Musings

Musing June 2016

Thoughts on Making a Book of Photographs

Paul Caponigro and I have both been invited to exhibit at the National Art Museum of China this year. Paul just returned from his trip and brought home the exhibit catalogue, which is actually a beautifully printed book. Each of the one hundred images in the exhibit is included in the book. The high quality reproductions give each image the vibrancy of an actual print. It is well laid out and I think, stunning.

I think of the book of photographs an art form, separate and distinct from the prints. The images in a book move from a beginning, through the middle and to the end. Page by page, we are led through a slice of the world the photographer sees and feels. An essay or introduction can bring us to the starting point, with a little understanding and, hopefully, a big sense of anticipation. In an exhibit print order is often determined by someone other than the artist and so the story is told one step further from its source. In addition, the juxtaposition of the images is temporary, available to us only during the short time of the exhibit. With a book, the images and story are available to us to look at and think about for as long as we keep the book. When I hold one, I hold a completed piece of art.

Two things have changed the way we see and perceive photography books. Today, everyone can print a photography book, thanks to the advent of on-demand digital printing. On the one hand this offers a wonderful form for family/friend/wedding/travel scrapbooking as well as an affordable printing modality for a low number of photo book copies. On the other hand, the narrow confines of layout, paper and printing options leave the photographer with fewer aesthetic options.

In addition, our hand held computer/phone also acts as a camera. Using a variety of apps we can share images around the world instantly. It is absolutely amazing but it is not a book. There is little to no editing or sequencing and the images exist only on the electronic brain. I enjoy sitting with a book of photographic images. Most importantly I sense and feel the intention that went behind creating this piece of art.

I can only speak about my own four books and those of other photographers I have worked with to create. Here’s what I think makes an effective photography book:

  1. Edit. Only a very small percentage of images made on a particular subject should make it into a book. In my case, it is about 1% of the images I shot in Orkney that made the book Odin Stone.
  2. Sequence. The images in the book are edited and sequenced with deliberation. We decided that Odin Stone should open with the image of the setting sun behind a 5000 year old standing stone and end with the sun rising behind a 20th century plexiglass bus stop. The narrative of Odin Stone flows through the succeeding images in the book. Modern barns, artists at work, contemporary events, memorials and monuments, the echoes of past and present, are images of what I experienced and felt as I traveled through Orkney over five years. What I hope the viewer understands is that Orkney has an ancient history and a modern society.
  3. Layout. Choices are made. Does each image stand alone on the right page with nothing on the left or are images paired so they speak to each other? In Odin Stone we chose to pair images in most cases with a few select images standing alone. This increased the narrative power of the book. In Paul’s new book the editors chose to present each image standing alone on the right page with the title information on the left. It becomes in effect a portfolio or exhibition.
  4. Design. Great care and consideration is given to the printing, packaging, and presentation of the book as a piece of art. A cover image is chosen to represent what the viewer might find inside. Cover material is selected, along with end papers, type font and color of paper and images. All are selected to contribute to the whole piece of art.

In my opinion these are the elements that go into making a good book of photography. The book needs some introduction but the images speak for themselves; you can hold it in your hands and physically experience it as a piece of art; and it is the best the photographer has to offer on the subject at that particular point in time.

My exhibition opens in Beijing in November 2016. It will be at least 100 images strong, my best images to date. I hope the exhibition book is as beautiful as the one done for Paul. I can’t wait to hold it in my hands.

All the best,

Tillman

Musing March 2016

Work the problem, not the panic.

My life as an athlete has been pretty sedate and no one today, or when I was a kid, would have ever confused me with a jock. However, I have participated in paragliding and scuba diving, both of which involve an element of danger. The training mantra for both sports was work the problem, not the panic. It was explained that more pilots and divers died because they panicked than because of system failure. You still needed to train for a system failure but you also trained for control of your mind.

So how does this relate to photography?

I have been invited to have a major exhibit at the National Art Museum in Beijing this coming November. The exhibit will consist of approximately 100 large platinum prints, representing the best of my work to this point in my career. It will be my second major exhibition in China, and my first at a National Art Museum. I am thrilled and terrified at the same time. It’s a great honor and a huge task and responsibility.

