Saturday, 11 July 2009

Mirrors, Windows, Walls

Being a competitive but essentially realistic guy, I avoid competitions. Like the Lottery, they promise so much, but never deliver anything. But for the same reason, I find it hard to ignore them, like Charlie Brown with that football. For example, I had resolved not to go anywhere near this year's Photography.Book.Now competition, or even Paul Butzi's SoFoBoMo.

The Photography.Book.Now competition is run by Blurb, an up-market, relentlessly hip, web-based "publish on demand" company, who have clearly realised that their core market is not aspiring cook-book writers, but photographers like me. Last year, they launched P.B.N as a fairly typical competition, in that the costs of prizes, judges' fees, etc. -- plus no doubt some profit and some publicity -- are covered partly by sponsors but mainly (I presume) by entrants paying an entrance fee. I don't really go along with the cynical response that describes this as a scam, but -- like any competition with the prospect of winning 25,000 dollars (!) -- I suspect most entrants do try to second-guess the judges and produce a book that they think will win, rather than a book that they like. Interestingly, though, last year I did pick and vote for the eventual winner, Beth Dow.

Now, some people regard the likes of Blurb as little better than a Web 2.0 version of vanity publishing, but I think that's unfair and also misses the point. Having spent many years making low-tech books of my own photography, I was very excited by Lulu and Blurb when they first started up. Unless you have struggled with printing and binding your own books, whether it be a "simple" concertina-style presentation of a few words and images or a full-on attempt at imposition and sewn binding, you have no idea what a simple joy it is to lay up an elaborate book in software designed for the purpose, and receive through the post a nicely-produced approximation of what Blurb calls (slightly generously) "book-store quality." However, the down side has turned out to be very variable quality control -- it seems to be impossible to guarantee that one print run will resemble another. But it's a parallel experience to digital photography: old hands who have struggled with film and the darkroom are blissed out by the sheer ease with which unprecedented quality can be achieved, newcomers tend to be like spoiled brats for whom nothing is ever quite good enough.

The one good thing about competitions is that they can push a procrastinator over the edge into actually doing something. For example, finishing off a series of photographs, putting them into sequence, making a book, even if only in the form of a "book dummy" or a PDF. This is a very worthwhile thing to attempt, and the free BookSmart software package from Blurb simplifies the process a great deal. It's simply a lot of fun to play with. In the past, I have not needed this stimulus, and have produced a number of books, self-published under my own imprint. But I've lost some impetus over the past couple of years, and finally conceded that a stimulus and a deadline were precisely what I needed. The prospect of winning 25,000 dollars had nothing to do with it.

I have several potential books bubbling under, but I decided the simplest and quickest would be the "campus windows" images, sequenced in a simple chronological order. I also decided that this would be a one-off, an infeasibly expensive item for my own shelves only, so I went for the new 30cm x 30cm format, on the best paper -- nearly £50 for one copy at 78 pages in hard covers... That may sound expensive, but compared to the cost of even a limited run of a small, cheaply-produced paperback from a conventional printer (thousands, trust me), it really is peanuts. Plus you don't end up with stacks of boxes of unsellable copies. Two evenings later, I had gone as far as I wanted with Mirrors, Windows, Walls, a provisional, de luxe version of what will eventually be a smaller but "properly" published book.

Here is a PDF version, courtesy of Issuu:

The bad thing about competitions, of course, is that you never win. Which is, of course, why I don't like them. What was I thinking?

1 comment:

James.M said...

This is a wonderful collection. I love the colours and the density of the compositions. I can see these looking fantastic in print. I'm jealous!