Tuesday, March 24, 2009

a durable mutation

SoFoBoMo last year was caught up in trying to understand just what a photographic book classically looked like. I studied books, read about the design process and tried to emulate all the best practices of a print book that I could find to copy. I borrowed as many big, expensive, heavy photographic books as I could get from the library. I poured over the books in my collection, not looking at the photography for a change, but looking at the construction and commonalities that made them a photographic book. All of this understanding was used to create a PDF. An electronic book. A simulacrum of a real book.

This year I'm beginning to question that approach. It may well be the right process to follow if you see SoFoBoMo as a step towards printing a physical book. Then you be right to view the PDF as a lesser version of the final goal. Something that you can share online to give people an idea of what the real end result might have looked like.

However, this time around I'm thinking about a different tack. One where the PDF is the actually desirable end goal, not just a compromise required to prove to the rest of the online world that the SoFoBoMo challenge was completed. Not a second class citizen, but a better option altogether.

This is in part inspired by Brooks Jensen's writing and podcasts on the utility of PDF. Brooks and I exchanged some email on his slight disappointment in the displays of books from last year that used Issuu. His disappointment stemmed from the removal or restriction of many of the best features of the PDF format (e.g., full screen views, full control, higher resolution, zoomable), by the use of an embedded flash-based viewer. At the time I was a bit uneasy about the features such as the animated page turning, that tries to mimic a real magazine or book. It seemed very gimmicky and a mistake to be using this new technology to emulate the older realization. Many of us used Issuu last year because of a lack of hosting options. This year SoFoBoMo will hopefully be able to host the PDFs directly, removing one level of indirection between the PDF and the potential audience, which should be an improvement. I'm beginning to think there are more interesting things that can be done with PDF than just trying to copy how a book looks.

Many of these thoughts crystalized in my mind today while watching Scott McCloud giving an overview of "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art" in the TED talk, below. Take the 17 minutes to watch it. I'll wait. The good stuff starts about 7 minutes in though the whole thing is enjoyable.

Scott is obviously talking about comics and comic books. But comics are just another form of picture book, in many ways similar to a photographic book. Photography too is obviously a visual medium that tries to channel all of the senses through vision. Photographic books might seem like the highest form of displaying photographs, along perhaps with a gallery show. These are probably the two goals most photographers strive towards. A book and exhibition. But perhaps the PDF can be something more, something different. Books represent many compromises for photographs, the number, the size, how they relate to other images. Maybe we are making the same McLuhanesque mistake of trying to emulate physical photographic books in PDF form, rather than embracing the opportunities presented by the new medium. My first thought would be to add audio and hypertext, but from the content of Scott's talk, I wonder now if that might be a false path. Just like pop-up books aren't a big success as photographic books, I'm not really thinking about an interactive solution. Mostly I'm wanting to consider different layout choices that aren't constrained by the 2 sides of a sheet of paper, assembled to be read left to right. So then what is the durable mutation of the photographic book? What should it look like? How should we interact with it? What happens when you consider the screen as a window instead of a page?

If we can understand what the compromises are for a physical photographic book, then we consider how those change in the digital realm. If you find out how you can break free from those constraints then SoFoBoMo might be the perfect opportunity to see where things might go. It doesn't have to be a physical book rendered digitally, one fake virtual page turn at a time. The thing to consider is what might be the best mutation for the photographic book.

We are currently constrained by the screen size, and the resolution and the bandwidth available. But PDFs present exciting opportunities to explore what a book might be if it wasn't restricted to the physical realities of the printed page. SoFoBoMo is a great opportunity to collectively and individually explore what a digital book could be all about. Last year I said 'So give it a go. Sign up and pledge to take part in SoFoBoMo. Make a book.' This year maybe I'll try to urge some of you to give it a go. Make a durable mutation. What do you think? Are you really more interested in making a book and SoFoBoMo just gets you part of the way there? Or do you think there are more interesting things to do with the PDF?


Anonymous said...

