Printing, Book Making and Picture Framing

Accordion Book Prototype, Melancholia - A Journey Through The Fens

The time has come to look at how best to display my photographic practice that is being driven in part by my MA supervisor and the requirements of the course but also my growing digitalised photographic archive that is developing into different projects or stories that need to be presented professionally in a printed form. The photographs are being catalogued and edited and put into collections using Adobe’s Lightroom, from these collections new stories and narratives are being curated from the work done over the past two years that is being continually added to. So far the printed output from my photographic practice has just been rough proofs to check the photographs are visually correct at different sizes for future publication and exhibition, other than that they have resided just in the digital domain in Lightroom or on my website. The next stage is to explore the latest inkjet papers and digital printing workflows to bring out the best of the photographs for book publication and exhibited wall mounted artwork.

As I started to research into and develop my print workflows of publication and exhibition of my photographic practice I came across a quote on APhotoEditor that gave me reason to pause. APhotoEditor is an online blog by Rob Haggart who regularly reviews photo-books and other publications and he also has a “Quoted” section sourced from other photography oriented blogs and articles on the web that are always topical. One quote caught my eye with the headline ‘Common Mistakes Emerging Photographers Make’, the quote came from an article on Stella Kramer’s blog written by guest blogger Jay Trinidad from his interview with David Carol who gave the following response to the question ‘what common mistakes emerging photographers make’;

“They put the cart before the horse. Forget about shows, forget about books, forget about being famous, forget about people knowing who you are. Take the first 10 or 15 years to figure out how to be a fucking photographer.”

The quote made me smile and I broadly agreed with David Carol’s response that could be said of any creative discipline from art to design and not just photography. I can think of a couple of exceptions where skill and knowledge acquired over a long period of time are perhaps advantageous, music or pop music for one though this might be seen as a disposable 3 minute one hit wonder it also can be an explosion of raw energy, rage and anger questioning the established order as in Punk and good old Rock n Roll. There is always genuine exceptional talent and the questioning of young minds not only in the arts and humanities but also in other STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects bring new modes of thinking and reasoning that can change and influence how society functions and develops. The downside to the cult of youth and its uncritical celebration for its own sake can lead to short term-ism, mediocrity, blandness, and infantilism.

Time can be the best teacher, time to learn something properly, time to experience something more deeply, time to reflect, time to observe, time to contribute something more than the singular, time beyond the instant gratification and selfhood. All said though young artists, designers and photographers need to eat and have a roof over their head and there are not enough assistant jobs out there to support them as they learn their craft and develop a richer and deeper body of work and they need to publish to find an audience and market and sell their work to make ends meet. Perhaps the fundamental element that has gone amiss recently in today’s western society is graft and hard work, note that I only refer to western society at the moment though other countries and cultures are quickly adopting some of the western cultures bad habits replacing toil, the understanding of difficult concepts and study of hard won skills with instant gratification and leisure. There has been a prevailing notion of entitlement that has been fostered in greater degrees in the younger generation since the 1960s that has been encouraged by mass media, a lack of social cohesion and responsibility in a break down of the community and the family, consumerism and to some degree education, children are being shielded from what is increasing perceived as a cruel and dangerous world, from an honest critique of who they are, do and contribute by parent, teacher and state. In my time in higher education the first class degree has changed from being the exception to being the norm but the quality of work has not changed, todays youth is being deluded about its ability and we feed them with the belief that fame and fortune will come knocking on the door just by the act of being, when it does not they feel let down and dejected. I feel you do not necessarily have to wait 10 to 15 years as suggested by David Carol to be worthy but one has to work hard, to find a distinctive voice, be humble and absorb the world beyond oneself, life is for most of us a marathon not a sprint. That said the young turks may just say to me fuck off you old dinosaur, which is fine. On a final note though if you leave it too long to exhibit and publish your work as you learn the craft and develop your concepts and subject you can miss the boat all together, you can move beyond being an artist in the traditional mould of exhibiting and selling your own work to that of a compulsive or habitual experimenter who shuns exposure and who has no goals beyond testing and constructing new processes, you might instead become a technologist or an enabler of others through teaching which is not a bad thing, you just become something else.

It is interesting when looking at the work of Peter Higgs and Albert Einstein, they were 35 and 37 years old respectively before publishing what has been amongst the two of the most important theories of the past century ‘The Higgs Boson’ 1964 and ‘The General Theory of Relativity’ 1916 and they seem to fit David Carol’s assertion of spending 10-15 years figuring out things before publishing one’s work.

