books

the nearest faraway place

Horizon, West Kirby, WirralMy contribution to the project – low tide, West Kirby, on the Wirral Peninsula

Ages ago – years ago, now – when I was just finishing studying with Open College of the Arts, some students on the Flickr forum got together and designed a collaborative project.  It was called The Nearest Faraway Place, and each of us who wanted to take part had to supply a 6 x 4 print that interpreted the title any way we wanted.

The book took a concertina form which made it easy for each person to add their bit onto the end of it, and it travelled round the world to one student at a time so that they could personally attach their contribution.  Each person also saved the stamps from the parcel it arrived in and added them to the metal box in which the book travelled. The idea was that these would become part of a collage that made up the book’s cover.

I remember the day it came to me in the post.  It was incredibly exciting to be holding something that had travelled so far, and had been put together by many people whom I knew online but had never actually met.  There was something very special about holding the book and knowing that these people had also held it in their hands.  This is how it looked when I got it:

OCA book, on arrival

The book made its way round a large chunk of the world – USA, China, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Russia, Tanzania, Japan, Switzerland, Greece, Ireland, and more – eventually ending up in the UK.  There were one or two hairy moments when it seemed to have got lost in the post – with one notably long and anxious wait when it was making its way from South Africa to the UK – but it always turned up eventually.

I think it took about two years in the end for everyone to get their chance to contribute, but a few months ago the book finally made it to the last person on the list.  This person is Yiann, who had volunteered to tidy the book up, make a cover for it, and generally put it into its final physical form.  On one of my increasingly rare visits to Flickr, I discovered that she’s now done just that and, even better, made a video of the finished thing.  She’s done a brilliant job with it, as you can see in the video below:

 

‘Picture this’ – how the elements of a picture work

Since I’m going to be quite busy developing some new products/services/ideas over the next few weeks, I thought it would be good to re-post some older posts.  This one was something I got quite caught up in when I wrote it, and I thought it was worth resurrecting.  If you find it at all interesting, I’d recommend getting hold of a copy of Molly Bang’s book, Picture This: How Pictures Work, as it’s one of the best books I’ve ever come across for showing clearly how the elements of a picture work together to create an emotional charge.

I picked up a fascinating little book in a second-hand shop recently. It’s called Picture This: How Pictures Work and it’s by Molly Bang.  Molly is a writer and illustrator of children’s books, but one day she realised she didn’t have any great understanding of what makes a picture work.  She decided to experiment using simple geometric shapes cut out of craft paper, to see how these could be used to evoke emotion through their arrangement and colour.

She was working with young children at the time and she did an exercise with them where she cut paper in four different colours – red, black, pale purple, and white – into shapes to create an illustration for Litte Red Riding Hood.  She got the children to give her directions about what made the picture more or less scary – the kids weren’t too enthusiastic (they wanted to make pictures that looked real) but as she went on to try this exercise with a range of children of all ages and with adults too, she found that there were fundamental principles of design that gave an emotional charge to certain arrangements of shapes on the page.  In this book she takes us through the process of decision-making that leads to the most effective illustration of the Red Riding Hood story and then pulls out the principles at work behind them.

So, for instance, she starts with trees like these one, made out of triangles (the slight shading to the right of all of these images is a result of the scanning process):

but then changes them to this (Little Red Riding Hood is represented by the red triangle):

Using tall rectangles that disappear off the edge of the page makes us feel that the trees are very tall and overbearing, giving a better sense of being in a threatening space.  Placing some rectangles higher in the frame and making them narrower gives a feeling of depth to the image as the trees appear to recede.  But upright trees are too static and reliable, which is at odds with the tension of the story, so to increase the feeling of tension she introduces some trees that lean and look as if they could fall on Red Riding Hood.  Placing her inside the triangle formed by two trees also makes it look as if she’s trapped, even though we know rationally that she is situated further into the distance than this.  She’s also been made smaller, to increase the sense of her vulnerability.

