Black and White

It dawned on me that I never posted these images to Smogranch. I made these books while I was offline and working only with my Tumblr site. As you know, I’m not a designer. I’ve never endured even a single class on design in my entire life. My early books were putrid in regard to design, and some would argue that all of my books still reek of inexperience. I would say “fair enough.” However, one thing I’ve learned from book people far more intelligent than I is that all rules can be broken if the overall design simply works. My first bit of advice for ANYONE making books is to go look at illustrated books. You would think this would be the logical first step, but many folks just blaze away without giving much thought to what has been done and what they can learn from our past. The truth is the history of illustrated books is rife with legendary movements, motions and risk-taking. From these pioneering publications came everything else. Book design is hyper-specific, and many of the pioneering current books are based, or designed as tribute, to something that came along years or decades ago.

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For the first twenty years of my career I did little else than look at imagery. I poured over News Photographer Magazine by the hundred while holed up in the Harry Ransom Resource Center. I also poured over French Photo, which was far more interesting than the American version, and also gave me my first real understanding of things like editorial policy. I looked at all of the major work being done in whatever genre I was working in at the time, starting with photojournalism, then on to editorial, portraiture and fine art.
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When I started to make books back in the early 1990’s everything I made was black. After all, I was a PHOTOGRAPHER, and everyone knows that photographers LUST after anything black. I had black clothes, black hats, black bags, black cameras. No other color existed, so the moment I sat down at my Mac Performa 630 to create the pages of my first book it was a “select all….BLACK” moment.
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Then one day it dawned on me, after looking through the hundreds of traditionally published photobooks in my collection, that I had a very small number designed with black pages, and the subject matter of these small few covered topics like insane asylums, war, famine and a bevy of other heavy realities. I began to realize black was perhaps not the best option for every single book especially when the book was about something like children’s portraiture……
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During my travels with Blurb I often run into photographers who look at the Blurb samples and make quick and lasting decisions. “I’m going to do black pages and I’m only going to print on Proline Uncoated.” The very next person will often times say something like “I’m only going to use white pages and I’m never going to print on Proline Uncoated because it is clearly inferior to Proline Pearl.” My advice is always “slow down,” and I also encourage people to stop drawing lines in the sand. Each project lives and breaths on its own, same for books. What is your subject matter? How do you want your images to print? What level of contrast and saturation is required for your specific body of work? Do you want or need all of your books to have the same look and feel, or perhaps you are doing a series of books? Do your images have white space with little detail that might blend into a white page? These are just a FEW of the questions you should ask yourself before making design decisions. There are no absolutes, so don’t create them for no reason.
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So this leads me to the images you see here. This is not a complex book, nor a particularly great book. What you are looking at is simply the same book printed black and also printed white. You might not think that such a seemingly simple change would make all that much difference but it actually does. One look at these and you will not only see but FEEL the work in a different way. This is what is so much fun and so challenging when it comes to making books. For me a book is a journey, and one in which I want you to travel a certain way and see certain things. I want you to ride the emotional roller coaster while consuming something you may have never seen or experienced before. Great books do this and do it without you even noticing. I’ve always been a believer there are very few transcendent creatives in the world, and consequently few truly transcendent things like photobooks, novels, paintings, etc. When you encounter one of these people or things, you know it because suddenly you see the world with a new pair of eyes.
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My last little piece of advice based on this post is to THINK about doing a test book. The first Blurb book I ever did was a test book and one that I still use six years later. There is nothing like seeing your own work on the pages, and on different papers, to fully understand what will work best for your particular situation. Oh, and the other thing. This process is supposed to be FUN, so don’t turn bookmaking into teeth pulling or in my particular case…KIDNEY STONE REMOVABLE. When you boil down what we all have to deal with in our lives, bookmaking is just icing on the cake.

Bookmakers I Like: Luc Heasley

Behold the latest installment of the ongoing series “Bookmakers I Like.” This particular vignette features long time friend Luc Heasley who makes his living with his hands. He also uses wood, glue, a pencil, a few different saws and a variety of other things I can’t describe or understand. Luc and I are working on a project together and unbeknownst to me he made a Blurb book, which happens to be the criteria for me doing a film about you. Well, actually, his girlfriend made the book, but he benefits by default.
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His work ranges from what appears to be the simple(to my entirely untrained eye.) to the complex and sophisticated. All I know for sure is that when I look at what Luc makes I know I could never match it even if I knew what I was doing, but I don’t, which settles that point once and for all. Now, I did make a bookshelf in shop class in 1984, something I still have, but there isn’t a real right angle on the entire thing. It’s a miracle it works at all, and this little unsightly beast was enough to steer me away from using my hands. (Yes, a variety of jokes would apply here.)

