I published a book of my work earlier this year, the books arrived in January, during the early days of the pandemic. The experience of developing this book ranks as one of my most satisfying creative endeavors and I couldn’t be more thrilled—it stands apart from other art books in general and apart from other photography books in particular.
The making of the book started off in a straightforward way but then, as development progressed, became more and more like an art project itself, rather than a book of reproductions of artworks.
Here’s how it began.
It struck me a few years ago that it might be fun to attend one of those photo festival portfolio reviews, a sort of speed-dating event where an artist shows work to eight or more people from the art world—curators, publishers, and so forth. Usually you get twenty minutes to somehow convey to the person across the table what your work is about and why they should be interested. Twenty minutes is not a lot of time. So I did two of these, one the Medium festival in San Diego and the other sponsored by PhotoAlliance in San Francisco. Interesting experiences, though I doubt I’ll ever do one again.
The most common advice I received from the people across the table at Photo Alliance was that I should do a book—I had a few exhibits here and there across the United States, I had my work in the collection of a major art museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and so forth—and doing a book seemed the next natural progression.
So, o.k., I decided to do a book. I thought it would be an interesting experience. At the Photo Alliance event one of the people I signed up to speak with was Bob Aufuldish, who I think also had not done very many of these events. Bob Aufuldish is a book designer and a good one. Soon after I asked Bob to be the designer and off we went.
The book, a year and a half later, is Computational Photography. The title comes from our first book project meeting. Bob suggested it, noticing my way of working on art projects—setting a few algorithmic-like ground rules and then esthetically guiding the output. I wasn’t sure I liked it but thought we’d use it as a working title. As time went on it seemed ever more perfect.
A friend of mine jokes that to understand my work you need a “PhD in Darin,” which I admit isn’t all wrong. I’m not a believer at setting art out all nice and neat for the viewer, like portions on a plate. I try to make work that intrigues the viewer from first sight but then offers more and more, if the viewer wants to go deeper. I enjoy making work that way and I’m not sure if I’d be an artist otherwise. But I don’t want to be purposely obscure or–please god, no–be “ambiguous,” a word so often used to claim greater depths for a work of art but in fact its use seems to serve to obscure that very lack of depth.
But I don’t want to be obscure. I want to give you a guided tour of the book, to share some of the cool things hiding there, often in plain sight, often literally on the surface of its pages. I won’t go much into the “deeper meanings” of the photographs but I can do a lot to highlight the boundaries of the works and give you an inking of my intentions. And if you’ve never been involved in a book design project you might find my experience illuminating.
Great, let the tour begin.
One of the design principles I used for the book is “content everywhere.” You can see that principle at work here on the cover. The background is a part of an image from my Timothy O’Sullivan-inspired Geographical Explorations of the Lunar Surface (though I use “Moon” instead of “Lunar Surface” in the book). The image has been cropped and darkened. Above it, “Computational Photography” is printed using an image from my project Hello World! for color.
The second design principle, deeply related to the third principle but deserving of its own enumeration, is that we’d cut away all of the normal stuff that goes into an art book, stuff that I felt got in the way of the experience of the viewer. I got rid of the page numbers, got rid of the biography, got rid of the index, all of that.
I hesitated a long time before finally deciding not to have an introductory essay. These essays, de rigueur in almost all art books, serve two broad purposes. First, they introduce the viewer to the art that is to follow, place it in historical context, frames it for the reader so they can more greatly appreciate what they are about to see. The second reason, never spoken, is that having a scholar intro your work—the bigger the name the better—raises your prestige, or re-enforces it if you are already on top.
The introductory essay was cut for those same two reasons: I thought it was strange, when you really thought about it, to have someone speaking to the reader, telling them what I was about to show them, before I had a chance to show them. It would be like a scholar coming out in front of the screen at the first presentation of 2001: A Space Odyssey and spending forty-five minutes sharing his analysis of the film. Maybe better to put that analysis somewhere else, outside of the book? As for the marketing aspects of having an essay in my book, well, I was never good at marketing. My name isn’t even on the cover—principle two hard at work, again.
These simple design elements, also reveal the third design principle used through the book: The book is a thing itself. As I thought through what I wanted from a book and what exactly a book was I realized that the book should not be a series of reproductions of my work. My photographs were meant to be seen as prints, hung on walls an it is a very different thing to see them in a book. It’s not just a technical question of a more limited color space or a question of the size of the reproduction, it’s a recognition that a book, which as an object has a long history of it’s own, certainly far longer than that of photography, was a separate medium. I could do things in a book—I should do things in a book—that I would never do with my images outside of a book.
Artists would cringe if their images were cropped, would be appalled if their work were cut up and used for colorful text, would be shocked to see a publisher intentionally darken or dramatically change the color of their works. Their feelings would be due to the book being seen as a reproduction of their work, not as some new thing apart from their prior efforts.
Cropped photographs, darkened photographs, using images as color for text, yes. And much more than that. My photographs were still safe and sound back in my studio. Let the book be the book, let it be its own thing. Let’s see where this goes.