The book continues in this vein but this should be enough to give you the idea. Although the basic principles are all things we intuitively feel, it’s less usual for us to have a conscious understanding of why we feel as we do.  I can see that having an awareness of these principles could be very useful in photography, perhaps a little less so for spontaneous shots, but definitely so for those that are planned ahead.  It also offers a way of assessing photos we’ve already taken, to understand why they work or don’t work. It’s a very thin and deceptively simple book that actually delivers rather a lot.

The final, finished image, with the wolf in it, looks like this:

The key elements here are the trees as described before, the largeness of the wolf in relation to the smallness of Red Riding Hood, the red eye, the lolling red tongue, the sharp white pointed teeth, and the lilac background that gives the feeling of it being night, or at least ominously dark.

I thought it would be interesting to look on Amazon to see what existing book covers are like, and to see if they use similar means to get an effective illustration.  I found the books fell roughly into two camps – the modern versions, mainly designed for very young children, had played down the scariness of the story, sometimes to a ridiculous extent.  The wolf in the illustration below looks more like a big friendly dog than anything Red Riding Hood would want to run from:

Of course, this book is aimed at really young children who could end up having nightmares if things got too frightening.  There are lots of variations available on the basic story, some of them telling it from the wolf’s perspective, some turning it into something funny, and some that are adult stories based on the original.  You’d expect the covers to be quite different for each of  these, and they are.  Despite the fact that we consider fairy tales to be for young children, the original stories were often grisly and frightening.  It’s been argued – by Bruno Bettelheim for one – that fairy stories help the child make sense of the world and cope with its own fears and baffling emotions, and that they have to deal with frightening and confusing scenarios to do this.  Modern versions frequently take a Disney-esque approach that changes them into something they were never meant to be and removes a lot of their power.

However, some of the covers, even though still aimed at children, stay more true to the original intent of the fairy tale, and go for a scary, threatening feeling even where some ‘cuteness’ is still in evidence.  In these covers we can see quite a number of the features of Molly Bang’s geometric shape image.  This one has the trees disappearing off the top edge of the frame, some trees that lean, and the wolf hiding behind the trees, but I think it loses effectiveness because the wolf is quite small relative to the girl and actually not very noticeable.

Here’s another cover that contains a lot of the elements in Molly Bang’s image, but the wolf looks a tad too friendly to be really threatening, and Red Riding Hood doesn’t look particularly alarmed or concerned either.  It looks more like a happy game of hide and seek than a scary story.

In both the above images, however, Red Riding Hood is facing the viewer. If we were to see her from the back, it would give a much greater feeling of threat – as if we’re sneaking up behind her, like the wolf is.  Molly Bang uses a red triangle to denote Red Riding Hood so we don’t know for sure which way round she is, but for some reason I assumed we were seeing her from the back.  Despite trawling through pages of book thumbnails, I could only find one cover that shows her from behind and it belongs to a book that tells the story from the wolf’s point of view.  The wolf in this version is a decent sort, but imagine this cover if he had a hungry and predatory expression on his face.

Of the traditional versions of the story, I managed to find a couple that take a side-on view. This is one of them, and the change of viewpoint plus the fact that the wolf is made significantly bigger, delivers geater impact in terms of scariness than the ones where Red Riding Hood faces us.  However, the colours are very gentle and pretty, and the trees rather manicured and orderly, and this works to tone down the frightening aspects of the story.

The next one omits the setting of the woods, but is probably one of the scariest images on offer. Many of the wolf’s features – open jaws, sharp white teeth – are similar to those used in Molly Bang’s image.  The dominance of the colour red also imparts a feeling of danger, with its associations of blood, and the positioning of the wolf above the girl also helps.

One of the covers I like best, and find most effective, takes quite a different approach. In the following cover, all we have is an area of scribbled red, with a tiny Red Riding Hood running towards the corner edge of the image.  I tend to like simplicity, so perhaps that’s why this appeals so much, but that scribble of red says a lot about danger to me, hanging over Red Riding Hood like a threatening storm cloud, with her tiny figure running for safety.

Finally, this image forms the cover of an adult take on the original fairy story. Again we have the tall trees disappearing off the top of the frame, with some leaning in threateningly towards Red Riding Hood.  No wolf in this one, but look at the spiky branches sticking out from the trees – don’t they remind you of sharp teeth?

