In part I of this essay, I covered the “making of” my photobook, “East of the Sun”, focusing on the preparation and inspiration for the project and on the actual experience of shooting in the field. In this second part, I will share with you the equally interesting and rewarding “homework” part of the process: editing, sequencing and laying out your images in book format. It’s actually the really hard bit. How do you make sense of 8000 frames? How do you attack the mountain?
Two key concepts. #1: Give it time; #2: Don’t work alone!
The East of the Sun portfolio consists in 34 images drawn from the 8000 shots I brought back. How did I get there? Well, not in a single jump for sure!
The first couple of editing rounds are the easiest. Round one, you kill the obvious stuff: the exposure errors, the framing mishaps, the most “meh”, obviously pointless images. I typically edit out two out three images this way, rather quickly. Round two, you will manage to do another 2/3 cull without much anguish: it’s not difficult to see that some images are clearly stronger than others. In the end, you will have saved roughly 10% of your set. More manageable, and already a bit stronger.
Now it’s time to take a step back, let things seep, start really ‘seeing’ your images (lesson #1: give it time). One good way to do so is to spend some time with each image doing some initial post-processing. I had already converted everything to basic BW at the outset, but now I moved to doing some of the most obvious Lightroom adjustments that each image deserved (contrast and exposure mostly); not much, but enough to start seeing the potential of each image and to make sure all candidates started the next round on an even playing field.
Time to apply lesson #2: don’t work alone. Enroll some help! I actually did a third editing round first and got down to 300 surviving images, but killing my ‘babies’ was getting to be seriously difficult. Receiving outside feedback became vital. It is best done “live” in front of a screen, with two or three photographer friends who are willing to discover your still-raw work (they will: I’ve done it for friends and it’s a very valuable experience also from the other side of the table); you’ll see them reacting in real time, and more often than not you will say “of course!” when they go “meh…” or “great!”, or point to the precise weakness of an image that should be addressed in post-production.
I also put my set on a Dropbox folder and asked ten or so photographer friends all over the world to react with picks and written comments. It’s actually incredible to see how 10 different people asked to pick 10 images out of a set of 300 will not come back with 10x10=100 different choices, but converge on 20-25 or so consensus picks: figuring out what drives those choices will help you to understand in which direction your own next edit should go.
This peer review pushed me to go through editing round 4; I got down to 120 images that I felt really good about. Almost done! Time to go back to the Develop module in Lightroom and do some more post-processing, refining the images to their final form.
Great, but 120 images were still too many, a book or an exhibition portfolio would need to be 30-40 maximum. At this point I felt totally stuck, unable to choose among that strong set that I had become by now (two months later) strongly attached to. A round 5 seemed an almost impossible task. What now?
Time to apply principle #3: don’t just edit down, you must also learn to edit up, build around a core.
I got unstuck during a workshop on photobook-making I joined right at this point: perfect timing! Organized by Laura di Marco at Spazio Labo’ in Bologna, Italy, it was led by Mayumi Suzuki, a Japanese photographer friend whose work I admire (“The Restoration Will”), and her publisher, Eva Maria Kuntz, of Ceiba Editions in Italy.
I went there with 5x7 prints of my 120 ‘picks’, and work started by spreading them out on a large table. I’d say this is actually principle #4 of editing: use physical prints and put those images on a wall or on a table where they can stay as long as it takes. You can’t usefully look at more than a few images side by side on a screen, and you will miss the amazingly powerful and precious mind mechanisms that are triggered by seeing an entire set of images at the same time.
Eva and Mayumi started off by asking me the magical question: “what is it that you are trying to say with this work?”, another way of asking me to define my project’s concept... I told them about the “looking for Murakami” idea, but I realized as that I was far less clear in my mind than I should have been by now — and as result those 120 photos were still all over the place, lacked unity.
And after much conversation and observation, something happened: Eva started picking one image, then another, skipping many that were maybe good but were still too obviously ‘the usual street photography in Japan done by a Western eye we’ve seen so many times’ (no matter how I had tried to look at Japan in a different way), and instead zeroing in on others that were more intimate, less descriptive. She was going for poetry, not prose.
I thought her goal was to edit down from 120 to 30 final images but — no! — what she left me with was ten images that spoke in the same voice and that suddenly I recognized as the essence of what I had been looking for in five weeks and 8000 shots in Japan. And she told me: “Work on these. Build around them, find other images that complement them. You’ll have your book.” Wow…
And, returning home, that’s what I did for the next three months. The ten images went up on the wall in front of my desk, and slowly but steadily I added more, finding couplings that spoke to each other, creating chords out of individual notes, reinforcing the feeling of the series. Sometimes an apparently weaker image turned out to be essential to complement a strong one. ‘Absolute quality’ does not exist. It’s all about what best contributes to the overall impression, to the atmosphere you want to evoke and to the message you want to convey.
