Sunday, September 17, 2017

Making Books has made me a Better Photographer

It occurred to me yesterday, as I was obsessively ruminating about books and photobooks and so on, that making books has made me a better photographer. Obviously not in any technical sense, I still struggle with the vagaries of AIS lenses on an ancient consumer body (you have to set it OFF manual mode to focus, and back ON manual mode to shoot, and I am constantly getting lost on the dial and can't find M without looking).

It probably hasn't made my better at composition, although perhaps a little. More focused, certainly.

What it has done, obviously, is that it has caused me to shoot far fewer pointless pictures.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, at least as expressed by Colberg (but he is not alone) I do not start with a finished photographic project, and then do a book. Instead, I have ideas for projects floating around my head: A typology of alleys, Found texts, Bellingham Summer, and so on. I also have vague notions of design and structure floating around: Big, Small, Dos-à-dos binding, french door binding, A stapled zine, A magazine, etc.

These things bounce around my head. Sometimes I shoot a few pictures, sometimes I experiment with some paper, thread, and glue. Every now and then a design/structure idea collides with a photo project idea, and I begin something in earnest. You've seen a little of the Bellingham Summer project, which was just a gibberish handful of pictures until the design ideas started to arrive. The medium is probably an 8x10 blurb trade paperback.

With a mental sketch of the completed book in mind, the pictures begin to almost shoot themselves. Everything from preferred framing to specific themes is clarified. Actual pictures, of course, influence the structure of the book, and the whole thing organically distills itself into the right thing. Ideally. Not always.

What this process seems to do is to eliminate the horrible "open brief" problem that we amateurs are cursed with. We can shoot literally anything, and the more constraints we can get hold of, the better we're going to be most likely. The book, having far more structure than a gallery show (real or virtual), grants me far more constraints. I can shoot with real purpose, I can look for specific shots, specific subjects treated in specific ways. I still throw a lot away, but my hit rate goes up like crazy toward the end of a project as I nail down the last couple of things I need or want.


  1. Hey Andrew, in case you have not seen it, there is, what I think, a great post on Kirk's blog:

  2. I back into this shooting frame of mind. I shoot commercially and for that I am always focused on the subject matter at hand, but I also work on personal projects and carry a camera with me most of the time. I shoot whatever looks interesting to me. However, I do use a review process which gets me to that book state of mind you describe. Upon review, I find certain themes draw my attention which I then begin to further develope. (I just realized this is full of unintentional puns!) And I do, then, think of putting a book together. And I have two books that I am working on right now and I absolutely agree that this hones your vision and the work gets better.