Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Photobook as Equivalent

If you've spent any time knocking around the history of photography, you've probably run into Stieglitz's "Equivalents", these pictures of clouds that he claimed were "equivalent" to some emotional state, or something like that. Minor White went on at some length about this idea of "Equivalent", and seems to have considered it fundamental to photography, or at least to the photography he thought worthwhile. It has something to do with the idea that the photograph represents real things, but that upon viewing it evokes something quite different in the viewer. I think it's more than an evocation, though, it is that the viewer seems the picture as a symbol, an embodiment, of what the viewer feels. There is, in short, something like equivalence, natch.

Anyways, this is one of those concepts that has always felt a bit dodgy to me. I've never seen anyone write about it in anything like a clear fashion, which is rarely a good sign.

Minor White seems to think that, whatever it is, it might be pretty personal, pretty subjective (rather than intersubjective!). Everyone might get something different out. White also seems to subscribe to the theory that only some people can do it, that you might need to be specially attuned, or specially trained in order for an Equivalent to work. I find this notion to always be pretty offensive and useless. Art is bullshit if you need to go to night school to "get" it.

So what am I on about with the Photobooks?

When I look at a picture, I can kind of fill in a world the picture lives in from my imagination and experience. I imagine, at least a little, what's outside the frame, what happened before and after. So I fill out things "horizontally", but there's also a "vertical" filling-in. I react to that "horizontally" expanded view of the picture. I might have some emotional response, I might enlarge my mind on a good day, all that sort of thing. However you put it, even a crappy picture probably ripples outwards in several dimensions in my mind. Whether that's an "equivalent" or not, I can't say, but it certainly happens.

Let's suppose that a functioning "Equivalent" is one where that multi-dimensional space of mental ripples is roughly related to what the photographer had in mind, and that the photograph reads as some sort of symbolic representation of those ripples, rather than simply a thing that kicked the ripples off.

I visualize a photograph as a sort of grappling hook the photographer throws toward that whole complicated mental space, hoping perhaps to hit more or less near a specific spot. Weston seems to want to hit the "sex" part of my brain, which is a bit of a cheat because, let's be honest, it's a huge target.

A portfolio gives the photographer many casts of the hook. The idea can become clearer, there's a much better chance of a portfolio of work doing that "Equivalent" thing, surely, whatever it is.

A photobook is one step farther, since it allows the artist to shape the relationship between the photographs. Consider Keith Smith's notion of the book as, really, a single composite picture built up in the viewer's mind by reading the book, present and complete only after finishing the book. The book, considered this way, is perhaps a single cast of a gigantic grappling hook, ideally so large that it cannot help but get a piece of whatever the artist is aiming for.

Of course, it is also multiple casts of the hook, like a portfolio. So, in a way, it gives the artist several different ways to hit the mark.

It's a rough idea at the moment, but I might almost believe in the possibility of a book (or book-like object) of photos behaving as an Equivalent, in a pretty general and accessible way.

Monday, June 19, 2017

More on Sequencing

I'm probably going to keep writing about sequencing, which is odd, because I am increasingly thinking that most people who think about it at all overthink it. We treat it like composition "If only" we think "I could get the right sequence, then my work would suddenly be amazeballs." In reality, if you have good content I am pretty sure any sensible sequence is fine. If you have awful content, no sequence will save it.

Colberg's book drags on at length, but is largely concerned with how to get from one picture to the next. Notably, he advocates the "print 'em all out and agonize over it forever" approach, which has the following very interesting consequence:

You can't do repeats. You've only got one print of everything

And once you see that, you see immediately that this approach makes a lot of stuff hard. There's no clear way to visualize collages, or repeats-with-changes (what if I want to foreshadow with an ultra-low contrast version of a picture?)

I think, to be honest, that you need to spend time with the pictures, but more time away from the pictures, imagining things.

Right now, I am thinking about pacing a lot. Keith Smith points out that boring/repetitive material picks up the pace. 10 blank pages in a row would get flipping quickly. 10 identical pictures, much the same. 10 similar pictures with obvious differences, much the same. 10 similar pictures with extremely subtle but important differences -- the exact opposite effect (assuming the reader notices).

