On the curation of a book

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Though a book of photographs is something that I’ve been asked for time and again – I’ve honestly felt that it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to do, both because ultimately the audience is quite limited, and because the economics are a bit of a disaster if you care the slightest about quality. Speaking to many possible publishers, printers, and photographers who’ve done it (including those considered to be highly successful in this game, such as Nick Brandt) – it’s clear to me that any sort of photographic-only book is only worth doing if somebody with deep pockets is funding it for you. For example, Brandt doesn’t break even on any of his books – because his required standards for printing are so high; the problem is once you’ve seen what’s possible, it’s very difficult to compromise. Yet…I’ve not only decided to do one, but my editor and I are well into the process of putting it together already. Why? Let me attempt to rationalise – and share some of the frustrations…

Firstly, this isn’t a vanity publication. Secondly, it isn’t one of photographs only. Thirdly, like everything else I do in this line – I’m expecting that it will at least break even; otherwise there are other more worthwhile uses of time. One of the things I have to keep reminding myself is that I’m in this as a business, not a hobby. And that requires keeping one’s objectivity present at all times.

After extended discussion with various parties, I felt that the book should have two objectives: firstly, to preserve, order and condense the more philosophical discussions on the site, and secondly, put them around some sort of practical context – so that at least both the basics and the whys are covered. This way, the finished book could serve as a fairly complete treatises on photography – at least from the point of view of a single individual. On top of this, there’s a lot of stuff that just goes missing or gets lost in the ether on the site itself – with going on 1400 posts (!) averaging 1500 words a post, that’s a lot of reading to do to get to the gems. In fact, if we condensed this to pure text alone – without any images – we’re looking at 18 paperback novels of solid text. Whilst everything uploaded effectively sticks around forever somewhere online, I’d rather have a more permanent and structured repository for the enormous amount of work I’ve put into the site.

Some time ago, I’d already started editing a sort of ‘best of’ list from the site, but there were just too many things that required editing to be non-time sensitive (i.e. not referencing specific events or hardware or something else that might not make any sense when reread five or ten years hence). On top of that, my own philosophy and views on many things have changed with the benefit of experience and hindsight; there are things I’ve become more intolerant of, and others which I’v relaxed. Bottom line: much rewriting would be required, and there’s no way I could just copy and paste articles to string something together. In the end, daunted, I parked the exercise – until now.

My editor and I have decided the book will take two forms, the content of both which will be identical. An e-book, for convenience, and a boxed hardcover tome for archiving and leafing through at leisure. I suspect that even after editing, this may well run to two or three volumes of several hundred pages each, and will of course have color photographs. Even though photographic print and reproduction is not the primary objective of the book, there’s still something about paper that’s infinitely preferable to a screen. Plus, there’s the added benefit of not being able to accidentally delete it.

Here’s the tricky part. Even if we included only the philosophical articles, omitted the technique/reviews/etc., there are over 250 articles of 2,000 word average length; half a million words and four paperbacks, or perhaps 500 sheets of A4. Curating down the images to something manageable – say no more than two full pages images per essay – and this balloons to 1,000 pages, before we add any practical meat. See the problem? Whilst an e-book may theoretically be of infinite length, having something this heavy makes it daunting to read, which in turn defeats the point of making a book at all.

Curate, curate, curate.

Oddly, the toughest part hasn’t been rewriting the articles. That’s pretty easy (but just tiring on the fingers, and I’ve now worn out my fourth Apple keyboard since the start of the site in 2012) because many can be condensed and streamlined as similar themes can be sequenced together and made to flow in a way that you can’t do with a blog; on top of that, I think my own personal position is much more defined on many subjects.

It’s the images that get you. The minefield is whether to choose the best direct-fit examples (risk of being boring or not being current work), the most recent work (risk of lacking sitting time), the most interesting and thought provoking examples (risk of being too tangential or lacking obvious connection to the article) or some combination thereof. And should they be in a single style, or a variety? Are we illustrating for the benefit of discussion, or attempting to showcase what’s possible? And that’s before we even get into emotional attachment: there may well be two or three possible candidates for a single slot, even if we choose to be consistent and say not deviate too far on style.

