craig Mod: Oh, my god.

Kevin Kelly: I have color corrected, processed probably about 9,500 of them already, so I have, whatever, maybe I have 10% still to do better or to tweak or whatever. Right now, it’s placing. Each page will have a lot of images on them. Each page will look different than every other page. There will be about 800 pages or something. Every page will be different, and they’ll also have captions for every image, so there’s a lot of writing. Yeah, it’s a ways away.

Why am I doing this? Because I have to. There’s no logical reason to it. If Taschen doesn’t want to do it, then I’ll probably go to Kickstarter. If Kickstarter doesn’t want it, I’ll print out two copies, one for myself and one for my family. I’m going to do it no matter what because I have to do it.

Craig Mod: Well, that’s the only way you can get through 10,000 photo edits.

Kevin Kelly: Yes, because it doesn’t make any sense any other way.

Craig Mod: Right. Right. Well, I think that’s a good note to end on, a note of obsessive creative need and artistic desire. Thank you so much, Kevin, for making time to talk today. It’s been a real pleasure.

Kevin Kelly: Hey, yeah, it was really good. I love talking about photography and books, and with you, Craig, about anything. It was a real delight. Let’s do it again.

Craig Mod: Hey, oh, my god, that was … Seriously, that was such a fun interview. Kevin and I recorded that back in July, a few months before this episode aired. It just took me a while to kind of get through it all because, I don’t know, I wanted to do justice to what was there. It’s just me putting this thing together in my closet, literally. I’m sitting in my closet right now. It’s sponsored by air and by pizza, which enters my body, plus coffee, and allows me to produce this thing. I’m kind of learning all these as I go along and sort of roping my friends into being on this thing.

If you want to help out supporting this podcast, if you think it’s interesting, if you’re enjoying it, one of the biggest things you could do is just go to iTunes and rate it for me. Just go in there and if you can write a comment, write a review, that’d be huge. I think that those things really do have meaning. Going and landing on a podcast that has two reviews certainly sends a different image than one that has 200 reviews. That would be my big ask for all y’all. If you’re enjoying this and you want to support it and you want to see more of it, please just go to iTunes. I know it’s the worst program in the world. I know it’s so painful to go in there and rate something or comment on something, but it would mean a lot and it would kind of help me stay motivated in some ways when I’m working on the next episode, of which I have several in the works.

On Margins, a podcast about making books and book-shaped things!

On Margins is a podcast about making books, hosted by Craig Mod.

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