Imagine a picture A, with some subtle variations. Maybe A1, A2, A3 are all just successively tighter crops of the same photo while B is a completely different picture. Imagine this series of pages, denoting a blank page with a lowercase b:

A b A1 b b A2 b b b A3 b b b b B

I visualize the pace picking up, faster and faster, even perhaps a little frustration, and then suddenly B appears and the flipping stops. STOP. What possibilities are there in the reader's conception of the relationship between A and B? And how on earth would you imagine this if you were fixated on sorting and re-sorting a pile of physical prints?

What is A1, A2, and A3 were not just tighter crops, but also printed smaller? Or larger? Perhaps B exhibits a radical size change as you flip wildly past A3 and the 4 blank pages after that, as well.

What if B was a repeat of the first picture in the book?

Keith Smith's book is basically 200 pages of this sort of thing. If your mind isn't bigger by the time you're done with it, you are a blockhead.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Clary Estes Again

This young woman writes pretty well, and is thinking about things pretty hard. While I don't agree with everything, and I think she's naive, I also think she deserves to be read more widely.

Read her recent medium piece on photojournalism here.

The Ugly: Why Care?

I've been frothing at the mouth a bit about the ugly side of photobook publishing, notably the pay to play aspects, and one might reasonably ask why one should care. I've asserted that it's bad for Art and one might reasonably ask on what grounds I make that statement.

As an aside, let me clear up one point, and add some information that I have recently learned! It's obvious that not the whole publishing industry is like this. What's less obvious is that the entire photobook industry is not like this. The biggest fellows mainly publish established players, but Aperture at least seems genuinely devoted to finding good new artists and also seems to minimize the pay-to-play (I cite as evidence: I couldn't find anything about pay to play in a quick perusal of their web site, and Colberg doesn't mention them, so, not that strong a case).

One of my readers has done books with a small/boutique publisher that doesn't demand up front payment. That reader has indeed "leveled up" on the strength of those books. So, there is evidence of a system of real publishers out there. They're all muddled up with the fakes, though.

The pay-to-play model for photobook publishing (and, I dare say, other facets of the industry) has a couple of effects that we could do without.

First and foremost it selects artists based on their ability to raise money. The wealthy, the trust-fund-beneficiaries, the expert grant-writers, all bubble upwards (at least within this incestuous little self-licking ice cream cone universe), and none of those things particularly correlate with talent. Indeed, they take away from the work. If you're constantly busy mooching and writing grant proposals, you're probably not doing your best work.

I have seen it argued that this is not a problem, because it has always been this way, and to that I have two responses, the first of which appears in my second point here:

Secondly, it separates the money from the gatekeeping functions, which diffuses the gatekeeping. In the Badde Olde Dayes, you had a Medici who had, well, some sort of taste and a stack of money. He kept the gate, and he paid the money, and there you were. Good or bad, you sure as hell had a coherent vision being paid for. At least, in theory, and sometimes.

These days you have committees of people handing out grants based on who writes the best bullshit, committees who are surely, at least some of the time, deferring questions of taste and vision to... well, someone else. Then you have the publishers, who are struggling to make payroll, pay leases, and who may be more interested in things like book design than photography doing the rest of the gatekeeping function. As I have noted, I suspect that many of these people are unserious people simply playing at it anyways.

In other words, it hasn't always been this way.

The second, and more important, response to the "well, it's always been patrons and whatnot" argument is that in this modern era it doesn't have to be that way any more. I know homeless guys who have 100% of the resources necessary to do a decent book on blurb. They have a phone. They have enough money to buy tape, a blank notebook, and 4x6 prints to make a dummy. They can use the computers at the library to use blurb's online design tool to make their book, and they can get together enough money to buy a handful of copies. Not that they would but the point is that a literal homeless bum in the USA has the necessary resources to do a PoD book.

The system that Colberg endorses, the system that we are supposed to believe is a necessary part of the Serious Art World, turns artists into grant-writers and fundraisers, and then it consigns them to 18-24 months of development hell to get the book finished. All this is effort and time that is taken away from actually making art.

The old patronage system took the explicit form of "You are my chattel, now go do your thing. Probably with a bunch of restrictions and requests and demands, but do your thing." The modern system of grants and competitions which infests photography explicitly gets in the way of doing your thing. You're supposed to constantly attend events, write proposals, and take meetings. A modicum of success means, mainly, more meetings, more events, more proposals, and even less photography.