Personally, I’ve been through the image curation exercise many, many times already; often getting halfway then scrapping it because a single image is missing, or because I find I need to use the same image more than once. I’ve even rewritten chapters around a single image, only to find that the subsequent stuff doesn’t flow. It’s frustrating, to say the least. All in all, there are days I think we’re 80% there, and others when I want to start again (or procrastinate entirely). I wonder if other authors go through the same process; maybe there is no magic moment when you feel it’s ‘done’. Worse still if you write something further down the line which you wish you’d included – no problem for an ebook, but not possible with a printed edition! Back to the other keyboard for me… MT

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Comments

  1. This seems comparable to an exercise in translation. When translating work from English to Spanish for example, to a very large extent you want to stay true to the intentions of the author writing in English. But not to the point where it reads unnaturally in Spanish. At this point, a bad translator might look upon this problem as a compromise and nothing else. A good translator will acknowledge the compromise and the make up for it by leveraging something good about the Spanish language and add to the translation. This would invariably move further away from the original English… but only just enough so that the benefits of the “leveraging” process outweighs the cost.

    In your case, you’re translating a blog organized by time into a book organized by some theme I’m assuming. I think consistency is more important than completeness for a thematic approach. Putting a “bit of everything” in there as you say will satisfy the need for staying true to the original work – your blog. But I think the most important thing about a book is that it is finite. A clear beginning and an ending from opening the first page, to closing the last page and the back cover. I’d suggest a single volume. Multiple volumes would indeed make it more true to your blog, but I suspect it would read a bit “unnaturally” so to speak. Or a bit diluted in retrospect. Granted, that’s a more difficult exercise in curation. But a better exercise in translation.

    Obviously there are many more ways you can leverage a book format. Thinking of yourself as a translator in addition to a curator might help that process. I wish you all the best! Looking forward to your work.

    • Actually, the blog has also been a themed exercise – it just took a bit longer to put the pieces together; I fill holes and write around topics that have been set up by earlier articles/ discussions. Can’t do it any other way. The challenge in translation is going to be ensuring the whole book is at the same level of thought maturity, which the blog isn’t (and can’t have been, since 5-6 years can represent a lot of change in thinking).

  2. Brett Patching says:

    Great news that you’re building a book! I would be really interested to read some posts about the process as you and your editor work through the project.

  3. 1. Philosophy, especially strong clear stuff like yours, can easily stand alone as just text. It works for Socrates onward.

    2. But yeah, you have to have images. Facing pages: text on the left page, image/montage on the right page

    3. One concept per spread. Hard to achieve, but very powerful, very tidy, quickly digested (or lengthily pondered) by the reader.

    4. Failing 3, short chapters. Supershort. Bite sized nuggets. Of course these nuggets can build into larger concepts and be recombined as procedures or definitions later on in the book. Snappy titles for each chapter or concept.

    5. Consider drawing / illustrating lines, directions, arrows, circle highlights etc on top of the photos. Use a smaller inset copy if you feel it would deface your art. Or consider that you are communicating the concept at least as much as the art and not worry about it.

    6. Budget time for shooting new images to illustrate some of your points, especially where you have evolved your thinking.

    7. Show us your story — your progression in thinking, ‘I used to think x was great, now I …’ etc. This is such a great tool you might even make up some fictional contrary past positions just to carry people along on their own photographic journey.

  4. Junaid Rahim says:

    Well the ‘end game’ was always going to veer towards needing a good old tome to record all the information. I guess having now written so much it’s all about distilling to only a few subject areas. It may even be easier to rewrite totally around the themes you’ve discussed….

  5. Larry Kincaid says:

    I like books, especially photography books that present an overview or lifetime bests of individual photographers, their world view, and philosophy. You seem to be focused primarily on what you want to say and show, which is perfectly fine, of course. But it might help to ask who the book is for. Call it what you want: know your audience before you speak, or market analysis from a sales point of view. In your case, your blog has allowed you to learn a great deal about people who frequent your site and our diversity of interests, points of view, areas of ignorance/opportunities for learning, etc. But even if for “us,” you might have to do more than one book at a time to make it fit each type of subgroup that visits your site. Needless to say, it always helps to look at it from the point of view of a particular set of “readers.” You probably have done this already. One thing I noticed here is that people do like to read! That’s not something you can take for granted in a world of selfies and text messages that are so short you don’t need to type much or use a keyboard as you do. Look forward to seeing what finally arrives.

