Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Mirrors, Windows, Walls

I've been working at getting the "university windows and walls" images into a sequence for a Blurb book and, potentially, an exhibition [Ahem, any of you gallery people out there interested in putting on a 40-75 image show? No harm in asking!].

Sequencing is almost as enjoyable as taking the pictures, but a lot more like work. Early on, I took the decision that I would make a book entirely composed of "facing pairs". I'm bored with that traditional photo-book approach of "image on right hand page, blank page facing on left", and wanted the challenge of making double spreads that had impact but also worked together to advance the thematic concerns of the set (though I'm not quite ready for that "full bleed" look, yet, i.e. pictures going all the way to the edges of the page). I actually took a day's leave today to give the job my undivided attention. It must be nice to make a living this way.

Here are a few page-spreads that I'm happy with. So far, I have 59 such pairs to work with, plus a stack of other images, which means I've got well over 100 good pictures to use. That's far too many for a wall exhibition, but a good number for a book. If I can keep the page count below 80, it will fall into Blurb's second lowest price band for a "standard landscape" 8"x10" book.




This is a game anyone can play: just download the free BookSmart software from Blurb, edit some images into, say, 8"/20cm wide JPEGs at 300dpi, and away you go. If you're serious about your photography, you'll learn a lot, even if you never actually upload and buy a copy of your book.



I'm not going to burden the book with much text, and may simply use these three quotations to give the sequence some structure:

"The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows"
Sydney J. Harris (journalist)

"The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge"
Daniel J. Boorstin (historian and Librarian of Congress)

"Sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment"
Jalaluddin Rumi (Persian poet & Sufi)

There's a useful movement there from the acquisition of knowledge, through the discovery of the illusion of knowledge, to the wisdom of bafflement ("the more I know, the more I realise how little I know", etc.), which -- though not describing everything the pictures are about -- is a useful programme to hang a sequence on.

10 comments:

Kent Wiley said...

Good looking examples. I've got a lot of wall pictures, too. One of these days I guess I should pull them together.

Sequencing pairs makes a good deal of sense to me as well. My current portfolio was put together that way. I'd love to hear some of the logic that goes into your process. Or is it completely a touchy-feelie thing?

Mike C. said...

Kent,

For me, it's somewhere between the two. I start off looking for a few core pairs that simply demand to go together -- echoes of shapes, complementary colours, that sort of thing -- then work outwards from there.

Connections and themes start to appear -- notice the "small well-defined reddish-brown object" in the left hand image of these pairs, for example -- and the process becomes a bit like sorting through a big stack of random bubble-gum cards, looking for connections (I used to love doing that when I was a kid).

Then, I impose some "logic" on it -- what am I trying to say with this sequence? Is it a story, or is it an essay, or simply a batch of complementary pictures? How can I order them to bring that out? Is there a satisfying pattern that begins and ends convincingly, or does it just start with a bang and peter out?

An important question for me is how do I distribute the "killer" pictures -- the use of less obvious pictures to space and cue up the key pictures is a large part of the process. You don't want all your best stuff bunched up at one end or the other.

Sometimes, the most important pictures turn out to be pretty negligible in their own right, but have just the right transitional elements to make a sequence make sense. And -- *always* -- a couple of the original, core, "killer" pictures have to be dropped, because they no longer make sense in the full context. Next time, boys... It's like managing a football team...

Mike

Tim said...

A great project idea. I've been flailing around looking for one. I have a huge library of old scanned photos and newer digital ones and I'll soon have the time - I retire in April. Weekends go too quickly - I need uninterrupted time in the "man cave". Thanks for the idea.

Mike C. said...

Tim,

Blurb books are addictive, but (as Graham D. suggested a few posts back) they're also a great way to preserve your best work in a form that's less likely to get binned shortly after you yourself have exceeded your "use by" date...

Some people carp about the quality, but I don't know what they're expecting. My standards are pretty high, and I've only once sent a book back (the cover was creased).

Mike

Kent Wiley said...