The single most important thing a would-be novelist needs to do is write novels. Do you want to be an actor? Then go act. Painters paint. Photographers, apparently, fundraise and agonize over how to best use the 7 gatefold pages their budget allows.

No wonder much of the high end photobook market consists of boring monographs by old men and endless iterations of what Mike Chisholm so hilariously characterized as My Sad Project. I'd be pretty fucking sad too, I guess.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Understanding Photobooks: The Ugly

Colberg presents us with a bit of a problem in this book of his. He is unabashedly in favor of traditional publishing, for reasons that he does not make particularly clear, and he is distinctly coy about the down sides.

He explicitly dismisses Print on Demand, repeatedly. He mentions that, in many cases, the photographer may be asked to pay for some of the costs up front when doing a book, but is too shy to mention any numbers. The number you're wondering about is north of $10,000, often considerably north. Let us recall that the up-front out of pocket expenses of PoD are less than $100 unless you are making a very fancy book indeed. Somewhat less than the $15,000 to $50,000 traditional publishers are likely to want.

Colberg is almost as dismissive of self-publishing, claiming that you want to work with a publisher because they know what sells and how to sell it. A few pages later he notes that you'll have done well if you sell 400 copies and don't make a nickle. Which is it, Jörg? Because it sounds to me a lot like these guys haven't got a clue what will sell, nor how to sell it. My evidence is this: They don't sell hardly any goddamned books.

There are people running kickstarters that sell books on this scale constantly. Kickstarters! Not that this route is easy, Colberg points out, correctly, that order fulfillment can easily turn into a nightmare, and you might wind up losing your shirt if you didn't figure out total shipping costs right, but still. Shifting a few hundred copies does not require the services of some magical Euro elf.

Dewi Lewis lays it out for us, although he wisely avoids doing it all in one place. He says, in Colberg's book, that he covers 50 to 60 percent of the $400,000 to $500,000 they spend on production costs each year. That is to say, Dewi is taking between $160,000 and $250,000 a year from the artists to cover production costs. The Dewi Lewis web sites states that they do about 20 titles a year, and also that unless you are an established photographer, you will be asked to "underwrite the risk". Which I think means, roughly, "If you are not Martin Parr or equivalent, you'll be covering the production costs" which begs the question "why on earth would I not self-pub?"

I asked around, and this is in fact basically the situation. Non-famous people pay up front. God knows what the back end of these deals looks like but given that the publishers appear to hold the whip hand, I assume "not great" is a solid guess.

Colberg hints at the real answer, saying that a Real Book might wind up in the hands of a curator, or gallerist, some influencer.

Let me tell you, if I was about to drop $35,000 into the hands of a publisher to do my book on those grounds, I would want some references. I would want to talk to someone who had gotten some success out of a book with MACK or Dewi Lewis on the colophon. My guess is that after I demanded references they'd simply stop talking to me, but who knows?

Colberg has about 21 quotes from publishers in the relevant section of his book, and two from an artist (and those deal with how tough it was to do distribution of a very successful self-published book). Nothing on "I published with Steidl and the next day Larry Gagosian wouldn't stop leaving me messages" for instance. Colberg teaches in an MFA program, surely he knows some artists.

So what's going on?

Well, nobody's getting rich. Dewi Lewis is probably selling 10,000 books a year, grossing, I dunno, half a million bucks or so. He's also taking $200,000 or thereabouts off of artists, for revenues of something under a million, which is covering the production costs and a few salaries. I could be off by a few thousand books, a few $100,000, but no matter how you slice it nobody's getting rich.

Here is another small datum. Colberg says that some publishers won't look at a PoD book dummy. I cannot imagine a legitimate reason for this, but it is easy to imagine bad reasons. "You have blurb on you, you are corrupted." At least some of these people don't want you messing about on blurb et al, and one cannot help but imagine that it's because they would prefer that you not discover that PoD is actually good enough for many projects.

What they are doing is having a good time pretending to be publishers.

Vanity Press no longer means enabling people to pretend to be authors, it means enabling people to pretend to be publishers. The correct answer for most of these projects is "Your project is shit. No." but it turns out that the answer is occasionally "Oh, you have $50,000? Let me see those pictures!"

