Episode 1 ended with a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the third draft. I did like that draft enough to start showing it to a few people, which brings me to a brief discussion of how I receive outside criticism.
I actively solicit the opinions of those around me on my works in progress, and I’m deeply appreciative when they make the effort to be thoughtful and honest. However, I don’t always take their advice, and I don’t always take their comments to heart…(though, there’s always a part of the artist that loves to hear “it’s marvelous and perfect!” even though this type of reaction is pretty useless).
As I worked on the edits, I received advice as varied as: 1. You should only use the black and white photographs 2. You should only use the color photographs 3. I love the combination of the color and black and white. Or: 1. You need to emphasize the mystical aspects of this practice 2. You need to emphasize the documentary aspects of this story. Or (of the same mock-up): 1. This is a beautiful mock-up, you should publish it exactly as is 2. The story is completely confusing, you need to re-do the entire thing…
And, so in the end, I listen politely and thankfully to all this advice and continue to muddle through on my own.
By this point, I was obsessively looking at the designs of other photo books. I also began writing reviews of photo books as I thought more and more deeply about their construction.
[It was also around this time that my brother, Robert Huddleston, and I created ‘Lost Things.’ Editing that short, collaborative artists’ book with someone else helped me start to completely re-think my assumptions about what types of photographs might have the strongest impact in a book. However, what I learned didn’t come to fruition until the fifth mock-up.]
My fourth mock-up is the most elaborate, by far. I expanded on and refined what the third had produced. There is a well-written introduction, captions, and personal statement. All of which is translated into French, so the mock-up is completely bi-lingual. I printed, cut, and folded the book by hand, but I had it bound by a woman who specializes in book arts. This draft has a canvas cover and a hand-crafted box in which it dwells. It’s beautiful to hold and to look at, and it still is a dynamic combination of the art and the story.
At this point, I was sure that I was very close to publishing. Who could resist such a beautiful mock-up? Indeed, many fell for its charms.
And then on April 1, 2012 the presentiments of trouble came to full fruition as a loose coalition of Tuareg separatist groups and militant Islamist groups took over the north of Mali, including Timbuktu. For me, it was as if a large tear had appeared in the fabric of reality. I knew that the city I had experienced so viscerally in 2007 would never be the same.
On one hand, my project and my photographs were more important than ever. On the other, the premise and form of my book was again thrown into complete confusion…
It took me a few months to recover from the shock, but as I did, I realized a new form of editing. It starts with this question: if everything your photographs show is thrown into disarray and potential destruction, what is the most important thing to save?
My answers was: the people. So, I began to piece together a new edit, discarding many beautiful photographs in favor of others, that were a bit more awkward in their composition or dull in their color, but made up for this (to my new eye) by their intimate look at the people, the scholars and students of the city. It was at this point that I began pairing photographs that show points in time that occurred only minutes apart as a way to more fully express the personalities of the scholars that I had met.
The fifth mock-up is a very rough draft on regular letter paper, folded, and taped together with scotch tape and gaffers tape. It was good enough to see that some nice things were happening, but that the central story was still confused. At this point, I remembered the experience of looking through my photographs with someone in Japan…but that story will start episode 3…