I/Eye: On Photography

Santa Fe photo book workshop with the Webbs at Radius Books

Posted in On the street, Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on October 6, 2011
Cables on the Bay Bridge (San Francisco, 2011) © Sheila Newbery

Cables on the Bay Bridge (San Francisco, 2011) © Sheila Newbery

I’m back on the road again — this time on my way to the Netherlands; more on that later… It’s been a busy month: in late September, I went to the intensive photo book workshop organized by Alex and Rebecca Norris Webb in conjunction with Radius Books, and took along my book-in-the-making Los Caprichos (after Goya). The workshop is invaluable for anyone who’s interested in the specifics of photo book production: we were able to see the evolution of one of the Webbs’  projects, Violet Isle (Radius Books, 2009) from the early mock-up through the final design by David Chickey, and to hear about decisions at every level of production: from sequencing and materials to marketing. On Sunday, Radius co-founder Darius Himes flew in from San Francisco to attend the presentations, gave feedback on each participant’s project, and even at one point gave an animated, impromptu description of a four-color press, converting one of Radius’ walls into a giant, imaginary machine and describing its operation — with some evocative arm waving.  This was a propos of being on press, which we learned from Alex should never be undertaken, unaided, by the neophyte….

On the second day, we also heard David Taylor talk about his important book, Working the Line, which posed unique design challenges owing to the sheer scale of the project. Chickey and Taylor talked about the solutions they devised to handle the task of visualizing a monumental project (renting a large warehouse to get adequate elbow room and a sufficient visual sweep), and about the unique concept of the large accordion fold-out (comprised of photographs of the US-Mexico border markers) that would help readers intuit the stark intent and magnitude of the wall’s construction.

The workshop was demanding — I’d recommend it to anyone at work on a book-length project — and an extraordinary opportunity to see the making of books from the inside: from both the photographer’s and designer’s perspective.  As an art form, the photo book is beautiful and flexible  — it’d be difficult to exhaust its potential in a lifetime of publishing.  What struck me in listening to the Webbs and to Taylor talk about their projects was the nature of their collaboration with the designer — David Chickey, in both cases. This is where the “value added” lies in photo book publishing: in a designer’s ability to work in concert with the material and with the individual photographers.  Particularly where the approach of the publisher is one that emphasizes the book proper as object (not merely as generic coffee table “brick”), the designer’s role is vital. In the most competent and inspired hands, it’s a brilliant disappearing act: the designer makes it possible for us to fall in love with the book, all the while making us think that its felicity is inevitable or effortless.

Having seen Violet Isle now as both mock-up and limited edition volume, I look forward to seeing Rebecca Norris Webb’s new project, My Dakota, forthcoming from Radius. I’ll also be interested to learn how each of the projects presented at the workshop develops: Linka Odom’s portraits of travelers; Sheri Manson’s Beard Watching; Mary Hobbs’ photographs of childhood; Susan Berger’s Martin Luther King Way project; and Andrea Tese’s Inheritance.

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