Happy New Year!
Taking a break over the holidays, so I asked Colin Brown, finisher of two fine books this year, if he could fill in. I hope it will be more interesting to get some views other than Suprada and myself. Colin was kind enough to provide two posts, one about each of the books he had created. Today is part I of the two-part post.
SoFoBoMo2016: the first book
Matthew Schmidt asked me to write a blog post about the two books I produced for this year’s Solo Photo Book Month. Ordinarily, I don’t really enjoy writing about my own work, but in this instance I thought that doing so might be informative for others, some of whom may not have dipped their toes into the inviting waters of SoFoBoMo yet.
Because my two books look quite different from each other I have decided to write about each one separately. This post covers the first book.
The making of too close to being far away from everything
The title came before the photographs. I liked its contrary nature, the way in which it juxtaposed ‘close’ and ‘far away’. It would allow me to approach my project in psychological terms, meaning that I would be able to take photographs of whatever interested me at the time a camera was in my hands. This is a method of working that has served me well on previous projects. I am not a genre photographer. I like variety and see no reason why various forms of photography should not be used in the same book.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but in my case it’s financial hardship. I couldn’t fund trips to exotic or even mildly exciting places that might yield great photographic opportunities, so I worked with what I had. However, I felt confident that I would be able to illustrate my theme. I work in a small town, and right now that town’s centre is being regenerated. It’s a massive undertaking, and it means a daily negotiation of what is practically a huge building site. However, the construction work does provide a rich seam of photographic interest if you point your camera in the right direction. There’s a real sense of dereliction in a lot of places that I knew would suit the tone of my project. Temporary hoardings provided some beautiful abstracts.
This area is also blessed with some wonderful natural resources, so I was able to get some shots that contrasted well with the urban elements, whilst at the same time remaining true to my theme. I included a couple of images that were deliberately shot out of focus to emphasise the idea of being so close to something that you might as well be far away.
I also felt it was important to include some photographs of people in the book, since it’s theme is really about us. I thought it would be appropriate to use a slow shutter speed for these pictures, which resulted in out-of-focus people against sharp backgrounds. I hoped this would illustrate the idea of people moving too fast to notice either their environment or the others who share it.
I decided fairly early on in the process that my final images would be black and white, since I wanted to achieve a documentary feel to the project. It also has a way of focusing the mind on content rather than the distractions of colour.
I shot the images over a three week period, gradually refining my choices for inclusion in the final book. I always shoot RAW, because sometimes I just don’t get it right in-camera and those highlights need to be reduced and those shadow details reclaimed. I do all my post-processing in Adobe Lightroom, and for this project I also used Silver Efex Pro 2, a B&W plugin from Google’s Nik collection (recently made free to use). Some may argue that presets are a form of ‘cheating’, that I am merely applying someone else’s settings to my photograph. But I am not a photographic purist, and I have no intention of reinventing the wheel. All I want is something that gives me an image that I like.
If hope is the thing with feathers (according to Emily Dickinson) then a book is the thing with pages. A page is a defined unit of space and comes in left-hand and right-hand flavours. Together, a left-hand page and a right-hand page make a spread, and this is very useful when it comes to arranging a sequence of images for a photo book. It means I can decide to use two similar images together, or two contrasting ones. Or I could use one image to comment on the other. For me, it’s always important to have a range of possibilities. I’ll share some of my behind-the-scenes thinking for the following three spreads from the book.
This spread uses two very different photographs. The image on the left from Swinley Forest depicts some deliberately out-of-focus trees. On the right, the discarded hypodermics of drug users, photographed in a neglected area on the edge of town beside a car park and across the road from a Health Centre. In placing these photographs together I am attempting to suggest that the image on the left can be seen as a consequence of the one on the right. Far from opening Huxley’s Doors of Perception, drugs dull the senses, and those things that are close cannot be recognised. There is emptiness, confusion, and the addict ends up far from everything.
This spread uses a portrait and a semi-abstract photograph. The portrait is a rare shot of a person in focus instead of blurred against the background. It’s a photograph of a work colleague who didn’t want me to take her picture. It’s all about the hand. It says stop, back off, go away. It says ‘you’re too close’. (I don’t think she believed me when I told her what she’d done was perfect. and that I’d be using it in my book project.) The semi-abstract ‘asterisk’ is a detail from a larger graffiti work in an underpass in, believe it or not, Swinley Forest. As I reviewed the photographs for inclusion in the book I looked at this picture and immediately saw in it my colleague’s ‘hand’. For me, it illustrates how two unconnected images say the same thing: you’re too close. And it makes you far away.
