Behind the scenes, Book Making, Environment, Inspiration, Landscape, Stories

Photobook Publishing(2/3)

7 minute read.

In this second segment of a three-part post I chat with another first-time bookmaker for his behind the scenes experiences of the process.

Kevin Percival‘s quietly insistent work documents the landscapes and communities on the remote Scottish Island of Tanera (Ar Dùthaich), charting the symbiotic relationships left by generations its of inhabitants.

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DN: Once again, many thanks for loaning me the book. I’ve had a chance to look through the images and most of the text now. It’s a really beautiful project and object.

It seems like a much more fluid and complicated place when you read the end text than is the case on first viewing. I like the way the book withholds small asides and personal histories until the reader has put in the effort to uncover them…Perhaps that’s for later on in the discussion…

Can I start by asking you your initial motivation for the project and at what point you began to realise it would work best in book form?

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KP: I think my motivation was EXACTLY that really: I wanted to make a project which looked at rural issues. Having grown up in the countryside and gradually moved to bigger and bigger towns and cities during my adult life, I gradually became aware of how under-considered and under-represented these rural communities have become in the UK (both politically and culturally). When we consider the rural, we’re so used to seeing these postcard pictures, with blue skies and stunning sunsets- the rural as the ‘sublime’ or ‘picturesque’- all these ideas which have gradually become commercialised and solidified on calendars. To the point where I think we forget that real people still live there, and have to try and carve out an existence for themselves too.

When I first moved there for work in 2012, I didn’t know what shape the work would take – that would develop through making the images. As we drove the final single-track road which snakes from Ullapool out to Achiltibuie where our employers’ boat was moored, we were told that there was a currently a bit of a fuss in the community as petrol at the local stations had recently crashed through the £1.50 a litre mark (at the time this was the same as the premium being paid at motorway service areas on the M25). Given that there was only two buses from Achiltibuie to Ullapool a day- people rely on their own transport (not to mention boats) for work- and this kind of price jump is the sort of difference which forces people to choose between putting fuel in the car or buying food in the most extreme cases. This was the first time I’d really considered this and it really stuck with me throughout the project- though never really makes it explicitly into the work.

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We’re bombarded by stories about inner-city poverty all the time, but rarely even consider what people in the countryside do. I was once told by an ecologist friend a story of her going into a city primary school. She asked the pupils she was teaching “Where does milk come from?” and was told “from a bottle”. When she asked where it comes from before that – kids tentatively said “milk comes from Tesco”. This is just one example of how urban and rural realities do not intersect. So all these ideas were floating around in my head as I made the work. I didn’t want to deny beauty of the area, because ultimately I’ve always been fascinated by the ecology and Romanticism of the countryside, but I wanted to balance that by saying ‘hey, people make their lives here too it’s more than just a chocolate box’. Putting the work into a book allowed me to blend these narratives together in a more complex way. The idea was to make a book that rewards repeated viewings, so each of the oral histories you read, gives you a very slightly different sense of the place and understanding of the photographs.

The images are made up of portraits, vistas and details the exception being a couple of interiors. In relation to the portraits, did you have a specific cross-section of the community you wanted to represent as a kind of ethnographic survey of the island? How did you go about selecting your subjects?

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For the portraits, I tried to show anyone I met whose work or lives impacted on the island at the time we were working there. There were only 5 people living on the island including us, so I focussed on people who lived on the mainland but influenced the daily running of the island.

I often talk about my interest in the traces found in the landscape- the evidence of human interaction with it and presence upon it. I wanted to show the people leaving those traces now in the early 21st century.

My only regret here is not showing more of the holiday makers who often visited every single year for periods of 10 or 15 years. I tried to show a mix of people from different backgrounds and ages though.

When it came to doing oral histories, I felt it was particularly important to represent a variety of perspectives- from young people right through to those in their 60s/70s. From people who have moved to the local area relatively recently, to people who have lived there all their lives- be that 18 years or 60.

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It seems to me that one of the most rewarding aspects of bookmaking is the editing – making new relationships with the image so connections are made visually where none existed before – but also the most fraught in the sense that this is a very definite process and once it’s done there’s no going back. You are, in a sense, creating a finalized world in which to immerse your viewer…

In terms of editing that was a really, really long process and I think it’s a really ‘how long is a piece of string’ question – it really varies from project to project and person to person. Almost from the beginning I was working on a rough edit. After our first summer on the island in 2012 I’d scanned and worked on a selection of images- probably about 50 or so that I was interested in, and this informed my shooting for the following year, which meant it became much more directed. I made another edit in 2013 and some of the gaps had been filled in, but others became obvious. So I continued to go back and shoot, editing between trips.

I made my first dummy book around this time, 2013/2014 when I started my MA. I wasn’t too happy with it so left off trying to get the book into a final form for 2 years or so to work on other projects. It wasn’t until early 2016 that went back and I really began to feel like I was getting somewhere. I find editing an uncomfortable process. With this project, it’s when I realised just how attached I’d become to the actual place – never mind the images. It’s very easy to establish relationships with certain images and over time those relationships can easily become entrenched- particularly when working on something for so long. I think you eventually get to a point where you have no idea what’s ‘good’ any more!