As we get further and further into the “Digital Age” I, and apparently many, many others, have a growing appreciation for all things made my hand, all things crafted and sans computer assistance. I also have great appreciation for things that last, and both of these loves are covered with the artifacts that Luc is creating and ultimately leaving behind. Will an invading army find my digital files? Will the archeologists of the future sort the rubble of what was once Santa Fe and unearth my laptop? Maybe, but I really hope not. I’d hate to bore future people. But what they will find, I’m guessing, is the kind of stuff that Luc is creating.
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Personally, I took one look at what he was making and immediately began scheming to see how I could collaborate with him. We’ve come up with two projects.

Stay tuned Smogranch reader, stay tuned.

Blurb Books: Tips for Cover Design

A short piece here in regard to cover design. I get frequent questions in regard to the cover, which tends to be where people start their book, so this little piece walks you through a few suggestions. Just so you know, often times I DON’T start my book with the cover. I might have a thought or two in regard but I don’t stress about it. There have been projects where I made an image and said to myself, “That is the cover,” but those are few and far between.

Just a Suggestion

I guess I make a lot of out of focus pictures. But most of the time, when I do, I have a specific intent in mind.

My ratio of in focus pictures is much higher, so when I shoot something soft I typically am doing it to compliment something else.

I am a huge fan of abstract painting. I don’t understand it at all, not by any stretch, nor can I really talk about it. I just know my brain responds to it.

If I could paint something that looked like this first image, I might never touch a camera again. But I can’t. So I shoot.

Pulling focus on an image typically happens really fast. I don’t set out to shoot an image like this, and if you saw the contact sheet you would see the “normal” images all around this picture.

But, I have a documentary background, which essentially means I like to tell stories with images. Most of my shoots end in book form, hence my 100+ books with the Blurb system. This shoot is no different. In a few minutes I’ll begin editing and laying out the book that was part of this day.

When I’m telling a story, making a book, etc, I use all kinds of images. I think sometimes we get tunnel vision when we shoot and if you are designing with your work sometimes you can paint yourself into a corner with a certain type of image.

I learn a lot by looking at other photographers work, a lot of the past masters and also art and photography books, and not just about images, but also about design and how images drive and influence things like book size, border size, page count, type, etc.

So as I stood on top of the small stone wall to get this image I racked the focus to razor sharp and then said, “Wait.” I racked it back out, made this image, and then went back to more “normal” stuff.

When a picture is soft like this it gives me the ability to do lot with. I can scan and run with only a section of the image, or I can pull back the opacity and reverse out type. I can leave it alone and run it as is.

The second picture is different.

This photo is simple, straight, and pulls the viewer back to what is expected.

Because so much is in focus I can’t really do as much with the image, in terms of design, because then the items are competing at the same distance. Now book design folks might be saying “What is this guy talking about?” but I’m hoping my description makes a least a tiny bit of sense to at least a tiny portion of the the people who will read this.

I do have room at the top and bottom, but still, a busy frame if I add something.

I think what these pictures reflect is the search that we all go through. We look and look and keep on looking and exhaust the idea in front of us. Sometimes it happens quickly and other times we have all day.

So don’t be afraid to rack out that focus and do something you aren’t supposed to. You never know when it just might work.

A Book on Books

I wanted to show off something very interesting. A book on books. Now this idea of a book on books is not new, but every time I see one it really fuels my fire. This book was recently produced by Blurb, and features the likes of Darius Himes, Brigitte Carnochan, Mat Thorne, Chad Jennings and oddly enough…me.


I have several copies of this book and I can’t stop looking at it. It’s not like I’m looking in the mirror all day and telling myself how great I am, although when I do have a slow day that is precisely what I do. I can’t stop staring at the book because it makes me want to make more books.


The idea of a book about books always gets my attention, and those that have already been published are legendary in the photography and publishing worlds. If you don’t know the books I refer to, put down your Sabertooth Tiger Action Set you were about to purchase and RUN to your favorite book peddler and ask them about books on books. Or call Martin Parr if you want a hint.


This book, the Blurb creation, is fun and also digestible. It’s short and to the point, and has smooth layouts to show you just what they are trying to say. I love books that highlight spreads, covers and designs. Could look at these pages all day long. And for those of you who are casual about design, brace yourself. Book design ain’t casual, never has been, never will be. There is a LOT to learn. Ever hang out with a book designer? If no, you should seek one out, take them to lunch, get them to live in a plastic bubble and study them with great care. These folks are scary good when it comes to design, specific to books. I think this is one of the most misunderstood realities, just what goes in to making a signature book.


In the past two years I’ve looked at a lot of photo books. I’ve seen plenty of books with intense, smart design and photos that just couldn’t match the layout. And I’ve seen a lot of great photographs paired with sub par design. RARELY do you find both. So, go online, check it out and see for yourself. I think this book just might get you headed the right direction. No time to waste. Go. I’m watching you.


LINK TO HOW TO MAKE A GORGEOUS PHOTOBOOK