SEQUENCING FOR PHOTOGRAPHY
Telling stories is a fundamental way that we understand the world, but arranging photographs in a way that tells a story best can be a big challenge. D-Photo speaks with three noted photo-book authors to explore their takes on sequencing for photography.
Photographers are often preoccupied with creating the best images they can, and rightly so. But often the full potential of a body of work can only be revealed through the skilful sequencing of those images. Good sequencing can make images so much more than they are alone, but if the sequence doesn’t work, even the strongest images might not save a project. Three photographers who have recently published exceptional photo books give us their view of this tricky terrain.
THE POETRY OF FLOW
Wellington photographer Mary MacPherson’s latest book, The Long View, came about as she was studying the evening skyline from the window of a high-rise apartment on a trip to Auckland.
“I thought, ‘Oh, there’s the place that sends our insurance bills, and there’s the one that sets interest rates’ … I thought it would be really interesting to try to make a very urban work about the city and get inside the feeling of Auckland being New Zealand’s centre of wealth and power, and the place that occupies our national dialogue,” she explains.
It was an ambitious subject to tackle, and one that would very much rely on the correct sequencing to be told most effectively. But, at the time that she was initially shooting her images, MacPherson wasn’t yet thinking about the way she would eventually order them.
“I work in a fairly intuitive way, so, when I start a project, I spend quite a long time following my instincts and looking for images that provide a clue as to what I’m doing. Often it’s quite painful, because there might be only one or two images in a year,” she says.
During the image-creating process for The Long View, she did eventually become aware that the project had a dearth of close-up shots, but she cautions not to focus too intently on such things while a project is still growing: “I’m wary of trying to hunt too deliberately for certain things, because I want the photographs to have a fresh poetry that’s more than I could imagine. I want to be surprised by my own work.”
For The Long View, Mary shot many hundreds of images between 2014 and 2017 before she was satisfied that that part of the work was done. Through a long process of studying and filtering images, she whittled those down to a group of 100, and then down to a few more than 30, before finalizing the 25 images that would ultimately comprise the book.
“During the editing process, I went backwards and forwards between first- and second- choice image pools — sometimes revisiting the second- choice ones at the last minute because I didn’t initially recognize the places those images had in the work,” MacPherson states.
“It’s a bit like creating a language; learning to say different words, learning their full meaning.”
The earlier part of the filtering she does by viewing the images on the computer screen, but, once she’s working with a small enough collection, MacPherson makes prints to begin the sequencing work. Living with these prints for a while is key to judging the images’ success: “In terms of sequencing, there’s nothing like shuffling images round; trying out different versions over and over and over again.”
In arranging these prints, MacPherson is looking at many different aspects of every image to see how they work together.
“There’s where the image sits in the narrative I’m creating,” she explains, “its relationship to the images before and after; and, if it’s a paired image, how it’s talking to the image beside it and where it should sit on the paired pages.
“I have a beginning and end and some images throughout the work that act as hinges to allow the work to go forward into different themes and moods.”
Putting together a photo book is a huge project, and MacPherson acknowledges the invaluable assistance of those who helped her to get the publication out into the world. Her partner and fellow photographer Peter Black (who she describes as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of sequencing) was always on hand to lend a fresh set of eyes, and the book’s designer, Katrina Duncan, helped with tweaks and improvements, as well as turning the image set into a beautiful physical publication.
“I’ve loved and learnt so much about photography from other people’s books, so it feels important to create my own books for projects that are significant for me,” MacPherson explains. “I’m often surprised when my previous books come up in different contexts, years after I’ve done them, and feel very glad that they are still out in the world.”
THE LONG VIEW is co-published by Mary Macpherson and PhotoForum.
It includes the full 25 photographs of the series and an essay by Gregory O’Brien. Visit marymmac.weebly.com for purchasing details.
A THORNY SUBJECT
From a book with an entire city as its scope to one entirely focused on a single botanical specimen; Homage by Wellington’s Catherine Cattanach is a fine-art photo book dedicated to dried Eryngium giganteum, a thistle-like plant also known as Miss Wilmott’s Ghost. She came across her subject while shooting product shots for a florist.
“I fell in love with their sculptural quality — I love all that spikiness and the fact that they’re not your everyday pretty flower,” says Cattanach.
Originally, the photographer used the photos to create prints for the annual NZ Art Show, but the more she worked with them, the more she knew that they would make great material for a book. But Cattanach quickly discovered that selecting individual images for an exhibition is very different from sequencing images for a book.
“That culling process left me with some firm favourites for stand-alone Art Show prints, but those alone didn’t translate into a successful book — it really is a different beast,” she explains. “Even though it’s not a long book, I had to dip back into the culled photos for more material, and, likewise, some of my favourite stand-alone images simply didn’t fit.”
Of the 120 images she took for the project, 20 made it into the book. To arrive at those, she made 6×4-inch prints to see how different images worked together, then made various A4 spreads, which she could push around the floor to see what worked and what did not.
“When grouping the images, I was looking for variety as much as for relationship. It needed to feel cohesive and to flow well, but I also needed some surprises to keep the viewer engaged,” she says.
