Let’s Talk About Photo Book Design

A photo book is a portable exhibition, a full stop to a project, proof of an investigation, a documentation or/and a life lived. It can also be a pointless, dull, repetitive, confused collection of images. Am I being too judgemental in these statements? Well, maybe but I have to say that I can personally think of photo books that I have touched and seen that fulfil all of these criteria. Not every photographer needs to make a book of their work, and not every project or series of images should be presented as a book. I am talking about a photo book here not a book of photographs compiled and edited by someone disconnected from the photographer or the work.

If you want to research the history of the photo book you could leaf three the three volume set of worthy tomes edited and curated by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger on the history of the photo book. I have all three but I have to admit that I rarely look at Volumes II and III. There is more than enough in the first volume illustrating the many shapes, forms and approaches that can be adopted when making a photo book.

The history of the photo book is rich and varied, with the cost of production, printing and distribution providing a barrier to work being published too soon, or if at all.

Digital printing and potential for selling online has changed that situation and has introduced us to a tsunami of photo books over the last decade. In addition access to design software such as Adobe InDesign as part of the same package as Photoshop and Lightroom suggests that anyone can make their own book, send it to print and get selling from their own online shop. Simple! Well not really.

The problem of course is that design is as much an art form as photography and therefore cannot and should not be seen as an easy fix.

There are photographers who have designed their own books successfully, however the majority of photo books are designed by photographers with little if any design background, and that is obvious to the trained eye. I can understand the temptation to do this, particularly in a digital environment where the physical artefact takes on an ever more important role in the contemporary understanding of a serious photographic practice. However, that temptation can be a poisoned chalice.

I have designed books for photographers since the early 1990s, and my degree is in Graphic Design. I paid my dues working with type and image over three decades, from the 1980s, during a golden period for magazine design. The art directors of the time often designed books for photographers on a freelance basis just as the great art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Alexey Brodovitch did for Richard Avedon. Working with image and text is an art of itself, within the broader church of graphic design, and it is this knowledge and experience that you need in a photo book.

The idea is for the designer to bring together image, and text to create narrative, a stronger whole from disparate elements. It is not for them to flex their design ego, suffocating the images, showing off their visual typographic knitting or conceptual beliefs. The successful photo book should evidence a collaboration between photographer and designer with the sole intention of making the images sing!

That’s what I believe, but if you don’t agree with me listen to what esteemed photo book designer Stuart Smith has to say on the subject, “I think I have done around one thousand books, more or less, and in the last fifteen years mostly photography. The books that give me the most satisfaction are the ones where they feel more like a collaboration, and where I have been instrumental in editing and steering the book, in terms of the sequence, the picture edit, the overall size and feel of the book, and the reproduction and quality of the printed images. This is where the magic and unexpected things happen.”

I agree with Smith, the act of collaboration allows the work and the photographer to be questioned and subsequently the book to evolve. The outside voice acting as an independent inquisitor of intention and the success in reaching that intention.

Working with a designer will add to the costs, but perhaps by raising the financial stakes of publishing the idea of whether or not to publish will be taken with more consideration. It could also address the issue I raised in the first paragraph of this article, that of repetition and boredom. A photo book can work well with an image on the right hand page, and some small text on the facing page, but it does not have to be that way. This formulaic approach to creating a photo book can produce formulaic photo books and often does. The designer would be involved in every aspect of the book from edit, to layout, to print, ensuring that simple formulas are only used if appropriate.

There is a balance to be found between the photographer and the designer. It should never be a battle of egos but it should be a meeting of opinions.

Not every body of work should be a book, but if you decide to make a book, my suggestion is that you before you go too far into the process you should start to ask around, and talk to designers who are experienced in working with images and text, to see what their opinion of the work is and how and if it could make a book. A good designer will be honest with you, and give you an independent viewpoint as well as explaining how the images could look, they should also discuss how they could work.

As visual people photographers must have an interest in how things look so to not place an importance on the design of a book, is counter intuitive. As Stuart Smith says, “Unless you’re highly proficient as a designer, don’t try to do the graphic design on the book yourself.”

Image: The lead image shows Richard Avedon working on his book design with Alexey Brodovitch.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/

© Grant Scott 2021

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