A Photobook Manifesto I: Narrative

metropole-draftsDrafts of Metropole, earliest at top left, final book at bottom right.

One of my motivations for setting up this blog was to get away from what seemed to be the preponderance of practical blogs and websites out there, focused far more on mandating the specific ‘dos and do nots’ of photography than about trying to articulate a general philosophy of photography that would serve to answer many of these questions if applied to them. Writing regularly has helped me to build up an inner framework of ideas about what good photography is which has really helped me when it comes to make work, and I hope might have also helped others a little. All the same, I get more and more requests for specific types of posts and quite a number have asked that I write something about book making and design. I’m not willing to go so far as to sit down and explain how to make a book from start to end. There are plenty of sites out there already that deal with everything from making an edit of a series of photographs, to the physical craft of binding.

What I thought would be more interesting would be to articulate the philosophy of book making that I’ve gradually formed over the past couple of years and through the dozen or so books I’ve made. I’m by no means a book designer or binder by training, my knowledge is limited and so is my time and ability to learn new tricks and crafts. I keep things simple, hopefully relevant to the subject matter, and as affordable as possible. These simple guiding lights, acquired mainly for practicality, have helped me develop something resembling a style of my own. It might not be for everyone, and it might not come anywhere near rivaling what a professional designer can offer, but so far it works for me.

So, when it comes to thinking about a new book project the question I increasingly ask myself is should this project even be a book? Photo books have become so much the default form that it’s easy to not even consider that other formats might make more sense (or that a hybrid form like a book and accompanying website might be more effective). I’ve written about this before and so I won’t labour the point, but as someone who looks at a great deal of books I see many projects which would have been much better served as something else, and that can be a real shame.

Assuming though the answer to that important first question is yes the next step for me is to start to think about how the photographs I have can form a narrative and how this will relate to other content I want to use, for example text or illustrations. Before I even begin to try and construct this narrative I often use an assortment of strategies to figure out what the photographs I have are actually saying to a viewer, and how they might relate to each other when strung together in a series. For example one technique I often use with students is to ask them to try and put aside what they know about their work and put themselves into the position of a viewer. Then to go through their photographs and think carefully about what each image is saying on two levels. On the literal level of what it shows, and how this might fit into a purely descriptive story, but also on a slightly deeper, almost semiological level. What is the over-riding emotion, idea or image that they take away from each photograph? Can it be reduced to a single word?

Once I have some idea of my building blocks I start to build the narrative itself. The form this takes obviously varies enormously from one project to the next, with some projects taking on a very traditional and linear story telling narrative, and others adopting much more unconventional, fragmented narrative forms. One of my projects, The Memory of History, even dispensed with the idea of a fixed narrative altogether, pushing the onus to construct a story on to the viewer instead and in the process trying to encourage them to think about how historical narratives are constructed. Some might consider that a creative cop out, an example of not taking responsibility for the most important job, but for that project it seemed to make perfect sense.

And that I think is the essential thing, that the narrative approach makes sense for the topic that’s being discussed, and doesn’t become an attention seeking gimmick or a homage to some passing photographic fad. Some subjects are essentially lacking in narrative, particularly when they’re photographed in a very straight typological way. A current project of mine, Numbers in the Dark, is an example of this, with the images presented in quite a regular pattern throughout the book. At the same time there are hints of a narrative contained in the photographs, with the distance between the camera and the subject producing a sense of ‘closing-in’ as the book progresses (which in turn contrasts with the accompanying texts, which imply a distancing and a growing uncertainty about the veracity of these images and the true nature of the subject these photographs purport to reveal).

Sometimes it works very well to try and instil some sort of rhythm of pattern to the narrative. I’m a classical music addict and I’m particularly obsessed with Bach and the way he often constructs a piece of music with a very simple theme which is thoroughly explored, broken down, seemingly abandoned in favour of something else and then finally returned to. This seems to me like a nice analogy for how some of the most interesting book narratives work. Not hammering away at the same idea in every photograph, but using the core idea or leitmotif as a jumping off point from which to explore other things, before recapitulating on the original topic as the narrative draws to an end. Once I have a clear idea of the sort of narrative I want to employ it’s only then that I really turn to the matter of designing the book, something which I’ll be discussing in more depth later in the week.

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