I made my first chapbook this summer, "First Snow, Minneapolis ~2009," as a gift for my True Fans (more on how that's going in two weeks). It's a form I've been wanting to use for some time; they're a great way for artists to express themselves. Chapbooks are not difficult to make, but there are tips which will make it even easier for the first-timer.
What is a chapbook? It's a pamphlet, usually paper-bound and center-stapled, containing a small, self-contained body of work by the artist. It's frequently used by poets for publishing a group of poems and by writers for individual short stories. For me it's a nice way to present a modest selection of photographs.
One of my Fans wondered if the name was a contraction of "chapter book"—a plausible hypothesis. The etymology's more interesting. The mid-1800's word originally referred to pamphlets sold and distributed by "chap men," itinerant peddlers and merchants. Chap, y'see, means to trade or barter. It's very old: the original form—"cyp"—goes back to the ninth century.
Another derivation from cyp became "cheap," as in a good deal or a bargain. That fits chapbooks to a T. Producing a full-blown book of work will typically consume hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. A chapbook can be created with a few dozen hours work and, via computer magic, self-produced for a few dollars a copy. Such a deal!
How to proceed
First, decide on a format. I like four sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper, center stapled and folded in half, yielding a 16-page 5.5 x 8.5" chapbook. Depending on text, cover material, and white space, that allows for 12 to 16 4.5 x 7.5" photos.
Production details come next. For my clientele, obviously these should be be printed by me, although others might choose to go with commercial print-on-demand or small-run printing houses. For a signed and numbered edition of 200, doing my own printing was economical.
Printing on both sides of paper severely limits one's paper choices. Ilford Smooth Lustre Duo is a lovely paper that feels like heavyweight coated stock. It prints nearly as well as the true photographic inkjet papers; unfortunately it costs about $.65 a sheet, making for a more expensive book. Epson Premium Presentation Matt Double-Sided paper costs one third as much; it feels like high-quality heavyweight uncoated stock and, unfortunately, prints much the same way. Blacks are unconvincing and weak, entirely unsuitable for work that relies heavily on shadows. Otherwise, it's capable of better reproduction than you would normally see in a press-printed book.
I decided I to learn to work within those limits, halving the cost of the book.
Having decided on form and the substance, one can look to subject matter. This is not your Magnum Opus. Just find a group of photos that entertains you and don't overthink it. My original notion, an excerpt from the Christmas in California or Final Frontier monographs, was clearly not going to work. Too large a fraction of the photographs in both volumes depend upon rich blacks. Fortunately, most photographs don't, and, as I discussed in last week's column on "Themes," it's easy for me to find groups of work within my photography that share a concept or exhibit commonality, even if that's not what I set out to do when I made them.
I've discussed how one goes about choosing the particular photographs for a book in "Every Picture Tells a Story."
Develop your narrative flow, decide what the front and back matter will look like and whether there will be any text (an artist's statement is nice but not obligatory). We're ready to print.
It took me a couple of days to learn how to make pleasing prints with this paper. I had to stop thinking of them as photographs and think of them as printed pages. Once I wasn't trying to make them into something they weren't it was a lot easier to get pleasing results, and printing went very quickly.
I countered the paper's weak reproduction with several tweaks. I substantially increased vibrance and saturation. I used wide-radius unsharp masking (see "How To Improve Digital Print Tonality") at the 25–35% level routinely, to improve gradation and tonal separation in fine detail. I circumvented the lack of good shadow separation with a Curves adjustment that really kicked up the contrast in the deeper shadows. That forced enough shadow-tone separation into the printed versions that the lack of solid blacks isn't evident.
Of course, those finished files would have printed very badly on photo-quality paper; they would have looked harsh and garish. On the Epson Double-Sided paper, they looked quite nice.
Next week, I'll cover layout, printing and production. Until then, start planning your books. I'll expect you all to have working prints by then!
Ctein's weekly column on TOP appears every Thursday morning.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Bahi: "That answered a few questions I had about the printing of the chapbook. The prints themselves have a presence and liveliness that I hadn't expected when first touching the paper used for the book. The pictures and collection also felt contemplative and quiet but also uplifting—I really enjoy looking at it."