The difference between this and a proper Vanity Press is that these guys are pretty pretty princesses who will often still say no if they don't much like your project. Unfortunately, what they like is often un-sellable garbage.

What I suspect is actually going on here is that there is a substantial ecosystem of Artists, Designers, Publishers, Editors and So On who all work for one another part time, and who publish one another's books as well as the books brought to them by the marks. One of the books Colberg discusses in detail is authored by one person, designed by another, and these two show up elsewhere in Colberg's book as the designers of someone else's book. I think we're looking at a community of a few hundred, maybe a couple thousand, people who wear various hats and who are eking out a living here. A few of them, one assumes the publishers, seem to be doing OK. Presumably they pay themselves the largest salaries, after all, they are the boss.

Somebody gets a grant, borrows a bunch of money from mum, or just saves their pennies from the waitressing job for 20 years, and scrapes up some cash. This goes into the system to support it. Occasionally, some books are sold as well. Well, that's not fair. Dewi Lewis makes 2/3 of his revenues from selling books, which in the absence of other information we might as well take as the benchmark.

So, as a first swag, the Proper Publisher business is supported 2/3 from selling Martin Parr and a handful of other well known names, people who are already famous, and 1/3 extraction of cash from hopefuls, who are wishing desperately that the book will open the right doors.

Probably there is also a set of galleries and whatnot, the same blokes, who will in fact perk up when they see you have a book with Dewi Lewis. So in fact dropping the $35,000 or whatever to do the book probably does actually open these doors. Is it opening doors because you are a proven fundraiser who might be good for another touch? Or, is it opening doors because Michael Mack signed off on your work and so it might actually be good?

Probably a bit of both.

Either way, it's a pretty scandalous business, fairly seedy, and quite bad for artists. It forces the un-famous author into the role of fund-raiser, grant-writer, penny-pincher, mom-can-I-borrow-50,000. Then it runs that un-famous author through a lengthy process of editors, designers, and other helpful experts who will stick their nose into the project over the course of up to two years.

Now, I like collaboration. I approve of it. Being stuck endlessly toiling on a single project with an every-changing cast of collaborators, not all of my own choosing, and who I am increasingly invested in getting along with no matter what, well, that doesn't sound like fun. When you're in it to the tune of $30,000 of mom's money, and 12 months of effort, when the publisher trots out this new friend of his who's a designer, what are you gonna do?

What if you just don't like this guy? What if you think this guy's ideas are shit, are ruining your vision?

You got the strength to fire him anyways, to push back? I dunno. Maybe you do, maybe you don't. It's a tough spot to be in, and while it might not happen to you, it sure as hell happens to someone now and then.

Colberg is colluding with this system. His book is, explicitly, a how-to manual for entering this system in the role of "sucker".

Colberg explicitly and repeatedly urges his readers to avoid PoD and to avoid self-publishing. He explicitly advocates for the system I have described above, while simultaneously painting it in mildly rosy colors.

I won't go so far as to say that Colberg's view of things is a lie, or even wrong. It is distinctly biased and incomplete.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: Understanding Photobooks, Jörg M. Colberg

The short review is that this is a complete primer on the production of a commercial book, from the point of view of the Serious Artist who wants to publish a book with a Serious Publisher. As such, it seems to me a pretty good resource, with a few issues. As you diverge from the Serious Artist/Serious Publisher model, the usefulness of the book drops. However, even if you're hand-building a 1-copy edition of an Artist's Book (roughly the exact opposite model) you may well find something of use in this book.

I approve of much of what he says. I learned several things about book publishing, which was a surprise to me. Colberg recommends things like "make physical book dummies (mockups), in fact, make a series of them" which strikes me as excellent advice. If you don't know much about the creation and manufacture of books, you're likely to learn quite a lot from Understanding Photobooks. If you're thinking about making a book, I think this may be a good buy, almost no matter what kind of book you want to make.

You will almost certainly find aspects of the book that do not apply, that are simply wrong for you, or that irritate you. Plug onwards. It's an easy read, it's accessible, and you will find useful gems.

Should you buy it? That is a tough question. Keith Smith's Structure of the Visual Book will teach you 1000x more about sequencing, and nothing whatsoever about publishing. Swanson and Himes Publish Your Photography Book -- which I have not read -- appears to cover much of the same ground in much the same size of book at about the same price. It has the virtue of being well respected, and in a second edition. As for me, I am not unhappy to own Colberg's book, but I am casting about for a chance to read Swanson and Himes.

