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Friday, November 24, 2006

Every Picture Tells a Story

by Ctein

Recently I talked to two photographers about organizing their photos into books. Having been through this five times choosing the photos for and laying out my monographs I've learned some tricks.

You'll likely have more wonderful photos than should reasonably go in the book. There must be winnowing. How can you kill some of your children?

First look for duplicates, photos that seem to say the same thing. Be brutal about choosing one and discarding the rest, unless repetition is part of the narrative flow.

Still too many pix? Be merciless. You don't really love them equally. Only some are "must-haves," as in "I will just curl up and die if that photo isn't in the book." Take your stack of photos and run through them fast. You're after the photos you don't even have to think twice about, that you just know must be included when you look at them.

Don't linger; go with artist's instinct. Every time your little heart goes pitta-pat, put that photo in the YES pile.

Next is narrative flow: what the photos say when viewed in sequence. I don't mean a linear, monolithic prose narrative; it might read more to you like a poem or free association or a musical composition. Whatever; your photos tell the viewer a "story" (for some meaning of the word).

Lay down a big white sheet on the floor. Start laying down your must-have photos, the ones are in, come hell or high water, unless you find yourself backed into an absolutely inextricable aesthetic corner. It will happen on occasion. Do a scattershot layout—which ones do you feel should be near the beginning or end of the book. What's your opener going to be? How about the closer?

Stand back and see the entire book at once and how one photo leads into the next. Stare at, rearrange, play with them until you figure out what that story will be. Then, fill in the holes: where your "story" has gaps, add photos from your original stack that bridge them.

None of this is original with me; in fact, most of what I know of narrative flow I learned from my friend Laurie Toby Edison. I'm just passing on the wisdom. Spread it around, willya? And have fun!

Every picture tells a story. A whole bunch of them relate a narrative flow. Here's the sequence from my monograph Chasing the Sun.

Posted by CTEIN


bjorke said...

I cringe at the thought of collecting a bookful of "my photographs" with packaging constraint more restrictive than that. A book based on projects or ongoing themes, sure. But a collection just based on "I did this"?

If a book is anything more than an expression of vanity, its purpose should be clear enough to guide most of the selection process. Great photos that don't fit can just wait for the next book. If you make a book on Norse villages, the sunsets in Fiji & Brooklyn motorcycle gangs can wait.

If you want to see some ruthless selecting, look at Gary Stochl who worked for 40 years in anonymity and collected about one shot per year for a small, and excellent, first book.