The photography books that line the shelves in bookstores and fill your Amazon wish list might all contain wonderful images and beautiful pictures but they also tend to follow a format. The photos focus on a theme, are accompanied by short passages of text, and each photo both stands alone and contributes to an overall impression of the book’s subject. When you’re looking to create your own photo book, those bestsellers always provide good models to follow. Stray out of the photography section though and you can find plenty of other books that are strong on photography and which reveal a number of different ways of publishing your images.
The easiest method, of course, is the traditional and that’s true even when you head away from the mainstream shelves completely and into self-publishing. Beth Dow, whose Blurb book “In The Garden” won the company’s 2008 Photography.Book.Now competition, says that photography books can take two different approaches. In the first, what she calls the “handmade artist’s book,” every detail is integral to the whole, from the choice of images to the font used in the text. In the second approach, and the one that she chose for her images of British gardens, the aim is simply to show the photos. Sequencing is still vital but white space puts the emphasis on the images rather than on the story the book is trying to tell.
“This is why I chose, for the most part, single image spreads to give a little breathing room around the pictures,” she explained. “Pictures tend to have an effect on each other… . Flipping through a book of landscape photographs feels to me like going for a walk. Each page leads somewhere else, and I start to notice visual patterns.”
Traditional Photography Books with Unique Niches
The biggest challenge of creating traditional photography books like these though is that they’re difficult to market. When every photographer is doing the same thing, your photos—and your book idea—will have to be exceptional to attract the attention of customers. John Fielder, a photographer who also owned his own publishing company, solves that problem by specializing. He takes photos of Colorado. That gives his books a specific niche and turns his name into a brand for people interested in the landscapes of his state.
As a publisher though, John tended to focus on books that were either unique or which had an environmental aspect associated with an endangered natural resource or which contributed towards the goals of a non-profit. That’s not just because he liked the subject; it also made the books easier to promote. The media attention the books won…
“…reduced the need for paid advertising and support from the publisher… which in my case was me,” he told us. “And it’s easy to get a book into bookstores if there’s publicity.”
Both these kinds of books though—a self-published Blurb book, and a niched photography book on a media-friendly theme—are fairly traditional. They look like photography books. George Ancona’s books though won’t turn up in any bookstore’s photography section even though they’re created by a photographer and rely heavily on images. They’re children’s books in which the pictures and the text work together to inform readers about the topic, whether that’s native Americans, dolphins, bananas or any of the other subjects in the 113-plus books that George has created.
George first draws the books out. Using 3 x 5 file cards, he lays out the 48 pages each of his books contains to get a feel for whether it should be vertical or landscape, colorful or subdued. Once he starts shooting, of course, plans change. The people he meets while creating a book will lead him in new directions. In general though, George usually tries to focus on one person who will take him through the experience and enable him to portray accurately a child from a different culture.
“I’ll forget the book but I’ll always remember the people,” he says.
The result of George’s work is always a book which tells a story and provides explanations, while the images show the topics the text describes. The relationship between words and images is a little like that between the narrator and the film in a National Geographic program.
Photographs as Book Backgrounds
Mo Willems, takes a completely different approach in his Knuffle Bunny books. Although also aimed at children and dependent on images to drive the story forward, in these books the photos play a secondary role. Mo’s background is in illustration and animation rather than photography so after taking pictures of his New York neighborhood, Mo used them as a setting for his hand-drawn characters. He removed air conditioning units and garbage cans, and rebuilt signs with missing letters or numbers to create what he calls “emotional truth” rather than a completely accurate representation of his local streets.
“The images are almost more Photoshop Illustration than photograph by the time I’m done,” he says.
For a photographer, a book like this can be a fairly big challenge. It’s easier for a tech-savvy illustrator to take a picture of a street and turn it into a workable background than it is for a photographer to take good pictures then draw lovable characters onto them. But it’s always possible for a photographer and illustrator to team up to produce a book. The second Knuffle Bunny book, “Knuffle Bunny Too”, used a double page spread of Grand Army Plaza as the background to a scene in which the two girls exchange their fluffy bunnies. Mo felt out of his depth so he called in Tom Drysdale, an old friend and a professor of photography at New York University. They ended up spending the early morning together on the roof of the Brooklyn Public Library. Mo called the time out for the four seconds when the junction was traffic-free while Tom took the shot and tried to stop his 8 x 10 camera from being blown off the roof. It’s the kind of partnership that brings together the creative storytelling of the author with the technical skill of a trained photographer.
The traditional way of creating a photography book is always going to be the most appealing. It’s a channel that puts the images at the center and shows off your talent. But pictures are meant to tell a story so stepping back and allowing them to illustrate the book’s story by accompanying words, as George Ancona’s images do, or by providing the background for an illustrated tale, as Mo Willems’ pictures do, can be another satisfying way of getting your photos onto pages and into stores.