Thus endeth the executive summary. Onwards to a more detailed discussion.

This book is, it turns out, actually two different books. The first is described above, the second book is essentially an apologia for the "traditional publishing" industry that makes photobooks. This essay will concern itself, as far as possible, with the first. The second I will deal with in a second writeup.

Colberg has an engineering background, and it shows here. As usual, he eschews the language of Arty Bollocks throughout, the whole thing is quite readable. He has a tendency to try to algorithm-ize everything, although you can practically feel him struggling against this tendency as well. He knows as well as you and I that there is no fixed algorithm here, and he tries to present his organized processes as suggestions, as recommended courses for the first-timer, to be altered as necessity and whim dictate.

The over-arching example of this is his insistence that you start from a completed photographic project, with a clear concept, and then follow a series of steps that end with the completed book in bookshops and for sale online. Colberg does say, repeatedly, that much of what he says should be taken as a guideline, and perhaps a useful "recipe" for the first time book-maker. It is not always clear what he intends as a guideline, and what he means as an absolute, however. Often he uses absolutist language for things that strike me as more like a guideline, and his general remarks lean away from absolutism. I recommend taking virtually every single statement in the spirit of a guideline, to be taken up or discarded as appropriate.

The book is structured around the various phases (editing, sequencing, design, print, binding) that make up the process of making a book, punctuated with "worked examples" in the sense of a more or less detailed examination of this specific book or that. Some of the examples are interesting and well designed, and others are, well, less so. In my judgement. Colberg's preference is for excessively design-heavy books.

Understanding Photobooks lacks in negative examples, even hypothetical ones. Colberg repeatedly comments that there are many many bad photobooks in the world, but he declines to name names. This, I suppose, I can understand. Unable or unwilling to name names, he should have distilled the problems into hypothetical examples, and gone over those. In the end, we see a handful of books that Colberg thinks are good, and we get a fair amount of general discussion about what makes things good, but very little about what makes things bad. The closest he comes is a handful of remarks of this sort: he notes that certain bindings don't open fully, and therefore are not well suited to photos printed across the gutter. These small samples of potential bad choices are, in my estimation, not enough, and his examples of what constitute good choices are, in my estimation, often quite weak.

A few general remarks in more or less book-order.

Colberg starts, correctly, with the statement that your book needs a clear concept from the outset. You've got to know what the hell you're trying to do before you can really make much progress. Everything flows from the concept. Colberg makes a solid argument here, and gives a good example (albeit a book I would never consider buying, but a book that makes his point quite well). He points out that narrative is really just one way to organize a book, and that other approaches can be deployed successfully. I think one could argue that he and I see eye to eye here, meaning and/or concept are necessary, pretty much everything else isn't.

In here Colberg sketches the process by which concept is converted into a book, how it flows into editing/sequencing, and thence into layout, design, and so forth. In reality, everything depends on everything else in a gigantic messy ball, but he does a good job of combing out the important dependencies and suggesting a general way to navigate them.

The chapter on editing and sequencing is fairly weak. He covers the basics. Connecting pictures one to the next through form and/or content. Narrative structures, both literal linear narrative and an example of a sort of montage of pictures that foreshadows and sets up a larger narrative. A little discussion of pacing and intensity. It goes on and on, and covers the basics, but without getting very far. He starts out on the wrong foot asserting that you should always choose the strongest single image from each grouping of similars, before proceeding to sequencing. He hints that you might wind up using a weaker picture from the set later, but doesn't explicitly state it (at least not that I noted). He's pretty dogmatic about how you ought to sequence (the tired canard of "print them all out and stick them on the wall") and his examples are remarkably thin. The nadir of the chapter is an example of straight narrative drawn from Hesitating Beauty by Joshua Lutz. These are all willfully ugly snapshots. Natch.

1. Picture of glum middle aged man.
2. Picture of glum middle aged woman holding something.
3. Reverse angle of same woman, she's holding a b&w photo of a young, happy, couple.
4. Similar photo of a young happy couple.
5. Photo of a decorative wall that's been made to look like its bursting/collapsing.

