Thoughts on book drafting: episode 1

The photographs in this book were shot in a year, but it took me five years to edit the work and create a mock-up that I was satisfied with.  Why did it take so long and what was this process like?

There are three simple reasons why it took a long time:

#1  “333 Saints” was my first big project.

#2  I learned how to put this book together through trial and error.

#3  I am a perfectionist.

I took over 10,000 photographs while in Timbuktu.  The time involved in making work-prints of even 5% of the work shot was extensive.  Moreover, the work included both digital and film negatives which meant I was dealing with two different workflows.  Lastly, as an emerging photographer, I was creating my workflow and editing system as I progressed.

My first major edit was a portfolio of 41 of what I thought were the ‘best photographs.’  At that time I could never have imagined that it would take me another four years to put the book together.  17 photographs from that original edit have stayed around to end up in the final draft…but 24 have not.  The biggest weakness of this first effort was that while it was a beautiful selection of photographs, it did not contain any concept of what this work might mean or reveal as a book, and a good book — I have decided in these last years — is a very different creature from a beautiful portfolio.

I couldn’t yet figure out how to move forward, and I went on a 500 mile walking pilgrimage in Spain.

scans of the first draft

scans of the first draft

In 2010, I had progressed enough to make a Blurb book draft, and the work was slowly moving into becoming a book.  It had book ‘elements’ like captions, text, a thank you page, and a conceptual method behind its sequencing.  I was so very excited to get that hardcover book in the mail after I designed and uploaded it.  I had already been working on this project for two and a half years!  I got the book, and I hated it.  I despaired.  I gave up on the work for a while, and I went on an 800 mile walking pilgrimage in Japan.

In retrospect, I realize that this mock-up still contained too many of the elements of a ‘best photographs’ portfolio.  In the presentation and design, the photographs’ beauty was more important than the story and the people depicted.  This draft is filled with the arrogance of this type of approach, and even today it fills me with self-disgust.

[I have not included scans of the second draft because it is too big to scan effectively on my machine…and I don’t like it anyway.]

Well, walking pilgrimages will teach you a lot about humility.  I printed and bound the third draft by hand.  The design was purposefully loose and erratic, and for the first time my photographs started to shine within the form of a book.  I still like this draft.  It has a playful and whimsical quality to it.  I hope to do another book in the future that can fully capitalize on these elements.  The erratic design has changed to a structured one in the final version, but the final book retains a lightness, accessibility, and humanism that this third mock-up began to display.

the third draft - front and back

scans of the third draft – front and back

The main weakness of the third draft is that the selected photographs did not tell a clear enough tale.  I was still too attached to certain favorite images, unable to give them up in favor of the story’s coherence.

scans of the third draft - interiors

scans of the third draft – interiors

…Well, the story of the drafts will end here for now.

There will be at least two more episodes.  This has been a long journey….

Kickstarter website: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1101472817/333-saints-a-life-of-scholarship-in-timbuktu-book

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One Response to Thoughts on book drafting: episode 1

  1. Geoff Cooper says:

    Hey Alexandra, great post – just followed you through from your kickstarter project – sounds like if you get enough funding to get an editor that could be useful (hint hint people)

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