As you start the ‘edit up’ process putting those prints up on the wall, as you test an addition after the other, as more images begin to condense around the initial core set, as you take an image out subtly changing the direction of the overall series, you will also almost inevitably begin to feel the instinctive need to organize the set in a sequence.
Just as you will find pairings of images that work together like a musical chord, you’ll begin to sequence those chords into an actual song. Where do you want to lead your ‘listener’ to? How many turns you will make him take as he gets there?
As photobook editor Teun van der Heijden likes to stress in his seminars (http://www.heijdenskarwei.com), a photobook needs the same elements that underpin a narrative (in a book or a movie; in a non-literal sense, in a piece of music): time and tension, building to a climax and falling to a resolution. Pauses are just as important as strong moments; anticipation, sometimes leading to surprising turns, is essential to retain attention. Keep the reader guessing, keep him asking for more, but also lead him/her one page after the other.
Easier said than truly explained and done, I know. But think about common threads that can link one image after the other, both literally (content) and visually (dominant colors, contrast levels, blur vs sharpness, geometry). Think about the strongest images as anchors to the flow, and how the ‘softer’ ones will build up to the strong ones and offer contrast and release after them. Don’t make the sequence too obvious, but not too jarring and disjointed either (unless you want to create such a sentiment in the reader as part of your vision).
You’ll find out that this process is the most challenging but also the most satisfying. Best done with physical prints, but you may also choose to sequence them on a screen, building a virtual book dummy using for example the ‘Book’ module in Lightroom (not as easy to use as I’d like, and not flexible enough, but it’s worth investing some time to learn it).
Here again, lessons #1 and #2 still apply. Take your time, and get feedback. In my case, I went through nine iterations of the book over six months before reaching its final shape. Crucial input can come from your photo-friends, but also from several professionals you can meet taking advantage of formal portfolio readings and every other chance you get to show your dummy: gallery owners, book editors, pro photographers, you name it. Network, network, network! Most people will be happy to flip through your pages and give you a pinch of advice. And don’t forget to get back to them with your final product: it’s polite and it will get you further in developing your relationships.
Layout and production
Once the dummy is there in terms of image set and sequence, you’ll be facing a task that’s not necessarily part of a photographer’s skillset: laying out your images on actual pages. Graphic design is a profession of its own, and in an ideal world you would partner with a pro to give justice to your photo work.
But let’s face it, we don’t have unlimited budgets and it’s wise to start small… Use the page templates you can find in software packs such as Lightroom, or those that are provided by on-line book-printing services like Blurb. Be minimalist: keep it simple is a good working principle. And again: study! Look at as many books as you can, see how others have approached this step. Personally, I have always loved graphic design even without ever practicing it, so I found this part of the process quite fascinating too, but again: don’t overdo it for the sake of it…
Book-making has become an art in its own right, and some productions are truly impressively complex in their technical execution. Sometimes these days I even feel things have gone too far in the desperate race of creating unique products that can be noticed in the crowd of competing work. I have the utmost respect for “the photobook as an object” (the tagline of Yumi Goto at Reminders Photographers Stronghold in Tōkyō: http://reminders-project.org/rps/), but I’m perhaps showing my age here, and tell you that a photobook for me is about the photos, not the book… After all, if Alec Soth with his “I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating” did not go too fancy with his layouts and book construction, you need not too…
(Note to Yumi: this does not mean I would not love to participate in a book-making extended workshop at RPS one day, with my next project perhaps! It’s just that for now my learning process is not advanced enough…)
As for actual production, realistically your first book has little chance to be picked up by a editing house; self-publishing is the way to go. I have opted to work with a small shop whose owner-operator loves his printers, but you can probably find a suitable solution also by using on-line services, or move up a notch and work with more serious offset printers (with matching budgets though). I tried to give my book a more personal feel by hand-stitching the pages myself, which is yet another whole ball game. Not sure it is necessary, and whether you do it yourself or leave it to the pros is another very personal choice and a function of your budget and personal interests and abilities. It was good to be able to say “I made this with my own hands”, though!
And, you’ll find out that your finished product will become a powerful door-opener as you continue to introduce yourself to professionals in your networking effort, building for the future.
Daunting? Yes! Exhilarating and rewarding? Yes, yes, yes. Book-making will change your perception of photography, and it will probably change you in the process. Why wait? Get going…