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Book Review: Photographers' Sketchbooks


Book Review Photographers' Sketchbooks By Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals Reviewed by Blake Andrews When I was younger I kept a series of written journals. They were more like scrapbooks, actually. I would scribble in them and also paste in clippings, stubs, photos, and any ephemera that felt meaningful. I was a regular Dan Eldon. When computers became personalized I shifted to word processing. This was easier than scrapbooking although perhaps less whimsical.

Photographers' Sketchbooks. By Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals.
W W Norton & Company Inc, New York, 2014.
 
Photographers' Sketchbooks
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Photographers' Sketchbooks
By Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals
W W Norton & Company Inc, New York, 2014. 320 pp., 600 color and black & white illustrations, 11¾x8½".


When I was younger I kept a series of written journals. They were more like scrapbooks, actually. I would scribble in them and also paste in clippings, stubs, photos, and any ephemera that felt meaningful. I was a regular Dan Eldon. When computers became personalized I shifted to word processing. This was easier than scrapbooking although perhaps less whimsical. The chief advantage was that my work wasn't dead on a page. I could revisit material and edit easily.

Then along came the internet and all hell broke loose. I got caught up in the social media tidal wave. Not only could I digitize and edit my scrapbooks, I could share them and get immediate feedback. The pull was irresistible. Gradually this became my dominant outlet, to the point where I now find myself: much of my expression goes online. Just as before, my stream is more like a scrapbook than a journal. It includes clippings and loose thoughts. But now a simple link takes the place of scissors and glue. In a span of about 30 years I've gone from paper to digital and from private to public. How these changes have affected my creative content is an open question.

Photographers' Sketchbooks. By Stephen McLaren and Bryan FormhalsW W Norton & Company Inc, New York, 2014.

They say ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and society largely mirrors my own transition. Most personal expression is now created and distributed via computer or mobile device, much of it immediately. And the division between public and private has not only eroded; it's been eviscerated. Things that might've previously remained buried in a scrapbook (or passed unrecorded) are now routinely aired in public. This includes not only polished material, but also the messy sketches, drafts, and secrets behind it. The result is that content which makes it into the public sphere now is very different than thirty years ago, in both contents and form.

But the photo world has largely resisted. Exhibitions and books — the primary modes of expression — have mainly followed the traditional model of refinement. The idea is to shoot a project, edit tightly, show only the finished product, and ignore the stuff leading up to it. This was the model seventy years ago when Frank made The Americans. It was the model a decade ago for Sleeping By The Mississippi. And it continues to be the dominant model today. On the few occasions the book world curtain has been pulled back, it's revealed the contact sheets contextualizing successful images. But even this model — used in books by Magnum, Sarah Greenough, and Jim Marshall, to name a few — places more emphasis on the final result than the messy process preceding it.

Photographers' Sketchbooks. By Stephen McLaren and Bryan FormhalsW W Norton & Company Inc, New York, 2014.

But things may be shifting. As platforms like Tumblr, Instagram, and even Facebook pull loose drafts into the public sphere, the effect is bleeding into photobooks. This is especially true in reconsiderations of the canon. Revelations revealed the inner workings of Arbus. 2007's Scrapbook displayed Cartier-Bresson's photos in their original draft form. Recent books on Minor White, Arnold Newman, and Brassaï have focused on drafts and working methods as well as finished work. The idea of a photobook showing multiple takes of one scene is no longer so radical. In fact the very idea of a "final" image might be suspect. Keeping pace, the form of the democratic scrapbook has gained increasing caché. Books by Donovan Wylie, Julian Germain, Roe Ethridge, Ed Templeton, and Kadir Guirey have all stirred the pot, mixing "final" images with earlier incarnations, showing drafts, scrapbooks, and clippings.

Photographers' Sketchbooks. By Stephen McLaren and Bryan FormhalsW W Norton & Company Inc, New York, 2014.

The titles listed above have poked holes in the paradigm of perfection. With Photographers' Sketchbooks the piñata has been busted wide open. This book samples the drafts and sketchbooks (a euphemism for goal-driven scrapbook?) of 43 contemporary photographers from a wide range of backgrounds, locations and styles. Some, like Jim Goldberg, Alec Soth, and Michael Wolf, are quite well known. Others have a much smaller fan-base. Regardless of notoriety, very little of this material has been published before. Twenty years ago it might well have remained hidden, not ready for primetime. The fact it might still not be ready only raises the interest level.

Photographers' Sketchbooks. By Stephen McLaren and Bryan FormhalsW W Norton & Company Inc, New York, 2014.

With this book the public/private switch has been flipped, not to mention the paper/digital one. And I don't mean just the specific material included, but the very idea of it. "Sketchbook" may well describe a new genre, one in which the emphasis is firmly on process and the profiles don't proceed to any finalized form. And that's fine, because it turns out that looking over the shoulder of working photographers is just as fascinating as viewing their finished projects. No two methodologies are the same, although notably almost all photographers in the book work with physical drafts rather than digital.

Photographers' Sketchbooks is broken into uniform sections. Listed alphabetically, each photographer has a brief introduction by one of the authors, Stephen McLaren or Bryan Formhals, followed by a description of process in their own words, then 6-8 pages of images illustrating their working methods. This is the core of the book. Interspersed throughout are two essays each by McLaren and Formhals. These thoughts provide some historical context while tugging the book gently in the direction of instructional guide. "Here's how they did it, they seem to suggest, "and now you try at home." The deft blend of inspiration and self-help mixes smoothly, and the book feels like more of a survey than a lecture. But there is an element of teaching that puts it in company with contemporary titles like Jason Fulford's Photographer's Playbook and the recent Aperture tutorial series. It's a book that can be read in any number of ways, browsed as a sketchbook, followed as training guide, as a source of ideas, or used as a general reference.

Photographers' Sketchbooks. By Stephen McLaren and Bryan FormhalsW W Norton & Company Inc, New York, 2014.

I can't think of another photobook that covers similar subject matter. The nearest equivalent may be the short series of process-oriented books published by Lustrum Press in the early 1970s, in which photographers wrote about their working methods and behind-the-scenes steps. They were informative but text-heavy, with limited monochrome illustrations. Photographers' Sketchbooks is in full color, with emphasis on the raw physical material generated by photographers. It occupies a niche of its own for now, but I suspect other publishers will follow. The private/public line will further blur, as will the border between draft and finality.

One small complaint regarding the book's awkward production. The cover is similar to any trade hardback, but with the upper and lower half inch sawed off. I get the concept. It's meant to give the book the feeling of an actual sketchbook. But the execution gets in the way of itself. The cropped binding is left as exposed cardboard which strangely crams the title. Worse, the cropping continues occasionally in the interior, needlessly clipping the edges of some photos. Oh well. I guess that's how scrapbooks work. If this effect keeps the book from feeling like a finished object, maybe that's the idea.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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