Monday, 17 December 2018

Writing a Craft Book, Part II: Photography

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Now you've had time to refuel after the epic that was Part I of Writing a Craft Book, I thought I'd post Part II, this time focusing entirely on photography. I'd implore you to keep some form of sustenance to hand while reading, although in reality, Part II is quite a concise offering relative to Part I, so that suggestion may just be incitement to needlessly litter your keyboard with biscuit crumbs. (Nb. although if you're planning to do so anyway, I feel compelled to tell you about this beautiful HAY laptop brush - my husband gave me one of these last year and I'd initially thought it was a rather strange gift, but it's actually proved to be a really wonderful way of keeping my keyboard fully functional, despite my love of at-desk-nibbling). But onto the book photography...

When a publisher is in another country, as mine was, there's always the option to send things over to them to be photographed, and even the step-by-step photos can be shot at their end if the author provides enough samples and information about what each image should include. My publisher didn't suggest this way of doing things though, and I was relieved, as I think I would have found it odd to see someone else's hands demonstrating things and I can imagine getting the images back and finding subtleties about the way the pieces were positioned while being stitched, or the position of a needle, just felt slightly wrong for what I was hoping to demonstrate. (As a side note, when I contributed projects to the V&A book, an illustrator drew step images based directly on construction photos I'd taken as I was sewing - this was a really stress-free way to work as my reference photos didn't need any careful staging and I was delighted by the finished illustrations, however, this wouldn't have worked for a technique-heavy book where the step images really needed to be in the form of photographs).

With my publisher* over in the US, they were happy to leave choosing a photographer up to me, with portfolio shots and a quote for the work being sent over for their approval . I was pleased to have so much freedom, although finding a photographer was fraught. I was initially hoping to find someone who was also a stylist, so that I could get their help with staging the shots, but it seems a rarer combination than I'd imagined and I eventually gave up on that idea. I spent days trawling through websites, panicking because I was losing so much writing and sewing time, trying to find someone whose portfolio tallied with the kind of images I wanted, who had their own studio, had previously worked on books, and who wasn't at the other end of the country. In desperation, I wrote to the most well-connected local person I knew (thank you, lovely Anna), who'd worked widely on local and national magazines, and she came up trumps with a list of three possible photographers, one of whom, Roddy, had worked on several craft books with a local craft publisher. (*When I read this post back, I realised I use the term 'my publisher' throughout - I think because when I first started writing they were called Fons & Porter and, just before publication, changed to The Quilting Company - this seems to have led to some kind of short-circuit in my brain, where I can now only refer to them as 'my publisher'...I'm going to try using their actual name in future posts, while also hoping that neither of my children ends up ever changing their name by deed-poll, because it may require a long transition period where I call them only 'my child').

Although I took quite a few of the photos myself, I was really aware I had a finite number of days with Roddy and if I didn't come away with the images I wanted from those days, then it could make or break the book. For this reason, I spent a lot of time beforehand mocking up the shots, so that I didn't waste any of the time I had with him. One of the main things to think about, was what kind of background my images would have - over the years, I've often photographed small items on my desk chair, which is covered in a silvery grey linen (see the image below), and my inclination was to source a larger piece of that material. However, when I ran that idea past my publisher, they pointed out that another EPP book on the market already used a linen backdrop and we were keen for the book to be original. I was disappointed to lose the texture and warmth that linen offers, but having looked into all kinds of other backgrounds, I eventually settled on plain white for the step-by-step shots.

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Because my book had images coming from so many sources, old and new, I worried it may feel quite scattered visually, so I wanted to use the Techniques and Patterns sections to try pull the book together and give it a sense of identity. I decided to do this with colour and for the majority of my images, I attempted to stick to using shades of pink and turquoise. It was only when I saw the book all put together, right at the end of the process, that I realised that probably wasn't necessary as the page designer, Pamela Norman, had done a lot to subtly pull things together and give a feeling of cohesion (not all books have a Pamela working on them though, so it still seems like a good approach to think those things).

For the techniques photos, most were taken at the photographer's studio - the majority shot in one day. When you're showing something at five or six stages of construction, there isn't actually time to sit and hand-sew your way through those stages, and even if I just needed to glue things down, could I really be sure I'd do it so neatly under pressure that I'd want it photographed? On that basis, each piece had to be created at each different stage beforehand and then individually labelled, so that on the day, I'd know exactly what I needed to do  - how I should position my hands on it, or what angle it should be photographed from. I kept all the samples in a huge ring-binder, filled with plastic pockets and inside that a series of plastic bags.


