Photo Books

How to Publish Your Book: Jeanine Michna-Bales’s Through Darkness to Light

May 12, 2017

By David Walker

Jeanine Michna-Bales went to the 2013 PhotoNOLA portfolio reviews in New Orleans with nine images from a personal project she’d been working on for a decade, wondering if anyone would be interested. The foreboding nighttime photographs depicted landmarks and safe houses along a 1300-mile Underground Railroad route from Louisiana to the Canadian border at Port Huron, Michigan. The work impressed her PhotoNOLA reviewers, who immediately offered guidance about turning the project into a book.

Within a year, she had offers from two publishers. She ended up signing a contract with Princeton Architectural Press, which released her book in March. Titled Through Darkness to Light, the book includes more than 100 photographs, detailed documentation and a foreword by former Congressman and UN Ambassador Andrew Young. Fifty images from the project are also featured in an exhibition that will travel the U.S. for the next five years.

© Jeanine Michna-Bales

The cover of Jeanine Michna-Bales’s book Through Darkness to Light. © Jeanine Michna-Bales

Michna-Bales came up with the idea for the project around 2002. She had grown up in Indiana, and learned about the Underground Railroad in school. “I remember being fascinated by what [slaves] had to go through for their freedom,” she says. The idea for the project came to her after she completed a series of images about places she had taken walks. “You have that muse sitting on your shoulder, and the idea of what a walk to freedom would look like kind of came out,” she says.

She started researching Underground Railroad routes. But information was scant. “I would get frustrated and put it away and go back to my day job” as an ad agency art director, she says. Her break came in 2009 at the Indiana Historical Society research library, where she found a folder of notes, amassed by a volunteer librarian, on every reference to the Underground Railroad the librarian had ever come across. Michna-Bales started following the leads to local historical societies in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan. She was eventually able to pinpoint landmarks and safe houses that are difficult to find in small towns along the route.

One of her challenges was figuring out how to depict the locations in a compelling way. She made tintypes of some locations during the day, but says in hindsight that those images lacked a sense of urgency. On a drive one night through Tennessee in 2012, she happened to be passing an Underground Railroad landmark. “I took some photographs of the woods at night,” she says. When she got prints of the images, “I knew instantly that the dark sense of uncertainty was the direction the series should go in.” (Reviewers at PhotoNOLA confirmed that when she showed both the nighttime images and the tintypes.)

Over three and a half years, she took trips to scout safe houses and landmarks by day, then returned to photograph them at night. She did all the photography during warmer months. “I wanted it to look like one continuous journey, not winter at one stop, and summer at another,” she explains.

Michna-Bales showed up at her 2013 PhotoNOLA portfolio reviews not only with images, but with a pitch for the project based on her research. Her first reviewer was Mary Virginia Swanson. “I was long winded, and she helped me say things more concisely,” Michna-Bales says. Book packager Robert Morton, another reviewer, told her the series would make a good book, but would require substantial text to help tell the story. “He suggested I contact Henry Louis Gates.”

After attending PhotoNOLA, Michna-Bales hired Swanson to help hone the project and supporting materials, including her artist’s statement, leave-behinds and website. In 2014, Michna-Bales hit the review circuit again, attending Houston FotoFest in March, Review Santa Fe in June, and PhotoNOLA again in December. Her goal was to find a publisher, and her experience as an advertising art director, having worked at TBWA\Chiat\Day, McCann in San Francisco and other agencies, was a big help, she says. “I knew about layouts, speaking about work in front of people, and coming up with concepts and executing them.”

© Jeanine Michna-Bales

Michna-Bales supplemented her photographs with maps and ephemera, such as newspaper ads. This ad for a “Free Produce Store” says “no slave labor products will be knowingly kept in [the] store.” © Jeanine Michna-Bales/Friends Collection, Lilly Library, Earlham College

When she pitched her book, she gave an overview of her research and the documentation she had that was missing from most other books about the Underground Railroad. She cited quotes by escaped slaves to bring first-person voices into her project. “And I discussed how the project could reach a wide audience due to its links with American history, African American history, photography, social studies, etc.” she says

Her leave-behind packet included a synopsis of her research, an artist statement that summed up the project in a couple paragraphs, selected images with captions, and examples of ephemera she planned to include in the book, such as maps, slave auction notices and runaway slave ads. You can learn more about the making and distribution of her leave-behind packet here. 

Editors from Princeton Architectural Press (PAP) and the University of New Mexico Press expressed interest when Michna-Bales met them at Review Santa Fe. She ended up choosing PAP because it offered to cover all publishing costs for a print run of 5,000 copies. UNM, by comparison, had asked for $12,000 to subsidize a print run of 1,500 copies, Michna-Bales says.

Through Darkness to Light “was one of those projects that everyone [at PAP] responded to,” says PAP editorial director Jennifer Lippert. “The sales staff felt they could sell it, and editorial thought it was interesting, with a visual component and narrative of a story that needed to be told.

“[Michna-Bales] had done a ton of historical research, without turning the project into a history book,” Lippert continues. “We really wanted the story to be told through images, but we wanted to give it some context.”

Michna-Bales tried unsuccessfully to recruit Henry Louis Gates and Oprah Winfrey to write a foreword for the book. It took her months, working through several contacts, to recruit Andrew Young. She sent him one of her leave-behind packets, and a letter explaining why she was approaching him. “I thought having a voice tying the past to the present was important for the project,” she says.

The book was “well past deadline” when she finally got Young on the telephone. An edited version of the conversation transcript serves as the foreword to Through Darkness to Light. Eric Jackson, an associate professor of history at Northern Kentucky University, wrote an essay for the book about the escapes of three slaves along the route that Michna-Bales photographed.

In addition to selling the project as a book, Michna-Bales successfully pitched it to Mid-America Arts Alliance as a traveling exhibition. It will show at a series of local and regional venues—including universities, museums and libraries—over the next five years. Mid-America Arts Alliance is handling the bookings, framing, and shipping costs, and paying Michna-Bales a modest fee, she says.

Her parting advice for other photographers interested in turning projects into books is to “have a good sense of who would want to buy your book [and] that information in mind as you’re talking about your project.” And she emphasizes the importance of attending portfolio reviews early on in a project. “You’re developing relationships, speaking about your work face-to-face,” and getting invaluable advice, Michna-Bales says. “I had relationships with people who’ve seen my project develop and grow. It’s not like I put a finished project in front of [publishers] I had no relationship with.”

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