It used to be that photography books were once the preserve of established professionals – people whose names would be familiar enough to make publishers take notice and promising enough to enable booksellers to stick enormous price tags on the cover. Today, of course, that’s all changed. Anyone can now produce their own photography book using a service like Lulu or Blurb and make it available for sale.
But there’s a difference between creating a photography book and creating a photography book that works. The subject has to be right and the images too, of course, but so do the sequencing and the layout. Eileen Gittins, CEO and founder of Blurb, has talked to us about the importance of storytelling in photography books and the role of white space on the pages. Both of those can help to make a collection more interesting to browse – and both were likely to have been among the factors considered during the judging of the company’s Photography.Book.Now competition whose grand prize winner was announced recently.
The Power of Platinum
Beth Dow, a landscape photographer with more than twenty years’ experience and a long list of group and solo exhibitions, beat out 2,000 competitors to collect the $25,000 grand prize for her book “In the Garden.”
“Ms. Dow’s photography is truly outstanding,” Darius Himes, the competition’s lead judge said. “Her elegant images of the cultivated natural world, her devotion to a traditional photographic process, her ability to make work that feels contemporary, and her intelligent use of the book form to showcase that work is what ultimately separated her work from an impressive field.”
Beth’s book contains 78 pages of images shot in British gardens and printed on platinum-palladium prints. The topic, she told us, captured her imagination during an eight-year stay in London when she would spend as much time as possible in the countryside visiting National Trust properties and admiring the planned landscapes of English stately homes.
“These gardens are such extreme expressions of design, history, science, and style, yet I’m always looking for those little gestures of nature’s rebellion,” Beth explained. “For all their careful pruning, staking, and wiring, nature still likes to throw a finger (or two) at the gardener. I guess that’s me in a nutshell.”
Sequencing is Fun
Despite using a print format whose richness she concedes is not easy to capture in a book, Beth says that she always regards the end goal of her photography as a printed volume. She’s seduced by the “thingness” of books, she says, and even if some of the subtlety of platinum is lost in the transfer, the physicality of the book itself can reflect the sense of the image as artifact.
That Beth was always thinking of her photographs as part of a book collection is likely to have helped during the planning process. The book was already designed in her head before she began playing with Blurb’s software, she explained, and choosing the sequencing was fun rather than a chore.
“Pictures tend to have an effect on each other, and I like to mess around with that. 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. I also like to mess things up a bit to see what happens.”
It’s a process that’s very different, she points out, to planning an exhibition where the layout of the gallery can dictate how works can be hung and can even affect the elements in the composition. It’s also why she chose single-image spreads in her book: to create breathing room around the pictures and make the photos the focus of the book rather than their arrangement or the volume itself. One approach to creating a photography book, Beth explains, is to produce a handmade artist’s book in which every detail contributes to the whole. The second approach – and the one that Beth took – is to treat the book as a vehicle for delivering the images.
Ultimately, that’s because the success of any photography book is always going to depend on the images.
“First of all, the pictures need to work,” says Beth. “There are a million different ways that can happen, but they need to stand on their own with the umbilical cord neatly cut.”
Of course, there are also lots of different ways to measure success. Creating a photography book that people admire is one. Creating a photography book that people buy would be another. “In the Garden” sells for $80 which is likely to give it a fairly limited market and Beth’s marketing appears to be restricted to linking to Blurb from her website’s home page. Nonetheless, she has, she says, sold “several copies.”
A third measure of success though would certainly be winning $25,000 in an international competition judged by experts. That’s especially true when the money will be used to fund a return to England and an attempt to expand the project even wider.