Making a photobook, Pt. 4: Understanding one’s images (part 1)

In essence,the question I face is: How do I organize my images in a coherent manner? Is there a theoretical model that I can use to guide my decision-making? What is the art of sequencing images?

The Contact Sheet
I think there are two levels here: what to photograph and understanding and thus presenting the images taken. Either way, the answer to these questions lies within the photographer / image-maker. To understand the meaning of a single image by an artist, one should look at his or hers other images. Too often, we select our ‘best’ pictures (and thereby potentially reference images we’ve seen or think will be thought of as ‘good’) rather than focus on the contact sheet (and its equivalent in Lightroom).

Placing one’s images in context becomes a critical issue in the discourse about a work. A contact sheet is useful because it shows your responses to the world in time. An idea evolves while you are out photographing. You make choices about what to frame and freeze and these choices form the content of the contact sheet. The subsequent contact sheet can then be reviewed and assumptions about what you are photographing revisited. Merely accepting the obvious and not paying attention to the underlying messages the contact sheet is saying could deny an opportunity to set challenges for one’s work. What is/are the idea(s) the images are showing? What is the cumulative effect of the images? Is there a visual language emerging or being reinforced? When you go out to photograph, you take a lot in during that time but not all of it can be digested at once. You are however, making subliminal notes and these notes are what emerges in looking at one’s contact sheets.

Examining a series of contact sheets then (easy to do in Lightroom where images can be organized by date taken) will tell the story or, more likely, tell many stories. Each story or rather, idea, represents the issues that matter for you. All the while, one must fight the temptation to judge the work against what you think others may think of it. One must be true to oneself and in so doing, discover what is important. More importantly, this kind of honest examination – which will take time to reveal itself and understand – sets the stage for image-making that matters and ultimately can act as a guide in the sequencing of images for a photobook.

I am currently up to my knees in the muck and struggling. Images that I thought were of little interest have become important. They may or may not remain that way but for now I am discovering what my image-making is all about. I don’t think this is a process that can be rushed. Just when I think I’ve got it, I get a new insight. Arranging and re-arranging potential sequences yields new ideas. At some point, the ideas emerging from this iterative process should begin to gel and then my work is what it is. At the end, it is my work and no one else’s (not forgetting of course that the ideas of others are part of your way of looking at the world too).

The master theoretician of the photographic sequence is Nathan Lyons. His books have had enormous influence on the photobook as well as on how galleries organize their exhibitions. I had the good fortune to attend one of his workshops a few years ago. Some of the ideas presented here come from the notes I made to myself and paraphrases of what I heard at that time. What struck a cord for me was to stop worrying about making photographs and focus more on what kind of image I want to make. The key is to understand where the elements in an image are juxtaposed that afford meaning. Consequently, the contact sheet is the ideal tool to discover these meanings. In the end, it’s about being sensitive to why you stop to photograph; not the what, but the why.

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