Hi I’m Alex, and I’m currently finishing up a book about the forests I photographed for six years between 2014 and 2020. I hope that I can give you some insight into how I approached it and that I might be able to motivate and inspire you as well to create your own project in the future.
Here’s what I cover:
Before the book
Before the idea for this book developed, I photographed subjects without following a consistent theme. Basically anything I personally enjoyed preserving in a photograph. From industrial & urban structures to varied landscapes and abstractions to name a few; nothing with a consistent theme itself but always with the ambition to create something that could be worth hanging on a wall. This also had the nice side effect that I learned to approach my subjects highly selectively.
Finding my language
Still, I felt that something was missing. Some proper use for the photos to give them more meaning? As time passed, I started to print the first photos in large formats and tried to exhibit a selection of my best photos in local cafes and restaurants. Even though it was nice to finally see my work on display in public spaces, it still did not give me the joy I hoped for.
I had not previously realized what type of emotions my photos could trigger in the viewer, and I asked, had I finally found my missing piece?
This continued up until the moment when I did a group exhibition with several other artists. I watched people from a distance and listened to their discussions while they looked at my photos. It was exciting to see that many could just feel the relaxed mood that I had while photographing, just by looking at the photos.
I had not previously realized what type of emotions my photos could trigger in the viewer, and I asked, had I finally found my missing piece? A language to speak through my photos? I guess that everyone who photographs consciously already puts in a lot of personality without directly knowing it, simply by following their own sense of aesthetics.
When I became aware of this, I felt I needed to challenge my photography further and try to create a cohesive and comprehensive photo series. Of course, a printed book would be the best way to make something tangible. Only the theme I would want to explore further was still an open question.
The theme for a book
During a difficult personal phase, a friend helped me through it by motivating me to hike through different forests nearby. It was very difficult for me to find my visual language there at first, as I prefer clearly ordered structures that are in balance with each other ‒ something I could not easily find in the “natural chaos” 😉
Most of my attempts turned out to be too erratic for my taste. It seemed that most of the images had too much contrast which led me to avoid direct sunlight or at least use it selectively to highlight elements. It was also not a good idea to use Velvia slide film for this as it increased the contrast further. I switched to Kodak Ektar 100 negative film which helped to capture all the different brightness levels observed in the forest more naturally.
I searched for winding trails and other conspicuous clues on the map where the forest could have been left untouched for a longer time.
Only after I had succeeded in taking the first photos where I could capture the present atmosphere the way I wanted to, did the idea of choosing the forest as a theme for the book become more clear. You could say that the theme for the book came to me naturally while I was doing things I enjoyed.
One of the first photos that worked out for me.
Planning ahead / setting constraints
My idea now was to make a photo series for a book that captured the calm and unobtrusive sides of the German forest. In the beginning, I decided on some restrictions for the project that would reduce the complexity and at the same time enable me to focus better on the important aspects.
You could say that the theme for the book came to me naturally while I was doing things I enjoyed.
One was to use a single film stock (Kodak Ektar 100) and my medium format Contax 645 to achieve a consistent look throughout all photos. In addition, I planned to mainly use its ZEISS Apo-Makro-Planar T* 4/120 lens with a polarizer filter to be reduce the contrast a bit in some scenes.
As I don’t like mixed formats in a book I settled to only take photos in landscape format. That helped me to know beforehand how I need to frame the subjects. Usually, I tend to do the portrait format more often which now I would not be allowed to do.
Exploring the forests
In search of interesting places in the forest, I used several different maps to guess where the forest might look as natural as possible. Often the road trails are a good indicator if the forest was used for forestry or left alone. Trails are often long lines and set up in grids to easily access the trees with big machinery.
So I searched for winding trails and other conspicuous clues on the map where the forest could have been left untouched for a longer time. It helped and made the planning interesting on what routes to take or what spots to visit during the hike. In the forest itself, it still took a while to find motifs that would fit the theme of the book. As a result, I rarely took more than 1-3 photos on a day trip.