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I feel very fortunate that I had a bunch of amazing photographer friends who I’d met in various places and I had a lot of help from them, firstly cutting the numbers down to a manageable level, and then bouncing ideas around for the final 66 images which made it into the book. It’s fascinating to see what other people find interesting in your images. I have no problem with handing someone I trust a handful of ordered prints I’ve agonised over for days, and saying ‘make an edit’, watching as they undo all your hard work! Call me a masochist but it’s all part of the process – it quickly brings your own objectivity back if you can let go a bit.

The people I edit with also ask the hard questions – if there’s an image they’re not sure on- you need to be able to justify why it’s there. They don’t have any of your emotional attachment to the particular situations you remember whilst you were photographing.

In the final 6 months before printing, the sequence was re-edited I don’t know how many times, and I had people from wildly different areas, fashion photographers, documentary photographers, commercial. I prefer to work with prints, little contact prints 6x6cm mostly, followed by about 12x12cm once the edit is down.

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I felt so ready to get the project out by this point so the editing wasn’t fraught in that sense, but I was very conscious I wanted to do the land and the people justice. Like many things, it’s a deceptively simple story, which belies a hugely layered, complex ecology of place and I really wanted to get some of the complexity across. So that’s where the pressure comes- am I being honest? Am I exploring the many truths of the place and the people? Am I telling these stories fully and with sensitivity?

Due to funding through KickStarter my time-frame for production was super short- print/design was all done within about 3 months. Sean, my designer absolutely took me under his wing at this point, having done a few photobooks of his own (check out his work seandooley.com). He made some helpful final sequencing tweaks, worked up the designs quickly and gave it a much cleaner, more ‘modern-yet-classic’ look than I had in my dummies. I went round getting quotes from a bunch of printers but ended up going with one in Italy who Sean had used before.

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My biggest lesson learned here was to always go out [to the printers] and be on press for the printing. In the end I didn’t have the money to do this, but I think it would have smoothed out a bunch of communication issues. Proofing long-distance is a ball-ache. I was really pleased with the final print quality, but getting to that point via email was mainly due to the fact that the printer was so experienced.

Also, no matter how much time you build in to the schedule (seriously- even if it’s months..) I would NEVER again book a launch before the books have come off the press.. If doing a small one-off print-run your baby will get bumped down the print queue if a bigger job comes in. And that’s before deliveries get delayed at customs/for bad weather/because of aliens/strikes/badgers etc.

Ha! The image of militant badgers picketing outside post offices is a strong one. Thanks again for your time and I wish you every success with the book. Buy it here.

All images ©kevinPercival

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Aftermath, Behind the scenes, Book Making, Landscape

Photobook Publishing (1/3)

4 minute read

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In a this three-parter, I interview photographers venturing out for the first time into the sometimes intimidating world of book publishing. Each has their own take on the process, and speak with refreshing candour about their experiences.

First up, my former boss and gifted photographer Steve Meyler. His latest project, 66 hours, employs the landscape as metaphor to talk about a tragic episode in the history of a coastal community. You can read all about the project here.

DN: Hi Steve! I thought I’d share some ramblings from folk about book making and I wondered if you would like to contribute. Hope so. Do you have any pithy tips for aspiring newbies in the wonderful world of publishing? Love to hear your thoughts…

SM: Here we go – my two penneth – just rattled this out for you, whilst sitting in the sun (summer 2019!ed) and enjoying the sea breeze…

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First, decide what your aspirations are.

Do you want to be the next Stephen Shore, or are you happy to publish for friends and family? Without being a terrible pessimist, the world is full of amazingly talented snappers generating fantastic work, it’s unlikely most ‘smudgers’ that self-publish books are going to end up with the world at their feet.

What’s your aim when producing a book?

The best, purest and most noble reason to create a book or zine is to produce an object; as beautiful an object as possible, to share with others. As photographers, we tend to focus our attention primarily on content but it is perhaps wise to remember you’re also creating and presenting/selling an object. Would you tote your best work to and from galleries in the worlds cheapest portfolio case? – probably not! I’m still very much a newb to this world myself and squarely fall into the category of publishing books in small runs for a local or friend oriented customer base.

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Where does cost fit into the overall scheme?

My only goal is that the projects pay for themselves if there’s a small profit, that gets funnelled to the next piece. If there was to be a loss, then I would do my best ensure it wasn’t a big one. This leads to the first golden rule derived from my experience – don’t order too many books from the printer. There are printers out there that specialise in small runs of self-published work and will produce as few as 50 copies at a time. These are digitally printed works (more on this later).

In your experience, can you describe the technical aspects of the printing process?

