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Surfaces and Strategies – Photobook or a Book of Photographs?

“Francis Hodgson argues that there is now an artificial and not very clear divide between ‘photobooks’ and well-made books of pictures.”

(Ideas Series: Photobooks vs. Books of Photographs – | Photoworks 2017)

So, what exactly is a photobook? If we take it at face value, it is simply a book of photographs that is viewed for that reason. That is what the term appears to mean when you look around at the photobooks that are now ubiquitous in the photographic world. Surely then this is just the modern name for an album of photographs? There has to be more to it than that.


The traditional photo album that parents made us view is a collection of photographs assembled by the owner to reflect a family history or family holiday. They contained happy images of key events in our lives. I have dozens of albums in the loft, much as my parents have in theirs. These albums of photographs are mementos that were intended for nothing more than family gatherings and reminiscing. They were never produced with publication in mind.


When images were placed in albums, it was usually completed in chronological order, with not much thought given to which photograph was next to which.  Spaces were never left in the album, they were completely filled. The viewer would look at the images with the creator narrating each image and its place in the story.


This is where photobooks differ from albums. Instead of telling a story with images and words, the photobook tells a story using images and text. In a modern photobook, each photograph is placed in a specific place in order for the narrative or connective thread to run throughout the book. Remove one image and the narrative is changed or in some cases, doesn’t work at all.


So what exactly is involved in the creation of a photobook? Essentially the basic tasks involve:-

  1. defining what the book is about. What is the concept of the book? Who is the book aimed at? Target market?

  2. taking and editing the photographs to be included (if not already done so)

  3. sequencing the images (tricky at the best of times, but critical if the photobook is to make sense to the viewer)

  4. writing of any text that will be part of the book.  Introduction and credits are a minimum here.

  5. book design – this includes format, layout, materials to use, how it will be bound etc

  6. dummy book production – there may be issues with the layout that are not realised until a copy of the book exists in a physical form

  7. printer file preparation

  8. printing

  9. binding

  10. distribution of the photobook

  11. marketing

In deciding what the photobook is about, we should ask ourselves some questions. Who am I making this book for? What is the book telling me? What does it do? Does it elicit an emotion or opinion and should it? How is it telling the story? What do the pictures add to the book?  How do they interact with the story? Does the book layout, format and construction add to the story? What do they tell me? How will the viewer interpret this book? Are there any chances for misinterpretation? How can I overcome those?


As photographers do we make assumptions about the way the viewer sees the book?  Will they see the argument or narrative we construct? What do we even mean by a narrative anyway? Is it the story that the photobook tells or the way in which it tells it?  As a photographer, when producing a photobook, I need to ensure that I clarify which is the most important and ensure that my photobook tells the story exactly the way I intend it to.


The next big aspect of ensuring the photobook says what I want it to say, will be to ensure that the images are edited and sequenced correctly. This is an often underestimated task. Once the initial edit and sequence have been completed, I need to run this past one other person.  This person I use is a fellow student on my course and someone I consider as a critical friend. One thing I have found it that editing and sequencing by committee (asking many for their opinion) never works. The old saying ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ applies. When I have done this in the past, I have ended up with a set of photographs that ‘best fits’ what everyone else wants.  In my opinion, this leads to a weakening of the book concept. Feedback from one or two people is the best way to maintain the focus.


But why involve anyone else at all? As a photographer, we get emotionally attached to our images and need help to disassociate ourselves from the images. We need to get past the apprehension and reluctance to remove images from the sequencing that do not add or support the intended narrative. Each image should be considered carefully in terms of its form and content.  


Technically it should match the others in the edit.  Each detail in each image must be carefully interpreted and reconciled with the overall story.


During the sequencing part of the process, each image needs to be considered in terms of its relationship to other images. By printing out the images and placing them next to each other helps to establish the correct sequence of the images. This sequence then forms the basis of a dummy version of the photobook, which can then be evaluated in order to produce a final version of the book ready for printing.


So, in response to Hodgson’s argument at the start of this post is not, in my opinion, correct.  A photobook is carefully and meticulously designed and produced.  Without careful consideration to the sequencing and intended narrative, a book of pictures is just a book of pictures

REFERENCES

Ideas Series: Photobooks vs. Books of Photographs – | Photoworks. 2017. Photoworks[online]. Available at: https://photoworks.org.uk/photobooks-vs-books-photographs/ [accessed 2 Aug. 2017].


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