Final copies of Undertow (see post 191015) arrived from Blurb on the 4th November. I was pleased, and relieved, to find that the printing matched the standard achieve in the draft (not always the case, I’m afraid). I’ve now pasted two vintage postcards, an old photograph and a sealed envelope of captions into each of the seven copies. So, it’s finally done after a long gestation.
Undertow is light on text. A few lines at the beginning hint at its purpose. ‘Undertow: an undercurrent that flows in a different direction from the surface current; a hidden tendency often contrary to the one that is publicly apparent.’ Thirteen quotes from favourite books, such as ‘… the nature which, we have always hoped, will endure long after our own end…’, are set against selected pictures.
An afterword includes an extract stressing the difference between what a photograph is of and what it’s about from On Looking at Photographs by David Hurn and Bill Jay. I conclude: ‘If you need to know what the photographs and other images included here are of you may open the envelope at the back of this book. Resist the temptation to do so. What they are about is up to you.’
I’m not sure where the idea for this book came from, nor when it started. I recall only that I began to sets aside some prints that didn’t fit in with other projects I was working on, but which nevertheless I was drawn to through their somewhat mysterious quality. I put them in a box file labelled ‘Conceptual’, a bit pretentiously. As the number grew the idea of making a book began to form. Seeing ‘Joseph Cornell – Wanderlust’ at the Royal Academy in 2015 alerted me to two ideas: the concept of ‘imaginary travel’; and the practice of combining found materials into coherent images or objects.
The very hazy concept became slowly more concrete and I decided that the aim should be for the book to trigger speculation by encouraging observation, exploration and mysterious associations. It would pose visual puzzles, blur the boundaries between fact and fiction and suggest multiple and metaphorical meanings and interpretations. The hope was that there would be interactions between the varied contents of the book and between all of these and the reader. Each page would be an invitation to tell a story, or maybe many stories; and the whole book might metamorphose into a narrative, differing for each reader.
Knowing where the book was going shaped my way of working. I still added pictures somewhat randomly to my ‘conceptual’ box, but was beginning to make more with this project in mind. I also went back through past negative and digital files to review them with fresh eyes, which proved to be both a rewarding (some good additions) and a salutary (too much dross) exercise. I never did get through all the files: J said ‘You should stop that and go out a shoot some new pictures’, which I duly did. The earliest picture dates from December 1965, the most recent from August 2019; 85% of the pictures are post 2000, 60% post 2010.
By the beginning of September 2019 I had a pile of around 350 potential pictures. In May I had decided to limit the book to 100 photographs, which became the working title for posting on this blog. A first pass at the editing was comparatively easy: the elimination of pictures that has got into the pile before my vision for the book had crystallised. A long editing session with J followed – we didn’t always agree! I also had useful feedback from the blog postings. The final choice was mine alone. Ninety-six of the photographs are black and white, four are colour.
At the same time I was collecting other material – books, maps, photographs and postcards – from charity shops and antique markets. Eight pieces, three originals and five scans, went into the book. Again, the choice was mine alone, indeed none of these pieces was seen by other people in advance.
The images and text then had to be sequenced. I laid out everything and began moving pieces around to see how they related to each other and to try to establish an overall feel for how the book might look. The only restriction I imposed was that the four colour photographs and the twenty-one other pieces should be distributed fairly evenly through the book. I largely avoided pairing pictures with obvious visual links on facing pages, though this is so in some cases and it would have been perverse not to have recognised the connections. The sequence decided, I then made a loose leaf dummy of the book.
I hope the audience of friends for this very short print run will find Undertow accessible and engaging, yet intriguing and mysterious. Some readers may spot images that I’ve included as homages to past photographers. If its meaning differs from person to person it will have achieved its aims.