Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Photography Project — And So Much More

Those who haven't read my post About Photography, might want to have a quick scan of it before continuing. Those who remember it, feel free to skip ahead.


In that post I wrote "A photo doesn't tell a story." I stand by that, but more generally I should have said "A static image doesn't tell a story." Photos are, after all, just special types of static images.

But is that true? I mean, if you look at an image this the one below (Luis Royo's Wayfarers' Redemption), that does seem to tell a story, does it not?

Well, no. But at the very least it, together with its title, suggests a preceding story, as well as something that will follow the moment it depicts. These people got to that place for a reason; they find something they might have been looking for, or not; and they will probably leave and act in some way in response to having had this moment at this place.

I might mention that this is one of my favorite Royo paintings, next to the iconic Heavy Metal image shown below. 

So, what's that got to do with Owlglass Photo or my photography business—i.e. persona as a photographer—in general?

Well, in another persona/incarnation I'm a writer of (mostly) science and fantasy fiction. After an initial 'traditional' publication of my first novel, Keaen, I decided that I'd rather be an 'indie' author. This implies that, with limited funds available and really bad experiences with others designing book covers that matched my vision, I had to create my own. Limited resources and a focus on writing the stories rather than making snazzy covers ended up with covers that matched my vision more than what the publisher of Keaen had achieved (you can read the whole unedifying story in this free eBook), but I simply didn't have time to make them perfect.

So, I wondered, why not combine the useful with the necessary and the enjoyable and work on portfolio shots at the same time as redesigning the covers at the same time? Which was the reason for my call for Artwork Models

The response was fascinating. It appears that there are a few very interesting sci-fi/fantasy fans frequenting the relevant Facebook groups. People so interesting that I dumped my initial concept of what you might call 'standard' model shoots, and decided to make this into something much more. It looks like there's a fair chance that most of the models I'd be engaging (on a purely time-for-print/disk and shoot-for-fun basis for all parties concerned) are more genre fans than your normal run-of-the-mill models or actors. Which is great! After all, these aren't speaking parts, but purely visual statics. 

It looks like we might be assembling a temporary 'cast' for this enterprise; which is so much more enjoyable than the usual shoot-and-be-done-with-it scenarios.

There are so many ideas emerging from strange corners of my imagination right now that my head seems about to explode. So much for unintended consequences—entirely, I must admit, self-inflicted.

My plan for the revised covers are maybe a bit grandiose, but I think it's time to break with the current trend to simple covers that take minimal work; which usually means not many people on them, if at all. I mean, look at this bunch:

 A few static photos. Boilerplate text. Nice photos. Kind of. But seriously dull. Where are the people? Stories are about people, right? and, at the very least, they are about things happening! In my view this kind of publication approach is based on the attitude: "I don't give a shit. Gotta put something on the cover; but readers don't really care. They just want [insert author and/or series name], so why should we waste money on covers. Stock photos will do the job."

Well, maybe. But it smacks of exactly the kind of publishing disease that's currently devaluing 'real' books—and one of the reasons why I, for one, won't buy a 'real' book unless I really, really want that book as a book; hold it in my hands, and not just have it on a damn smartphone, tablet or laptop screen. Meaning nowadays it's likely to be materials heavy in imagery, like graphic novels (e.g. Fables or Y: The Last Man) or straight-up 'art' books (my collection of books with works by e.g. Luis Royo, Frank Cho, Boris Vallejo, Jim Burns, Arnold Böcklin, Caspar David Friedrich).

There was a time—and maybe I'm giving away my age—when even simple paperbacks from mid-level authors had the most amazing covers. The same went for higher-level ones. In those days people obviously thought that even though a 'name' sold books, there was a point in making the covers into artworks.

Or the one below: a Clyde Caldwell cover for a Bean paperback edition of R.A. Heinlein's Glory Road (minus the writing). Not that I'm a huge fan of Caldwell's, but there's definitely more effort, art and just interesting stuff here than in the George R.R. Martin covers above. 

As someone who has read the book, I can also see a direct connection with actual story events. And I like that. If you buy a book—arguably even an eBook—the outside and the inside should be an organic whole. If the story is a work of, literary, art, why should the cover not be a work of visual art?

Interesting covers are still around, but they are becoming rarer and confined mostly to small presses run by people passionate about what they do. Publishers of Jack Vance novels usually belong in that category.

And I was thinking about eBooks (novels that is; not comics or 'graphic novels', such as the amazing Fables series).

Right now, covers for eBooks are inherently less demanding in terms of production than print-edition covers. With the latter we have well-known layout options: front page image only; wrap-around image; separate front and rear page images. With eBooks it's usually just the front pages, and those come in small sizes and medium quality colors, all in the name of keeping book size down, I suppose. 

