Patience comes slowly
A weak beast ever-loping
Unwilling to breathe
It is difficult to be patient. Not until my late twenties did I start dabbling in photography, and I was in my mid-thirties before beginning any serious work. Despite feeling like the extra life experience was in some ways beneficial, necessary even, that late start combined with being self-taught has always made me feel rushed, like I fell behind behind and am running out of time. Spending time on social media does not help. Seeing all of the things that everyone else is doing, watching progress and success in real time, or at least the illusions we present online, can easily lead to questioning oneself and feelings of inadequacy.
But all of this is a lie. There is no timetable, no looming deadline, no rule that says only people under 40 can create meaningful work and share their story with the greater public consciousness. We are a youth-obsessed culture. We ooh and aah over the wunderkind who storms the stages of the establishment, lauded with celebrity by mass media as beacons of excellence precisely because they don't appear to have to work to achieve success. I suppose we prefer the unexplainable, marvels of human evolution, victors of a genealogical lottery, or miracles annointed by perfect timing. We love the myth of the genius spewed fully-formed from Zeus's head. It lets us off the hook, paints our failures as the result of external circumstance, sets the whole business up as mere chance...because effort is hard.
But the truth is that those things accomplished by people with seemingly preternatural gifts can be achieved by almost anyone with enough focus and determination to put in the hard, messy work necessary to learn and train, which can take years. There are plenty of examples of people who toiled away in obscurity, only gaining recognition in middle age (or even later). But often the fact that they worked hard for their accomplishments somehow makes the achievements themselves less impressive to us, secondary to their tenacity and grit. But there should be no shame in taking the long, slow road instead of the fast track, and if you are truly invested in the work, any recognition at all is nice but means very little compared to the work itself. If you are in it to be noticed (and let's be honest, social media is training us to only care about getting noticed), the chances of actually accomplishing anything are slim.
And so almost daily I must remind myself that slow is fine, that a single well-conceived project is better than ten half-baked concepts adrift or a flashy image that means very little, all surface and no depth, and that there is still time (or even were I to keel over tomorrow, how much difference would it make in the big picture?). And because of this, I constantly rediscover the truth that sometimes an idea needs a break, that distance can be beneficial.
Such is the case with a book project I started over two years ago. I came up with the concept for Searching and rather quickly executed the photographs and a draft of writing they inspired over a few weeks. Then I used the online book-making service Blurb.com to make a version so that I could see it in book form and mark it up with revisions and changes. After a round of changes and another mock-up, this time made through Artifact Uprising, I got stuck. I love AU and have used them for several years to create albums, calendars and prints of photographs from our various travels, however the design options on these sites were not meshing with my vision, and eventually, the whole thing just kind of sat there as a mock-up in stasis for nearly two years...
Turns out I was waiting for new developments in my own knowledge and experience before I would know how to proceed. You see, I was stuck between the possibilities of traditional book publishing, or at least my perceptions of them, and what I felt this project needed. At this same time, I was devoted to studying the development of the photobook throughout the 20th century for my day job (rare book librarian). An exhibition focused on the influence of Robert Frank's The Americans on photographic books from the 1960s-1980s, with a handful of recent examples as well grew out of this. (It ran from August 2015-February 2016.) As part of my research, I was also acquiring things to fill in gaps in our collection, and once the exhibition was up, I ended up doing a series of tours and lectures on the topic of photobooks throughout the fall and winter. Eventually all of this led me to focus on the boom in photobook publishing that has happened over the last 10+ years and current trends in contemporary photography.
I realized that digital technology, instead of killing print as was most people's assumption at the beginning of the century, has actually helped to democratize publishing. Much as computer-based music software allows almost anyone to produce their own music and digital cameras and smartphones give a greater number of people than ever the ability to create images, publishing has undergone a technological shift that makes smaller scale projects possible in ways that the traditional publishing industry could not make profitable. Small, independent presses have always existed, but new technology has allowed this segment to grow immensely as well as providing the opportunity for many people to self-publish their work.
An advantage to this smaller scale is that greater risks are possible. I have found that over time artists, designers, and photographers working in the book medium have become increasingly innovative, using a wide variety of book structures and forms to integrate design with content in new ways. Some of my favorite photobooks from the last couple of years go beyond the traditional codex format. This reminds me of what went on in the book arts field over the latter half of the 20th century. Rather than using books merely as a way to present one's work done in other media, book artists take the book itself as a medium, creating works of art that make use of the book form. Along this path, many possibilities are explored and even the very definition of what constitutes a book questioned. In much the same way, photography itself has been questioned by artists over that same period.
It is impossible not to draw parallels here, and in some ways I see the current photobook scene as a merging of these two worlds. Thus, I hit upon the idea of taking my own project mentioned above (and incidentally my first book), and making a hand-made book in a small edition rather than trying to publish it through traditional means. Once I started thinking of the project this way, it opened up a completely new set of possibilities that melded with my content and re-invigorated the work. To that end I re-edited both images and text, took my initial idea through several new iterations, and reached a point where I am ready to produce a small edition, each unique and made by hand, bridging the gap between photobook and artists' book. Completing the project in this way likely would not have been possible had I not had the patience to let it rest until I was ready to see where its path should lead.