Saturday, 5 March 2016

Eternal Wisdom

I've finally – finally! – got down to the work of collating the photographs of the Hockley Viaduct, St. Catherine's Hill and the surrounding area. As you can imagine, there is a lot of work to choose from but, as always, once you start looking for the genuine A-listers (plus their companions of choice), eliminate the impostors, and put the reserve candidates on hold, things narrow down quite quickly. It is very like shortlisting applicants for a job, with the pleasant difference that there can be fifty or so successful outcomes. Come to think of it, the interviewer's mantra ("Can they do the job? Will they do the job? Will they fit in?") is very appropriate.

During this process of evaluative scrutiny connections and threads also start to emerge, which are what will hold the book together, thematically. I say "book", but I think I mean "books". For reasons I needn't go into, I decided to limit myself to forty-eight pages. If nothing else, this is the sort of constraint within which creativity thrives. As soon as you know you can't do something, you immediately start thinking of ways of getting round that self-imposed limitation, the cooking starts, and the thin soup eventually gets reduced to a tasty gravy. You hope. In this case, it quickly became clear that to include all six main themes – the viaduct, the hill, the water-meadows, the M3 motorway, the river Itchen, and Twyford Down – in just forty-eight pages would result in a hopelessly congested and compressed sequence, with no room for it to develop or have any breathing space. After some thought, I realised I clearly needed to make two books, one for the viaduct, the M3, and the Itchen – a sort of "passing through" volume – and one for the hill, the meadows and the down – the "permanent residents" volume. Yes, I know, it's a double album...

I've started with the "viaduct" volume. I'm still very much in the early stages, and anything might change, not least the title, but here are a few page spreads I think are already working quite well.




One constant practical challenge is mixing and matching photographs with different properties, not least their aspect ratio and resolution, as a result of having gone through two micro 4/3rds cameras (Panasonic GF1 and G3) and two APS-C cameras (Fuji X-100 and XE-1) in the five-year period of this "project", if we can dignify such dilatory picture-making with that description. The second spread is a good example.  I could crop the "fatter" image, of course, and perhaps I will, but it would mean losing some of the accidental markings that make the pairing work, so I probably won't. But maybe there's a possible "fat/thin" rhythm I could exploit to good effect?  What was I saying about creative constraints?

This is "plain vanilla" book design, of course, with single images centred on blank white pages. When I first became interested in self-made books, I indulged in all the fancy stuff that serves to flatter one's idea of oneself as "challenging" the stuffy old conventions of book design. Jumbled images, ostentatious typography, concertina folds, pop-ups, translucent pages with text that overlaid the images, coloured pages, torn pages, loose pages... In the end, the photographs were serving as mere decoration within these self-indulgent exercises in factitious "originality".

An eminent photographer, seeing one of these efforts, said to me, "Mike, you need to decide whether you are a photographer or a book artist; I don't think you can be both..." I thought he was wrong at the time, but gradually came to realise how much I was trivialising my own work by treating it as just another design element in the artist's book brew. I then saw the eternal wisdom of the traditional photo-book which pushes the photographs to the fore, and then modestly gets out of the way, in the same way that clear black type on white paper is unsurpassed and unsurpassable as a way of presenting text. Although to realise the truth of this you may have had to have tried to read the "underground" press in its pink-on-purple heyday.

11 comments:

amolitor said...

I feel like I'm a few steps behind you here, still pretty sure Book Art can be usefully combined with photographic Art.

I feel like some of the stuff I see on Daniel Milnor's blog hits pretty close.

That said it's pretty clear that getting fancy doesn't serve every subject.

I should probably just check your archives, and save myself a bunch of work by just re blogging whatever you were saying three or four years ago!

Mike C. said...

Oh, sure, no question -- the issue is, which will you choose as your "major", so to speak?

I started out making my own, one-off, hand-made books in the 1990s (Bea Nettles has some useful tips on DIY bindings, etc.) and originally thought, "Artist's books, that's me!" I even exhibited a few in various group shows (inc. one in the USA, St. Louis, I think it was). But, gradually, as I say, began to realise I was really a photographer, and then "on demand" publishing arrived with Lulu and Blurb, and it just felt good to work within the constraints of traditional design.

I haven't actually blogged much about book-making, for the same reasons. In the end, we all have to find our own path -- mine doesn't happen to include much literal cut'n'paste... Doesn't mean I don't like fancy books, of course, but I usually have a strong sense of "been there, done that", and above all, "Why? What has been added to the experience by doing [whatever novel thing has been done]?"

Making books has a lot in common with arranging songs, I think. A good arrangement lifts a song, a poor one smothers it. But an awful lot of artist's books are all arrangement, no song...

Mike

amolitor said...

Yes, Keith Smith is all arrangement, but what arrangement!

I have all 25 volumes.. I open them up to the right pages according to the eldritch codex I find buried under the altar, and arrange the books in the pattern dictated by the arrangement of the planets once every 45445656 years and...

Wait, this is just a picture of another naked dude.

Thomas Rink said...

