Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Photobook editing - some thoughts

Having made a few photobooks over the years I've developed my own particular system of editing. Here are some thoughts on that process..... the last point is the most important, the realization that you can always do it better!

1. Carefully define the idea and nail down what you're trying to say. What you're trying to communicate. Write that down in one sentence. Difficult sometimes with me because I'm working with abstract ideas, I don't do pictures of coal miners in Wales.

2. Once you're certain about the idea, give the work a title, then you've defined a firm conceptual platform against which to evaluate each picture. Take my series FIRST EVER PICTURES OF GOD for example. Having come up with a title I was amazed how quickly I knew if a picture was a first ever picture of god or not.

3. Make sure the idea is your own and don't ever do a rehash of somebody else's. If somebody has done a great book about The Niagara Falls don't come up with a luke warm version.

4. Decide on how many pictures are going to be in the book. It's Alec Soth's view that a book should have around 50 pictures, any more and the pictures can end up being forgettable. I agree with Alec.

5. When working on your short list of pictures try and make sure that each picture stands on it's own feet and ditch any pictures which you know are nothing more than filler.

6. The best pictures are mysterious and enigmatic. Any that are not axe. There are two sorts of pictures in my view, the "What The!" and the "So What", get rid of all the "So What". And don't worry we ALL make our share of "So What" pictures.

7. If you have even a single niggle of doubt about a picture you can be sure it's crap because our pictures are our babies and we want to love our babies to bits, warts and all. If there is a niggle get rid of it.

8. Make sure you have a range of different sorts of pictures in the edit. Tight, wide, monochromatic, highly color-saturated, figurative. And so on. I give each pictures a value in my head and compose the edit a bit like a musical composition, high notes here, low notes there.

9. Print out postcard sized prints (I do 4 up on an A4 sheet) of all the photographs that make your short list.

10. Lay all the short list postcard pictures out a big table and start to make a sequence. For the book I've just finished editing I decided on having 49 pictures so I made a series of 7 sequences each with 7 pictures. I started each set of 7 with a beginning picture and an end and then filled in the gaps. It was only when I had the 7 sequences that I felt worked did I put the sequences in order. In fact finally this book only has 30 pictures.

11. Never start an edit at the beginning and work towards the end because you can be sure you'll use up all the brilliant pictures at the front and the work will tail off towards the end.

12. If one of your best and most brilliant pictures doesn't work in the edit for some reason don't try to "shoe horn" it in. Save it for another book.

13. One of two crap pictures in a photo book can ruin the whole thing, bit like bad apples in the barrel. So be ruthless.

14. Once you've done this leave the edit sitting on the table and keep coming back to it. After all objectivity and sound judgment improves with time. Most edits, after all the rational thinking has been done are made purely intuitively and intuition changes like the wind. Show some trusted colleagues. Notice I didn't say friends, they are all going to say they like it anyway.

15. Last, make some prints of the pictures to the final size they are going to appear in the book and then get a properly bound book dummy made. Doing this gives you the feel of the book and lets you see what the pictures and book will ultimately look like. It's important to do this because photographs take on different incarnations often with only the slightest alteration in size.

16. Once you've done the edit, start again because there will always be ways of making stronger, tougher, better.

And good luck, have fun!

If anybody has any other ideas on this fraught subject please let me know.

The pictures: The beginning, the middle and the end, as of today anyway.

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