Book Project: #2 Theory and Practice

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A photography book can be done by simply taking some collection of photographs and assigning them across the pages without consideration of order or any other factors.  Lightroom can do this with the Auto Layout button.  However, if the author wants to tell a story,  provoke some thought, discussion, raise issues or highlight concerns, then consideration of the order of the photography is required. Put another way,  the question becomes what ordering of photographs will complement and explain what the book about?   And so it is with my book: What is it that is to be said? What is the message? How will it be conveyed?

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“Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigour and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself. But this rarely happens. The elements which, together, can strike sparks out of a subject, are often scattered — either in terms of space or time — and bringing them together by force is “stage management,” and, I feel, cheating. But if it is possible to make pictures of the “core” as well as the struck-off sparks of the subject, this is a picture story; and the page serves to reunite the complementary elements which are dispersed throughout several photographs ”

— Cartier-Bresson

If we follow Cartier-Bresson’s advice, conveying the message is achieved through a picture story.  While it is clear for many how to create a word story — words, sentences, paragraphs, etc — what does a picture story look like?  Robert Frank conceived his book, The Americans, to have a narrative and characters, like a novel.  Frank then spent considerable time deciding on the symbols he would use, as symbols are like the words of a book. John Brumfield notes: “A photograph is a systematic organization of symbols [which impart meaning]”.

If photographs, with symbols embedded in them, are the words, then tying photographs together forms the sentences, and the paragraphs, and the narrative.  Keith Smith defines a set of concepts to organize Single Pictures into larger structures, to develop the story, as well to develop movement, and pace.  

  • Groups: used to focus meaning, through repetition around a subject
  • Series and Sequences: to establish movement and pace through the narrative; generate meaning through image connections.
  • Referrals: the means to connect photographs; direct referrals are when two or more images contain the same / similar symbol; random referrals are those connections made in the mind of the reader.  
  • Compound Structuring: to organize individual narratives into larger, integrated constructs, where sometimes the narratives are concatenated; sometimes they overlay.

While the patterns (Groups, Series and Sequences) are helpful theoretical constructs, in practical terms, their rigidity and narrow focus of definition may often be too constraining.  However, the Compound Structure provides a means for the author to combine those elements for practical use and form the basis of a book’s structure.

So, by way of example, a reader may approach a book oblivious of its internal structure.  Their initial experience is driven physically: page turning; page order; blank pages, layout, etc. Proceeding, the observant reader may note the emergence of a common subject (i.e., groups).  After a few more pages, they may note a progression in the pictures (i.e., series). Finally, the reader may note elements repeated in different pictures throughout the book (i.e., sequences connected by direct referrals). The key observation is the author combined, in the design, the physical nature of the book and the conceptual tools of Compound Structuring to organize the single pictures in a consumable and meaningful manner. As images are revealed, messages,  reinforced through grouping and contrasted by references, will become apparent. These inform the reader, build context, and complete the physical to conceptual process.


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