Sunday, July 15, 2012

A New Project

While I wait for the initial copies of Cree Star Blanket to arrive at my doorstep for a preliminary evaluation, I’ve decided to finally start a personal project of mine that I’ve been thinking about for a few months. People like Steve Simon, Zack Arias, Chase Jarvis, and David Hobby all put a lot of emphasis on personal projects. Having just completed one, I know the feeling. That was more of a magazine piece in a hardcover book, though. The writing and the fact-finding was just as important, if not a little bit more important than the photos. There were two kinds of photos in Cree Star Blanket — photos that documented the actual project, like the mosaic or archive photos of the Chalk Talk activity (most of which were not taken by me as I could not create the book while the project was actually happening) and portraits of teachers and students that were involved with the project to provide some “faces of the project”, if you will. This time, however, I’m aiming for something that is far more skewed to photos than writing, though there will inevitably be a few sentences here and there.

So, what is this project? Well, a few months ago, I decided to see how interested my friends were in letting me document them in their personal spaces, like their offices, garages, bedrooms, etc. I sort of did a “proof of concept” a few months ago when I documented Michael’s dorm room before he dismantled it. It showed promise. I was too occupied with Cree Star Blanket to really take on another project at the same time, but I didn’t want to give up on the idea, so I’m starting it again. I might make it a series of short photo essays (one essay per subject), all focused on the idea of being young, and how different people go about it. There is not one way of being a teenager, but there is a general idea of youth that older people sort of rally around. Sometimes it’s positive, but often it’s negative. When it is positive, it’s usually just a list of accomplishments from someone labeled a wunderkind meant to give the viewer an inferiority complex. The subjects of these often “softer-than-soft” news snippets aren’t really portrayed as real, multifaceted people. I hope to go beyond that.

I might approach this like an old LIFE story, following a person around for a few hours of their day, with a majority of that time spent in the personal space that means most to them. The room/office/garage would serve as a visual anchor for the rest of the story, a repeating motif that unifies the project. I don’t think I could pull a Gene Smith and follow someone around for 3 weeks. Not yet, anyway. Somewhere in the middle of the project, I might incorporate video into it, if I feel comfortable enough with the medium (that’s after I get a dSLR that can shoot video that isn’t awful).

Do you have a personal space that you would like me to document and show to the world (on this blog or elsewhere)? Does this space have “you” written all over it? Would you mind being casually interviewed? If so, drop me a line and tell me briefly why you should be considered. I’ll be contacting a few people as well. I can’t guarantee that everyone will have a chance, but I’ll consider every entry.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Book: Part Three - A Blog About A Book About A Project

New Cover With Flaps

At about 3 AM on July 2nd, I finished writing my first book. Well, that’s not technically true. I’ve been fiddling with minor layout issues and finding spelling errors since then, so I guess I’m not done until I send it off to the printer, but the heavy lifting was finished then. This author title doesn’t seem to fit me, though. I guess that’s what happens when you fall into stuff. See, it wasn’t even my idea. It was yet another blasted high school Social Studies project to be vanquished. It was a last hurrah, a chance to finally get high school out of my system and be comfortable with the fact that I am a second year university student. Yeah, like that was going to happen.

For those not “in the know”, I was contacted late last year by one of the great high school teachers of my life, Adrian French, who asked me to take on a project about a project, specifically to document one school project and the place that the novel Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden had in it. The actual school project is a spectacular thing, a multi-disciplinary one that incorporates student poetry inspired by the novel, the hard facts of World War One, and an enormous mosaic that serves as a way to visualize the emotions of the war as seen through the eyes of a 17-year-old high schooler, among other things.

Rough Planning Sketches

It was French’s idea to make the book as a sort of “thank you” for Mr. Boyden. It had been kicking around in his head for a few years, and there were some attempts to get it off the ground, but to no avail.  When I was approached to lead the charge, I said yes, even though I expected to be dragged through some mud for a while. After the initial excitement, I did what every good Challenge student did, and put it off. There was no firm deadline on this, so I sort of kept it in the back of my mind. I knew I wanted to do a photo-driven coffee table book right away. I just didn’t know where to go from there. 