I got a lot more swept up in these comparisons than I thought I would, and it struck me what a good way it is of figuring out what works and what doesn’t in an image, and why.  You could take any book of which there are a number of versions or editions and do something similar.  I think there’s a lot to be learned from this that could be incorporated into our photographs.  It was fascinating to see the same elements occurring again and again, but also to find covers like the red scribble one above that are quite different in concept.  I wonder how minimalist you could get with this – what’s the least amount of information needed to get the emotion and, to a lesser extent the storyline, across?

 

Alain de Botton – art as hope

It’s desperately frustrating when you’ve been trying to express something for a long time but have never quite managed to find the words that will pin down the thought or feeling.  Then one day, with a surge of relief, you read something that someone else has written and they’ve said exactly what you would have said could you have brought those words into consciousness.  I subscribe to Brain Pickings – something I can whole-heartedly recommend if you want in-depth reviews of extremely interesting books – and one of their latest posts covers Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s book:  ‘Art as Therapy’.

I haven’t read the book yet, only the review (although I aim to rectify that as soon as I can), so I’ve drawn heavily on Brain Pickings’ account of it.  In the book De Botton and Armstrong propose seven core psychological functions of art, one of which they term ‘hope’.  I’ve long had a problem, which I keep coming back to, concerning the conflict between beauty or prettiness in art, and depth.  The two seem at odds with each other and art critics are frequently derogatory and dismissive of anything that might be regarded as primarily beautiful or pretty, seeing such things as ‘a failure of taste and intelligence’.  I’ve wanted to argue against this view many times, for it seems to me that art that gives pleasure must have something of worth about it and for the first time I’m seeing an account of this dilemma that makes sense.  This is the basic problem:

The love of prettiness is often deemed a low, even a “bad” response, but because it is so dominant and widespread it deserves attention, and may hold important clues about a key function of art. … The worries about prettiness are twofold. Firstly, pretty pictures are alleged to feed sentimentality. Sentimentality is a symptom of insufficient engagement with complexity, by which one really means problems. The pretty picture seems to suggest that in order to make life nice, one merely has to brighten up the apartment with a depiction of some flowers. If we were to ask the picture what is wrong with the world, it might be taken as saying ‘you don’t have enough Japanese water gardens’ — a response that appears to ignore all the more urgent problems that confront humanity. . . . . The very innocence and simplicity of the picture seems to militate against any attempt to improve life as a whole. Secondly, there is the related fear that prettiness will numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices surrounding us.

De Botton and Armstrong go on to point out that neuroscientific research indicates that optimism makes both us and the world better:

If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success. This flies in the face of the elite view that talent is the primary requirement of a good life, but in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. We might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope.

The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1909The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1909

The authors then refer to Matisse’s Dance (iii), 1909, saying that the dancers in the Matisse painting are able to put us in touch with a part of ourselves – a carefree, happy part of ourselves – that better equips us to cope with life’s problems.  Nevertheless, while looking at the painting helps us to access the happier, more optimistic parts of our psyche this should not be seen as a denial of the cares and troubles that beset ourselves and our world.

We should be able to enjoy an ideal image without regarding it as a false picture of how things usually are. A beautiful, though partial, vision can be all the more precious to us because we are so aware of how rarely life satisfies our desires.

This resonates very strongly with me. I’ve often had people say to me things such as ‘get real’ or ‘welcome to the real world’, as if the only reality we have is the bad stuff.  Reality  is a mixture of good and bad, of hope and despair, of joy and grief, of kindness and cruelty and I’ve had my share of all of them.  All these things are equally real, and dancers engaged in a carefree dance are no less real than people being starved, killed or tortured.  While art plays an important function in drawing attention to inequalities, catastrophes and inhumanities, surely we shouldn’t be restricting the function of ‘serious’ art to this one thing?

As things stand we’re bombarded from every side with depressing, troubling images. It’s important to know what’s happening in the world, but there’s plenty of research to show that an excess of these words and images are actually harmful to us both physiologically and psychologically.  The more time we spend looking at such images, the more our immune system is prone to damage and our psyche to depression and pessimism.