First I visited many forest areas near where I lived (Hamburg, Northern Germany), to get used to photographing the forest with the set restrictions. Later my radius increased to include the South of Germany where I could discover forests on the mountains. It took a few years until I felt I had enough varied material for the book.
During this time I focused on only photographing the forest and toned down everything else. I’m not sure if this was a good idea, as I needed to take many breaks to not get oversaturated. Often the first photos after a break turned out to be not really good as I was getting captivated by the forest again like a little child. Toward the middle or the end usually was the best for the photos to capture the theme for the book where I also was getting more calm and relaxed.
Digitization of the material
Scanning the film was done by myself as well to have a consistent negative inversion process which is quite complex and still needs manual fine tweaking to get the colors right. Due to past experience, I wanted to not rely on third-party scanning services for this. As I was not used to working with negatives much, this was an extra challenge I spent months on. Almost completely rewrote a script (negfix8), got a new film scanner that does the RGB and IR pass in one go and heavily modified it to get very clean and sharp scans. But that’s a topic I could write a long and very techy article about. Let me know if you would be interested in that. 😉
Book design and photo sequencing
I always pursue the ideal that each photo must be able to stand on its own, regardless that it is part of a series I created. This mindset set the fundamental design of the book to be subtle and let the photos be in the foreground instead of the design or text. Even when a few photos worked great together on a book spread, I only wanted to show one photo at a time to let the viewer take in that one photo without getting distracted by the one on the other side.
The sequence of the photos still remained an important factor in achieving a good flow through the book. A webinar from Mat Thorne helped me with great tips on how to design and sequence a book. I really recommend watching them if you plan to make a book yourself.
I followed Mat’s tip to print out an initial preselection of multiple photos in a normal letter format (DIN A4) and cut the single photos to be on small cards. That allowed me to sequence and rearrange the photos easily without the need for a very large space to place them side by side.
Here it was also important for me to take a break and let it lie on the table or taped to the wall. Then look over it from time to time and rearrange what did not feel good. I also printed a single photo on letter paper to be similar to the book and used thick paper clamps to test the sequencing better.
I did the sequencing too early and after I did some new forest photos and added some text in between, the sequencing did not work anymore ‒ so I had to do it again from scratch. My advice: don’t do your sequencing too early as it can be difficult to break up an arrangement that you have gotten used to.
Book production and promotion
Finishing up the project was the hardest part for me. Often, I had moments during which I though the material was not good enough and that I would be left sitting on my books in the end after printing them. I think this is also an effect of getting oversaturated by always looking at your photos over and over again during that long journey. What really helped me was to start sharing drafts of the book with people that do not know me. Feedback from Reddit’s r/AnalogCommunity was a great help and a source of motivation to continue and finish the book! It was a reality check for me to get a feeling if the book was on the right track or if it still needed more work.
Still, I don’t really use any social media or have followers apart from friends which makes it hard to reach an audience for the book. At the same time, it does not feel well for me to promote my work to others. But without that I would have no chance to reach people that would enjoy the book.
I naively created a crowdfunding campaign thinking it would automatically bring an audience to the table when done well. But after researching it more, it turned out to not be the case. In frustration, I presented the finished book project PDF to several book publishers in the hope that they would like it and handle most of the promotional work for me. I was lucky that Kehrer Verlag was interested in the project but I was not fully aware of the extent that I would have to get involved financially for the production and the promotional work. But I think that is ok for a passion project I worked on for such a long time to be able to finish it properly. Still, I am trying to cover a bit of the cost through a crowdfunding campaign. That will help me financially and reduce the number of books to store somewhere in my flat :X
Here you can find a link to the campaign for the book project if you are interested in helping me out: retrolux.de/book/enter-the-forest.
In the future, I hope that I can reach many people that will enjoy such a book. That means a lot to me.
Thanks for your time reading this pretty long personal experience on creating such a book project. Don’t feel overwhelmed by all of this and just do what you love. Create something you can be proud of, even when it takes the time it needs.
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