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.

Making a photobook Pt. 3: Finding a way through

In my view, a cinematic film is a structured series of images in time. Music is a structured series of sounds in time. My photographic method is about a stream-of-consciousness in time. The result is that often, I do not remember taking many of the images I value. Memory has to do with the spaces we occupy and less the calendar moment it marked. Thus, these images most closely represent what is truly me. The poetic of the moment in a space involves a series of emotional and / or mental associations to it. I photograph something because it evokes a reference to an existing association in my mind (e.g., a tattered national flag fluttering in the wind) or I wish to create an association with something else (e.g., red paint splatter on a wall). This is the domain of a single image.

Levels of meaning
I think it is hard to escape rhetorical elements of image-making drawn from the world, one not directly created by the photographer. Abutting one image with another to form a diptych creates a whole other level of associations within and between the images. Even if two images touch one another physically so that no space appears between them, in our mind a space still exists by virtue of the knowledge of the existence of two separate images, even if they are identical in every way. Thus a diptych really consists of three images: two representational and one apprehended intellectually. Scott McLeod clarified this idea (called closure) very elegantly in his amazing book Understanding Comics. Many gallery exhibitions seem to make use of this property to create new or reveal further understandings of an artist’s work in a solo show or that of a group in the case of a group show. My sense is that good makers of photo-books use not only the space between images (blank pages, page turning) but also spaces on a page when arranging more than one image on it.

And unlike film, a book can be read from left to right or right to left (some film-makers intend the film to be viewed backwards however). Unless the book designer specifically says the images are intended to be read from one direction only, the reader can do what s/he wishes. Consequently, a photo-book then has at minimum two levels of associations: one constructed by the author in specifically arranging images on one page after another (in either direction, including top to bottom, depending on the author’s language) and the other by the reader who can choose to read the book at any point (again depending on the reader’s language). There is a premium therefore on the quality of individual images taken singly (the within-image associations) and collectively (the between-image associations). The latter can be divided further into near/far associations: images relatively adjacent to one another in the book and those further away, much like a wave traversing the sea. Thus, an author must be concerned not only with juxtapositions but also with the overall affect sought. Juxtapositions both immediate and further away join those in the viewer’s memory both from those already seen in the book with those seen and experienced elsewhere in the viewer’s life. The accumulation of individual affects through the course of the book, as they wax and wane, yields an overall impression or feeling at the book’s conclusion. It is this feeling at the end that it seems to me one must strive for in choosing photographs for inclusion.

Finding inspiration in one’s own photographs
Although I have enjoyed photo-books over the years, my orientation as a photographer was to make prints destined for display on walls. And while I thought in terms of diptychs and sequences, again it was for placement on a wall. For a variety of reasons, I’ve downsized my possessions and thus carting heavy framed objects from place to place was/is a less than welcome prospect. As such, I have returned to the book format as a matter of necessity initially. Initially because I have discovered two things: first, that my style of photography over the recent past has changed and lends itself well to the book format and second, we are in the midst of a worldwide interest in photo-books. This interest is fueled in part by digital cameras, the decreased costs to self-publish and, I hazard to guess, an overall increase in interest in photography and the means to pursue it. Photography has never been cheap, even in the digital age. (In the analogue era, if you had first-class lenses, upgrading essentially meant acquiring the latest film technology, if you wished. Today, you must change your entire camera and attempt to sell it on eBay for a pittance compared to its original cost. Still, I would never return to the film days, even if some of my fondest memories relate to the many happy hours I spent in the darkroom acquiring technique and watching an image appear in the developer – pure magic.)

But here’s the thing: everything you need to know about the direction(s) one should take in his or her photography is found in one’s own images. This conclusion, while seemingly obvious at first glance, startled me when it popped into my mind. I recognized its truth immediately. As a young photographer I was deeply influenced by the Ansel Adam’s school: landscapes, sharply taken, containing a full range of greys that I had tried to pre-visualize. While I do not want to do a disservice to Adams’ remarkable work, I was caught up more in making technically good images than their inherent meaning. Indeed, I’m not sure that I could speak to them coherently beyond what was on the surface.

Over time though, my own instincts as to choice of subject-matter could not help but begin to displace those that I carried consciously in mind from the Adams world and pretty much for everywhere else too. We are filled with received images, published and those we see in our daily world. Whether we like it or not, we can’t help but by influenced by those we see in media of all kinds as essentially ‘curated’; that is, they have passed muster at some level and consequently bear the implicit stamp of approval and thus ‘worthy’. This mark of worthiness is especially pronounced in the gallery world, public and private. To find one’s own way then, especially in the image-besotted world we live in, is not trivial. The answer then must lie elsewhere. And indeed, it can be found directly in one’s own work. The trick is knowing what to look for. And looking is a struggle because, like it or not, one must fight the tendency to choose images that look like they are ‘worthy’ in the sense I just mentioned. One must be true to him or herself, both behind the camera and in front of the images thereby produced. I think that living with this struggle honestly will give you your truth and thus images that are uniquely yours. One must look at other work and one’s own critically and rigorously, informed by the insights thereby obtained.