Hi Mike,

ah, the aspect ratio problem! I see that quite some photographers follow a very formal approach - original aspect ratio of the camera only, no cropping. On the other hand, some compositions work best within a certain aspect ratio, and the more stretched a rectangle is, the higher its "tension" or "dynamics". I guess that this applies even more so for landscape vs. portrait orientation. Perhaps the formal approach is easier, since it eliminates this variable from consideration when creating a sequence. On the other hand, it takes away some freedom from the design of the individual photographs.

Did you experience problems in matching the color rendition and contrast between the different camera systems? If so, was it a lot of work to make them match?

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

I'm not a purist, by any means -- obviously, I crop a lot of the images in this blog square, both because I like the square format (a liking acquired in my medium-format film days) and because it fills the blog space rather better. I also inevitably end up cropping many images because, for example, I've straightened a horizon or adjusted the perspective. But it's all about what works in the picture, and by and large I will have composed the thing out to the edges in the viewfinder, and it's annoying to have to lose something just because I can't hold a damn camera straight...

I'm re-converting all the chosen images in Photo Ninja from the original raw files, so colour issues are negligible. I simply make them look good to my 2016 eyes! It would be different if I worked from in-camera JPEGs, of course.

I keep meaning to say: your English is very good indeed! Do you work with much material in English, or have you spent time here or in the USA? By British standards I am something of a linguist (French, German, Spanish, Russian, even some residual Latin...) but can barely buy a bus ticket in any of them. It is both our national shame, and our national pride... Not surprisingly, the "in/out" Euro-referendum will be a close-run thing (I predict a small majority for "in", probably 55%?).

Mike

amolitor said...

I have found that the vertical/horizontal issue is one of those things that seems huge when you're laying things out, but which becomes almost invisible the moment you stop fretting about it.

This in no way stops me fretting, mind you.

Mike C. said...

I have a great liking for the vertical frame, ever since using a Fuji 645 film camera, where the "natural" orientation is vertical. I learned to avoid this in the early days of digital, as even moderately bright skies were always being blown out, which I hate. Current digital cameras (and raw processors) are so good at recording/recovering sky detail that I've reverted. I like the balance of element it gives.

A good mix of horizontal and vertical frames gives a lively rhythm to a book sequence, I think, but you need a square (or square-ish) page for this to work. Otherwise, you're also playing with "large v. small" and "lots of white vs. less white" -- which can be good, too -- but you don't want to be forced into this by the orientation of the picture. A square page is a good way of ensuring you're making unforced choices.

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

Hi Mike,

yes, I noticed that the pictures on this blog as well as those on your website vary with regards to the aspect ratio. I am pondering about the aspect ratio of my pictures myself since I switched to an ancient P/C (shift) Nikkor last year and find myself stitching quite a lot. I am not very fond of the native 2x3 aspect ratio of my camera (too much tension, I prefer at least 3x4), and stitching vertically gives me a bit more picture height. Now I end up with varying aspect ratios, which somewhat defeats my original reason to use a shift prime lens - a more formal style of work. I fear that it will give me some headache later when trying to sequence the work.

As regards matching color: I noticed that even Nikons from different generations have noticably different color rendition (the newer ones choosing a somewhat warmer white balance in marginal light). It can be fixed in processing of the files, but takes some work.

Thanks for the compliment about my English (it's my only foreign language - Latin doesn't count). I read a lot of English books (I'd rather have the original than a bad translation). Additionally, I'm employed at an international company and have to communicate with non-German-speaking colleagues on a daily basis. For example, there is a Japanese colleague in my team, so every meeting is in English. I can feel the embarassment of not speaking the native language whenever I travel to the Netherlands. They almost all speak German, whereas almost no Germans speak Dutch. I tried to avoid the awkward situation by addressing them in English, only to get an amused smile and an answer in German ;^) .

Like many Germans, I would be sad when the UK left the EU. For me, it would be the definitive end of the EU. Until about five years ago, I was a keen supporter of the european idea. Since then I am becoming more and more disillusioned - the inability to find a solidary solution for the debt crisis or for the current migration problem. OK, so I thought, at least no more wars in Europe - but then the confrontations with Russia over Ukrania and recently Syria started, and the EU not only didn't do anything substantial to mediate them - rather, they take an active part. But this is a different story.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

English is the new Latin -- the lingua franca of the educated classes! Or, at least, some globalised variant of it -- it's extraordinary, listening to a conversation between, say, a Somali, a Malay, and a Nigerian on campus.

The Dutch, I am beginning to suspect, are the most "together" people on the planet, in their quiet way. I must go over there again this year...

Mike

amolitor said...

English, being a bastard mix of every language encountered by English speakers over the last 1000 years, is wonderfully tolerant of being poorly spoken.

While hard to learn 'properly' you can learn almost any sort of pidgin variant and get along.

In computer programming we have many of these -- terrible, awful languages which are very very easy to get started with.

And so the world of computing is infested with Python, php, and so on for much the same reasons the world is stuck with English.

Apropos, really, of nothing much.

Mike C. said...

English has the tremendous advantage of no genders to learn, no real declensions to speak of, very simple verb forms, and a high dependence on a few modal verbs to do tenses, etc. This seems to counteract the utterly unsystematic spelling, etc.

I gave up programming when I retired (Perl and Linux shell-scripting was about my limit) but it has always struck me how weird it must be to program if English is not your native language. And how the Chinese cope is beyond me.

Mike