In each pocket, I included the samples (often with a pre-threaded needle attached to each piece), the text that would be going alongside each shot in case I needed to refer to it, a photo of the shot mocked up at home, in case I forgot what it was that I was meant to be doing, along with a tiny version of that particular page on the page plan so that we could label the file names correctly as they were shot.

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There was something incredibly satisfying about putting that folder together and ticking things off lists, but it didn't seem to make the photography day any less frenetic - we raced through the shots, barely stopping for lunch. One of the things I hadn't realised beforehand, is that a professional photographer's flash is so bright, that it makes it irrelevant whether it's night or day when you're taking the photo - the flash means the lighting will stay consistent as you move through the day. But even though we could carry on working after the light had gone, we still hadn't quite got them all by the end of the day and when I arrived home in the dark that night in the pouring rain (it was also freezing, as it was January) with my car piled high with ironing board, samples and props, I was so tired that I was more ready to collapse into bed and sleep for a thousand years than unpack the car.


I lost sleep pondering some of the details of this unknown land of photography, such as how I could get a completely flat shot of the finished quilt, which is what anyone making it would want to see. I wanted to get it perfectly flat on a wall with no hanging equipment showing and no wavering edges that would look odd once it was cut out from its surroundings, but couldn't actually remember whether there was anything in Roddy's studio that we could hang it from. But in the end, Roddy's assistant actually managed to take that shot from directly above, with the quilt on the floor, the camera hoisted up on a ceiling-high tripod. Here's a shot of the quilt being photographed in the studio.


And here's the resulting flat shot, as it appeared on the page. One of the many things I learnt during this process - which I think is an inherent part of writing a first book - is that when it comes to it, things are usually always more easily solved than I might have anticipated. I'd assumed that I needed to work out every last detail for myself, but actually, if you're working with someone who is good at their job, they'll often naturally do that for you with very little trouble.

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The non-techniques-based photos needed to be more atmospheric than the clean, easy-to-see techniques shots, and I wanted to find just the right backdrop for them. My father and I met up for long country walks and assessed hills, trees, old sheds, and outbuildings for their backdrop potential. We had a lovely time, but nothing felt quite right.


Finally, I woke in the middle of the night and realised that actually, the place that really would be right had been under my nose all along: my own parents' house. They were happy to open up their home to me and I spent a lot of time moving their furniture around and deconstructing things - I'm grateful that they only ever seemed delighted and amused by this. I didn't grow up in that house (they moved to it when I was about 25), and on the days I spent there, I'd often stop and photograph parts of it and it was only then that I really fell in love with it as a building - there's often a feeling that everyone should be putting down their cameras and seeing things with their own eyes (and in many circumstances, I agree), but for some of us, we only really start to truly see things when we pick up our cameras, and on those days I noticed all sorts of things, not just about the building, but about the way my mum had made their house into a home and arranged the things that she'd brought back from travelling, like these beautiful old keys.


For the main quilt, I wanted to send my publisher lots of different options (in no small part, because I felt totally out of my depth when it came to styling the shots, so I decided that giving them lots of images may mean they'd find something usable in there). One of the shots that I really wanted as an option was the quilt hanging from these rafters - they'd planned to photoshop the hanging spotlights from the photo if it ended up being used.


The image below gives you a sense of the mezzanine room I was standing in when I took this shot, which you'll need to know about in order to understand the story I'm about to tell.


Getting the quilt up onto the roof pole involved standing on a chair, with the half-wall only coming up to calf-height, and reaching up, looking over at the floor below. This was more problematic than it might first seem because of something that had happened nearly fourteen years earlier. One Sunday morning, I'd taken my daughter on a roundabout at the local swing park - I'd always loved rollercoasters, so we were both thrilled for my father to spin us as fast as humanly possible, but after several minutes of violent spinning something odd happened to my sense of balance and I came off green and feeling violently unwell and, ever since, even sitting on a swing with my feet on the ground and moving gently back and forth, sets of the most awful feeling of vertigo and sickness. Bizarrely, it also altered my ability to cope with heights and simple things, like standing on a chair changing a lightbulb, are a challenge unless I keep my head perfectly still (I actually feel nauseous just writing about it).


