Feedback on Streams of Consciousness Replica book

This post is a place to gather the feedback I receive on my book and reflect on it.

From Facebook:

‘I just received a copy of David Fletcher’s limited-edition photobook on the story of the Irish border. It is extremely well done – concept, photographs and text. Beautifully made.’

@mickyatesUK, Visiting Professor Leeds University Business School.

Not much I can say about this one, other than to say it was completely unsolcited.

‘A very impressive and highly original approach to a carefully researched documentary project. The quality of production for such a unique book is very high. The text draws the reader through the story and I was left feeling that I knew more about the history of the issues with the border than I had before without having the sense that I’d been taught anything. A thoroughly good publication that I shall be pleased to have on my shelves.

Two thoughts to store away in my own reflective journal;

(1) I was left feeling that the photographs were really just illustrations for a text-based narrative.

(2) A related point, I’d have liked a list of the photographic locations and even a map to see where they were. Purely for my own interest and not necessary for the project.’

@drgrahamwilson, Tutor – Psychology & Counselling at University of Oxford 

This feedback is in two halves really. I appreciate the comment about knowing more about the border after reading the book. The text was meant to be absorbed rather than studied. The follow-up thoughts offer a more critical view, which is equally welcome. I am surprised at the idea that the photographs week ‘just illustrations for a text-based narrative.’ This is certainly not a view I have heard from anyone else, but it does raise a point worthy of consideration.

The text was always an important part of the project for me, but I certainly don’t think it stands on its own, which is what would be implied if the photographs were illustrating the text. I consider my text to be what what Barthes would call ‘relay text’ or what Nancy Newhall would call ‘additive captions’- the images and text complement each other, but neither seeks to explain the other. This comment perhaps represents the view that images should speak for themselves, and that text is somehow a transgression of the documentary ideal.

The use of text in parallel with images is an area of my practice which I want to develop further. Allan Sekula and Duane Michals are references which I return to, although I think that the handwritten texts used by Michals need to be used with caution.

A map of locations has been a feature of various books which include a series of geographical features or a journey and it is something which I considered at an early stage of development of the work. Indeed the first work I produced from my trip to the border included details Google maps showing the location of each photograph. Stuart Franklin suggested a map when he looked at the work. In the end I decided that the location of the photographs was not relevant – the streams represent the nature of the border rather than any specific part of it..

Book promotion

The idea of producing an affordable version of my book Streams of Consciousness is to reach a wider audience than is currently possible with my artist’s book. To achieve this I do need to sell it of course. The way I have chosen to promote the book is via social media, namely Facebook and Instagram.

I have watched the way photographers promote their publications on Facebook and Instagram, and the usual approach is a series of ‘teasers’ – short posts with an image from the work and some background about the work and the title and proposed publication date. Many of these publications are funded via Kickstarter, but that is because they have significant up-front costs due to commercial printing and distribution. My approach was different – print the book myself and keep the costs as low as possible. Effectively I could operate a print-on demand service but without the high costs of one-off printing. I could group the orders received, printing the books and then take them to my local bookbinder in batches. So I used the build-up approach but without asking for any financial commitment in advance.

Before this project my Instagram presence was minimal. I made few posts and followed few people, so inevitably I had few followers. So I did some reading on building up followers and then adapted what I read to my own needs. I wanted to avoid simply following huge numbers of people and then hoping they would follow me back. Followers acquired in this way would be unlikely to buy my book I think. So I spent time following up all connections I have made through photography, including : OCA; photographers and photography professionals I have worked with through Photo Meet; the RPS; and my local camera club.

The rough rule I made for myself was that I would only follow people who showed some serious interest in photography. These people would be more likely to buy my book I thought. Once I had followed someone it was important of course to show some interest in their work. Again, I didn’t want to apply blanket ‘likes’ to everything, but if I did not demonstrate some engagement I could hardly expect them to show an interest in my work. I also need to share interesting work of my own. There was a process of trial and error in posting and assessing the response. I also need to build a series of posts which showed some coherence and provided context. Then I could begin to publicise my Streams of Consciousness work and my forthcoming book.

Over a period of a few weeks I increased my followers from around 40 to over 140. Still not a huge number, but a significant percentage increase, and still increasing.

On Facebook I followed a similar approach, but this platform lends itself to including more text, allowing more contextualisation of the work. So it was here I chose to launch the book. There is of course an overlap between my Facebook ‘friends’ and my Instagram followers, so I followed up with launch info on Instagram and cross-referred.

I announced the book as a replica of my linen artist’s book, with a video of leafing through the book on Facebook. It is in a signed edition of 100, and I sold 13 copies on the first day.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/davidfletcherphoto/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/davidfletcherphoto/

Alternative book publication idea

One of the things which has been bugging me is how to get an audience for my linen book. Although I have been able to produce a lower cost version of the book, my original idea of placing copies in tourist office along the Irish border is now a non-starter due to Covid-19 restrictions.