    • Good points, but the recent feedback on changing the site format has shown me that asking the audience may not always be the best method: just do what I do otherwise it will not really hold integrity for anybody…

  6. Richard Scobie says:

    I’m sure you’ve done extensive research already on the publishing process, but you may find this series of posts, done last year, are of value. Jim Kasson is somone whose standards are certainly on a par with your own.

    http://blog.kasson.com/the-last-word/a-book-report/

    Regards,

    Richard

  7. Will the prints in the book be of ultraprint quality? To me, this would be the biggest lure to seeing your photos in printed format.

    • It’s impossible to do without each book costing as much # of pages x cost of an individual print. Book printing processes (quantity) simply cannot come close to even normal fine art inkjet let alone ultraptints.

  8. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Ming, I’m really looking forward to your book!
    – – –

    The returning wanderer
    of unknown lands
    wide awake,
    with eyes of wonder

    Has hard work before him,
    singing his stories
    in the wind
    that carries his people about.

    But their children,
    holding their parents’ hands,
    stay to listen
    wide awake,
    while their parents’ eyes
    widen with wonder.

    – – * – –

    🙂

  9. I think the remaining decisions will be best informed by addressing the elephant in the room…finances. Whomever you see buying the book is your audience, and that determines your voice. Some commenters have imagined a more technical treatment [here’s how I did this], while I suspect you’re thinking more along the lines of a classic [a la Adams, Porter, Capa, etc.] Can’t wait to see the final product!

    • The book can only be produced to my creative satisfaction at such point I don’t care about making money from it: publishing is not a profitable activity, but something one undertakes for vanity – so we’d better be really happy with the outcome! 🙂

  10. Of course I can see very good reason to this project. However I stopped buying photography books years ago and the only ones I’ve kept are the Ansel Adams ones. I love books and am always buying them but they are on very specific subjects e.g. The pines of Mexico! Or “Clyde paddle steamers” etc. For my money I would be interested in your book if it contained your finest work with detailed information on the process of each image from start to finish. As there’s nothing I like better than looking at great photographs and seeing how the photographer arrived at the finished print.

    • A lot of that may not be possible because you can’t do a set up shot for a spontaneous documentary style image, and in the other cases with opportunity – I’m more concerned with getting the shot for the client than making the B roll. 🙂

  11. Keith Confer says:

    Don’t let the perfect ruin the great!

  12. Michiel953 says:

    A book. Curating.

    I’ve thought about ‘publishing’ a book myself. Why? Vanity? Yes. But also, wanting to do more than just web publishing and filing prints in appropriately labeled boxes. Wanting to take the risk of having more people than just a few looking at my photographs and forming and even uttering an opinion. The cost of doing it really right is an obstacle, so Blurb or similar might be a first step.

    The really difficult part of course is deciding what goes in the book; the curating process, preceded by deciding on a theme (or no theme). In the tutorial process I’m going through with R Goslinga (Dutch portrait photographer) right now that actually is the most challenging part: he identifies certain style aspects, then asks me to make sets, each with just that one style aspect. The next task is to make a set with dual portraits of the same person: one in one style, one in the other.

    It’s challenging, it’s time consuming, it’s rewarding.

    I admire you for taking om this challenge, and look forward to reading how you’re getting on Ming!

    • Agreed on cost, though Blurb is just disappointing – there’s no other way to put it.

      In a lot of ways, this is the ultimate curation: the level of commitment – both financial and creative and belief-wise – is much higher than a single print, let alone ‘merely’ a digital image.

  13. Alex Carnes says:

    Sounds very interesting, I look forward to seeing it! It’s always a thrill to have a book published, it’ll be a major milestone in your career.