On April 19th, after I finished my last exam of my first year of university, I decided to put in the time to get this project off the ground. Some eager high schoolers, two years my junior, were tasked with helping me in this endeavor around Spring Break, but on that Thursday night, things really started to cook. That night, Celina Chan assembled a crew of overly-enthusiastic and highly intelligent Grade 11 students, and the conversation got started. For three glorious hours, a rapid fire dialogue occurred between myself and the 15-or-so members of the group. We discussed layout ideas, fonts, content to include, and everything else under the sun. That was the push I needed to get my lazy ass off the couch (the fifth season of Mad Men was in full swing, after all) and to actually do the work.

Like the war that the project chronicled, there were a few major pushes interspersed with some sitting around. In the last few weeks of June, I had realized I had spent half my summer vacation doing this, and so I redoubled my efforts to get it done so it would not consume all of it. Those last two days of June were very chaotic. I applaud those team members who answered my last minute cries for help quickly and calmly. Now that the book is finished, I’m fairly safe in assuming that no high school social studies project has ever been documented for history as painstakingly as this one. I hope this doesn’t start a precedent. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone (kidding!).

Part of the reason it took so long was because, frankly, I am not a very good writer. I sort of imagine my writing process like a manual meat grinder working through some particularly bad cut of beef. The end product should be similar in consistency to the ground beef from some big, efficient, automated meat grinder; it just took a little too much sweat to get there.

Quotes and Quotes

This was absolutely a labor of love. There was frustration, to be sure, but it was mostly with the Blurb-provided software. In an earlier blog post, I had mentioned the Lightroom book module, and while the templates were excellent, the inability to modify them was a dealbreaker. There are many sophisticated customization options that are available in the LR Book module, like tracking and kerning adjustment, but the inability to modify even the simplest layouts or add a text box sort of killed it for me. I guess it is meant for picture books, then, which makes sense. I guess it’s my fault for not learning InDesign earlier. I’ve never been much of a graphic designer either.

Nick's Tile Reflection

Throughout the writing process, I was very impressed with the output of these 17 year olds. After all, I had to sort through their old homework. Yes, they are still 17, and their youth does show through, but they really did think things through before putting them down on paper. Their feelings are real, and I don’t think they would have felt anything at all had Three Day Road not forced students to connect emotionally with two young soldiers (however fictional they may have been) and give them a picture of the war that doesn’t consist of a timeline with the key events and dates. It was a deafening, muddy conflict that did not treat people as people, but rather as another expendable tool of war. Reading about soldiers using broken bodies as something to reinforce the trenches with was affecting, and while it would have raised an eyebrow in a textbook, the true impact would have been lost because I wouldn’t have known that was a person with a name that I sympathized with earlier in the book. It made all the difference. I did the project once, and referred back to it numerous times throughout the writing process. It sure didn’t seem like much when I was writing it, but hindsight is always 20/20.

I tried to make the book as self-contained as possible (always a good thing), so it covers the development of the Cree Star Blanket project right up to the recognition it received in November 2010 from the Governor General of Canada. Being a photographer, I came up with the photos in my head first. I enjoyed shooting those divider photos immensely. Maybe it was because I had willing subjects. I don’t always get those.

Alison's Spread

For followers of Joe McNally, it is easy to see where I got some of my ideas from. His photos and his philosophy, particularly for The Moment it Clicks, served as the inspiration for the look and feel of the photos in my book. One foot on the coffee table and one foot in the classroom is how I envisioned it from the very beginning, only I didn’t set out to teach anyone anything. That just happened to be the setting for the photos.

I’ve always admired his ability to produce good work no matter what situation he’s dropped into, and it’s a quality that I hope to have someday. Unlike Joe (who will never live down the infamous SB-800 tree from Dubai), I had only the simplest of light setups at my disposal (one 60” umbrella and one SB-600), and I used it for every formal portrait in the book. Add a pale gold gel, my camera body, and a 35mm f/1.8 DX lens, and that was essentially it. I wanted to add some color to the book, and I couldn’t think of a better way to do it than to reveal the faces of those who did the project. The light isn’t complicated, nor should it have been.

If you’re interested in purchasing a copy for yourself to see what the fuss is all about, I’m working on it. I might put it on sale in the Blurb bookstore, or I might do something else. I’ll post about it when I figure things out. I think I’m to discuss this with Adrian over dinner this week. I think it will be the best steak I will ever have in my life. 

UPDATE (11/06/2012): The book is now available for purchase as a PDF, a softcover, or as a hard cover book with dust jacket (which was how the book was intended to be read). To order a copy and to support this project, please click here

NEW: Preview the first 15 pages of the book below. Click the full screen button for best results.