SoFoBoMo: remembering the first time

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Written by and copyright belongs to – ghostland

My first participation in SoFoBoMo took place in 2011, when I produced two books within my chosen fuzzy month. Unfortunately, 2011 also marked the last year of the original SoFoBoMo.

I was drawn to SoFoBoMo for a number of reasons. I’m hugely interested in photography. I love books. I used to be a book designer. I love the concept of creating everything in one month.

The first thing I did (actually the second, after registering to take part in SoFoBoMo 2011) was to look at what other photographers had produced in previous years. There was a real mixture of works. There were some examples of people really thinking about how the project should fit together as a book. Others were obviously more concerned with the photographic image than with the book, resulting often in the equivalent of a PDF slideshow. This is not a good thing or a bad thing. We all have our own skills that we bring to the project. The important thing for me was that everyone, regardless of their skill level as a photographer or designer, had committed a month of their life to producing a visual document that they were willing to share with others through SoFoBoMo.

I had a few months before SoFoBoMo began during which I tried to conceive a worthwhile project, something I could proudly point at and say ‘I made that’. It was tough. I had no idea how I would take at least 35 photographs that fit together in some sort of coherent theme. Then I thought about discarding thematic considerations. What if I just took whatever pictures I wanted? That was my starting point for The Black Hill. (The title was about the first thing the project had. A small distance from my home is a rough track, called Black Hill Lane. The sign was partly obscured by brambles but I photographed it and that became my inspiration).

Having decided to take a wide variety of photographs for the project I next had to find a way to fit them together, so they had a flow and a coherence to them. I didn’t want it looking like a random scrapbook thing. Having arrived at SoFoBoMo via the good folks of NaNoWriMo, I thought there might be another story in me yet. So I decided that the best approach for my book would be to weave a story though the pictures. In essence, to make an illustrated storybook.

I spent a while looking at some more examples of books from previous years. I couldn’t find a single instance of what I was planning to do. Did I ever think that I shouldn’t do what I was planning just because no-one else appeared to have done it? No, absolutely not.

So. A story called The Black Hill. What kind of a story? I had no idea. Whenever I start creative projects of this nature I usually ask that they discover something for me. In this case, I asked the photographs I took to discover the story for me. Before each set of photographs was taken I had no story, no preconceived direction for the narrative. This was all provided by the images themselves.

I planned to use the images in such a way that any image used individually would occupy either a whole single page or a double page spread, and would be a full-bleed image.

And then I considered the treatment of type. Type on image. This was the one element I had not found in any of the previous examples; the one thing that no-one else appeared to have done. For the photographic purists this may well be considered an act of heresy. However, this is no reason not to do it. I was making an illustrated story book after all.

From a photographic perspective, creating a book in this manner does impact the way in which you take your photographs. I learned to shoot certain images editorially, which is to say that I left a space for type within the image itself. This is usually achieved by framing each shot so that there is a kind of ‘dead space’ where nothing is happening visually. At times like this your photographic eye is composing very deliberate ‘rule of thirds’ pictures. This wasn’t true for all shots of course. The type on some pictures was used in a more dynamic way, becoming almost an integral part of the image itself. What I was hoping to achieve was a balance between type and image.

The Black Hill was finished after about three weeks, mainly because I was fortunate enough to visit a couple of locations that provided a lot of varied photographic opportunities which inspired the story progression throughout the book. I think that without these lucky excursions I would have struggled to come up with enough good images to enable completion of the project.

The actual construction of the book began once I had the story finished, which by default meant that I had all the images necessary to tell it. Because for a number of years I had been a professional book designer, I used QuarkXpress to construct the book. I opted for a portrait format and decided to use only one typeface throughout. Beyond these regular features however, it was a little more freeform with the look of each page being dictated by the image I chose to display on it.

When it was all finished I had to create a PDF in order to post it to the SoFoBoMo site. I had decided right from the beginning that unlike many who had taken part in previous years, my book would not be available in printed form. I wanted it to be a digital book for the digital age. This meant of course that I was able to resize images at 72dpi, rather than the usual 300dpi required for book printing.

Was I pleased with The Black Hill after it was all over? I think for the most part it fulfilled my expectation for it when I first conceived the idea to produce an illustrated storybook. It was a hugely enjoyable experience that involved a mix of photographic and design elements and plenty of problem solving along the way. And I’m still pleased to be able to point at the book and say ‘I made that’.

As I said at the start of all this, SoFoBoMo breathed it’s last in 2011. However, some ideas are so good that they refuse to stay away. SoFoBoMo is one of those ideas, and here we are in 2014 gearing ourselves up to produce more photographs and more books. Others, more eloquent than I, have written about why all photographers should participate in SoFoBoMo. I can only endorse what they have to say and merely add my own personal thought that you should really grab the opportunity that SoFoBoMo provides for your photography to discover a story for you too.

12 October 2014

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