Stuart Smith has designed photobooks for Elliott Erwitt, Martin Parr and Mark Power, among others. Following his talk at Magnum Professional Practice in London, he spills the beans on the photobook design process – and shares some advice for photographers thinking of having a go themselves…
When photographers approach you to design a book, do they usually have a clear idea of what they want?
It depends. They sort of do but often the goal posts change. They think they know and then we talk about it and find it’s roughly where they want to go but we end up going a different way about it.
What’s the most difficult part of the process?
Convincing them that I know better.
And how do you do that?
It just takes time and trust. We’ll have two or three meetings until they get it. And if they don’t get it, we don’t do the book because we don’t get on.
What are the most common mistakes you encounter from photographers?
First of all, it’s too big in size: they think it’s got to be big because their ego’s big. The second problem is it’s too big in content: they don’t edit or they can’t help but put more pictures in. The third problem is probably the order of the pictures, the fourth would be the actual pictures, the fifth would be the title, the sixth would be the positioning of the pictures on the page – they try to do something a bit special or a bit different.
Is the problem essentially that they’re not being simple enough?
That’s one of the problems – they get it wrong because they can’t edit their work. Also they don’t really know what they’re trying to convey, that’s the other problem. If I don’t understand it, I can’t design it, and I’m not that bright so I’m the lowest common denominator. I can weedle out pictures instinctively, but then most people can – it’s not difficult. Elliott Erwitt came up to me once and passed me five prints and I just flicked through them and said, “No, no, maybe and no” and handed them back to him. That’s how quick you can see.
Tell us a bit about how you select pictures for inclusion in a book.
Five hundred pictures is usually my starting edit. We get them as print-outs from Boots, little 6x4s. We make piles – yes, no and maybe. The yes pile is small and the no pile is small and the maybe pile is enormous. If it’s a bigger book, where you’re trying to create a sequence, you need linking pictures. Sometimes you end up with a picture that either becomes a double-page spread or doesn’t appear in the book at all. It’s odd that pictures can do that, but that’s how it works.
What’s your view of self-publishing – and do you have any advice for photographers thinking of trying it?
Because it’s easy, conversely it’s harder. The quality has shifted. People don’t understand the process of how to do a book; they think it’s straightforward and easy. I do workshops where I try to teach people how to do an InDesign document. It took two hours just to explain how to do a basic double-page grid and I hadn’t even looked at type, any of those things that take people years to do. So if you’re going to do it just do it as simply as can be, don’t try and design it typographically because I guarantee you’ll do the wrong thing.
Photographers in the olden days used to have a book at the end of their career and now they churn out books like there’s no tomorrow, so there’s a lot of chaff. But photography has jumped on amazingly since the ’80s. There are a lot of books out there now – I think that’s a good thing – but there’s a lot of shit too. But then, that’s like everything.
All images courtesy of SMITH.
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