In Person

Periodically in Photo Happenings I post a conversation
with a personality in the photography world in Portland.

A conversation with Laura Russell


Last year was the 5th anniversary of 23 Sandy. The gallery is always closed during January, but this year Laura was taking time to reorganize and re-focus. Wanting to know more, I met with her at Starbucks in the Hollywood district, not too far from her gallery, and across from her personal studio. Laura is known as one of Portland's hardest working dealers and I wanted to know what she had planned.


Laura grew up in Michigan, starting her first job at 15, working in a library in Hemlock, Michigan.   Her parents got divorced about that time, and since her mother had been a stay-at-home mom, they were adament that Laura get educated with marketable skills.  "I desparately wanted to go to art school", Laura remembers, but ended up majoring in Marketing and Managment.  With a minor in accounting.   "I'm glad now that I got that training—it's helped me develop this buisness".

"I moved to Denver to work as a graphic designer, and joined the American Institute of Graphic Arts".  At one of the programs she saw a slide show about hand-made books.  "I was snake-bitten, I became obsessed".

Since hand-made books are all the rage now, I wanted to know if there was a tipping point that brought us to the present market.  "I attribute it to the book by Shereen LaPlante in the mid-nineties.  It was the first how-to book, making art books more accessible" she said.  "I thinkthat really sparked our modern day explosion of interest in handmade books."   Laura shared her  blog post about Shereen LaPlantz.


"I spent 5 years learning how to bind books.  "Then one day came the "aha moment, when I realized I could use my own photographs".  Laura showed me her (29th) book, "Urban Decay."  With a plywood front and pages singed around the edge, it is about small town neighborhoods with vacant, burned out houses.

"It's the ability to use alternative materials" that makes them so creative and popular.   The hand-made edition of 25 of Burned out Houses has sold out, at $400, and there is now a blurb book that sells for $28.  "It's the doing it", she said.  "Books like this are great for photographers, because there is usually one image per page."   The most popular, though, are Pop-up Books, they have a "specific structure called a tunnel book".  Another sample she showed me was called a woven accordian structure.

Her husband of 18 years, Steve, is a commercial real estate broker.  "When we moved to Portland, we found an old Portland home with a storefont" and she founded 23 Sandy in 1997 as a photography gallery.   "Even though I continued creating hand-made books" (she has a studio in the Hollywood District), "23 Sandy was a very active gallery, holding new shows each month, and participating in First Friday."

"I started with two artist book shows the first year I opened and, due to popular demand, grew to 9 artist books shows in 2012."   It was wildly popular, and "I came to realize that there was only one other gallery dealing full time in artist books, and that was abecedariangallery in Denver.  23 Sandy is a destination and people who are looking for artist books will find us".  After a few years "I realized I was spending 95% of my time my time on just 35% of the business."   She determined that she needed to change focus.

When the gallery re-opens February 1, "The visible change will be the bookcases, all of my back room inventory will be out, close to 500 books and broadsides".  23 Sandy will be doing 2 juried shows a year, and 2 or 3 book-arts shows.

I related to what she said, that artists and customers think gallery owners work bankers hours and just look at art all day.   "I guess I had been paying my dues, working 100 hours a week for 6 years".   It was time to work smarter.

As she got deeper into artist books, she found that most university libraries have sections on handmade books, so she took to the road"I take my big case of books and visit universities, laying them out on the table just like a salesman."..... 70% of what I sell goes to University Libraries, and since most hand-made books do not have ISBN numbers, all sales need to done this way.  "Also, I go to hand-made book fairs around the country".

When we met again at her studio, Laura was just getting back from Santa Barbara.. Traveling throughout Southern California, "I made two sales calls a day. It was a succesful trip."  
Beginning in February at 23 Sandy, there will be no more openings or gallery listings, and maybe an infrequent artist talk. "Book people will find me."

You can keep up at

Web site:





Laura's Personal Web Site: