Todd Hido on Books

Putting together a photo book.

Lots of good stuff from photographer Todd Hido in this interview, but he drops some truth on photo books:

A book is an enclosed and encapsulated medium that you can actually come pretty damn close to perfecting. I also tend to think that the book is sometimes more important than the show, as the exhibit is a temporary thing, often hanging for a month or six weeks and then it goes away.

Maybe a couple of thousand people see it?

But a book is something that I always say is on your “permanent record” and it never ever goes away—so you better get it right!

He also highlights the importance of playing around with the physical layout of a photo book:

As far as putting together the books, I spend hundred & hundreds of hours shuffling around my photographs, making dummies, turning pages, and switching them around and all that. To me that is really the only way to do it, to print the pictures out, paste them in a physical blank book dummy, and turn the pages.

For my Artists In Jackson book, I didn’t quite know what the layout was going to look like. So I printed a bunch of horizontal and portrait-shaped squares, taped them to pages, and moved them around to see how the look and flow would go. It was super helpful to see the book take shape, even if only in the abstract.

It also helps to give it to someone you trust, and ask, “What do you think?”

REVIEW: Saul Leiter, ‘Early Black and White’

After some searching and some digging, I finally earned my copy of Saul Leiter’s posthumous new collection, Early Black and White.

It’s the follow up to Steidl’s popular (and delightful) Early Color monograph, which has gone through five editions since 2007. The Black and White series comes in two books, “Interior” and “Exterior.”

Saul Leiter self portrait

You can learn more about Leiter’s biography and style influences from Photo-Eye and Faded+Blurred, but suffice it to say that Leiter’s work, especially his color work, is a recent discovery in the art world. Now we get to see more of his monochromatic work.

The two-book package is nice. The slip cover is a little flimsy, but the books’ paper and quality and top-notch. Often I felt like the photos could’ve been a little larger – some of them scream to be printed 8×10″ on the page. But Early Black and White’s size matches that of Early Color, so at least it’s consistent.

Something I noticed: “Interior” doesn’t necessarily mean just photos that Leiter took indoors. No, “Interior” seems to represent Leiter’s relationships – inside his personal life, with family, friends, and kids. There are photos of relations on the streets, on walks and on rooftops.

Similarly, “Exterior” is outward-looking: strangers, city scenes, classic candid street photography. This is the classic Leiter we’re familiar with from his color work, with reflections, windows, and slanted glances of strangers throughout the book.

There are pieces of both books that I appreciate, but the “Exterior” edition recalls the Leiter that inspires me. There are a lot of photos in “Interior” that seem simple snapshots of friends at parties. I wouldn’t dare argue that these are outside of “art,” but they aren’t as moving. Sometimes they feel like filler.

There are exceptions. In many cases, Leiter makes art of of photos of friends and lovers, as above.

It’s the “Exterior” stuff that shows what Leiter can do, even if it’s not the color stuff that made him famous.

And on that, I will say that, while his monochrome work is delightful, you start to miss Leiter-in-color as you pour through each book. He makes the black and white tones do a lot of work, but they’re not as poetic as those early color photographs.

Leiter’s collection of work still surpasses most street photographers. His way of seeing the world is truly unique, and poetic, and over the course of several books his subject matter becomes truly his. Umbrellas, windows, weather, pedestrians – everyday stuff, illuminated.

Lately, I’ve devoured photography books from the masters, and out of all of those Leiter’s work (and perhaps William Eggleston’s) speaks to me the most.

I hope that these Early books are the just the beginning of the publication of Leiter’s work. The essayists hint that he always had a camera on him. It would be great to see how Leiter, through his camera lens, saw ‘80s, ’90s, and 2000s

A note on purchasing

It’s tough to figure out how to buy this book series. You can’t purchase it directly from Steidl’s website, and the Amazon listing is a series of third-party book sellers.

I found my copy through the Book Depository, a UK outfit, even though it’s perpetually out of stock. The site does offer a nice “email me when it’s in stock” option, though it took me a few tries to hit the “add to cart” button in time.

But the books arrived quickly and at a decent price, and delivery is free. So you may have some luck in finding a copy.

Now that the new Cosmos series is out and in the world, it’s got me thinking about how the original Cosmos book changed my life.

I was too young for the original TV series, so the book is all I had. Later, I purchased the PBS series on VHS, and watched it through, but I did that as an adult – after the book made its impact.

The book was my cornerstone. And Carl Sagan’s voice spoke to me in ways no other author had. It taught me, at a fairly young age, to think big. Like, cosmos big.

Sagan taught me that there’s a number with 100 zeros called a googol. And that a one with a googol zeros after it was a googolplex.

He taught me what the fourth dimension meant in a fundamentally easy-to-understand way.

The book showed me what the surface of Mars looked like. A view from another planet. In a book. And it looked a little bit like home. Amazing.

Through Sagan’s stories, I learned that the ancients were figuring out that the Earth was round, well before Christopher Columbus, and that the stuff of life (not life, but the raw materials) could be made by zapping soup with lightening bolts. How cool is that?

The book was a journey through space and time, and it had a profound affect on me. I went on to read all of Sagan’s books, appreciate his fiction, and watch the original Cosmos series.

The other Sagan book that changed my life was The Demon Haunted World, which was more about myth debunking and critical thinking. I read that one as a freshman in college, and it couldn’t have come at a better time in my life.

Fast forward to now: I’m so grateful that Neil deGrasse Tyson has rebooted the series.

Tyson has all the makings of the “new Sagan.” His famous speech, above, moves me to tears just as well as anything Sagan ever said. His passion for science, and space, and education, and a space program, is infectious. Tyson makes for a good space advocate.

He makes for a good Cosmos host, too.

The final segment of the first episode, with Tyson remembering how he met Carl Sagan, was a tear-jerker. Call me sentimental, but seeing Sagan on the old Cosmos series and interacting with children on TV touched on something very deep for me. This man, who has taught me so much, and served as a sort of guide through the important idea-forming years of my life, was mortal and flawed, and has been dead for almost 20 years. But the impact he made was huge – asteroid-crater huge.

The segment also offered an important point, says Phil Plait:

It humanizes scientists and shows science as a human endeavor. It is the most human of endeavors, in fact. It is our imagination, our urge to explore, our desire to discover, and our unquenchable need to find things out.

We’re made of starstuff, sure. But presenting science as an emotional, human, and spiritual endeavor was one of Carl Sagan’s goals in the Cosmos series and book.

And that’s the idea that changed my life. Science is lofty, yes, but when you bring it down to earth and say what it really means to all of us – that the universe is a big place, and even though we’re tiny we can make meaning out of it all – it makes an impact.

So thanks, Carl. And thanks, Neil. I’m hopeful that you change someone else’s life through this new Cosmos series.

Photo courtesy NASA.