So, if you have a huge market to service and require a minimum of 500 books then Offset printing is the way to go. Superb quality from carefully made printing plates that are yours to keep, which, if there’s a mistake (typos etc.) are there forever. The cost per copy is very low in high volume. For B&W with high contrast and deep rich blacks, duotone is the recommended process.

For small runs of books which can be corrected from run to run, the digital press is the answer. In recent years digital presses have come on in leaps and bounds and a good printer will produce images (particularly in colour) that rival an offset press. For high-quality B&W on digital, I would advise using a 4 colour process to create what a printer calls ‘rich black’. The alternative is a ‘flat black’, this is the preferred option when cost is the primary concern or the depth of black in your images is not a concern. Paper choice is, of course, a personal matter but for photographers, the opacity of the paper is Important, ‘bleed through’ from the previous page is undesirable.

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Where would you suggest people start with the design of their books?

I would suggest using a professional designer unless the work overall is lo-fi or very simple indeed. Photographers get rightly annoyed when they hear about amateurs taking work away from them and producing sub-standard work, the same goes for book design – pay a professional, it’s worth the money.

So you have your run of beautifully designed and realised books, can you talk us through your approach to marketing?

The final part of this mini business is of course pricing. If you’ve been snapped up by Faber & Faber for a 20 book deal, you don’t have to worry about the next bit. If you’re self-publishing in low volume, however, It’s a very simple retail business price segmentation. If a copy of your book has cost you £20 to produce, then a standard profit margin would be a further £20 for the author, bringing your wholesale price to £40. Any retailer or onward seller will then want the same margin leaving your RRP in a bookstore at £60. This final pricing segment can be mitigated if you sell in person but it’s easy to forget the additional costs of running your mini-publishing house, a website or money handling fees are examples. When it comes to shipping, the cost, of course, varies with location and this has to accounted for in your production costs and profit margins. The best way to ship photobooks and ensure they arrive in perfect condition is to use an oversize cardboard padded bag. Wrap the book in plenty of small bubble wrap, ensure it fits tightly into the bag and the package will survive any manner of abuse. The packaging cost will obviously be commensurate to the quality and cost of the contents.

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Thanks Steve! Do you have any final words of wisdom to share..?

Remember a book is a long term investment, don’t be too discouraged if initial sales are slow. Your creation will be for sale as long as you have stock and its gratifying to know that people will part with their hard earned cash to own your work and keep it in their home.

66 hours is now sold out, but Steve has some fine prints for sale in his online store, as well as other contemplative and provocative projects that deserve time and reward scrutiny.

 All images ©Steve Meyler

 

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Behind the scenes, Book Making, Inspiration, Theory

Sequencing and the Unconscious

I made a maquette recently from pictures I brought back from a cycle trip in Morocco. In many ways it was just a cycle trip, yet I was serious about the pictures I made and I had an idea of an over-arching theme that I wanted to explore through its course. This post is first and foremost a response to a question about sequencing during the editing process – something I found a joy despite having very little experience of the process. The dummy is shown in the video above.

By making pictures in an arbitrary location, Morocco in this case, using a bicycle as the vehicle for changing the objects and backgrounds, one can spend a period of time recording what the eye sees and the mind thinks. The reason for a particular picture can be re-interpreted after the event and when joined with others, can be re-organized into sequences which the photographer thinks visually appealing or, more ambitiously, aspires to communicate something other than what is present in front of the lens. This is now a collaboration between our two selves: on the one hand the person we are now (the editor) and the person we were then – when we looked through the camera viewfinder and clicked the shutter. Philosophically speaking, these are two different people.

This is the interesting and rewarding aspect of sequencing a book. One might follow a figure in a landscape with a detail of a translucent plastic bag, but the bag might loosely reference the shape of the person, and somehow become an allegory of a life. One might link the deep lines of a weathered face with the shafts of light raking across the surface of a cracked pool table – the fissure echoing the remains of a snake, tattooed into the tarmac of an undisclosed location. A light bulb might paradoxically reference both modernity and poverty, then, on the next page, celebrity and power might be obliquely alluded to with a specular reflection from the surface of a framed and mounted portrait.

Meanwhile, one may have an overarching theme, through which the disparate aspects of the book might emerge. I was just about to get married, so this was always in the back of my mind, a kind of backdrop onto which everything else was projected and which (for me) changed the meaning of things. The metronomic motion of legs and wheels helped to release my mind from habitual concerns to deeper thoughts of love and commitment. This is the realm of the symbol and the metaphor, where nothing is arbitrary and everything has a significance and meaning, but it is skewed by the mind: the ‘backdrop’ always ‘intervenes’ and changes what is in front of the eye.

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In the preface of his fascinating book ‘The Unseen Eye’, W.M Hunt describes his images of people whose eyes ‘are somehow obscured, veiled, hidden, blocked, averted or closed,’ as somehow portraits of himself. They are all, he says, ‘in their unique way, manifestations of my unconscious.’

Similarly, the lone figures with their backs to the viewer in the maquette I made are all pictures of me, walking away into my new life.

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