With this in mind, standing on a chair, barely protected held in place by a low wall, and looking down on the floor below (see the photo above...it's so far down!), while trying to attach an unwieldy pole with a quilt hanging on it to another pole, wasn't my ideal location. So, each time I climbed up onto the chair, I'd have to stand doing breathing exercises or trying to mentally gather myself to regain my sense of balance before I could move. It was a truly terrifying experience and every time I did it, I imagined my parents arriving home to find me having plummeted to my death, ruining the careful progress my father was making on his jigsaw laid out on the covered snooker table below.


For one reason or another, we never actually ended up using the near-death-quilt-in-the-rafters shot, even though it was an image everyone liked, although I did use the same hanging equipment to suspend the quilt from their parents' roof, so it wasn't an entirely fruitless thing. You may be imagining an even greater level of lunacy at the mention of a roof, but the roof over my parents' front porch is actually very low and I was able to reach it just by standing on a chair (which, because of the uneven stone paving slabs did have an alarming wobble, but I at least had a full height wall to flatten myself against for that experience).

My favoured quilt suspension method ended up being a wooden pole in a quilt sleeve, supported by some S hooks that I'd sprayed black to match the metal suspension pole in my parents' room and also the guttering on their roof. I'd also sprayed some enormous silver clamps black, but they were abandoned during earlier quilt-hanging trials.


Whenever my dad was home, he spent hours happily moving furniture or plant pots, or just keeping me company and chatting. After a few false starts because of poor weather, on the third of the photography-with-the-actual-photographer days, which took place at my parents' house, my father was also my right-hand man and helped to stage the photos that we took in the woodland around their house - he was the one who suggested this lovely shot, which features on page 4 - who knew that he'd end up being the stylist I'd originally hoped for!


At one point, we were hanging a quilt over a gatepost and Roddy asked us to turn around, and he then took several impromptu shots of the two of us and sent them on to me afterwards - I'm hugely grateful to have those, as it captures the fun we had together in those days, even though how tired I was at that point shows on my face.

Here are a few of the images that never made it into the book. They have a lot of empty space at the top, so that if they ended up being used as cover shots, there would be a natural place for the title to slot in. This was one of the unexpected things about shooting photos for a book - you need to know beforehand exactly where they might appear in the book to compose them in the right way.



So many shots had little details in them that stopped them from being straightforward. For this one, below, I'd sourced some antique printing press letters but, like most things used for printing, the letters appear as a mirror image, so we spent a while setting up this shot so that it was just right for Roddy to later edit so that in the final photograph the letters are the right way around.


 Above is the original shot and below is how it eventually appeared in my book.


I was really aware that when I sent back my images, my publisher may not actually like them, so planning shots before the photographer came was useful, as I was able to gather their feedback first. I'd really wanted my mum's much-loved rocking horse, Christmas, to be a part of the book - to us, his face is so soft and gentle - but the feedback was that they found him quite creepy. I was mildly devastated by this slight against a family member, but the interesting thing is how differently people see the an image and I was relieved to know in advance, as Christmas would have been one of the main features of the final photoshoot otherwise.


Notwithstanding rocking horses, a book feels like a good place to preserve special things, one of which was a piece of fabric sent to me by a lovely fellow quilter, Judy Newman, after I'd admired it. I loved it so much that I worried I might cut into it and ruin it, so pinning it down forever in the pages of my book, meant even if I did later ruin it, I'd still have it in some way, so I enjoyed working it into this photo that would illustrate the Fabric and Language essay.


Another was a photo of one of our cats, Honey, asleep on my daughter's quilt in her room, as this was such a familiar sight for me - over Honey's lifetime, I took nearly 3000 photos of her, most of them against the backdrop of my daughter's bedding. I was unsure when I submitted this if my publisher would accept it, as it had been snapped on my phone, but I was delighted when it made its way in, and with no visible loss of quality in the finished book. 


There was also a pin cushion that I'd saved from my maternal grandmother's sewing box when we were emptying her house to move her into a nursing home nearby. Its covering was a badly worn dark green velvet, so I re-covered it with something similar and it now appears in the photo beneath the dedication, which makes me feel that my grandmother is in there too (she actually features in the story in the opening paragraph on page 15).