This isn’t a selfish exhortation to ignore the fate of others in order to keep ourselves OK – happy, healthy people are  in a much better position to help others than depressed, sick people, and are actually more likely to do so.  Like the safety instructions in the plane to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else, we can only help others effectively when we’re not struggling ourselves.  Art that can help us access the positive, optimistic and untroubled parts of our selves, can also set us up to be strong enough to tackle both our own and the world’s problems more effectively.

When it comes to the depiction of the positive in art, the trap lies – as De Botton and Armstrong say – in the tendency to lapse into a shallow sentimentality that lacks complexity and therefore depth.  This often does happen, but I don’t think it always has to.  Good, uplifting art has the potential to act as a counter-balance to an overdose of all that’s bad in the world, and to help us to transcend it.  This needn’t be its only function, but rather one of many equally valuable ones, and art that falls into this category deserves a lot more respect and validation than it gets these days.

I find it significant that De Botton and Armstrong have chosen as an example a painting that’s more than a century old – in this Post-Modernist age, uplifting art is hard to find.  It’s never been my view that art shouldn’t deal with misery and trouble – I think art should deal with everything that’s part of life – but it seems to me that we’ve concentrated on the angst at the expense of the joy and that that is harmful to us both personally and culturally.  The zeitgeist encourages us to act ‘cool’ – cynicism, irony and pessimism are applauded, while sincerity, authenticity and optimism are sneered at and derided, and that’s reflected in the art we have today.  De Botton and Armstrong, of course, are not writing for the rarefied world of the art critics, but for the layperson who’d like a better understanding of what meaning art might have for them.

 

 

How pictures work

I picked up a fascinating little book in a second-hand shop recently. It’s called Picture This: How Pictures Work and it’s by Molly Bang.  Molly is a writer and illustrator of children’s books, but one day she realised she didn’t have any great understanding of what makes a picture work.  She decided to experiment using simple geometric shapes cut out of craft paper, to see how these could be used to evoke emotion through their arrangement and colour.

She was working with young children at the time and she did an exercise with them where she cut paper in four different colours – red, black, pale purple, and white – into shapes to create an illustration for Litte Red Riding Hood.  She got the children to give her directions about what made the picture more or less scary – the kids weren’t too enthusiastic (they wanted to make pictures that looked real) but as she went on to try this exercise with a range of children of all ages and with adults too, she found that there were fundamental principles of design that gave an emotional charge to certain arrangements of shapes on the page.  In this book she takes us through the process of decision-making that leads to the most effective illustration of the Red Riding Hood story and then pulls out the principles at work behind them.

So, for instance, she starts with trees like these one, made out of triangles (the slight shading to the right of all of these images is a result of the scanning process):

but then changes them to this (Little Red Riding Hood is represented by the red triangle):

Using tall rectangles that disappear off the edge of the page makes us feel that the trees are very tall and overbearing, giving a better sense of being in a threatening space.  Placing some rectangles higher in the frame and making them narrower gives a feeling of depth to the image as the trees appear to recede.  But upright trees are too static and reliable, which is at odds with the tension of the story, so to increase the feeling of tension she introduces some trees that lean and look as if they could fall on Red Riding Hood.  Placing her inside the triangle formed by two trees also makes it look as if she’s trapped, even though we know rationally that she is situated further into the distance than this.  She’s also been made smaller, to increase the sense of her vulnerability.

The book continues in this vein but this should be enough to give you the idea. Although the basic principles are all things we intuitively feel, it’s less usual for us to have a conscious understanding of why we feel as we do.  I can see that having an awareness of these principles could be very useful in photography, perhaps a little less so for spontaneous shots, but definitely so for those that are planned ahead.  It also offers a way of assessing photos we’ve already taken, to understand why they work or don’t work. It’s a very thin and deceptively simple book that actually delivers rather a lot.

The final, finished image, with the wolf in it, looks like this:

The key elements here are the trees as described before, the largeness of the wolf in relation to the smallness of Red Riding Hood, the red eyes, the lolling red tongue, the sharp white pointed teeth, and the lilac background that gives the feeling of it being night, or at least ominously dark.

I thought it would be interesting to look on Amazon to see what existing book covers are like, and to see if they use similar means to get an effective illustration.  I found the books fell roughly into two camps – the modern versions, mainly designed for very young children, had played down the scariness of the story, sometimes to a ridiculous extent.  The wolf in the illustration below looks more like a big friendly dog than anything Red Riding Hood would want to run from:

Of course, this book is aimed at really young children who could end up having nightmares if things got too frightening.  There are lots of variations available on the basic story, some of them telling it from the wolf’s perspective, some turning it into something funny, and some that are adult stories based on the original.  You’d expect the covers to be quite different for each of  these, and they are.  Despite the fact that we consider fairy tales to be for young children, the original stories were often grisly and frightening.  It’s been argued – by Bruno Bettelheim for one – that fairy stories help the child make sense of the world and cope with its own fears and baffling emotions, and that they have to deal with frightening and confusing scenarios to do this.  Modern versions frequently take a Disney-esque approach that changes them into something they were never meant to be and removes a lot of their power.

However, some of the covers, even though still aimed at children, stay more true to the original intent of the fairy tale, and go for a scary, threatening feeling even where some ‘cuteness’ is still in evidence.  In these covers we can see quite a number of the features of Molly Bang’s geometric shape image.  This one has the trees disappearing off the top edge of the frame, some trees that lean, and the wolf hiding behind the trees, but I think it loses effectiveness because the wolf is quite small relative to the girl and actually not very noticeable.

Here’s another cover that contains a lot of the elements in Molly Bang’s image, but the wolf looks a tad too friendly to be really threatening, and Red Riding Hood doesn’t look particularly alarmed or concerned either.  It looks more like a happy game of hide and seek than a scary story.

In both the above images, however, Red Riding Hood is facing the viewer. If we were to see her from the back, it would give a much greater feeling of threat – as if we’re sneaking up behind her, like the wolf is.  Molly Bang uses a red triangle to denote Red Riding Hood so we don’t know for sure which way round she is, but for some reason I assumed we were seeing her from the back.  Despite trawling through pages of book thumbnails, I could only find one cover that shows her from behind and it belongs to a book that tells the story from the wolf’s point of view.  The wolf in this version is a decent sort, but imagine this cover if he had a hungry and predatory expression on his face.

Of the traditional versions of the story, I managed to find a couple that take a side-on view. This is one of them, and the change of viewpoint plus the fact that the wolf is made significantly bigger, delivers geater impact in terms of scariness than the ones where Red Riding Hood faces us.  However, the colours are very gentle and pretty, and the trees rather manicured and orderly, and this works to tone down the frightening aspects of the story.

The next one omits the setting of the woods, but is probably one of the scariest images on offer. Many of the wolf’s features – open jaws, sharp white teeth – are similar to those used in Molly Bang’s image.  The dominance of the colour red also imparts a feeling of danger, with its associations of blood, and the positioning of the wolf above the girl also helps.

One of the covers I like best, and find most effective, takes quite a different approach. In the following cover, all we have is an area of scribbled red, with a tiny Red Riding Hood running towards the corner edge of the image.  I tend to like simplicity, so perhaps that’s why this appeals so much, but that scribble of red says a lot about danger to me, hanging over Red Riding Hood like a threatening storm cloud, with her tiny figure running for safety.

Finally, this image forms the cover of an adult take on the original fairy story. Again we have the tall trees disappearing off the top of the frame, with some leaning in threateningly towards Red Riding Hood.  No wolf in this one, but look at the spiky branches sticking out from the trees – don’t they remind you of sharp teeth?

I got a lot more swept up in these comparisons than I thought I would, and it struck me what a good way it is of figuring out what works and what doesn’t in an image, and why.  You could take any book of which there are a number of versions or editions and do something similar.  I think there’s a lot to be learned from this that could be incorporated into our photographs.  It was fascinating to see the same elements occurring again and again, but also to find covers like the red scribble one above that are quite different in concept.  I wonder how minimalist you could get with this – what’s the least amount of information needed to get the emotion and, to a lesser extent the storyline, across?

