A Photobook Manifesto II: On Design

war primer 1 and 3

The 1998 Libris edition of War Primer (bottom) and the 2015 War Primer 3 dummy (top).

In response to a few requests I wrote a piece last week setting out how I start to think about and approach a new book project. I talked about the importance of considering whether a project is really suited to being a book, and then spent most of the piece discussing narrative and editing strategies that I’ve found have worked quite well when teaching. It might have seemed a little odd to give over so much of the post to discussing something which isn’t directly related to book design, but the way you construct a narrative from a series of photographs is I think the single most important thing about a book. Every other element can be amazing, but if the order of the images is vague, or worse, without any extractable meaning, then it’s all for nothing. As anyone will know who has ever been shown a very version of a project which still looked amazing, a book live and dies by the order of its pages and too many books labour over a beautiful design while being are willfully or accidentally obscure and arcane about their messages.

Assuming you’ve constructed a narrative that works for your subject, the next question for me is how I get this narrative to sit on the page, and what design details I incorporate to really try and pull the whole book towards the topic. For me a well-designed book is one where all the elements speak to the central topic, but not in a way which is flashy, over the top or distracting from the core subject. Naïve or clumsy design is one thing, far worse for me though is a book that’s been completely over-designed, to the extent that the photographs and other content are overwhelmed. If you’re looking to work with a designer I’d be wary of anyone who doesn’t seem sympathetic or engaged with the subject or seems too eager to put their design signature on the finished book.

Once I’ve established a narrative the first thing I start to think about it layout. In truth often narrative and layout start to evolve and suggest each other at the same time so like many of the categories I’m talking about here this is something of an arbitrary distinction. I tend to use layouts structured around grids which is a somewhat rigid way to design but makes it far easier to be consistent through a book and to arrange things in a way which echo things on other pages. For example with Metropole a grid structure made it easy to have all the texts in the book echo the size and positioning of the cover title, a minor detail but an important one to the design. It also helped in lining up elements within some of the photographs.

At this stage the book will be starting to look pretty complete and I might start to think about any smaller elements that I might want to include in the book to tie together the design or theme. In The Camera Obscured I found that I wanted to leave quite a few blank pages but these looked a little odd, so I spent some time researching old printers marks looking for one which fitted the theme, until I found one shaped like the sun. I also felt the cover, which was text only at the time, needed something extra and spent some time researching old treatise on optics looking for decorative elements I could extract and use. Personally I think less is more with these details, and once again they always need to tie back in to what the book is ultimately about.

I’ve left fonts until last to mention, but in practice the choice of a particular font can occur at any point in a project. Personally I like to use fonts which have some echo of the central theme of the book but without that echo being overwhelmingly obvious. Sometimes I have one in mind even as I’m still shooting, at other times I spend hours searching through font databases looking for one with the right character. For Metropole I used Gill Sans Light for it’s slight art deco styling which I thought neatly echoed the origins of the book’s title. Sometimes the choice is defined more by practically and for Numbers in the Dark I knew there would be a great deal of text so I looked for an easy to read font that also had an echo of a computer or typewritten font. I eventually found what I wanted in one called Inconsolata.

I know there remain a host of topics I haven’t discussed, but I hope that the guiding principle of considering how each decision relates to the topic you want to talk about will answer many of these. I also know I’ve made it sound rather like a book can go from a scattering of photographs to a finished item in one easy draft. In practice it often takes many redrafts and revisions. Metropole is only thirty pages long and went through about six versions, and Numbers in the Dark has been through eight versions so far and is only just reaching a finished state. Whether you’re working on a ten page photocopied zine or a hundred page leather bound opus, take your time, think about every detail in relation to the topic and the book will reward you for it.

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.

New Project – Numbers in the Dark

spectrum analysis #11 edit

Spectrum Analysis #11 from Numbers in the Dark

The forces that shape our lives today are frequently invisible, or at least attempt to be. Intelligence gathering is one example of this, and an area of these activities forms the subject of my new project Numbers in the Dark. During the early years of the Cold War, shortwave radio enthusiasts began to notice unidentified broadcasts, transmitting strings of numbers read by synthesised voices. These enigmatic broadcasts, which responded to no requests for identification, have come to be known as ‘numbers stations’.

Numbers broadcasts continue to this day and while very few have ever been clearly connected to a specific government or organisation, all the evidence suggests that they are used by intelligence agencies to transmit coded instructions to their operatives in the field. While it might seem archaic, transmitting secret messages by short-wave radio confers numerous advantages even in the digital age. The system requires little specialist equipment, is virtually untraceable, and by virtue of the type of cryptography used it is also extremely secure.

While the instructions contained in numbers broadcasts might be profoundly secret, the radio broadcasts themselves are more or less public and can be easily heard by anyone with a short-wave radio. As a result dedicated groups of enthusiasts have emerged who commit countless hours to monitoring the peculiarities of each numbers station, naming them, noting schedules and recording any changes in their behaviour. These enthusiasts also sometimes employ tecniques like High Frequency Direction Finding to locate the approximate area of origin for these signals.

Numbers in the Dark employs research undertaken by these enthusiasts, in conjunction with an array of other sources including declassified documents, in an attempt to locate the global broadcast sites of twenty-two numbers stations, past and present. The results of this search are as perplexing as they are enlightening, revealing radio transmitters isolated deep in forests and on remote military bases, but also showing others that lie at the heart of affluent, well developed cities, alongside major highways and at the edges of popular beaches.

Once located, each transmitter site is mapped in high resolution using publicly available satellite mapping programs. It is well known that this technology is a descendent from the optical surveillance satellites developed by spy agencies following the Second World War, but more directly the satellites used today for commercial mapping are also often directly used by intelligence agencies. The Geoeye 2 satellite, which collects much of the imagery for Google Maps, also collects imagery for intelligence organisations like the American National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. Numbers in the Dark is therefore in a very literal sense about turning the tools of the spies back against their users.

Alongside these maps, spectrum analyses are made of transmissions both from numbers stations and legitimate broadcasts. A spectrograph is a method of turning a radio transmission into a visible image. It is a technique which is useful for a variety of reasons, but which in the context of this project is also a pertinent reminder that radio waves lie along the same spectrum as visible light, and that what is normally invisible can be rendered visible under other circumstances. The last element of the project is an audio soundscape contained on a memory card, which takes listeners into the strange aural world of short-wave radio transmissions.

These media, alongside a series of texts, combine in a book where competing and conflicting narratives sit side by side. Narratives of certainty and objectivity, of rigorous research and hours spent pouring over maps, frequencies, schedules, and declassified documents. Narratives of doubt and subjectivity, of time spent reading the many conspiracy theories which revolve around these stations, and pondering the sometimes incomprehensible devotion of the people who monitor them. But above all the narrative of a world where unaccountable state power and wild conspiracy collide head on with the mundane and every day. Where intensely secret messages drift through the ether, broadcast from antennae in business parks and suburban neighbourhoods.

Numbers in the Dark has been shortlisted for the Luma Les Rencontres d’Arles dummy book award and you can see it at COSMOS until September. I will be in Arles from 5 – 11th July with an updated copy of the book, so get in touch if you’d like to meet up and view it.