By Gordon McGregor
Photography books are imposing. Big, important collections of the best work the best of us have to offer. Bigger than your average book; glossy, heavy things that dominate coffee tables and bookshelves. Must be hard to make. Certainly my photographs aren't good enough to be in a collection like that. Yet many photographers would love to put a book of their images together. Maybe it is the sort of thing that would be a great end to a career, picking the best of a lifetime's worth of image making. Not something I could do right now, surely? It would take me forever just to find a few images good enough. I'd have to shoot for years more to pick enough just for the first chapter. Even then, how do you put a book together? There's all that layout and type setting and design to do. I don't know anything about that. That's even before you get to think about text, having an essay that explains the images or tries to provide some more insight in to what you were doing. You mean I have to write something too? Books are too hard.
At least that is how I used to feel about photography books. But back in December of last year, Paul Butzi had a crazy notion. Similar to the National Novel Writing Month, what would happen if you tried to create a photography book in a month? From scratch, not dipping into an archive of images, nothing written, just start and finish the whole thing in a month? Take the pictures, make the hard editing decisions, design a layout, come up with a cover, write the accompanying essays and put it all together in 31 days. Several people thought it wasn't a totally insane notion, and SoFoBoMo (Solo Photo Book Month) was born.
Fast forward to April 1st, 2008 (an ideal date to start such a foolish endeavor). Many people started that day. Blogs sprung up sharing the experience. People described the aspirations they had and the struggles that they overcame. Hints and tips were shared about what a book really looks like. I took a long, hard look at the books I've read many times before and started to notice for the first time how they were put together. Some started to share contact sheets of every image taken and expressed their frustrations about the quality of the results along the way. We all made progress towards the goal.
Over 200 people signed up to give SoFoBoMo a shot this year. We settled on a somewhat fuzzy 31-day period, somewhere between the 1st of April and the 31st of May, just to accommodate a variety of schedules. Some are already finished and their books are on display. Others are in the midst of the editing process, many more are just getting started, managing to procrastinate even in the middle of such an accelerated timescale. If you are interested, there is still time to get involved. If you are looking for reasons to join in, this might provide some. Looking at the finished results might give you some inspiration too. I've been amazed at the quality of the work that's been produced in a such a short timescale. I was surprised by how productive I managed to be while making my book. All the hard decisions just didn't seem to be quite so hard any more. I just had to get on with them. There wasn't enough time to waste time worrying.
Books are being created covering a diverse range of topics: street portraits, days walking a dog, coping with cancer, moving out of a home, a daily visit to a local park, volunteers doing what they do, the final days before a deployment to Iraq. The common thread between all of these books is that they are getting done. In a month. From start to finish. I released my book three weeks after I started. Exhausted, I haven't touched a camera since, but I've already started making plans for the next book. I might take a bit longer to do this one but I have a much better idea about what I need to do this second time around. Books aren't so hard after all.
Gordon McGregor is a photographer who occasionally does engineering to pay the rent. He moved from Scotland to Texas 10 years ago and started taking pictures around the same time. Eighteen months ago his photography took a radical shift from never shooting people to not shooting much else.
Featured Comment by Paul Butzi: "A minor correction, here...
"It's not really 'Paul Butzi's SoFoBoMo.'
"I came up with the idea, and (at the urging of folks like Gordon McGregor and Colin Jago) sort of formalized things. I haven't done a lick of work to promote the thing; that's all been done by a list of bloggers too long to enumerate here. I bought the domain SoFoBoMo.org (mostly to prevent some opportunist from grabbing it up to make money from it) but it there was a whole host of people (again too long to name) who goaded me into doing something concrete about a website, and it was Bernie Sumption who did such a beautiful job creating the website in a very short time after I dithered away for months on end.
"So I don't own it, don't want to own it, and more importantly would prefer that no one ever own it.
"To the extent that it's ever going to be owned, it's owned by the all the folks who have participated (in many cases are even now participating, since it hasn't ended yet) and have shared extensively during and about their experience, and by all of the other folks who have participated as well. And, of course, those who participate in years to come.
"It's not that I don't want my name associated with SoFoBoMo. When I posted the 'rules' I thought that, just maybe, a dozen people would eventually sign on, and if we were lucky perhaps four of us would finish a book. In the end a huge number of people (Gordon says over 200, so I guess he counted) have signed up, and I know of at least two dozen books being completed with more getting finished every day. I'm thrilled to have played a part in getting SoFoBoMo going but want to make it very clear that it's become the wonderful event it is now due to the contributions of lots and lots of people all over the planet."