From photo essay to photo book
The making of The Family Imprint and lessons learned along the way
As a freelance photographer, I often feel like a one-woman show. You learn to be an extremely self-reliant, self-motivating expert in PR and marketing—truly a jack-of-all-trades. You have to be all of these things to survive in this industry because no one will advocate for you and your work better than you. No one will care about your story as much as you do, and your passion and drive will amplify the work as long as you are willing, able and brave enough to share it. This became very clear to me as I worked on my Cancer Family project, which later became known as A Life in Death and (to make things more confusing), ultimately published as a book called The Family Imprint. (Note-to-self: Choose one title and stick to it, as it will avoid some unnecessary confusion down the road).
Publishing a book is no small feat. Looking back now, book in hand, I realize how naïve I was about how much work it would be, how much money it would cost, and how rewarding it would all be in the end. I hope that by sharing my experience and the lessons I learned along the way, I will de-mystify the process a bit and save others from coming up against similar hurdles in the journey of producing a book.
(It is important to note that many of my earlier steps were taken while I was planning to self-publish my book. Later on in the process, however, I decided to approach, and ultimately work with a publisher because I realized I wanted a partner. I will speak about this later on).
So I will start by asking you three questions:
- Why do you want to make a book?
- Can you make a book?
- Who will care about your story and will they want to own the book?
Before sprinting full-speed down this unfamiliar book path, I asked myself the above three questions because I knew I needed to manage my own expectations and be smart about a decision this huge.
Why do I want to make a book?
I knew I wanted to make a book for my family, to honor and remember my parents and the lives we shared together. Secondly, ever since they passed away, I felt a responsibility to continue to share their story—our story—in a purposeful way to hopefully help others in similar situations. The story, in book form, could be a tool others could use to better understand their own experiences. Maybe it could even inspire others to document and engage with their loved ones and face their fears the way I tried to do. I knew that a book required important things like time and money, but I could not have imagined exactly how much of both I would need. (I will revisit this later.)
Can I make a book?
I had to figure out if my story really made sense as a book. Did I have enough content? Was a book the right medium to communicate the content I had? Someone once told me that there are certain projects that may not make sense in a book form, no matter how beautiful or important they may be. I had to ask myself, “What does this book bring to the table that all of the previous publications of the work could not?”
Who will care about my story and will they want to own the book?
Finally, when it comes to publishing a book, as photographers we have to put on our businesswoman hats and think about our audience. Books are expensive, so it is important to strategize and think about the end game. For me and my story, the obvious audience was the photography market, but I was encouraged to think outside the box for a much broader and diverse audience. (Thank you, Frank Meo!) I did this by looking at some of the themes my book touched on: health, family, care-giving, relationships, and cancer, just to name a few. By considering those themes, suddenly my potential audience grew ten-fold and I could not have predicted the types of opportunities and connections that would develop as a result of this slight perspective shift.
So, you’ve decided to make a book. Now what?
My next step was to visualize what I wanted this book to look like. Maybe it seems obvious, but at this point, I had only a theorized concept. It was time to start making moves.
As with all projects, it is important to know what else is out there so you can know what options are available. You don’t know what you don’t know, so seeing examples of how others have worked before you can be insightful and inspiring. The book world speaks in its own language, just as the photography world does, so research and education are vital. By flipping through the pages of dozens of photography (and non-photography) books, I quickly learned what I liked—and what I didn’t, and made many notes along the way.
I began to think about narrative, editing styles, and use of text. From there, I began to envision and create my first dummy. I knew I wanted to weave old family photographs and found family objects in and around my images, and asking someone to “visualize” this book with these concepts proved difficult without a physical example to show. I made this mistake, and learned from it, after meeting with a big publisher. I showed him my photo essay and asked him to “imagine” what the book could be (yikes)! After this, I bought a simple scrapbook and printed 800 of my selected photographs on 4x6 photo paper at the local pharmacy, including some with fake text to use as place holders. I didn’t have the whole thing planned out yet, but I could start to play with ideas and put something down on paper to get the ball rolling.
