The Local by Nick Meyer
How to Approach a Good Photobook
The photobook is an artform inside the artform of photography. It transforms the individual photograph and can give it more power to tell a story, create an emotion, or push along a narrative.
Whether creating a project or reading a photobook, you can see that a whole new set of parameters exist. How do you most effectively tell a story? What’s the right amount of photographs to use? Do you show a broad array of photography (portraits, closeups, wide environmental shots for instance), or do you keep the type of photography very tight and consistent? How much work do you allow the viewer to do to figure out the story? And how do you sequence the work for maximum effect?
It’s a tough puzzle to figure out. This post is going to ask more questions than give answers.
Here are some thoughts about photo books.
The First Read-Through
It’s important to know the backstory for a photo book before you dive in, and you’ve probably read about it before deciding to make a purchase, but also don’t do too much extra research before you go through it for the first time.
Get the idea of what you’re getting yourself into, but I think it’s a good idea to try to figure things out for yourself. Take it slow and see what your first impression is.
Don’t think too hard about the book and just get lost in the world the photographer has created for you.
Research the Backstory
After the first read, at some point do more research and learn more about the project. Read a review article, find photographer quotes, or see if there are interviews on Youtube.
Then go back to the book and see if your perception has changed. Usually, I find that there is much more that I pick up on the second time around. But the first reading of a good photography book always feels magical.
Feeling and Message
What feeling and message is the book trying to convey? Is it telling the story of a place, is there a more specific story, is it more internal of a book, telling the story of the photographer, or is there a combination? Is there a concrete story at all or does the photographer just set out to create a feeling?
How does the photographer achieve this? Which photographs bring out the most emotion in you or push along the story? How does the mix of photography work to achieve these goals? How does the sequence play a role?
How does the layout and design play into the experience of the book? Is the book stark and strictly focused on the photographs or is the design more creative and playful? How does the photographer use text – is it a minor part of the story or does it take on a major role?
How does the size and shape of the book relate to the experience? Some books are meant to be large while others are perfect in a small format. Do the photos cross the gutter of the book? Do photographs face each other or are they all placed independently of each other? How does this spacing affect the pace of the book?
How are the photos sequenced to tell the story that the photographer wants to tell? Is there a specific arc or buildup or does the sequencing feel more random? Does the design of the photography (such as form or color) play a big part in the sequencing or does the message play a bigger role?
Is there a cohesive message in the book or is the book more of a ‘best of.’
How does the photographer deal with photos that are next to or near each other? Do they have a lot of similarities or are they very different? Are any similarities based more visually, emotionally, or conceptually?
How does the book begin and end? This is the most important aspects of a good sequence.
Quality of the Photography
Forget about the story, the sequencing, the design, the message – what do you think of the photographs themselves? Which photos do you like and which do you dislike? What camera and lens do you think the photographer used? How do you think they approached their subjects to photograph them?
How did the photographer use composition, color, depth of field, and lighting? Were the photos straight and formally composed or were they messy and instinctual?
Which photos are spectacular and which are glue photographs that might not draw attention on their own, but in the book help to hold together the story?
Come Back to it – And Collect Books You Will Come Back To
When I think about purchasing a book, I try to think about whether I’ll come back to it down the road or if it’s something I’ll look at a few times and forget about on my shelf.
The magic of many of these books is that the more you go through them the more you pick up in them.
And as you shift as a photographer or as your moods change, your interpretation and feeling for some of these books can shift as well.
Use books for inspiration into how you shoot. If you decide that you want to work on more portraits, then start going through your favorite books with portraits in them. Similarly for environmental photographs or candid photographs. This is always great inspiration and motivation for walking out the door the next day.
Sometimes I find when I’m frustrated with how my photography is going, books can help.
Find Books That Relate to the Work You Do – And Find Books That Are Completely Different From the Work You Do
I think there are two ways to inspire yourself with photo books. Finding books that relate strongly to the way you shoot and the type of locations that you shoot in is really important to help you figure out what you can do in these environments.
You’ll start building a mental Rolodex of photographs and ideas that you want to capture, which will make it easier for you to notice these moments when you are out exploring.
Then I also think it’s important to find books that are very different from what you shoot. This will help to broaden your work in a completely different way. It may not be related to what you shoot directly, but I think it will have an indirect effect on your creativity and how you approach photography.
And it’s a great experience to get lost in completely different worlds – that’s what photography is about. Everything written above is to help you improve as a photographer by studying these books. It’s similar to shooting – it’s important to assess how you are doing while you’re editing your work and going through it, but when you’re out shooting you just want to enjoy the moment and not think too hard.
With a good photobook, forget about the details and just get lost in the world the photographer has created for you.