Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Friday, November 18, 2011

Behind the Scenes on a Book

Every now and then someone kindly asks me to speak at an event, festival or function. Whenever I do these public speaking events, I always shorten the speech and leave 20 or 30 minutes at the end for questions, because I think it's important for the audience to ask the questions they want to know the answers to, rather than hear the long drawn-out speeches we authors think they should listen to! Curiously, many of these questions revolve around publishing: conceptualising a book project, getting a book deal, and then writing/producing it after the contract's been signed. It's amazing how many people want to know about the process that goes into creating a book.

So each week on this blog, I'm going to write about the 'flip side' to books. If you have any questions, please do just ask me. But to start off, I'm going to jump in the deep end and answer a query from a friend who wanted to know how authors/photographers structure their working lives, particularly if it involves working on an illustrated coffee-table book.

Naturally, every person, and every book, is different. But for my recent Paris book, Paris: A Guide To the City's Creative Heart, Plum's lovely publisher, Mary Small, and I got together in her office at the very start of the production process (this was before a single word had even been written) and planned the structure in detail.  We worked on a concrete contents list, and then worked through that, planning sections, chapters, headlines, the ratio of photos to copy, the look of the design, and even the proposed colour palette for each of those sections/chapters. With Paris, I suggested colours for each arrondissement, such as black and gold for the 1st, pink for the 6th and so on (I knew these colours were dominant in these arrondissements). Once Mary and I had agreed on these colours and the overall structure and feel of the content and design, I then flew to Paris to photograph it.

Now before you think I just wandered around Paris and clicked a few shots here and there, let me reassure you that it was a little more professional! I had 10 days to shoot the whole book,: 6000 photos in total. (These would later be culled down to 1000 or so for the final submission.) And Plum's photography brief was as comprehensive – and as extensive – as my Learning French phrase book!

Each day I set out at 8am, with my newly charged battery, my Canon camera, a tripod and just two lenses (I like to work light; it's easily when you're traipsing around on cobblestones!), and I worked through The List. Each day I traversed the various arrondissements, shooting street signs, doors, markets, courtyard and colours, among a hundred other things. And each night I would go back to the hotel, cull the photos and download them onto a Mac laptop, and then back them up on a portable hard drive. If I hadn't finished the list from the previous day, I would have to return to that quartier and do it early the next morning before I started the next day's shooting schedule. Everything matters when you're working on such a tight schedule, so rather than sit down to lunch, you find somewhere you have to shoot and order an entree there, then shoot it – and the cafe – before you grab a couple of bites and then rush off to the next thing. You shoot constantly, when you're walking over bridges, through streets and markets, taking short cuts through parks and even when you're waiting at traffic lights! And you always look up. In Paris, some of the best photographs are those above head-level – the ornate balconies, the architectural details, the signs, the rooftops, the skyline...

It's completely exhausting, of course, but it's also wonderful. Writing and shooting a book on Paris is one of the loveliest things an author or photographer can do. And I'm very grateful to the Plum girls for commissioning this one. It was such a joy to do.

From this, above (the photographic brief), to this, below... 
Day One, Photograph #1 (the first night in Paris)

And then to this... 
Day Ten (the last night in Paris), and the 5,942th shot...

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