Once you have a dummy of some kind, the next step is to share it with those whose opinions you trust. Feedback is key, but always take advice with a grain of salt, or you will lose sight of your personal perspective and end goals. I owe an enormous amount of gratitude to the many people who offered me advice and guidance along the way, helping me to avoid mistakes and make smart decisions. (Special thanks to Alison Morley for her genius editing and generous patience).
During this time, I made a lot of lists. Keeping yourself organized is so important as there will be many balls in the air at the same time during this process. Here are some of the next steps I took, and key things to think about, when moving forward at this point:
- Make a timeline: Start from book dummy and go all the way to published book. One of the most useful resources for me was the book Publish Your Photography Book by Darius Himes and Mary Virginia Swanson.
- Build a team: Put together a good team of people you trust, including a designer, editor, social media guru, etc.
- Gather your resources: Think about resources you have at your disposal, such as other photographers you may know (or don’t) who have published books. Ask them what they would have done differently or about mistakes they made.
- Create a budget: Create a checklist and crowd-source information from others about some of the potential and unexpected costs involved in a book, such as printing (estimate from printer, match prints, proofs), shipping (postage, shipping materials, labels, taxes), labor (design, editing), and promotion (mailers, exhibit prints).
- Consider your funding options: Decide how you plan to raise money for the project. Whether you are self-publishing or working with an established publisher, you will most likely need to bring some of the capital to the table. This will allow you a seat at this table, however, should you choose to go that route. There are a few different routes you can take, and mine included crowd-funding with Kickstarter and later partnering with publisher Hatje Cantz. Some other partners to consider are organizations and universities (and their respective presses).
- Decide the size of the print run you are planning: I decided to use my Kickstarter funds to pre-order copies of the books, which would greatly subsidize the cost of the overall production, thus allowing us to raise the print run to a larger number. Some photographer-authors want small runs so their book will be more exclusive and limited, but I was the opposite. I felt that the more books out there and available, the more opportunities it would have to share the story, help others and offer a sense of community and understanding for those who may need it.
- Plan for promotion: Consider different types of media outlets for promotion of the book. I approached some to help highlight my crowd-funding campaign and saved others for when the book was actually finished and available for purchase.
Once my funding goals were complete, however, I stood at a crossroads: proceed forward as planned and self-publish or seek out a partner. I called some friends who had previously self-published books and asked them what their biggest regrets were. The main complaint: distribution. Distribution of one’s book is possible when self-publishing, but I was warned of the enormity of the task and decided that instead of reinventing the wheel and spending the next decade shipping books out of my garage, it might make sense to find a partner who already had a well-oiled machine in motion. After all, I am a photographer and I was eager to get back to shooting and working on projects.
Once I decided to take the publisher path, I had some new things to consider:
- What type of publisher do I want to work with? Did I want one that was art-specific or a more general-themed house?
- Is a big or small publisher best for me? Alarge house haswide distribution, but less one-on-one attention, whereas a small house will havemore personalized attention, butnarrower distribution.
- What is the demographic of the intended audience? Do I want to go international or domestic? Some books may be stronger with certain demographics over others depending on the subject matter and other factors.
- What is my publisher’s reputation? Talk to other authors who have worked with these publishers to get a better idea of what to expect if you choose to work with them.
It is important for me to note that I did not go down this path alone. I decided to hire a book agent (the amazing Joan Brookbank) who specializes in negotiating author contracts. Through her years of experience and understanding of the business, she was able to hold onto every one of my wish list items for the book (make sure to make a wishlist of what YOU want for this book). This was an expense, however, I didn’t plan for, but knew would be imperative to the process.
The final steps in this process began to take shape soon after a contract was agreed upon and signed. Text was edited (and edited some more), match prints were perfected and sent off to the printer (Thank you Carl Saytor at Lux Labs), and proofs flew back and forth (and back again) around the world. Did I mention that my designer Bonnie Briant is in New York City, my publisher Hatje Cantz is in Germany and I live on the tiny Pacific island of Guam? Bless you, Wi-Fi!
From concept to completion, this book took a year and a half to complete. Early in this process, I envisioned a much shorter timeline. Luckily I ran into my dear friend Laura Roumanos of United Photo Industries who reminded me of the importance of slowing down, taking my time, and making thoughtful decisions, ones I will be okay with for years to come. By heeding her advice, mistakes were caught, important changes were made and I could not be more proud of the end result.