I started by spending the last three months editing 30+ years of negatives. Images from my four books will be about 40% of the exhibition. The rest of the work will come from other projects I’ve been working on over time. After editing and scanning the negatives, I decided to “warm up” by printing some of my earliest and thus best known (to me) images.

I made the enlarged negatives in the same way I have made them for years: same settings, printer and negative material. I went into the darkroom, started printing and nothing worked right. I did not recognize the prints coming out of the developer. They were too flat or had too much contrast. I was tearing paper that I usually handle with ease. Sensitizer was flowing through to the back of the paper. The paper was not clearing or it was bleaching when I tried to clear it.

I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I went back to the computer and rechecked my settings. I rechecked the printer. I rechecked my curves and then made new ones. I worked on the files in Lightroom. I worked on the files in Photoshop. I made new chemistry. Every time I changed something, the print changed but not in a predictable way. The platinum process process I had worked with exclusively for nearly 30 years and had come to hang my aesthetic hat on was no longer working. I was spiraling into panic. I had used two straight weeks of time, way too much chemistry and paper and things were getting worse and more unpredictable.

Finally, I started working the problems and not the panic. First I solved the surfactant problem. Then I solved the clearing bath bleaching issue. I went back and started all over with my darkroom working sequence and discovered I had been just a little too causal, so I tightened up my working process. But the prints still sucked.

Next I went to the computer, and started reworking the files, adjusting this or tweaking that. Slowly things were getting better but nothing was matching what my notes said the settings should be. I had now been at this for three weeks. I hated going into the darkroom. I was disappointed with the prints and self-doubt was creeping in.

Then back to the darkroom. Again, images I have known for years were still not working. I was filling up trashcan after trashcan. I was getting desperate. I knew these images, I knew how they should look and feel and these were not even coming close. I had solved the darkroom issues but not the aesthetic issues.

Finally I called a friend who knew the platinum process well and talked with him. During the conversation he asked a great question that lead me to figuring out the problem. Something in my computer settings had changed, either by a software upgrade or by me. I simply had failed to go all the way back to the beginning of the digital process. When I did the problem was solved with a (relatively) simple setting reset and prints began to work.

I am back on task, excited to go into the darkroom and enjoying seeing old friends emerge from the developer.

What did I re-learn? Work the problem, not the panic. Solve the problems one at a time. Keep your standard high by demanding the best from yourself and your work.

Don’t be afraid to examine and reexamine what you are doing and why you are doing it both aesthetically and technically. Talk to others who share your love of the medium. They may not have the answers but they may be able to ask the right questions.

I hope that when your photography begins to fall apart for one reason or another (and if you stay at it for long enough it will) you will keep this lesson in mind.

All the best,

Tillman

Musing October 2015

Joie de Vivre

Hearing your doctor say, “You are an interesting case” does not instill confidence of any kind. I spent three days in the hospital being poked and prodded this summer and left feeling better, but not much wiser. The good news is that all the bad stuff got ruled out. Even better, my health and energy have returned, something that had been missing since early spring.

What is my great lesson from this lost summer? For nearly 40 years I have defined my life through photography. This summer I couldn’t make a photograph. I never really understood how much physical and emotional energy is required to make art until I didn’t have either. Before this experience I believed if some physical problem prevented me from working with my view camera I would simply switch over to the digital camera. From my brief encounter with incapacity I learned I couldn’t even do that.

I have known for a long time that I require good emotional energy to work. To make good work I have to have the will to put myself out there, to still the doubting thoughts of can’t and don’t. I took it for granted that any inability to work was “in my head” and therefore something I could change by changing the thoughts. I didn’t know how interwoven the physical and emotional components are tied. I learned that if I can’t get myself out of bed how could I expect to think about making a photograph?

This has given me a humbling appreciation for everyone, friends, students and colleagues, who face individual limits every day. I have a greater appreciation for how hard you work to bring images to life, to create art that speaks of your view of the world. The courage you show is inspirational. I thought of myself as understanding and accommodating for all the students in my workshops, believing I understood what you were going through. Looking back I see how little I could. I understand a little better now and encourage you to be more frank and direct if I am not making it possible for you to be a part of the workshop.