 

The Geography of Bliss, creativity, and Iceland

Seljalandsfoss

I’ve just been reading The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. It’s about which countries are happiest – and unhappiest – and why that is. Surprisingly – to me, at any rate – one of the happiest countries in the world is Iceland, which is up near the top of the league table in these things, despite spending half the year in almost total darkness.

When I visited there several years ago, they certainly seemed like happy people. We took an unauthorised trip into the interior – unauthorised because our hire car wasn’t insured to go there. The ‘road’ was literally made up of rubble and you could only drive at 5mph if you didn’t want to be shaken up like a James Bond cocktail. That was the good bit. Once you left the main road, all bets were off and you could end up having to drive through small rivers and other less pleasant natural hazards. Every so often we’d see a coach juddering along the roads, looking totally unexpected and out of place. At one point we saw one stuck in the mud; a party of schoolchildren were at the back of the coach, pushing it, and we had to stop while they got on with it. One of the accompanying teachers came over to our car and told us, mischief in her eyes, that the coach wasn’t really stuck at all and that they were just teasing the children. She laughed enthusiastically at this very good joke and waved goodbye. Well you wouldn’t get that happening in the UK, would you? Heavens, just think of the health and safety issues.

So it’s always seemed to me that the Icelanders are quite a jolly lot. But why? Well, Weiner has some theories on this and a lot of them revolve around the Icelandic culture. For a start, Icelanders love their language – they just love it to bits. They love it like the French love theirs, but without getting all precious about it as the French are wont to do. Weiner says ‘everything wise and wonderful about this quirky little nation flows from its language’ and to the Icelanders their language is a great source of joy. Any time there’s a new invention, they don’t import the foreign word for it but find a way of expressing it in their own Viking tongue. So a television is a ‘sight caster’ and an intercontinental ballistic missile is called a ‘long distance fiery flying thing’. But one of the best things about the language is that instead of saying ‘hello’ they say the equivalent of ‘come happy’ and when they say goodbye they say ‘go happy’. That might be enough on its own to explain a few things.

Anyway, I’m taking a long time getting round to the most interesting bit, which is that Iceland is one of the most creative places you’re ever likely to come across. Everyone writes, for a start – everyone – and there’s a real creative vibe throughout the island that extends to all the arts. Weiner asked a native why he thought the place was so seething with creativity compared to most other places on the planet, and it seems we could learn something useful from the answers. The first is that, in Iceland, people don’t suffer from creative envy. They don’t try to keep their discoveries and innovations to themselves but share freely with each other, so that each can build on what the others have discovered. In other words, instead of competing they share, and this is a very different attitude from most other places. This was also true of turn-of-the-century Paris, says Weiner, which was another hotbed of immense creativity. In a different context this attitude is often found on the web, where open-source software is produced by people collaborating and working together and has led to some extremely creative programmes being produced. There are also amazing sites like Wikipedia, which is a project that relies on free sharing of knowledge. Unfortunately it doesn’t work this way in most cultures and people are more likely to defend their own little patch against anyone who might want to ‘steal’ it from them.

So that’s one thing; what else? Well, they admire failure. More specifically, what’s admired is trying and getting out there and having a go even if you’re not much good. If you’re an Icelandic teenager, you can expect your parents to be supportive when you want to start a garage band. Everyone is encouraged to do whatever they want to do and not criticised if it doesn’t quite work out. “There’s nobody on the island telling them they’re not good enough, so they just go ahead and sing and paint and write”, says Weiner. Of course, he admits, they produce a lot of crap, but as he also says:

“….crap plays an important role in the art world. In fact, it plays exactly the same role as it does in the farming world. It’s fertiliser. The crap allows the good stuff to grow. You can’t have one without the other. Now, to be sure, you don’t want to see crap framed at an art gallery, any more than you want to see a pound of fertiliser sitting in the produce section of your local grocery store. But still, crap is important.”

