Photo Books

The Art and Process of Sequencing Photo Books

May 10, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

What makes a successful photo book different from a slide show of images? Experienced book editors say they strive to create a narrative arc that carries the reader from the first page to the last.

“What’s the journey you want your reader to go through?” says Laia Abril, a photographer and editor who has collaborated with designer Ramon Pez on The Afronauts by Cristina de Middel and other photobooks. “Do you want him to know everything already, do you want him to be confused, do you want him to get emotional? You play with the content depending on what you want the reader to feel.”

“If you simply select the best 50 images in a series, it’s not an interesting book, because the tension in the photos is always the same,” says Teun van der Heijden, who has designed many acclaimed photo books including Black Passport by Stanley Greene, Interrogations by Donald Weber and The Autobiography of Miss Wish by Nina Berman. “Like in a film or a novel, you have to build up to the tension and then you need to release the tension.” He typically begins by asking to see the photographer’s outtakes, he says. “Sometimes lesser quality images that capture a certain mood, or are empty, or even vague can function ideally as a release.”

To understand the different ways a series of images can be turned into a compelling photo book, PDN asked respected photo book designers to explain their process for creating visual narratives, and how they have worked with photographers to edit their photo books.

© Laia Abril

In Laia Abril’s book The Epilogue, some pages folded out to reveal information about the life of the subject, a young woman who had died from complications of bulimia. © Laia Abril

Ramon Pez

While working as the senior art director at Colors magazine, Pez learned to “play with visual narrative,” he says, and formed a close collaboration with Abril, who served as the magazine’s photo editor. After photographer Cristina de Middel asked them to design her acclaimed 2012 book The Afronauts, Pez and Abril collaborated on Ponte City by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, and books featuring Abril’s photos. Since founding Ramon Pez Studio in Barcelona, Pez has also designed Libyan Sugar by Michael Christopher Brown, The Hunt by Álvaro Laiz, 46750 by João Pina and other photo books.

Pez says he likes to begin a book project by looking at the photographer’s first edit. “That way I can understand the direction he wants the story to take.” He’ll then look for holes in the story, to see if the photographer needs more images, “or to collaborate with an illustrator or a writer.”

To Pez, the book is “a device for telling a story,” and every part of the book can be used to set a mood or introduce an element of the story. “All readers know you have the end papers, the title page, the colophon,” he notes. “When you change those things, you are creating a surprise.” In Pina’s new book 46750, on violence in Rio de Janiero, for example, he decided to move the title page to the end. The title refers to the number of homicides committed in Rio between 2007 and 2016. “You’ll discover the idea of the narrative on the last page,” Pez explains.

One of his more challenging projects, he says, was Abril’s 2014 book The Epilogue. In it, Abril tells the story of Cammy Robinson, who had died at the age of 26 from complications of bulimia, in 2006. Abril had photographed and interviewed the family, and they had given her access to mementos, letters and other material to better understand Robinson’s life. Abril wanted the focus of the book to be on “the collateral victims” of eating disorders. The challenge, Pez says, was to organize material from different periods of time, and rebuild the life of an absent protagonist.

© Laia Abril

Several of Pez’s sketches for the cover and layout of Abril’s book.

 “After many tries, Laia came up with this idea, and said: Let’s start with the end, and then fill in her story,” Pez says. Abril adds, “The narrative was very much influenced by mysteries and thrillers.” At the start of the story, the central character has been dead for seven years. Through the book, the reader would discover how the death occurred. In this way, the reader could also place themselves in the position of Robinson’s family, who continued to grapple with the signs of bulimia they missed. As Robinson’s mother told Abril in an interview, “People said: ‘You would not have done any different.’ But yes, I would have.”

The book opens with several pages of Abril’s images of the Robinson family and their home. These are followed by a page of text, then material that reconstructs the missing protagonist’s life, including images from family albums, letters and medical records.

Abril’s images of family members are interspersed with quiet images of their home, their yard and mementos, including a small bust of Robinson. “We wanted to introduce the reader to the feeling of mourning, of grief,” Pez says. The goal “was to put you, the reader, into the story. ‘If this thing happened to my family or people close to me, how would I react to that?’” Pez says he encourages authors to include pauses in a book. “Let the reader connect things—don’t be too literal or easy in showing things.”

In what he calls “the core of the story,” about Robinson’s life, Pez says, “We had three climaxes where three very bad things happened to the protagonist.” These included her heart attack at the age of 20. At these points, Abril says, “I needed the designer to make something that causes the reader to stop.” To break the flow of the narrative at crucial points in the story, they inserted papers folded in three. Hidden inside each folded sheet was something important to Robinson’s life, such as her first bulimia diagnosis.

The collaborators estimate they produced 30 to 40 drafts of the book. When he is close to finalizing a layout, Pez says he likes to do an exercise: “When you are confident the sequencing works, you remove one photo, and see if it changes the story,” he says. “You need to do this exercise to step out of the comfort zone and look at which kind of pictures are not necessary. I call this the distillation.”