Indeed, something to work on. I've been away from printing for some time now - probably over a year - so I've not been looking at my own images any way but on a monitor. But ultimatley I do prefer books for looking at photographs.

How many images would you put in the 80 page book?

BTW - since you're not mentioning it here, Happy B'Day Mike!

Mike C. said...

Kent,

Well, it's just maths, really. If you're going to do it right, an 80 page book ("pages" meaning "sides" in this context) is about 4 to 6 pages of "preliminaries" (title page, introduction, etc.) and at least 1-2 "outro" pages at the end. Say, 72 sides left.

If you go for the simple, classic "left side blank, right side image" layout, that's about 36 pictures maximum; for "facing pairs", that's 70 or so. Other layouts are available, of course... I usually like to mix up pairs and single images, plus a few multiple image pages -- around 40-50 is normal, I'd say.

Mike

Graham D said...

Interesting comments Mike, and some very nice images and spreads here that you’ve used to tease us with. It’s an interesting experience putting a photo book together in Blurb, seeing the way in which the sequence, pairing, change of size can affect the way the images read and the book conveys an overall feeling or impression.

Yes, the standard ‘blank left page, image right’ page format is rather boring; and can seem rather pompous at times. However, when Robert Delpire was interviewed for the ‘Genius of Photography’ series, he explained the he and Robert Frank designed ‘The Americans’ in the expectation that the viewer would turn the pages every couple of seconds in the manner of a rather slow flick book. When read this way one does get the feeling of a road journey. The recent Steidl copy I have of this book is just the right size to do this (8.5”X7.5”). I have other books that are so bloody big you have to reverentially place it on a table an monk-like slowly turn the leaves for fear of damaging them.

It’s interesting to compare ‘The Americans’ with William Klein’s contemporaneous ‘Life is Good & Good for You in New York’. The thing that is striking about this book is how dynamic and modern it looks even today, with its full page bleeds, images over two pages, multiple images of uneven size etc. Both are landmark books but with very different designs to showcase the images in very different ways. There’s obviously a lot to learn about putting together a book; I hope you enjoyed your day off!

Mike C. said...

Graham D,

That's interesting about "The Americans", I'd not heard that before.

Don't get me started on big books (see post "Oi, Nazraeli, No!" back on 7/11/10). I've fallen out of love with Raymond Meeks's recent books over exactly this issue -- they're too big, and too vulnerable to damage to enjoy using -- they're like student projects, not books, and you feel like you should be wearing those white cotton gloves. Ditto some of Josef Koudelka's recent work in the "concertina" format -- I hardly dare open my copy of "Reconnaissance Wales".

Give me a solidly-bound 8x10 any day. The whole point of a book is to protect its contents, not to become a trip hazard around the house... Interestingly, the Japanese *get* photo-books in a way American publishers simply don't. Having small, cramped houses like us in the UK must help, of course.

Mike

Graham D said...

Mike,

I enjoyed your Nazraeli post – now when I order from Amazon I take care to note the book’s with dimensions. You’re spot-on with the optimum size being 8x10. For me, the acid test of a photobook’s readability is whether or not I can easily handle the book on a shared sofa or in bed, and the 8x10 is pretty much the sweet spot. I’ve recently enjoyed reading Derek Jarman’s Garden (9x7), and I was struck just how tactile it felt in my hands.

You can, however, go too far. I have an exquisite little book of photos by Brian Griffin. Leather bound and gilt edged, it is made like a small prayer book. Unfortunately, with the very generous white margins afforded to each image, the photos ended up looking like 35mm contact prints. I’d really rather not need a loupe to read my books!

Mike C. said...

Graham D,

Yes, that Jarman book is very nice -- a good size, and a good mix of text and photographs.

For an example of the truly dinky that works, there's a nice book "Andre Kertesz, the early years" published by W.W. Norton, which is about 13cm square, with tiny family album sized prints.

For an example that doesn't work (like your Griffin) I have an absurd book of Hiroshi Sugimoto seascapes, where each image is 9cm x 7cm on a 13x18 page... It's a beautiful object that simply fails to present its content adequately. It might as well be the same image repeated throughout the book.

Mike