Time to go back to the mundane and look at the output of my practice which for my photography work has only been 3-4 years but my general creative practice has been developing for 28 years so either I am being premature or missed the boat in seeking out publishing and exhibiting, but that is the point of this MA to challenge myself and convention in my middle years.

Book Making

I have decided to produce by own photo books so as to control the printing output and the choice of materials and finishes. I have used Blurb books in the past and they have proved useful in the editing of a body of work, looking at different sequence of images and seeing them bound into a book gives one some degree of critical distance to see what works and also what does not work and learning from it. The problem with using online publishers like Blurb you can be constrained to the certain formats that can impede how you really want to display the artwork, there are issues of the quality of the binding, printing and the paper used that are not an issue for quick proof and reference output but it is certainly not on par with the traditional professional offset printer and not a touch on todays professional inkjet printers which have wide colour gamut and choice of papers. The best way to look at these online printers is as an up market colour laser printer that offers a binding option. When researching different ways of creating a photo book there was an under current of feeling that Blurb and its ilk were putting the traditional offset printer out of business, I do not think that this is the case as I believe people who use online publishing services normally only get one or two books printed to inflict on their family and friends, a fancy family photo album as you well. There is still a market for the small book run book, the limited print edition by a traditional print workshop but this does not necessarily mean it is done by a ‘local’ printer. Some years back at work we were sending stuff around Europe to be printed based on price and print options, now it is global and your PDF can be sent anywhere in the world and printed cheaply, in small runs and delivered to you quickly. This method of publishing is like other manufacturing industries that since the advent of globalisation always seeks the cheapest location to make things, the downside is local industry and employment collapses along with quality control, the local skill base, research and future investment and the craft, people no longer physically work together in the same location that in turn lessen the ability to adjust and tweak a process to create unique and bespoke objects. This might not be a problem for mass produced low quality goods but in creating a bespoke product of exacting standards the best option is to work locally with a manufacture and pay what initially seems a higher price but in the long term you achieve the desired results and invest in the future of one’s local industry and community.

My limited edition book runs will be extremely limited with maybe only one or five books in an edition as there is no audience for the work at the moment and might not be one in the future so I will not being using a professional printer at this stage who would normally do a limited run of 500 or more books therefore I will make the books myself, though if there was an opportunity in the future to do a limited edition with a professional printer I would relish the experience and it would certainly be with a local print works. For me a hand made photo-book must be of a professional standard, the hand crafted look may work well with a certain type of work but it will not for the type of work I wish to present. I am in the fortunate position of having access to high quality archival inkjet printers, colour spectrometers for bespoke colour calibration, high end monitors and a controlled light booth to maintain and manage the colour balance and the quality of imaging throughout the digital darkroom workflow.

Photography as a central creative process is relatively new to me and one that I have only used exclusively for the past three years but I have worked professionally in imagining and digital reprographics for the past fifteen years. I have been going to great trouble to take the photographs using either a high-end medium format digital camera or large format 4x5 and 8x10 film cameras that yield the maximum detail from a subject and the printing output needs to follow in the same manner, the process of printing will become as important as using a camera, composing a picture, the concept and research behind the work, and the subject of the photograph. The printing process be it analogue or digital will make a photograph into a tangible object for better or worse that you can finally hold in your hands, the whole cycle of photographic practice and process will be complete.

At the moment I am testing a wide range of inkjet papers to see which are suitable for book making and wall mounting. After the initial tests some of the books will use a matt smooth fine art rag paper that are nice to touch both in weigh and texture and can offer different viewing positions without reflection or glare that is the bane of traditional resin and fibre based photographic papers. The downside to using a rag or watercolour paper is in the past the black were not as deep and the colours were less vibrant as gloss and pearl finished fibre and resin papers but with the recent improvements of inkjet printer technology the colour gamut has increased due to the additional number of inks used. Today’s inkjet printers now have 3-5 blacks ranging from matt/photo black to grey, light grey and light light grey and with the addition of green and orange most vivid colours can be reproduced that the traditional CMYK printer’s gamut can only look at in wonder and envy. I am currently using an old Epson 4800 17” wide format printer for proofs and a HP Z3200 44” wide format printer for final output. The three short listed matt rag papers I currently testing are Harman by Hahnemuhle matt cotton smooth 300 gsm, Canson Infinity Rag Photographique 310 gsm and Museo Portfolio Rag 300gsm, there are double sided options but the paper sizes tend to be smaller which will not be suitable for the book making I have in mind. If there is time I will look at Hahnemuhle Bamboo that has had excellent reviews and my old friend Somerset Enhanced Velvet that I have used since Epson first brought out archival pigment inks and the prints have not faded after being exposed to daylight for over ten years or more.