When The Epilogue was published, reviewers noted that the design helped propel the story. Pez says the best comments came from the Robinson family. “They were worried about how the book would talk about them, but they said the book was really well made and respectful of the story.” He credits that in part to their process: “Taking time to really understand the story, and the most important parts of the story.”

© Teun van der Heijden

Van der Heijden’s sketch of the narrative arc of War Sand. © Teun van der Heijden

Teun van der Heijden

When describing how he puts images together in a sequence, van der Heijden draws parallels with film editing. “If you have a couple of people in one photo and then another photo has one person in it, you can use that as a kind of zoom-in effect,” even if it’s a different person in the second photo. When one photo is startlingly different from the previous one, he compares that to a quick cut in a movie. “If you’re gradually changing photos, you can use color for that,” he says. “Sometimes, I can’t explain why the flow works—the images have nothing to do with each other, but the slight pink in this picture continues in the next picture.” He adds that his attention to color may reflect his background as a graphic designer. “It’s different for editors of newspapers and magazines, who are more focused on content.”

© Stanley Greene'

The cover of Stanley Greene’s Black Passport, which van der Heijden designed in 2010.

Van der Heijden first made the connection between editing films and photo books while working with Stanley Greene on Black Passport, the photojournalist’s 2010 book about his journey as a photographer. “With Stanley, we talked about the book as a stop-motion film,” van der Heijden recalls. When Greene, a film buff, saw van der Heijden’s layouts for Black Passport, “He said, ‘This is a slow movie,’ and that’s the first time I realized the photo book is positioned between a film and a novel.”

While sequencing a section, van der Heijden likes to see how it fits within the book as a whole, so he spreads prints on the floor, and kneels while shuffling images. “If you think you have a good sequence of those images, then you zoom out by standing up and deciding: Does this sequence make sense in the overall editing? It’s impossible to do that on a computer.” If time allows, he will set the sequence aside for two weeks, “because then I can look at it in a fresh way.” Upon further reflection, “There are parts that are interesting and other parts are nonsense, and I start analyzing why parts are interesting.”

Van der Heijden often helps photographers figure out what their book needs. Anaïs Lopez had already made a radio play and website from her story “The Migrant,” about a Javanese mynah bird she followed and photographed, and turned to van der Heijden for suggestions on how to turn it into a book. Lopez’s comment that she felt like “a detective, like Tin Tin” inspired van der Heijden to contact a cartoonist to create a graphic novel that was inserted into the book. When Naomi Harris was about to publish her book EUSA, about European-themed American locations and American-themed amusement parks in Europe, she and her publisher thought the book would include 100 images. “She had 400 to 500 images, and she shot such a variety of images, it was nice to show,” says van der Heijden. Publisher Kehrer Verlag used van der Heijden’s design, which included 135 images.

While photographer Donald Weber was working on a project about the site of the D-Day invasion, which became his self-published book War Sand, he shared some of his images with van der Heijden, including microscopic photos of sand, and “about 1,000 images of weather on the Normandy beaches,” van der Heijden says.


© Donald Weber

A spread from Donald Weber’s self-published book War Sand, designed by Teun van der Heijden. © Donald Weber

When it came to designing War Sand, van der Heijden decided to open the book with the weather pictures—30 of them. His decision to use so many of what he calls “tranquil, boring” images was inspired by Weber’s obsessive interest. It also created a way to experiment with the idea of a “slow film,” and offered a fresh take on a subject people think they know well.  “What if I were not to do the traditional tension and release, tension and release, but instead we stretch the boredom?” van der Heijden asked himself. “So many people have many images in their mind when they think of D-Day. Maybe this boredom is cleansing your mind of the other images,” the designer recalls thinking.

The sequence of weather images work like a stop-motion film showing waves rolling towards the shore, says van der Heijden. In the book, the weather images are followed by images of the beaches today, including monuments, bunkers, parking lots and sunbathers. The book then makes a quick cut to a map. Next, he shows microscopic images, placing multiple images on each page. “That’s where the stop-motion book turned into a science book,” he says.

After the microscopic photos, the book shows toy-soldier dioramas which Weber made and photographed to envision the anecdotes his grandfather had told him about his war-time experiences. These “childish” images present the view of Weber as a boy, van der Heijden says. “This book has three narrators,” he explains: “The documentary photographer, the scientist and the little kid.”

For a bookmaking workshop he taught, van der Heijden drew a sketch of how he envisioned the narrative arc in War Sand: A flat line representing the quiet sky photos breaks into a jagged line representing the variety of images in the science section, and eventually flattens again. To create each section, however, he was looking at color, subject and tone, and rearranging images intuitively, and also seeing how the sections fit together.

In his workshops, his students often ask him to explain why he’s putting their images into a certain order. “When it’s done, I can analyze it,” he says. “While I’m doing it, however, I can’t. I’m doing many things at once.”

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