Which makes sense when you read them on even a large-screen smartphone and maybe even an iPad. Or does it? Downloading eBooks nowadays is done through networks that carry streaming HD movies. Mobile devices have ridiculous amounts of memory. So what's the problem?

Maybe it's time for going back to a concept that was around many years back, when novels had what's loosely called 'illustrations'. Not on every page, but often  one illustration at the start of each chapter; or sometimes placed apparently randomly wherever the author and/or publisher thought it would be a nifty idea to put a picture. These illustrations often weren't very good and, one might argue, distracted from or interfered with the world created by the reader. But the idea per se isn't that silly, and in the eBook medium, where one can simply have a toggle of some sort for displaying or hiding in-text images, this looks like something worth considering.

May not 'illustrations' as these would have been understood, and maybe not at the lead-in to every chapter; but there are ways of structuring books in 'acts' of sorts, of which there may be just a few. 

For example, Finister is divided into three 'books', which are titled, respectively:
  1. The Merchant Daughter and the Thief
  2. The Warrior and the Sareen
  3. Treasure Hunt
Tethys into six:
  1. Return to Tethys
  2. Odyssey – Part 1
  3. Battle for Tethys
  4. Odyssey – Part 2 
  5. Battle for Tethys – The Last Day
  6. Odyssey's End
The beginning of each 'book' could be a suitable place for inserting a 'cover', if you will, for that section of the book, defining it thematically. 

The only real remains the interference of a provided image with the reader's imaginatively created world and characters. This is one of the reasons why authors and visual artists creating a book should ideally be one and the same—asking for artistic polymaths here!—or that at the very least they should be in very close communication and interaction. And as an author I have no problem at all with impose my vision on the reader. While I understand that the same words can evoke very different responses in different people's imaginations, I am not of the school that claims that the 'text' is everything and the author's vision is basically unimportant. To my view that's, mostly post-modernist, bullshit; though the seeds to it were laid by Modernism. If everything is 'interpretation' then there's no point in writing anything; or, in a reductio ad absurdum, communicating anything in any way whatsoever. Storytelling is about communication—of the author's ideas, points of view, ethics, thoughts about what is and/or what should be. Unless the messages are transmitted to the recipient—whether with explicit understanding or implicit sneaking-it-in-under-the-rader—why bother?

So, I think a consistent, rounded, package or artwork, consisting of a written story with occasional insertions of images relating to snapshots of that story, is perfectly cool. But it's got to be done right. 

It also has to be done with proper consideration of economics and time constraints—which is where the eBook format actually comes in rather handy, especially in the 'indie' publishing domain; which is expanding at a dizzying rate. The time and economy factors are of major significance. Creating images in addition to writing the story takes time. (Duh!) Putting together the base-image for Tethys probably took me something like 30 hours of my rare 'spare' time. That involved shooting the human model and processing the images until I got the right one. Finding the right 3-D props, background and character figure (plus clothing, etc), and then putting it all together. And all that got me was this:

For the actual cover image I had to do further Photoshop work of the image to fit it onto the standard cover layout I had devised for the series. 

That's a lot of work. Adding five more 'inside cover images' to the eBook version of Tethys would end up in weeks of more work—and that's without getting any real storytelling done. And if one has a day job—as I had for a long time, though I'm working on remaking myself as a self-employed entity—that takes a lot of time out of one's life. And if one wants to do it right... Well, you'd be lucky to get anything published at all; even if it's 'indie' and especially if you can't really afford an editor either. (Well, I was and still am occasionally a technical writer and editor in my usual day jobs, but editing your own work is tricky; no matter who you are.)

eBooks actually make some of the time-issues less problematic, mainly because eBooks can be updated, just like software. So you can start with just the cover image and then add the additional inside images as you produce them. Re-release the book—and Smashwords readers for example can update any book they bought previously at no cost to the latest revision—and Bob's your uncle. 

This is impractical with  'real' books—and so here we actually have something that works better in the electronic medium; even for something as traditional as the objects we know and love as 'books'.

And then you can go one better andgoing back to books—make the ultimate target an image-heavy book that contains a selection, more or less complete, of the images used in the novels. That's something you can start working on as the project proceeds. Probably a good idea doing it, since the whole development process and any 'behind the scenes' materials are fresher in your mind. that kind of thing can be developed using anything, from album-creation software to InDesign; though I think the latter is probably a better idea if you're thinking of, say, using for publishing—or many other potential P.O.D. printing services, because that's what you'd be ending up doing.

So, you get cool eBooks and an 'art' book to boot. And that, too, could have an eEdition.

And this then is my long-term project, running concurrently with the development of my photography business. Somewhat unusual, I think; cross-fertilized by a quite different domain of artistic activity. And the people working with me on it as models, no matter how their images are used or modified, will get full credit in the novels and the final 'picture' book. 

A final question, leading into my next blog, I suppose: 

Is this kind of work 'Fine Art'

More later. 

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