Sarah C. Butler’s Unexpected Path to Publishing Her Photo Book
February 3, 2017
“Contemplation.” Sarah C. Butler began making photos as a way to keep an emotional distance from her mother during visits.
“Stairway,” from Butler’s book about her mother’s life on a dilapidated Maine farm.
In 2009, photographer Sarah C. Butler published her first book, Portrait of a Maine Island, with New York-based Glitterati Incorporated. That same year, she started photographing her aging mother as a form of emotional diversion, never imagining the work would turn into a book. But she ran into Glitterati founder Marta Hallett in 2014 at the Lucie Awards, where Hallett was in attendance to collect Publisher of the Year honors.
“Marta asked what I was working on, and if she could take a look,” Butler recalls. “I brought some images by her office, and she said, ‘We want to publish this.’” Butler told Hallett she wasn’t interested in finding a sponsor to help defray publishing costs, as she’d been required to do for her first book. “Marta said, ‘Fine, we’ll fund it,’” Butler says.
Called Frozen in Time, the book is about Butler’s mother and the dreams and aspirations that drove her until the end of her life. But more importantly, it is a book about how the photographs, and the process of making them, transformed Butler herself.
It’s just about every photographer’s dream to walk into a book publisher’s office with a new body of work, and leave with a book deal on favorable terms. Butler offered Hallett a portfolio she couldn’t resist. “I thought, this is a really important work, and it will resonate with a lot of people,” says Hallett.
Butler also came with contacts and connections. “That’s one of the most important things for us: To know the author has a network of people who know their work and will support it. It could be galleries, museums, an Instagram following, whatever,” she explains. “Sarah [knows] people in the art world, at the International Center of Photography, at various museums, and others who had seen her project and liked it….[As a publisher] you want to validate your sensibility and I thought, ‘I’m not alone. Other people think this work is valuable.’”
Hallett has published accessible fine-art photo books by relatively unknown photographers such as Brad Oliphant and Adrian Buckmaster, as well as by well-known photographers including Douglas Kirkland and Howard Schatz. “I want to find people who are doing something new and different, so I look at work by [lesser-known photographers] all the time,” she says.
Butler presented her work with a concise artist’s statement, which became the book’s preface: “From a distance my mother sounded wonderfully intact. I wanted to believe her story. I wanted to believe I came from a solid place. The image she painted with her words fit the image I had in my mind. My images show the parts left out.”
Beyond that, she had no written proposal. She and Hallett simply talked about the work, and how Butler envisioned a book. “I don’t need too much of a formal presentation,” Hallett says, explaining that she relies on her own instincts about potential audiences and markets when looking at project portfolios. What she expects of photographers during a book pitch, she explains, “is to be able to explain what the work is about…if they’re secure in knowing what they did and why, that’s the best presentation.”
By the time she met with Hallett, Butler had a clear idea what her work was about. Her relationship with her mother had grown distant before her stepfather called her in 2009 to report her mother wasn’t well. Butler went to visit. Her mother, who had always dreamed of owning a farm, had finally bought one. But Butler was appalled by what she saw. “She grew up in a wealthy family, and this farmhouse looked like squatters lived there,” she says. “I was just sad.”
The condition of the house and its emptiness triggered Butler’s unresolved childhood feelings of anger, abandonment and disappointment. “I always wanted a different mother. I don’t know what I wanted, but it wasn’t her,” Butler says, explaining that she’d been scarred by her parents’ divorce when she was young, and as a kid, blamed her mother “for everything that went wrong in my life.”
But suddenly she was afraid of her mother dying. She felt compelled to continue visiting, intent on somehow changing her mother in order to help her. Butler started photographing during her visits, but only to give herself a reason to keep showing up, and to maintain a safe distance. “I went in on emotional survival mode,” she says.
More than two years into the project, she was back home in Boston looking at her contact sheets. “I started falling in love with the way light came through the windows” of her mother’s run-down house, she says. “I started to feel like I could be in this emptiness and not feel like I needed to get away.”
The photographs were changing how she saw the farmhouse, and by extension, how she saw her mother. She started to notice the small signs, which had always been present, of her mother’s constancy and self-sufficiency: a pair of yellow latex gloves at the kitchen sink, an Electrolux vacuum cleaner. “I started getting her back through those objects,” Butler says. She realized how self-possessed and content her mother was, and the urge to change her began to dissipate. “It was really about acceptance. The photographs allowed me to accept that space where she lived, and then accept her,” Butler says.
Her book was originally scheduled for publication in 2015, and she was approaching her deadline without a strong sense of an ending to the story. Then her mother died. “That gave the story an ending, gave it closure,” says Butler. But she and her mother had become close friends, and she was overwhelmed by grief. She missed her deadline, and got several more extensions before she finally finished the editing and writing this year.
Although Glitterati had agreed to pay for the book’s production, Butler asked if she could work with her own editors and writers. Glitterati agreed on the condition that she pay their fees. She hired Alison Morley to help her select and sequence the photographs. Butler had taken a photo editing class at the International Center of Photography taught by Morley in 2011.
“I was very comfortable with her and she understood the work,” Butler says. “She saw the progression” of the narrative, which included her mother’s eventual move, after 13 years in the crumbling farmhouse, to new living quarters in the renovated barn.
“The week she moved to the barn, she was ready to move back to the old house. For my mother, it was always the next thing,” says Butler, who ends the book with a photograph of her mother looking out a window of the farmhouse, toward two lawn chairs in a meadow where she ate dinner with her husband the night before her death. “Mom got her dream,” Butler wrote in the caption.
Morley wrote an afterword for the book, and recommended that Butler contact the acclaimed photography critic Vicky Goldberg about writing a foreword. To Butler’s surprise, Goldberg said yes. “She’s written about all my heroes. I never would have thought she would have written for my book.”
The print run for the book is undisclosed. Glitterati will distribute it through National Book Network in the U.S. and Baker & Taylor overseas. The target market, according Glitterati sales and projects manager Conor Romack, “is the fine-art world—museums and galleries, particularly in New York.” Butler recently hired publicist Andrea Smith to help with media exposure. After all, the effort and expense of selling a photo book now falls partly on photographers.