As I mentioned earlier, there's a lot of photography by others featured in the book. A few shots are by professional photographers, such as Julia Hedgecoe and Tommy Hatwell; there are also images from museums and galleries; others from long-admired fellow quilt makers; and some, from my own archives. I asked all the quilt-makers who feature in the Modern EPPers section, to send me high-res photos of their work and was totally delighted by the images that came in, and again, how Pamela arranged them on the page. The image below shows the pages featuring Dittany Matthews' work.


For the illustrations and diagrams in the book, I played around with creating both hand-coloured and computer-generated infills for the shapes, but in the end, an uncluttered solid colour felt like it worked best.


And any samples I created followed a similar colour scheme. 


One of the unexpected challenges of writing a book was computer storage space. My publisher had asked me to shoot any photos I was taking myself in RAW format, so I switched over and shot that way for everything, because I never knew quite when something book-related might pop up in front of me and because it felt like a hassle to switch between the two. The problem with this approach was that every photo I took during that period - including each random image of a sunset, dog, cat or child  was VAST, weighing around 20MB. Add to that the Adobe Illustrator files I was creating for all the diagrams and illustrations, and I had a problem. 

I had a folder on my computer entitled 'Book', which I would regularly save out to our external hard drive, but, anxious that I might accidentally overwrite a file that I needed at some point without noticing, I started to save out new copies of this folder each month, so that by the time I finished eight months later, there were 8 files on the hard drive: Book 1, Book 2, Book 3 etc, each one weighing gigabytes, rather than megabytes. My computer seemed to creak under the weight of just one book-related folder and I regularly had to clear other things off to make space for it. 

Filing has never been my strong point, and a more logical person would have easily found a simple way around all this, but I really just wanted to get on with the fun things, so although the trouble that my monster files created continued to spiral, I could sleep easily, because my files were not just backed up, but hyper backed up! I remembered this today, when we realised that our hard drive was full again - don't worry, I told my husband, I can just delete another one of my book folders and instantly free up 15 gigabytes. It is such a nice feeling to no longer need to worry over those files. 

I think that's it for the photography side of things. I'm planning a post about the sewing at some point, if you might be interested. 


It's now December 17th, and I may not get a chance to post again before Christmas, so I'm going to leave you with a picture of the sleeping bag I recently made for my niece's first birthday (modelled by my daughter's old bear). I can't quite believe it's exactly a year since I wrote this post - but that little baby is now a funny and sweet almost-toddler, and it's now hard to imagine a time when she hasn't always been here. When I gave her this sleeping bag on her birthday, there was too much excitement for her to grasp quite what it was for, but when we Skyped a few days later, she showed me how it worked and then rested her head on the floor next to it to demonstrate her bear sleeping (Skyping with a child is a bit like watching one in a school play - that thing of being able to see them, but for them to be simultaneously unreachable, somehow makes your heart feel like it might explode with all the love that can't be expended in cuddles).  If you're interested in making your own sleeping bag, available in three sizes, you can find the pattern here, along with a blog post about creating bedding for animals with tricky proportions here - they make wonderful gifts! 

Thank you so much for reading along for another year and always rising to the challenge of working your way through an over-long blog post - I'm so grateful for your comments and company. For now, if you celebrate it, I'm wishing you a truly wonderful Christmas and hoping it's a time of all the best things for you. 

With love, 
Florence x

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post - I found your creativity on getting interesting quilt photos inspiring. I'm always on the lookout for great places to hang and drape quilts, within the limits I'm willing to travel, of course!

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  2. That was so interesting to read! I work as a book editor - but not on heavily illustrated books so we usually just source some photographs that go in a few glossy pages in the middle, if anything.

    I'm afraid I agree with the veto of the rocking horse though…

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  3. Thank you so much for this. I've loved reading it, and the amount of thought and planning that went in to your book is so impressive. Well worth it though!

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  4. Wow I have really enjoyed reading your two posts about the book. I had no idea what went into producing something like this. I hope you are justly proud of yourself and what you have achieved! Incidentally, I expect you have tried this but I had a similar problem with my balance and it was sorted by the Epley manoeuvre. There’s quite a lot about it online, and you can do a version of it at home, which is what I have done periodically. Best wishes for Christmas. Rosie

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Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a message - it's always really lovely to hear from people.

I now tend to reply within the comments section, so please do check back if you've asked a question or wish to chat.

Florence x

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