I Initially ruled out fibre and resin based papers for book-making because of the paper’s finish that can cause reflected light glare which is not a problem when wall mounted artwork but when viewed above as in the case of a book the glare can obscure and mar the photograph. A further issue with fibre based papers is they can exhibit bronzing when viewed at certain angles makes the photograph look like it has been posterised or the threshold pushed to the extreme rendering only dark and light areas visible, to over come this problem printer manufactures have developed a gloss enhancer that covers the print refracting the reflected light but this just adds more glare to the print. Fibre prints when wall mounted have no real viewing issues and the extra fidelity afforded by the paper yields better results than matt rag papers revealing extra detail in the shadows and providing sharper and richer prints and I shall be using fibre based papers for exhibition mounted work. I have found one paper which is giving my pleasing results that I might use for book making that is the Harman by Hahnemuhle Gloss Baryta 320gsm 100% Alpha-Cellulose paper and it has not so far exhibited any significant bronzing and the paper sheen is within acceptable margins. The paper is yielding excellent prints that are sharp, detailed, good in tonal and hue range, exhibit smooth graduations, reveal shadow detail and most importantly the printed paper is visually and texturally seductive. Resin based paper have lesser bronzing issues but they have a more synthetic feel and look about them but provide excellent results for wall mounted work and are a lot cheaper than fibre and rag papers thou long term archival might be an issue as they use of cheaper pulp in the substrate. Inspecting past prints that I have done on resin paper the colour of the ink has remain stable in its vibrancy and lightfastness but the paper itself has yellowed which is not a problem for the graphics/signage market but it is not really suitable for print sales in the collectable photographic/fine art market.

Print Tests

Over the past couple of months I have been doing extensive research into the different ways you can make a book both commercially and hand made. Traditional books are bound using glue for the binding or sewn together on more expensive books and they can be square, portrait and landscape in format, the bound book offers a fixed sequence of pages, work is presented on a single or double page spreads. When designing the layout of your pictures for traditional bound photo-book you are often restricted by gutter and margin considerations, the dimensions of the page that are often quite conservative but in the hands of a good graphic designer working in unison with a photographer traditional book layouts can make for a rewarding viewing and reading experience, interesting narratives can be developed, stories told, photographs showcased, interesting juxtapositions developed and a body of work given form. The problem I have with conventional page layout in the ‘normal’ book formats is that I use a variety of different ratio aspects ranging from 4x5, 4x6, 13x6 and 17x6 and if you place a 17x6 image into a traditional landscape format book proportionally it is rendered very small, the alternative is to place it across a two page spread but then you have the dreaded guttering issue, often the photograph is obscured by the binding and it also cannot be laid flat that can lead to further obscuring of the image.

I have experimented making accordion books which would remove the guttering issue and could offer an interesting linear narrative to a sequence of images but I was not happy with it, this was down to technical rather than aesthetic issues in getting enough precision in the folding of the paper that is not a problem with a small number of pages but if the book contained 50 pages or more trying to keep everything square and true would be impossible using hand paper folding techniques.

The next book making system I have been looking at is using inter-screws to bind and hold the pages together and if you crease the paper just before the binding the pages will fall flat and there is no guttering issues. With this design you can lay out images that in a traditional books would require a double spread and now you can use a single page spread layout instead removing guttering and binding issues. To fit a double spread onto a single spread layout I extended the horizontal width of the book by a large margin and in doing so the page spread could cope with all the different formats I work with proportionally without unduly reducing their size or cropping the picture to fit within the norms of conventional page layout and avoiding any guttering issues.

Inter-Screw Binder: Google Screen Grab

I have decided on three different formats that have an aspect ratio of roughly 2:5 excluding the binding that will serve three different purposes, the first one serves as a traditional photo-book measuring 20 x 49 cm for a single page spread, the second will serve as a portable portfolio with a single page spread measuring 30 x 74 cm and the third format provides a self-contain portable exhibition measuring 43 x 106 cm for a single page spread and the book becomes an artefact in its own right at this size. The three sizes of these books are in proportion to one another but also based on getting the best yields from a paper roll and in the case of inkjet rag and baryta papers I want none or very little waste due to their cost.