OH MY GOD. WHAT COULD THIS BE A METAPHOR FOR!!!!??
    I DON'T KNOW!!!!!

Seriously? You think I am making this up, don't you? Especially the wall. But no, someone actually put this sequence into a book, and Schilt published it. This garbage looks like Woody Allen and Diane Arbus had a love child, who suffered brain damage in a tragic car accident, and now makes art with a broken camera.

As an example to drive the point home to even the most dunderheaded, I suppose it serves, but I would be embarassed to publish that sequence.

The chapter on design reads a bit like "hire a designer" written out 1000 times, but it does also make the point that design should serve the concept, which point he's already made several times. It is remarkable that in the chapter on design, Colberg is almost completely silent on what design actually is. The chapter essentially consists of discussion of what it does, why it matters, why you should hire someone to do it, and (a little) how to collaborate with that someone. These are all good things to say, but one does arrive at the end wondering a bit what design actually is.

The next bit is production, in which he briefly discusses bindings, the necessity to hire other people, paper choices and whatnot, and notes that preparing photographs for print is complicated (especially if you're printing offset), and that you ought to hire someone to do it. Again, he hammers the useful and correct point that production, bindings, etetera, need to serve the book's concept, not the other way around.

He wraps up with how to make a photobook in 17 rules, which reads exactly like a long listicle. "Collaborate!" "Avoid Shortcuts!" "Have a Budget!" and so on. It's embarrassing, and one gets the sense that Colberg was struggling to hit 200 pages (which he does, barely). Should have gone with a bigger font instead, Jörg.

In general, this book appears to be aimed at Colberg's MFA students. It assumes that you know basically nothing, and walks you through the basics, but without much depth. There is a brief discussion of each of the major bits and pieces, with generally worthwhile discussion of how these parts interact, and the kinds of problems that are likely to arise. The design of a book and the sequencing of the pictures, while separate tasks, can interact in powerful ways. Finalizing certain design details may require that you go back and revisit the sequence, and so on. The choice of binding will likely affect how the pictures are laid out on the page. Etcetera and so forth, but never with much depth.

Colberg's solutions to most of the big problems are "hire an expert" starting from his recommendation to go with a Real Publisher (MACK, Steidl, Dewi Lewis, etc), but flowing on through hiring or enlisting people to help you edit, design, prepare for print, and so on. He recommends throwing yourself on the publisher's mercy for distribution, marketing, and sales.

This is in line with his relatively light treatment of all the relevant problems. Rather than discuss details of bindings and the kinds of problems that can arise in any depth, he simply recommends that you have a professional helping you out. Rather than give a brief primer on design relevant to books, he recommends hiring a designer.

Colberg's other big solution is "make physical book dummies," starting from pasting pictures into a cheap spiral notebook.

These two "big solutions" are defensible, but Colberg is a bit too absolutist on these points for my taste. None of these things are rocket science. I am not a graphic designer, but as long as I keep it simple and stick to stealing other people's good ideas, I am pretty confident that my book designs are OK. I am not a master binder, but I can make a pretty good looking book. I am not Keith Smith, but my edits and sequences are... well, they're maybe passable on a good day. The point is that you can learn these things.

Physical dummies are a good idea, but it's not clear that you can't do a perfectly good job of this with a series of PoD books in concert with carefully using the computer (a pattern he explicitly cautions against, without much of a convincing argument).

Interestingly, Colberg constantly beats the drum of "limitations are good" and "compromise is a necessary part of book making" while simultaneously advocating for what amounts to a spare-no-expense Rolls-Royce process. He's distinctly down on print-on-demand, making a point of dismissing it at least three times. These are not the only contradictions in the book.

The other truly annoying tic Colberg has is that he forces the reader to do quite a lot of work. The clearest example if the chapter on design, in which he say that you need to hire a designer, repeating more than once that it's about more than the margin widths. As noted previously, he does not remind us what design is, what a designer actually does.

Now, this is not a huge deal. One can in fact work out from the rest of the book what a designer does, and fill it in. Ditto various other places where the same tic appears, where he argues stridently in favor of something or other without giving much of a rationalization. It makes his arguments feel weak, however. And, to be honest, I think his arguments are weak.

The strength of his position is not enhanced by the design and editing of the book itself. Unless, I suppose, he intends the book itself to be that negative example I bemoaned the absence of, above. But no, the book is flawed, but not bad enough to serve that role!

