And now in Part II or Colin’s excellent series of posts about his motivations and approach. I personally liked both of Colin’s books, I find them interesting and engaging. They are very different books that are well written, well photographed and well laid out. I have a great deal to learn from Colin and his approach.
SoFoBoMo2016: the second book
This is post number two about book number two for SoFoBoMo2016. Why did I make two books? A good question. The second book just kind of evolved really. I suppose what made it possible was the fact that I had started and finished my first book in just less than a month. Since SoFoBoMo takes place over a two month period, this left me another full month in which to put together another book. This book.
The making of mediocrity and the atom bomb
I wrote in the introduction to my previous post that both of my books look very different from each other. This is true. But it does not make them different books. The background to book two was exactly the same as its predecessor. I still had no money. I still had the same photographic opportunities available to me. Same camera. Same lenses. Same software on the same computer. Same everything. So, here was the problem: how to take all that sameness and make something different? I don’t like to repeat myself. I think it shows a lack of imagination. Perhaps more importantly I have no enthusiasm for it, since I consider that I’ve ‘been there, seen that, done that’. I need something new to inspire me to take the plunge and create another book. I did not want to create Book One, Part Two.
Once again, it was all about finding the right hook. Find that and you can hang what you like on it. This time the hook was twofold. First there was the quote that spawned the idea, then there was the method used to present that idea.
Sometimes, a good quote is enough to get you started. I was lucky enough to find one by one of my favourite surrealists, the Belgian painter Rene Magritte. ‘The present reeks of mediocrity and the atom bomb’. I didn’t (and still don’t) know what Magritte meant by this phrase. But I liked it. Enough to use it as a basis for a photo book. I shortened the quote to use as my title: mediocrity and the atom bomb. Great title, but what’s it about? I looked up ‘mediocre’ in the dictionary, and just to be thorough, in the thesaurus too. I already knew it meant ‘average’, but I picked up a few more definitions of it too. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that it’s a very fitting word for this project, given that I had access to so much mediocre subject material.
At this point in the project I decided to make a distinction between taking photographs and making them. In order to illustrate the destructive power of the atom bomb I chose to produce collages, since these could be formed of random and disparate elements echoing the effects of a nuclear explosion. To further mix things up I decided to add in some typography, drawing my influences from the Dadaists, the Futurists (who were opposed to typographical harmony, and who saw nothing wrong in using twenty or more fonts on the same page in order to increase the expressive force of words) and the work of Kurt Schwitters, El Lissitzky, and of more recent vintage, David Carson. I should say here that these influences were a background hum to the project, since I very rarely consult my sources directly, just in case their influence begins to dominate my own ideas.
So. Enigmatic title. Collages. Typography. But how would it all fit together in a book? I already knew that I would be using type as part of every collage I made, but what would I be getting all typographic with? During the course of my enquiries into the Magritte quote I had discovered a couple of suitable texts on the theme of atomic bombs which I could borrow from. Additionally, I found some words from Magritte that seemed appropriate. I decided to use the words mostly in the manner of soundbites to incorporate them into the collages. Some passages I thought worked better in their original form, so that’s how I used them, with the type arranged on a whole page. I realised as I began thinking about the form of the book that I would not have time to create thirty five collages. Therefore, as well as whole pages of type, I chose to intersperse single photographs amongst the collages. This would help introduce a contrast between the single object of focus and the more densely populated collages.
I had engineered my theme so that, exactly like my first book, I could take whatever photographs I fancied without worrying about them not fitting in. I revisited some of the locations from the first book. I took a walk to my local arts centre, always a rich vein to mine. I built a collection of ‘mediocrity’. Photographs of the everyday and ordinary, nothing that made you go ‘Wow!’. My place of work provided a lot of material too, and the timing was perfect. I work in a Further Education College, and during August the students are all enjoying their summer break. Which makes it much easier for me to roam around with a camera. To be honest, I photographed a lot of things in my office; some things which looked like they’d been there a very long time without anyone ever having found a use for them.
Eventually of course I had to stop taking images and start making some.
I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want that ‘is it real or is it Photoshopped?’ look about it. I wanted it to look old-school. To have rough edges. To make you think of paper and scissors and things stuck down with glue. In the back of my head was the work of the German artists John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch. You can see in their work the components that go into creating it, and that’s what I wanted to achieve in my own collages.
Honestly, in a perfect world I would have printed my pictures out and taken scissors to them. But in the world in which I live it was always going to be a job for Photoshop. I use Elements, which isn’t as powerful as the full version, but it is available as a standalone license, which means you don’t have to subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Cloud. Of course there are other image editing programs out there, most of which will allow you to do the same kind of things I did in Photoshop. It depends on your budget and how much of a learning curve you want.
The actual creative aspect of making collages is very difficult to put into words. For me, it’s very much a case of something just ‘looking right’. How exactly that moment is reached is a combination of what images you choose and their relationship to each other, which probably isn’t a very helpful guide to anyone other than myself. In essence, you’re making art so there are no rules beyond the ones you impose. Or, if it looks finished it is finished.
The making of digital collages is a little easier to define. Here’s what I did, and as an example I’ll use the first collage in the book.
I started with a blank canvas of 200x200mm (which is the same square format as my first book). Then I chose an image that I thought provided a good starting point. In this case it was the photograph of my industrial looking office fan in front of a concrete column that is allegedly part of the building’s heating system. Next came the scaffolding-clad building. Finally, the scattered paperclips. This is a simple arrangement of three elements, but to make it all work I used just two effects. In the screen grab of the Layers palette you can see I’ve changed the blending mode of the paperclips to ‘overlay’. This means that it assumes a level of transparency so anything placed on a lower layer will be visible through it. I also used a layer mask to reduce opacity in the areas where it is used. Specifically, for example, where I wanted the blades of the fan to be more clearly defined I simply masked off the blades to make the paperclips more transparent.
I more or less repeated this working method for all the collages. It was only when the images were complete that I began working with the text I had chosen. I could have applied the text in Elements, and probably would have done had I needed to go overboard on effects, but since it was my intention to use my fonts unmodified I decided to use QuarkXpress. Beyond the rule of legibility there was no other restriction on how the type was used (throughout the whole book, not just within the collages) so, much like creating the collages, I arranged it until I was happy with it.
After a one-page introduction to the project, the book follows the sequence of a collage preceded by a photograph on each spread. On three spreads I’ve substituted the collage with a page of text. At the end of the book I opted to give additional information about its content, starting with a list of all the typefaces I’d used. There’s nothing worse than finding a typeface you really like and not knowing what it’s called. The other thing I did was to display each collage on its own page together with the individual images from which it had been constructed. The reason is twofold: not only does it let you see how each image was incorporated into the final collage, it also proves that I took more than the thirty five photographs required to satisfy the rules of SoFoBoMo.
Was it a blast?
I did have a lot of fun with this book. I enjoyed putting together the typography as much as the collages. It was great to work with so much mediocrity and not give a damn about it. To me, photography is not about tack-sharp, perfectly composed works of art (give me Robert Frank over Ansel Adams any day), but about finding a hook on which to hang your own vision of your own world.
I managed not to make Book One, Part Two.
Instead, I made a book I really like; a book I hope others might like too, which is why I’m happy for it to have been a part of Solo Photo Book Month 2016.
If you feel like you should put together something for SoFoBoMo 2017, then you really ought to. It can be whatever you want so long as it’s got thirty five or more photographs and some pages on which to display them. And who knows, you might just be asked to write a couple of blog posts too.