    Regarding content and curation, I would think you’d probably be better limiting it to certain advanced topics; the rudiments of photography are covered pretty adequately already, but there’s probably a gap in the market for something more advanced that puts modern image making techniques together with some more elevated artistic aims. I suppose the danger is that you’d rather see it as a showcase for your photos than a textbook, but there may be a way to do both. I think even advanced photographers have an interest in knowing the thought and practical process involved in making images they admire; there’re always other approaches one hadn’t considered and so on. No one knows everything and you can get ideas from others!

    • Not basic: I agree; image based-examples; I agree too. I see the images as supporting the concepts in the text, but they don’t have to be subservient or purely exemplary and not worthy of their own discussion…

  14. It sounds like your priorities are not yet fully settled. You can make the book educational, a showcase of your work, and a beautiful work of art in itself, all at once, but not optimised for everything. What is the intended reaction from the audience? Should they marvel at the beautiful flow of images and text, get excited about the wealth of useful information at their fingertips, or become curious about your personal work and philosophy? Eventually all of these desires may be satisfied for the diligent reader, but going for one primary impression and deciding where to compromise is probably a good idea, both for the end product and your own sanity 🙂

    Out of curiosity, what kind of print quality are you aiming for?

    • You’re right, because it isn’t – I think it has to be firstly something I’m happy with, and the form and genre doesn’t necessarily have to be a conventional one – because I don’t have to please a publisher or an end client. It may be something very unique as a result, or a disaster 😛

      My feeling is it has to be like the site: a bit of everything, which is what makes the whole thing unique.

      Print quality: as good as I can get without having to go through the cost and complexity of gravure.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        “.. firstly something I’m happy with, and the form and genre doesn’t necessarily have to be a conventional one ..”

        That’s why I’m looking forward to it!

  15. Take your time. We’ll be patient 😊

  16. I really appreciate that you are doing an e-book version as well.
    I am trying to remain a minimalist, yet still want to be able to access great information and study other peoples photography.
    It seems that e-books are greatly under appreciated when it comes to publishing photography, which I feel is a great shame.
    Looking forward to seeing how you decide to format the e-book as that is an area where everybody tends to just follow “old” printing practices and not realize the opportunities that electronic publishing offer.
    Please at least make it 4k and widescreen!
    🙂

    • Suggestions noted, but I also need to consider people with more conventional viewing devices – what works on a 60″ 4K widescreen doesn’t work on a kindle, and a large number of formats is untenable from production standpoint…

      • All very true and something that you need to consider…
        But please don’t fall into the trap of formatting for the lowest common denominator. I honestly feel that photographers are not utilizing the possibilities offered today.
        No need to go over the top, but also unfortunate to not embrace the opportunity to show the photographs at close to their best.
        Most people that are seriously interested in this sort of e-book should at least have a reasonable display.

  17. This will be interesting! I suppose it’s too early on to predict accurate release and price?

  18. Check out this link to an almost identical photo https://www.instagram.com/p/BPp84otln4Z/?taken-by=gregbenzphotography

    • Not surprised – there’s only one place you can stand to take that shot for reasons of access. Mine was taken in 2011, and I’m sure somebody had done the same before that.

    • An interesting comparison. With Ming’s image I feel that I am in the room, with the other I feel like I am peering into it and somewhat disassociated from it.

  19. Very much looking forward to your book!

  20. A Book ? My body is ready 😀 YES !

  21. oh, I’d say, go with your intuition, when choosing images to go with the texts. Just one remark: it is also interesting, to see the development of an author in a book, if early works are included. They might not fit your standards of today, but shed a light of where you came from.
    Good luck with this project.

    • I’m struggling with that question too: to include for completeness, or to rewrite for consistency? I think the latter, given it’s not just writing style but also point of view (which may land up being somewhat self-contradicting in light of further developments etc.).

  22. ‘Yet…I’ve not only decided to do one, but my editor and I are well into the process of putting it together already.’

    Im delighted. Mixing the essays and the photographs is a great idea. If your over-arching ‘treatise’ covers what is really important to say, the selection of essays, the editing and rewriting of them, and the selection of photographs will fall into place I think. Not easily. But everything should support the essence of what you have to say.

    Anyway, I can’t wait to have a hard copy in my hands.

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