Single Page Spread Template

4x5 layout

17x6 Layout

Horizontal Fold Out Page Layout

Vertical Fold Out Page Layout

Double Fold Out Page Layout

Two Page Spread with Double Fold Out Page Option

Beside the technical and visual considerations that have led me to use an inter-screw book binding system I am drawn to the inherent non-linear narrative construct that is offered by inter-screw binding, the inter-screw can be unscrewed and the pages can be reordered, removed and added to at any given point by the photographer or by the subsequent owner of the book. The book is not fixed in time by the maker or publisher, there is a degree of the ’un-finished’ about the book, by unscrewing the inter-screw binding fixtures the sequence of images can be de-constructed and reordered creating new narratives and juxtapositions. I am always reluctant to finish or seek a kind of closure or resolution to a project, why, when I complete something I can quickly lose interest in it and walk away from it, it becomes a lifeless monument of a moment in time that now resides in the past, it is no longer part of the present or the future and can loses relevance and no longer has a place in my creative endeavours. To keep photographic practice or a project live and relevant to me I need to make sure nothing is completely done, accomplished or finalised because if it is I will move onto another medium which I have done many times in the past, this does not mean a project looks half baked but instead the project remains open ended, the story is still being told, the future is not mapped out, history is still not fully understood. I prefer a sense of unknowing and having the scope to learn something new, yes become a master of something but not to the point where the specialism and discourse become introverted and for its own sake, being a generalist and the interloper is always more fun as it relies on being curious that leads to being inventive through inter-disciplinary activities, encountering and challenging taboos, undermining conventions and having the willingness to live with an uncertainness of things.

Picture Framing

I will be making only two picture frame prototypes at the moment as I believe that it might be best not to invest too much resources in this venture as I do not have storage or venue to exhibit it. But it would be useful to see what the work would look like at a larger scale and see if it warrants it as big is not necessarily best and the presentation of photography is not necessarily made better by being framed and hung on a wall than that which is bound in a book. If in the future someone is interested in buying the work or I managed to get selected for a group exhibition at least I can show how the work might be best show cased and exhibited. The printing will be straight forward as most of the research and testing will be done in the book making process, the only different element is the scaling up of print and see if the photograph holds it own technically and visually. The two prototypes will be about 4 x 5 foot or 120 x 150 cm in size reflecting my media of choice 4 x 5 and 8 x 10 inch sheet film, I am also drawn to see what a 17 x 6 aspect ratio photograph would look like scaled up encapsulating the full extent of our field of vision.

Mount board Box Framing System

The first prototype will use the tradition window cut mount board, I still like this method of mounting aesthetically and technically as it is more archival than some of the techniques employed by contemporary photographers today mounting their work between DiBond [a substrate that has a corrugated core that gives structure stability sandwiched between two exterior flat aluminium sheets] backing and an acrylic glazing that borrow from the point of sale and signage industries which may look slick and suit a particular type of imagery but long term may be structurally unusable and undermined the longevity of the original print. Another issue in using frameless mounting methods is some open exhibition competitions will refused to accept the work due handling issues and the inherent fragility of the work with the edges left exposed to knocks and bumps. The window mount will sit in a box frame recessed back from the glazing, the frame will be white so as to keep things simple and leaving a more indeterminate space for the print to viewed in, something that I think works well with landscape reflecting the expansive nature of the subject, a more graphic and determinate photograph of people for example can cope with a darker and pronounced framing, a stronger delineation of space.

Shadow Mount Box Framing System

The second prototype system is not limited to the size of stock mount board and employs a floating shadow mount system that can be used for irregular sized and larger artwork. The floating mount will be housed in a similar glazed white box frame to that of the window cut mount system but may have a batten sub-structure on the back board to keep the frame rigid and flat. This system will be slightly less archival than using acid free window cut mount board as the artwork will have to be laminated on some kind of substrate to keep it fixed and flat so care would have to be given to the adhesive and substrates used, the alternative is use a thick paper for the print and directly float the paper using spacers and archival tape.

I will be making the frames myself as early in my career I made a living from picture framing and know the method well and have the skill set to produce the prototypes to a professional gallery standard, I hate poor quality picture framing, either frame a picture professionally or just pin a images to the wall as poor framing just undermines the enjoyment and engagement with a piece of work.

So plenty of work to do over the next coming months and I shall keep posting as the prototype book making and framing develops but the making of photographs has not stopped, as I write this post I am still taking photographs and processing film, all I am doing now is bring the printing part into the workflow of my photographic practice as an essential component in the act of making.