Christopher Manson

For my portfolio book I chose to create something that illustrated the humanitarian element of the photography that I enjoy doing. I wondered if this area of photography would lend itself to being published in a book and how much of a living I might be able to make this way.

Christopher Manson is a photographer that studied in Hull a few years ago and has since moved around the world, taking photos, lecturing and publishing books. I contacted him this week to ask him for some advice about making and self-publishing books.

I firstly wondered what made a topic worthy of a book.

Manson explained that all topics are worthy of a book depending on how successfully the project has been realised. When he has finished shooting a project he spreads all of the photographs, interviews and anything else out to decide whether it is appropriate to make into a book or not. He says, “I have many projects that didn’t work completely so they just sit on my shelves collecting dust until I figure out how to finish them.”

So I asked how he chooses a topic for a book.

Manson said that his project’s don’t initially start out as books, he finds it too restricting and instead allows the work to dictate how it should be presented, possibly through a book, an exhibition, just a web gallery or presumably, a combination of formats.

He has numerous small project ideas running through his mind at any given moment he finds ideas everywhere, from reading newspapers to having conversations with friends and colleagues. Eventually, two or three of these smaller ideas will come together to make a larger project and Manson decides to begin researching it. He says “If it holds my interest I continue with it.”

Sorting and sifting photos to decide which ones are included in a book is something that I find really difficult. I take so many photographs and find it a wrench to leave any out of a collection. I asked Manson for advice on how to do this better.

He agreed that editing and sequencing is the most difficult part of the photobook making process.

He explained that images could be grouped simply – they can be paired together based on objective similarities such as colour tone and composition. Images could also be grouped chronologically just like a film, consisting of a beginning, middle, and end. Alternatively, images could be grouped more experimentally and loose, with no real connections at all. He suggested that I may also want to utilize more complicated organizational strategies, such as creating a thematic grouping. This is done by placing images together based on their content (love, war, religion etc.). 

Manson explained his process:

  1. “I print all my successful images as cheap 5x4inch prints (I use a laser copier)
  2. I look at each image one-by-one and ask myself: “What is the image saying?” It doesn’t have to be anything particularly deep, but it has to communicate something in relation to my project. If my project is about love, then how does a picture of a gun relate to the project? Then, on the reverse of each photo, I list some keywords to remember the content, such as “religion”, “love”, “war”….that sort of thing. After doing this, I should have learned something about the themes embedded in my imagery, and therefore my project as a whole.
  3. I then stack the images in groups according to their keywords and begin making pairs. Each set of images can be related by similarities in colour or composition or subject matter. Important: Always edit/sequence when you are fully awake and alert! You must pay particular attention to how the meaning of an image changes when you place it beside another. For example, a picture of a gun (which may originally have the keywords “violence” & “war” attached to it) beside a picture of a criminal creates a new meaning. The gun can no longer be “read” in the same way when it is placed beside a criminal, it’s meaning changes. Maybe the image now speaks about “security”?”

I could see from the Christopher Manson website that many of his books are self-published. I wondered if this was a deliberate choice.

Manson explained that by self-publishing it gives him total control over the look of his books.

I have used Blurb in the past and could see that at least one of Manson’s books is published through Blurb so I asked Manson for his opinion on the service.

He responded, “Blurb, like all ‘Print-on-Demand’ book makers, use a limited selection of templates and binding options, which do not always work for my books. If I want a spiral wire spine, then I have to figure that out myself. Sometimes I make “Frankenstein” books, where I use Blurb to print the book (because they print pages cheaply) but then cut away at the spine when it arrives and re-bind the pages myself. I used Blurb to begin learning about books, they’re great for beginners!”

Its all very well making these books but I wondered who would buy them and how they might be promoted to the target audience. And of course I wanted to know if someone could earn a living from making books.

Manson suggested that unless I was Martin Parr it would be unlikely that I would make a lot of money from my photobooks. He said “I’m happy just making the money back from what I initially spent. I sell more books face-to-face and at my artist talks than on my website. I also submit my books to festivals and book competitions/awards. An exhibition is always nice to launch a book. I approach libraries to buy my books, I usually have them in one or two art book stores too.”

I find all this very interesting and it is good to understand that photobooks will not always be the end point of a project or the thing that pays the bills but that it is a useful addition to my portfolio of services.

Although the main point of this assignment is to create a book that can be used as a printed portfolio I think it would be useful to have books, showcasing the photographic projects I undertake, that are available for people to purchase and can be used to highlight my best images.

I really like the process that Manson uses and will try this for my next project. I think I work best in the evening and often end up writing these posts quite late at night so it will be a challenge to ensure that I am fully awake and alert when I edit and sequence images for a book.

Mason also suggested a number of websites and blogs that he has found useful. I have checked them all out and found the following to be particularly useful.

  • Photo-eye: http://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/index.cfm
  • The Angry Bat: http://theangrybat.tumblr.com/
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