In this spread I’ve kept it simple. By using two landscape photographs I hoped to illustrate the idea of being small in a big world, of being lost in an environment defined only by sky and horizon. Are you close to something? Too far away? Both these images were made by shooting multiple frames and then getting Lightroom to merge them into a single panorama. Having tried to do this in other pieces of software over the years I was exceptionally pleased that Lightroom was able to produce a pretty flawless result. All the more impressive because I didn’t even use a tripod. After I’d put the pictures on the page I was surprised by how much the two photographs, taken in completely different locations, looked as though they might be joined together as a single image.
Most books are viewed in a linear fashion, moving from beginning to end. This means that my images will more than likely be viewed in the sequence in which I have chosen to present them. Unlike, for example, a web gallery where a viewer may choose any one of a number of starting points and view images in whichever order they desire. A slideshow of images may partly resemble the format of a book, in that a sequence is predetermined, but this method of presentation reveals only single images.
For me, the best books have form and function in equal measure.
In the final week of the project I began constructing the book. I used to design books for a living, so it’s no accident that I chose to use QuarkXpress. It’s what I know. There are many other options available for putting books together. You don’t need to use expensive, professional software to make your book. It won’t make you a better designer any more than having expensive photo gear makes you a better photographer. It’s what you do with what you’ve got that counts.
Simplicity is the key. What is my book for? It’s for displaying photographs, without any unnecessary embellishments or distractions. One photograph per page, with some used full-bleed to add variety. In one instance I chose to use three images on a page because they formed their own sequence, and perhaps form the best illustration of the title found anywhere in the book.
I always try to provide some sort of an introduction to my books. Sometimes I use the words of others, because their eloquence far outstrips mine, but for this book the words are my own. Type layout is minimalist, to complement the general tone of the book, and begins with a statement that is intended to give an overview of the theme. The block of smaller text in the right hand corner of the page, and on the three successive pages, sets out in very brief terms the different strands of the project. The introduction uses a very small amount of words. I could easily have placed the entire text on a single page. Why did I not do this? Two reasons: firstly, white space on a page can be a very powerful design element, and I specifically wanted to illustrate the notion of ‘peripheral’; secondly, by placing type in the same position on each page I was able to reuse the two-line overview. By reducing the opacity of the type on each subsequent page I was able to make a connection between ourselves and the words, which are also ‘treading the line between being and being erased’.
I chose to use only one typeface in a single weight in the book, with variety introduced through use of colour and size. Choosing fonts for a project always comes down to personal choice, and everyone has their own favourites. Best of all, you don’t have to spend a fortune (unless you really want to), since free fonts are to be found all over the web. However, before you download, install and populate your latest project with them, you might want to check out their usage licences. All fonts are not created equal. The typeface I used in this book was downloaded from www.fontsquirrel.com, an excellent site that provides a good range of fonts. More importantly, it tells you which uses are permitted for each font. If I know I’m going to be using a font that will eventually end up embedded in a PDF, I’ll look for a font that allows that usage. Why do I think it’s important to abide by the terms of the licence? Because the font belongs to the type designer, and they decide how they want it used. As photographers, would we like it if our images were used without permission for a purpose we perhaps didn’t agree with?
So, how did it all go? The hardest part of the project was finding a hook to hang everything on. Once that was done it was a fairly easy process. I had plenty of time to take the photographs since a lot of the source material was within walking distance of my workplace. I also had at least one day every weekend when I concentrated on the natural environment elements.
Designing the book was also a stress-free experience, as it should be for someone who made a living from book design. That’s what first drew me to Solo Photo Book Month back in 2011. Here was an ideal opportunity to indulge both my love of photography and my love of books. It’s these two things that keep me coming back each year.
Am I happy with the end result? I think I am. Did I learn anything? I think the project taught me that you can take a seemingly random assortment of images and make them into a cohesive work. When all is said and done, I have been true to myself and that is all that matters. I have made something which I am happy to share with others in the SoFoBoMo community.
If you like photographs and books then I recommend without reservations the yearly adventure that is Solo Photo Book Month. After all, they say everyone’s got a book in them, and why shouldn’t you share yours with us next year?