I'll tell you, a whole lot of stuff that's happening on the photo shoot for the book aspect of The Project
could not take place if the whole bunch of us didn't have decades of
experience in our own pieces of the process. Working together has been
sweet. I hadn't met any of these folks in person before, except for editor Gwen Steege.
What a delight it has been for me to work with these gifted and dedicated people. My apprehension quickly turned to trust. They were apprehensive about having me there, too: authors are not normally allowed anywhere near a photo shoot, with good reason. Mine was an unusual case. What I contributed will be shown in more detail in a future post.
As we began our first work on the photoshoot, feeling our way into the process and into working together, I noticed how many computers were in the room.
One computer is connected to photographer John Polak's camera.
Images that John shoots go directly to this computer. For the preliminary shots, John pulls each photo into Photoshop, drops a grid over it, and we check precisely where everything in the image will end up being on the pages of the finished book. Thanks to a huge amount of preparatory work by me and the editors and art director Mary Velgos, we are shooting to fit a planned layout. John's expertise lets us see exactly what we're doing at every step along the way.
Neither Mary's nor John's working process is a no-brainer: both are depending on years of experience. It looks easy now. I'm just in the background thinking how cool it is they can do this, and knowing what it takes to get to the point where they can.
Once we have everything in the right places (more on that in another post), John brackets his exposures and checks their levels, also on this computer.
Meanwhile Mary, who is the photo stylist in addition to the art director and book designer, has a computer on which she's keeping track of our progress and looking ahead to the next few shots.
The supervisor in that snapshot is a (wool) stuffed lamb toy I was given by a representative of the British Wool Marketing Board whom I'd met the previous week in Cumbria, England.
In the next photo, you can see where Mary's tracking computer sits in relation to the photo area. In this snapshot, John's getting ready to take a preliminary shot. When he does the final bracketed exposures, Mary and I need to freeze in place because the wooden floor vibrates and ruins the focus. John's studio is in a fantastic old mill building that has a few quirks; in addition to the flexible floor, there's the question of the elevator, which appears to be original equipment. The joke when we get on it is, "Did you remember to bring your cell phone?" Despite the building's historic fittings, I would love to have the kind of space provided by these studios.
For all of the technical fiber shots, John's camera remains in exactly the same position. The fibers will all be shown at the same scale, and it's part of John's work to make sure that the locations of all the components of the shoot remain consistent.
Mary has another computer (also a laptop, but a more powerful one) set up at the kitchen counter, about 10 feet (3m) to the left of her computer shown above. She's using that second computer to do layout adjustments as we go.
In my set-up area, which I'll visit in more detail in another post, I have my laptop, shown here closed (with its GelaSkins cover). Like Mary, I'm using my computer to track where we are in the sequence. In my case, this is so I can prepare sample sets in advance of when they're needed. I'm also rewriting text, when necessary, to accommodate shifts in layout that we decide to make on the fly, as well as checking details of the fibers as I set them out, using my research files, spinning notes, and the copy of the manuscript that Carol Ekarius and I originally turned in.
Sometimes when I'm revising text in response to adjustments required by our photo decisions, I just sit down at Mary's layout computer and work directly in her InDesign files; sometimes I'll draft copy on my computer and then "sneakernet" it to Mary's and do the final polishing there. That is, I'll load my file on a USB drive, if any one of us can locate a USB drive, and walk it over.
John's computers are networked and one of them has access to the internet, but otherwise we are dependent for basic connectivity on the ever-disappearing thumb drives. I've taken to wearing mine on a lanyard around my neck. John's USB drive was hiding somewhere in the studio for most of the week I'm documenting here (it finally surfaced). Mary has a portable hard drive that works with some of our computers but not others (because of its firewire connection). Ah, technology. (On a couple of days, someone in the building who has a wireless router left the security off and I could reach the internet for a short while. Otherwise: blackout. I did basic e-mail triage every morning at a coffee shop during the few minutes it took the barista to make my chai.)
Every day, Mary's been driving back and forth between her home and the studio, an hour and a quarter each way. I've been commuting either from a motel 10 miles (16km) down the road or from some friends' house 45 minutes away (much, much pleasanter, in every regard except distance).
We're using natural light, so we start each day's shoot when Mary can reasonably get to the studio and we end when we lose the light—about 7 p.m. John adjusts his camera's settings at least once an hour to adjust to the changing illumination. We need to complete each set of shots within a relatively short period of time so that images that need to match have all been taken in the same light.
After Mary and I leave, John turns to his larger computer, shown below, to process the images: he selects the best exposures and adjusts the levels so they'll reproduce well in print. Then he burns CDs for Mary to use when she does the final layout.
Mary has also been taking home CDs John has made for her that contain rough, unprocessed copies of the images to plug into the layout file as we go. She's been keeping ahead of us with the layout and double-checking our results. I'm not entirely sure she's been sleeping. Note that we all worked the planned five days in this sequence and then we also all decided to work, without taking a break, through the weekend.
- Mary's small laptop by the shooting area, for planning the next shot
- Mary's larger laptop in the kitchen, for keeping the layout adjusted and ahead of where we are
- John's laptop in the shooting area, attached to the camera
- John's desktop, for finishing work on the images
- My laptop, in the setup area, for my tracking and planning and revisions
I've been doing photoshoots for more than twenty-five years, so I'm amazed at our dependency on, and the advantages of working with, computer technology. We no longer have to wait around for Polaroids to develop. We can plug the preliminary or final images into a layout grid immediately and see how they'll work. At the end of the day, we have completed, digital images that can be used in layout—we don't have to go through the steps of sending film to the lab and awaiting its return, picking it up, sending it to a separator to be turned into printer-ready film (or to a service bureau to be converted to digital format), and so on.
The number of shots we complete in a day is probably about the same as it used to be. On the first day, I think we did ten. As we worked out our techniques, we sped up, and by the end of the seven days I think we were shooting about nineteen a day. Yet the post-shoot work has been greatly simplified and expedited by the new technology.
I'm writing all of this in the present tense because we're not done. We did finish the wool photos in those seven days, but we will be getting together again soon to do the rest of the fibers.
I'll end with one more photo of the working process: Mary on the phone checking in with someone back at the office about a detail we need to know, and John doing final adjustments on some of the final shots.
Where am I? Probably putting the fibers we've just finished with back into their file folders, or pulling out the next group of items to have their pictures taken.