“As well as the simple single-thistle pages, there are super close-ups, stalk details, a multi-head bouquet, and more abstract spreads where the tips of the spikes protrude into the layout from the edges.”
Although the book is solely dedicated to images of a plant, the sequence still had to produce some kind of narrative flow. Cattanach sought to have image elements lead a viewer’s eye around the spreads, sometimes culminating in points of tension, where thorny tips almost touch. She even viewed parts of the plant as a cast of sorts.
“The thistle heads seemed like little characters, bending this way and that, and each with a ‘face’,” Cattanach recalls. “So it seemed natural often to have them talking to or reaching out to each other. That could become boring, though, so occasionally they’re having a stand-off rather than a conversation.”
Thinking of abstracted image elements in these terms helps to create a sense of logic and momentum, even when a subject doesn’t have the typical elements of a story.
Cattanach has another helpful metaphor to keep in mind for this sort of sequencing: “It’s like a piece of music that builds and wanes and builds and concludes. My book concludes with an image [that] I think of as a ‘full stop’; a straight-up, nearly symmetrical, ‘summary’ thistle head.”
Homage was a new challenge for the photographer, and she relished the opportunity to explore new storytelling possibilities in the form of a fine-art book. Her peers at the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography (NZIPP) also appreciated it, shortlisting the publication for the Iris Awards’ inaugural Book category.
“To create a tangible book from my personal work was hugely satisfying: I made a thing,” Cattanach exclaims, “and it’s beautiful.”
HOMAGE is self-published and currently available as a hardcover and e-book through Blurb, with a limited-run softcover edition soon to be released. Visit catherinecattanach.com for more details on all editions.
MATTER OF TIME
Allan McDonald, photographer and creative industries lecturer at Auckland’s Unitec, is drawn to the ability of the photo-book format to surprise readers in ways an exhibition can’t.
“With the wall, the viewer is immersed in an environment, which, in many ways, they experience all at once as they walk into the gallery space,” he says. “Whereas, with the book, you have this more sequenced journey [that] you take the reader on.”
His recent publication Carbon Empire arose from his realization that much of the work that he had been shooting was in some way related to the local impacts of global trade and the “end of the Petroleum Age”.
“The images resided in two distinct bodies of work that had certain commonalities in terms of language and content that enabled me to bring them together,” McDonald explains. “I thought they might work well as a photographic essay, not in the classic photojournalistic sense of the photo essay, but somehow related to it.”
And work well they did, with the resulting book winning the 2017 New Zealand Photo Book of the Year award. The project reaches across the photographer’s different bodies of work, bringing together staged images from the 1997 series Man in the Street; images of closed petrol stations from a larger project on Auckland’s suburban development, shot between 2003 and 2017; and a single image created outside any bigger project, titled An Image Created by Chance.
Although the work wasn’t shot during the same period and the images weren’t intended to be displayed together, the photographer was able to intuit an invisible thread linking certain of the photographs. This developed into something of a narrative flow both logical and surprising.
“I often think of photographic sequence in terms of literary narrative; strategies such as pathos, irony, humour, and allegory all seem important,” says McDonald. “The latter especially, as I work with everyday subject matter, the ‘almost documentary’, and it is important that the work becomes emblematic of something larger than the literal circumstances in which it was made.”
McDonald’s process for putting the book together and experimenting with sequencing involved scanners; photocopiers; computers; feedback from friends; and — perhaps most important — the use of a slip file that images could be slid in and out of.
Says the photographer, “For me, it is very important to work with a tool that resembles a book rather than pinning images on the wall or looking at them on a computer … the flow and the pace of the book become much clearer when actively turning pages.”
Fittingly for a project comprising images from several bodies of work created at different times, the photographer’s approach to narrative structure was also not limited by a linear timeline. He quotes the great French new-wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard in saying, “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
“Photography, being a medium of tiny fragments of time, lends itself to messing with chronology,” says McDonald.
As the projects of these experts demonstrate, it doesn’t matter whether your project is big or small, minutely focused or compiled from many other works; it takes a thoughtful and creative approach to sequencing to effectively tell your story through photography.
CARBON EMPIRE is published by Rim Books. For information on ordering the award-winning 40-page softcover photo book, visit rimbooks.com.
FIVE STEPS TO SEQUENCING YOUR STORY
1. CREATE AN IMAGE POOL
Whether you’re going out to shoot new work or putting something together from past projects, you’re going to need a generous pool of images to begin selecting from.
2. WORK PRINTS
You can work solely from a computer to put a book together, but the pros all recommend making work prints. Cull your pool down to a workable selection, and then make some cheap prints to play around with.
3. CHOOSE A LAYOUT
You may not need to know what sort of layout you want for your book this early in the process, but it can certainly help as the editing and sequencing process progresses.
Now comes the fun part: discovering the best way to tell your story. Arrange prints on the floor; construct a mock-up book; live with the images for a while; ask for advice from a fresh pair of eyes. Take all the time you need, because getting this right will dictate the success of your project.
5. MAKE THE BOOK
There are a lot of ways to do this, from getting your book produced by a publisher to self-publishing using digital tools, or even printing it yourself and binding it by hand. Whichever way you go, there are plenty of companies offering quality services to help you get it done.