Just because Joseph Sudek only had one arm doesn’t make his photographs great. However, having lost that arm during World War I might have influenced what he chose to photograph, how he did so, and how driven he was to do his work. Did he know how important his work would become in the history of photography? Probably not, as others make those decisions.

As artists we work all of our lives to make one or two images that we can really say “good job” to ourselves. Others will decide, possibly long after we are gone, whether these are important images or not. All we know is that we are driven to create these images, to express ourselves, to make art. Whether it lives in a museum, a family archive or ends up (God forbid) in the recycling bin, what really matters are that we tried, we worked, and we created.

Whatever today puts in your way, I hope you find that putting camera to eye or image to paper brings you moments of joie de vivre!

A happy fall to you all!

Tillman

Musing July 2015

Passages

We experience many passages in our lives, many marked with celebration. My family just celebrated two such milestones: Son, Andrew, graduated with Honors from Savannah College of Art and Design (BFA in Photography); his brother, Jake, just returned from completing his Air Force ROTC Field Training. In both cases, the passage from one point in life to another was marked with a conspicuous celebration.

I’m home from teaching my Extraordinary Images in Ordinary Locations class at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. (I know, a little bit of an oxymoron considering the location.) I worked with six photographers, varying in experience from professional to serious amateur, all seeking to improve their work. There is a graduation of sorts at the end of the week. After a nice dinner off site, we watched slide shows from each workshop. Instructors were asked to give a brief talk about their class and since I knew this was coming I was able to do so in as few words as possible (another oxymoron given my penchant for teaching). Simply put I said, “I give my students lemons for locations and assignments and expect them to make lemonade.” And they did a remarkable job! We laughed and hooted and had a great time watching the work created flash on the big screen. In fact, we celebrated the work we had created.

Now what? In photography there are no easily noted milestones. The completion of a workshop brings not only new skills but renewed energy and excitement for making images. It’s easy to see the growth from the intense week but what comes next? Reid talked of the importance of maintaining contact with teachers and fellow students to keep us moving forward. It isn’t enough to say “Hi” on Facebook. He encouraged us to keep challenging each other, perhaps starting a Facebook challenge or sharing assignments. We have to keep making images to continue developing both our skill and vision and to keep the conversation growing.

As visual artists, we need to work like athletes: we have to train every day. There are no prizes for participation, no gallery exhibits simply because you take workshops or make photographs for years. To consistently make good photographs requires practice. And I mean practice with intention. Practice can feel slow and boring. Ask any athlete. If you practice without intention, just repeating what you’ve already been doing, then it is going to be mind-numbing and useless. If you go out and make the same images everyday without trying new ideas, without pushing your edges, without really thinking about what you are doing, you will bore both yourself and your audience.

So how do you practice with intention and note your improvement? I have a few suggestions:

  1. Realize that it takes 10,000 hours to master your craft. That’s 10,000 hours of deliberate
  2. Select your ten best images and place them where you can see them everyday (on your computer or prints on the wall are even better).
  3. Look at the work of photographers you admire, contemporary or historic (or even better both). Know who is doing good contemporary work and who has done good work in history.
  4. Look at work of photographers you don’t like and take time to examine it. Can you figure out why you don’t like it? Why do others say it is good? Educate yourself about the work that makes you uncomfortable, that you do not like. Understanding something you don’t like may move your work in a new direction.
  5. Give yourself an assignment every week to photograph. Not just “go to the beach and make images” but something specific. It can be as simple as “photograph 10 people, one at a time, from no further than 3 feet away” or “starting at any point in the universe, take 12 steps in any direction. Stop and make three images. One from eye level, one from waist level and one from ground level. The take another 12 steps. Repeat”.
  6. Review the work you make on a regular basis, weekly, monthly, and yearly. Make sure you are using your best critical eye. You have to be your own harshest critic (easy) but you also have to recognize when you your work has taken a step forward. Swap out work with the images you selected in #2.
  7. Give yourself the greatest gift you can: the permission to do your own work. Follow your muse, make the images that only you can make.

Trust me on this: if you want to make better photographs, stop talking about making photographs and go make them. Work hard and work often. Ask for help when you can’t figure something out. Take a workshop. Create your support network. Practice with intention. In the end, you will not be disappointed by the results of your best efforts.

Have a great summer!

Tillman

www.tillmancrane.com