His examples sections are, incomprehensibly, typeset with white text on a medium gray background, illegible in anything short of excellent light (especially the captions, which are set in a smaller font). The text, while not a mess, could have used a better editor. Consistent misuse of like vs. as, he uses the word amount incorrectly now and then, and I found at least one outright typo. I am a pretty close reader, and I expect to notice an error or two in even the best books, but Colberg's concsistent mis-use of what I assume is his second language should have been corrected.

Finally, he's very repetitive. Text and pictures found in the worked examples sidebars are often repeated in the main body. Even apart from that, he repeats the same points in the main text too often for my taste. A good editor would likely have chopped the book by 10-20 percent without loss, resulting in a tighter (albeit somewhat slender) volume.

I don't think Focal Press is a self-pub operation, but this thing felt like a quite well done self-pub book rather than a commercial product.

Despite these flaws, I think it is a useful volume, and I am pleased to have purchased it. In part, because it's quite inexpensive. You should perhaps own a copy, but have a good stiff drink before reading, lest you hurl it violently against the wall and damage the spine.

I regret that I am going to have to say some unkind things about Mr. Colberg in the next essay. This genuinely pains me, as I think he is one of the few genuinely smart voices in the area. Relative to the unkind things I intend to say about the industry, however, it will be as if I were hand-feeding him a fine cake. So there's that.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Why Sequence II: Examples

I'm going to try to think through a couple of examples. Not of "how" but of "what" -- specifically, how do I want my readers leafing through my book. What order do I want them looking at the physical pages in.

First, I am going to channel QT Luong, who recently put out a book of photographs from every single one of the US National Parks. QT reads has been known to stop by, so, "hi!" and this is just an example. His book and his concept may be completely different. However, it would be reasonable, I think, to approach a project of this sort thus:

1. I want readers to go through the whole thing in order, first.
2. I want readers to be able to find favorite photos easily.

The first suggests that the sequencing should have a firm forward drive. Readers should feel a desire to turn the page, contemplate, and then turn the page again. And so on. The second suggests some sort of useful organizing scheme, likely by location. Perhaps the book should proceed East to West or something, so when you want that one amazeballs picture from Zion, you know it's not at the front, and not at the end but about.. here.

Next, let's imagine we're making a visual telling of the story of Jesse James. Obviously a forward narrative drive makes sense, again. We might want to introduce a flashback, and we might even hope that the reader would literally flip backwards in the book to review those pictures. We might want to foreshadow, and hope to drive the reader to flip back to that foreshadowing picture or sequence when, later in the book, the relevant events begin to unfold.

The trip through this vaguely literary narrative, thus, would explicitly include backtracking in addition to the forward drive.

More generally, we might introduce pictures or sequences that make little sense, or make different sense, until something later is seen. Again, we'd like to see some backtracking (perhaps literal, perhaps just in-memory).

In the ultimate backtracking, we might want to finish the book in a way that demands the reader go back to the start. In the same way the movie "Memento" concludes in a way that makes us re-examine the entire film, our book might try to create a literal loop, requiring two consecutive readings to fully grasp. Two books, as it were, for the price of one.

Yet another coffee table book that is less completist that QT's might not even demand a front-to-back reading at all, it might need no forward drive at all. It might be purely a reference, intended to be dipped in to at random. You could even imagine a random-access with backward flow, with the big important pictures preceded, perhaps, by details and text that readers might or might not want to consult.

You could almost map this out, with a little box representing each two-page spread, and little arrows leading here and there. It's kind of how I visualize it. Arrows might represent remembering, physical page-flipping, or something in between, something else. No plan of this sort of likely to literally work in all details, but one can hope for a general thrust in the general direction. Some readers might do this bit, others another bit.

As with other aspects of Art and Photography, I believe firmly that if you put a lot in while simultaneously leaving space for the viewer or reader to find their own way, they will in turn get a lot out even if it's not exactly what you put in.

These are all different experiences of the book. Much of the lifting is done by the pictures, of course. Some of it is done by details of design. Some, however, is done by the sequencing. All, I suppose, should be working together to try to produce the right sort of effect.

I have a few other things to write about, but I will return to this and try to mention some actual ideas for generating these effects that I have observed here and there.