Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Photobook - a few thoughts on sequencing

Making a photobook, assuming one has an idea and photographs that work, involves first an edit and then the sequence. That is the construction of a narrative made up of often unrelated photographs. Each photograph in its own right has its own narrative and when sequenced with other images, often juxtaposed, the narrative changes and builds. Changes to fit the idea of the work.

I believe that the reader is smarter than we give credit. Often smarter than we are. Accepting that, it makes sense not to give away too much. What is withheld matters just as much as what is revealed. The best photographs are open ended and leave room for the reader to construct their own meaning.

Screen writer and director David Mamet talks about the idea of uninflected images, those that carry no inflection and are therefore as neutral as possible. These are open to interpretation and will move the narrative along.

Accepting that, all photographs are a balance between form and content. Still however, I see photobook works that seem to be edited and sequenced purely on the basis of the photographs formal characteristics. This to me is sudden death. What is important is not so much what a photograph looks like but what it says, or can say when the readers brings their own intellect and experience to the work. Using only formal criteria robs images of their layers of meaning and stops the work in its tracks. And understandably the reader looses interest when their chance to contribute to the narrative is diminished.

What’s worse photobooks are still being made where photographs are juxtaposed with images echoing each others formal elements. Viewer response, and my response to this is – oh yeh I can see why those photographs were put next to each other, so what.
This sort of reaction is counterproductive. Better to have a response like this – why were those pictures put next to each other, there has to be a reason? Setting this up sustains interest and keeps the reader coming back to the work.

Alec Soth sequences conceptually moving the idea along as he goes. John Gossage uses what I call the slow burn approach, intelligently sequencing images often visually similar but never where the formal link is obvious. Torbjørn Rødland and Roe Ethridge employ what I call a “stream-of-consciousness” strategy, conceptually juxtaposing images that by right shouldn’t go together, but you know there is a reason. Paul Graham has used various sequencing tactics, for example in End of an Age where ingeniously the photographs follow the turn of the heads of the portraits in the book. And in Shimmer of Possibilty, short almost cinematic narrative sequences.

Picture editing is difficult. Sequencing harder still. Hemingway advised,
Write the story, take out all the good bits and see if it still works……
Good advice for both writers and photographers. Oh, and never underestimate the readers desire and ability to contribute to the reading of the work. Don’t make it too easy, make it harder and they will respect you for it. And the bookwork will be all the better for it.

The spreads:
from Torbjørn Rødland's book, I WANT TO LIVE INNOCENT, SteidlMACK 2008


julian said...

Very timely Harvey, as I'm working on an edit now. This could have been written especially for me as I think I fall heavily into the traps you mentioned!

Sevillian said...

very true. thanks.

Marlon said...

This really helps me a lot. I'm guessing having a photo series too homogenous really becomes a problem especially when trying to create a book.