In most other cultures you’re discouraged from doing anything creative unless you show signs of talent right from the start, and you’re certainly not encouraged to keep doing it if you’re no good at it. So we end up with a culture where people are more likely to listen to music than play an instrument or sing, or to look at and criticise art rather than pick up a brush and paint. We’ve become a nation where most people are observers and consumers of creative end products, rather than creators themselves and therefore miss out on the joy that comes from expressing themselves through the arts.

People in Iceland love doing creative things – and who wouldn’t if they were constantly encouraged, weren’t worried about being criticised, and there was an ethos of sharing and supporting each other? Iceland puts to rest once and for all the myth of the unhappy, struggling artist and replaces it with one in which everyone can be creative and have a high old time. It’s beginning to sound quite enticing, isn’t it?  Add in a few other things, like a community small enough to establish strong connections but big enough to be interesting; swimming in naturally heated, geothermal pools with the snow softly falling around you; geysirs, bubbling mud, and some of the most gobsmacking waterfalls you’ve ever seen; and the Icelandic tolerance for different ideas and philosophies, and I’m rather tempted to go and book my plane ticket right now………I’m just not sure I could ever cope with six months of darkness.

Steaming river, Hveragerdi

Steaming geothermal river, Hveragerdi

Making books

Geoff's birthday book

I love books; I’ve always loved books, with a passion. I read all the time and can easily get through a book in a day (and do other things as well).  But as much as I love the content of books, what I like equally much is their physicality – I love the weight of them in my hand, the lovely squared-off heft of them.  I love the way they smell: every book smells different and each one is enticing in its own way.  I love the feel of the pages, whether they’re tissue-thin or thick as card; matt, or smooth and glossy.  I love shiny new books, for their perfect edges and untouched quality, and I love old, tattered books, for their faded covers and soft, much-handled, pages. (Kindle, eat your heart out)

So perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve had a yearning to make my own books for some time now.  Eventually I’d like to combine my photography projects with hand-made books so that I could create  beautiful, individual works of art with each element enhancing the other.

That’s for the future, and you’ve got to start somewhere. I haven’t made it to a book-binding class yet but I have made my first ever book.  I know it’s not perfect, and it doesn’t have any of my photos in it, but I made it and I’m proud of it.

The backstory is this: it was Geoff’s 50th birthday in March and I wanted to do something special for him. I didn’t have much money so it had to be something that was meaningful but didn’t cost much.  So I came up with the idea of making a small book called ’50 Things I Love About You’ – one for every year of his life.  I themed it around rabbits because he adores rabbits.  I had a lot of fun putting it together, although it was more time-consuming and challenging than I thought it would be.

I made the pages out of cream luggage labels from Paperchase, and each page was decorated with pieces of rabbit confetti (found on ebay), painstakingly glued on, one by one.  I managed to find a phone charm in the shape of a rabbit, and then I found a key with a little tag with ‘My heart’ on it on a card-making site.  The other components were things I either had lying around the house or found in a card-making supply shop.  And on every page, I wrote one, two or three things that I love about him.  (The first 30 or so were easy; the next ten were more difficult; and by the time I got into the 40s I was having to think very hard indeed – and wishing he was a lot younger.)

It didn’t work out quite as I had hoped. The luggage labels seemed like a good idea at the time, but they had metal eyelets in the holes and when they were piled up together they became much thicker at one end than I’d anticipated, and that required a complete rethink about how I was going to hold everything together.  There were other problems too, but I got it to work well enough in the end.

Rabbit and key charms

Rabbit confetti on pages

Back cover

That all happened back in March so why am I bringing it up now? Well today I got delivery of the most gorgeous book called ‘Book + Art: handcrafting artist’s books’.  It’s full of stunning and inspiring artist’s books, plus just enough of the practical how-to stuff on binding to be useful without being boring.  (Rather appropriately,I bought it using an Amazon voucher I was given for my own birthday.)  I’ve only flipped through it so far, but it’s fired me up already and I’ve realised this is something I so want to do.  Combining my love of photography and my love of books just has to be the way to go.

And, oh yes, in case you’re itching to know: did he like it? Well, I did have to pass the tissues so I think the answer’s ‘yes’.