Mary Harrsch’s Classical Photo Essay
in Photo Essays — March 28, 2011 at 8:12 PM | 0 comments
by Mary Harrsch
Forum Romanum (Photo: Mary Harrsch, 2010, by permission) view to north-east
Mary Harrsch has a love for Classics going back several decades, which she juxtaposes with her work as a professional photographer and media wizard. The images in this photo essay span at least a decade, but Mary’s presence, alongside her sharp eyes and keen eye provide many archaeologists and historians with high quality images for books and articles. Electrum Magazine asked Mary if she would select five of her favorite images to share and she graciously assented, sending us five beautiful photos that demonstrate her imagination and ability at rendering visual narrative or ekphrasis.
In the first photo above in the Roman Forum, the clearly-defned progression (conflating Classical ruins, the victory arch of Septimius Severus and the Christian church of St. Luke and St. Martina) is an apt one, especially when the Baroque Era deliberately played up the artistic traditions’ similarities – including its own debt to Roman architecture – while denying the original spirit thereof. The Church often suggested that such continuity as seen here was a given: the best of the Classical world was often considered merely part of Christian thought as a logical foreshadowing; old paganism would bow the knee before Christ and even Plato was seen as somewhat derivative, illogically even before the fact. Roman Christianity often played up that it had triumphed over Roman paganism.
Wounded Amazon Roman copy of Greek original by Pheidias with head a replica from Polykleitos from 440-430 BCE Marble (Photo: Mary Harrsch, 2010, by permission)
Here an Amazon sculpture from the Capitoline Museum in Rome reflects the influence of Pheidias in a fairly thoughtful representation of being above pathos: a wounded Amazon is still unweakened by making any concession to pain. Amazons, who in myth were said to have burned away much of their right breasts (a-mazon or “breastless”as one Greek etymology has it) and also mostly seen here, especially to be better archers, understood pain to be sometimes cathartic. This sculpture was originally located within the ancient perimeter of Hadrian’s Villa, now part of the Villa d’Este. It was donated to the Capitoline collections by Pope Benedict XIV in 1753 CE.
Frieze Detail on the Arch of Constantine (Photo: Mary Harrsch, by permission 2010)
The original context for this frieze detail was from a triumphal arch of Hadrian; the imperial face was altered from Hadrian into Licinius or Constantius I. This may account for the emperor appearing beardless in the center while many of the surrounding soldiers are bearded. In this marble frieze detail, sheep are offered in both Classical and Christian traditions but eventually after Constantine the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) supersedes all other, pagan sacrifice. One stern man holds his bull by the horn, paralleled by a young boy holding his ram by the neck, with the youth looking far more distressed than the ram.
Table Support in the Shape of Griffins Attacking a Doe, Greek made in South Italy 325-300 BCE Marble and Pigment (Photo: Mary Harrsch, 2010, by permission)
Originally at the Getty Villa in Malibu but now repatriated back to Italy, this graphic sculpture – with relict pigment still showing in places – shows the griffin heads ripping at the back of the doe in Hellenistic realism, when the forces of nature are no less savage than any human behavior unmitigated by virtue. This is somehow a pre-Darwinian acknowledgment that both animals and humans survive at the expense of other life forms. The Italians produced evidence to show that the beautiful piece carved of Parian marble was part of a funerary collection in the vaults of a museum at Foggio in southeastern Italy based on photographs seized in a 1995 raid and its style and polychromatic trace evidence.
Wreathed Figure (Personification of Harvest Autumn?), Mosaic Detail from Roman Carthage, Mosaic of the Months and Seasons, second half 4th c. CE, British Museum (Photo: Mary Harrsch, by permission)
Roman Mosaics – originally works dedicated to the “Muses” in Greek antecedents – often show portrait details of faces not disguised by generic features, although here the Roman Carthage mosaic tondo also has subtle shading enhanced by curved lines that accentuate more realistic approaches by the artists.
Mary Harrsch’s brilliant photos bring out the best of these ancient works, in great light and even greater detail.