I am trying to think of something other than just an online presentation of the book via video. Apart from the impossibility of representing the haptic qualities of the book, everything seems to be online at the moment. There is a risk of online presentation fatigue I think, and with so much work online it would be difficult to get noticed.

One thought I had was to make a zine. This has the advantage of being a physical object but, unlike a book, it could be produced cheaply enough to selll cheaply or even give away. The downside of course is the quality of reproduction of the photographs. I have been wedded to the idea of reproduction of the photographs on linen because it is part of the concept: the linen industry serves as a metaphor for British colonial domination of Ireland. But printing on linen is expensive and the books have to be hand-made.

I was talking to my bookbinder when I picked up my linen book, and asking her about possibilities and what kind of bindings she could do. We talked about perfect binding, and I was surprised how cheap it was in reasonable quantities – say 100 books. This gave me an idea. If I was to print the photographs myself I could achieve a better quality compared to a zine. The the text pages I could print myself because I was already doing that for my linen book.

I went through an exercise of sourcing low-cost paper for a book – photo paper, translucent vellum and plain paper. For the photo paper I chose matte as it would produce the highest level of detail – my images are high resolution for printing large, so if I print them small I want to take advantage of the level of detail present. Size-wise, I decided on A4 because this is a standard size, likely to be fairly low cost because it is produced in high volumes. This would also be a practical size book for posting while allowing reasonably large images to be included.

This concept still left out the factor of printing on linen. How could I include this metaphorical aspect in the book? I hit upon the idea of positioning the A4 book as a replica of the linen book. This has three advantages: a) it allows me to refer to the linen book and therefore include the introductory text about the linen industry which much have seemed superfluous otherwise; b) it allows me to point out that the original book was printed in Ireland on Irish linen – again maintaining the metaphor; and c) by referring to the existence of the linen book it provides publicity for that book.

For the cover I managed to source a card with a linen finish, so that there would at least be a. nod to the haptic qualities of the original book.

The result is that I have been able to produce a low-cost version of my book which retains the metaphorical references of the original and has a high quality of reproduction.

Fig.1 Replica book
Fig. 2 Interior of replica book showing text overlay and photograph

Linen book V2

At the end of the Body of Work course, I rather rushed into creating a book from my linen prints. As it happened, that was fortunate because when the lockdown arrived in March I was just able to collect my book from Bristol Bound before travel restrictions would have made it impossible.

I say that I rushed into it because I more or less just created pages like the ones I had made for Body of Work and had them bound into a book by Bristol Bound. I did spend some time working out how to make the linen pages but I did not give the book as a whole much thought – it was little more than a collection of pages. I concentrated my efforts on the technical aspects of the book – linen printing, page construction and binding. At the time, I was still envisaging an exhibition as the final outcome of this course, so the book was more of a means to an end.

As it has become clear that an exhibition was not going to be possible, I have gone back to the idea of the book, which will now be the main resolution of my body of work. The original book was an important proof of concept – although Bristol Bound make many specialist books, including photography books, they had never made one with linen pages. Now that I know it is possible, I can give some more thought to the design and take into account feedback I received on the work.

One of the main comments I took away from portfolio reviews and then showing the work to people as it progressed into a book was the amount of text. Some people could see the point of the text as a kind of reference – you could skim through the text at first reading and then return to read it in more detail later. Others, notably Martin Parr, thought there was too much text. Martin felt it would be better with just one headline per page.

The text has always been an integral part of the work to me. The challenge I gave myself was to put across the significance of the Irish Border now that there is so little visual evidence of it. I had in mind Sekula’s view that a photograph always requires cultural connections in order to be understood. Sekula writes of a ‘hidden’ or ‘implicit’ text, but for my purposes I need to make the text explicit.

In researching newspaper articles through the history of the border I tried to capture the mixture of politics, tragedy and humour in everyday life on the border. A single headline per photo would just not work for me. So the challenge was to retain enough text to tell the story but t integrate it better with the photographs.

I had the idea of printing the text on translucent overlays, so that the image would be visible through the text – in a literal as well as a metaphorical way. I sourced several different kinds of paper to experiment with printing on them and assessing the degree of transparency and the feel of the pages. I was pleased with the results, so I continued to experiment with editing the text and trying different layouts. Hopefully this will lead to a better version of the book.

Having established that I can use a translucent material for my text overlays, the next stage was to design the pages. As I have shared the work with various people through portfolio reviews, one aspect which I have kept under revision was the amount of text. Resisting some views that that I should have only one piece of text per page, I have nevertheless reduced the amount of text from my original design.

One of my concerns has been the way that the text breaks up the visual flow of the book. Now that I have come up with the idea of translucent overlays, I feel that the text is more integrated – it floats above the images rather than being completely separate.

I now need to consider an additional aspect of the text layout – the image is visible behind it. Rather than stick to a kind of scrapbook aesthetic, which is where I started, I could make the text follow the form of the stream in the image behind the text.

Figure 1 Text overlay from book with image behind