Stephen Apkon, Executive Director of the Jacob Burns Film Center, On His New Book
We chatted with the JBFC’s executive director about his new tome, The Age of Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens
By Marisa LaScala
Photograph by Lynda Shenkman Curtis
When we think of Stephen Apkon, we usually think of film, being that he’s the executive director of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville. Now, you can also find him at your local bookstore.
Apkon’s new book, The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens, comes out from publisher Farrar, Straus, & Giroux on April 16. It explores the world of visual literacy, and how visual communication has a language and grammar all its own. “The recent technological revolutions in video recording, editing, and distribution are more akin to the development of moveable type than any other such revolution in the last five hundred years,” the book’s description explains. At least one person was impressed: Martin Scorsese wrote the forward.
Want to see what he’s talking about in action? On April 15, Apkon appears at the Jacob Burns to talk about the book — and illustrate his points with film clips and personal stories. A Q&A reception follows the screening.
Until then, we caught up with him to ask a few questions.
Courtesy of Jacob Burns Film Center
How did you come to write this book? Did you pitch it to the publisher, or did they approach you?
It has been a long time in the making — thinking about these issues for years and being encouraged by many friends and colleagues to do a book. When my agent Gloria Loomis got involved and was so enthusiastic it all seemed to come together. When [Farrar, Straus, & Giroux] and my editor Sean MacDonald got on board, it all became real.
We’ve heard about the importance of visual learning for as long as we’ve been covering the Jacob Burns Film Center. Why was now the right time to write a book about it?
There is a moment of time that has emerged in the last years that has brought the tools of creation and distribution together to unlock the full potential of visual media.
Who is the ideal reader for The Age of the Image?
The book is meant for anyone who thinks about the ways in which we communicate and navigate out world — which means everyone.
How did Martin Scorsese come to write the forward? What was your reaction after you first read it?
He was interested in the idea and when he read the manuscript he decided to write the foreword. That was a thrilling moment — and then to read what he wrote. Beyond thrilling.
What surprised you most while you were writing it?
Getting into the mechanics of vision and how creative an act it is gave me a real sense of wonder and awe at our human abilities.
Did you think there might be something ironic about writing an in-print book with few pictures about the importance of visual storytelling? Did you ever think of doing it on another platform, such as a series of Web videos?
I made a specific decision to write a book and not make a film on this subject, and I talk about it directly in the book. Print text is not dead or dying. Yet it is but one tool in our communication toolbox. And the image has clear advantages in terms of conveying certain kinds of experiences as well.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I have a film that I produced along with the Director Ido Haar — Enlistment Days — that I am extremely proud of. It will be out this year.
What recent movies have you really enjoyed? What should people go out of their way to make sure they see in the theater or home video? (My two recent favorites are both about young people in the Bronx: The We and the I and Gimme the Loot, which I know has a JBFC connection!)
Gimme the Loot was written and directed by one of our former programming staff, Adam Leon, who took the summer off to make his first film. And now he has all of Hollywood banging down his door. And it couldn’t be more deserved. He is a great guy and enormously talented. It is a movie that I have really enjoyed and excited to see it out in the world. I am also excited about a new project of Jonathan Demme’s, which I don’t know if he is ready to talk about. It is based on an Ibsen play and is devastatingly powerful. It is fun to watch it all come together under the hands of a master.
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