Yes, this questions is relevant for many. How do we want our "book" to appear to our readers, what experience would we like to offer them. Nothing new, really. Advertising has for instance come a long way with Flash technology, from in the beginning doing advertisement in regular news paper form (static pictures and slogans) to merge TV commercials with graphic animations. Flash has certainly made that difference to them. Question is if "book producers" will adopt similar ideas in their products, and if PDF then would be the best tool. I doubt PDF will be the answer on everything, though. PDF offers not that much freedom more than the paper book does, not compared with more interactive media, anyway. /Cheers from a SoFoMoBo-wannabe that has made up his mind and will make a book-like photobook

Steve said...

I'm interested if anyone is able to name any publication other than Lenswork that has succeeded with a pdf format commercially?

For me, the pdf format seems too ephemeral to take seriously for long term publishing. I think the only reason Lensworks succeeds is the way it's packaged. A case with cover. I can't think of all the pdf files I have on my computer, most of which, if I remembered what they were, I could not find right away.

Being old school and in the computer business, I also wonder about the archiveability(sp) of electronic media. I can go out to a local used book store or online at abebooks.com and buy books from 75 years ago. I'm not convinced that you will be able to do the same think in the future.

Of course after reading about suitcases full of film being found after 70 years, I'm wondering if someone will recognize a drive full of digital photos in the 2100's.

All that being said, the future of publishing is electronic. I'm just not sure now is the time for it or that pdf is the right format.

Unknown said...

Hi Steven,

thanks for taking the time to comment. It seems that quite a few magazines are moving towards electronic only distribution, some in PDF, some as websites (the blog A Photo Editor links to some on occasion)

On Lenswork, I think if you look at the designed for PDF versions (not the previews of the print editions, but the extended editions) you'll see a marked difference in design style.

On my computer, all the PDFs I have all over the place are easily searchable - the content is all indexed and I can find things quickly - in fact that's built into the operating system. I don't even really know where they are located on the disk most of the time.

Certainly archiving and bit rot are problems for digital media - photographs, audio, video, the whole thing. Archival storage for analogue photographs and books is also a real issue. The National Portrait Gallery in London doesn't display photographs for more than a few weeks or months at a time because of the problems of fading - something less of an issue for oil paintings. The first photograph by NiƩpce in the Harry Ransom Center in Austin is almost unrecognizable. Most photographs if we are lucky will have a 100 year life, if cared for carefully.

Digital images at least have the potential to be around a lot longer, with care.

But really I'm concerned with a more prosaic problem and shorter time frame. SoFoBoMo has a PDF as the end goal, so that medium is already fixed. It needs to be finished by the end of June.

I'm considering how the design of the book should be done for PDF, not how the design of a book should be done for a book, then represented in a PDF. Maybe just a subtle difference, but quite far from how I approached the design problem last year.

Unknown said...

Hi Ove, Thanks for taking the time to comment.

At least from a SoFoBoMo perspective, PDF is the answer, or at least the destination we have. I'm considering how to design for that end product this time around.

Interactivity isn't really where I'm interested in going. I'm more concerned with realising that there is an infinite canvas available to us, rather than defaulting to copying or emulating book design.

Anonymous said...

Okay, than I think I'm following. Audio and hyperlinks sound like an ordinary web page to me. But you think of it as a self contained document, I assume.

Unknown said...

Hi Ove,

I'm thinking about how a PDF should be designed, as a PDF, not as a representation of a physical book.

Interactivity, audio, effects etc may or may not be part of that. Probably not. It is more about how I want to lay out my images and the flow of the end result.

Real books impose a set of practical constraints. Many of those design constraints change with PDF.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Ove and Steven here. You talk mostly about presentation, but the whole online game is much more than that. I use Issuu where you can even download the original PDF (!) but I also use several other platforms, my blog, my website and I also do the occasional print thing. Often these conversations are about finding the perfect digital editions hub/platform, but I've stopped believing in such a thing some time ago. If you like PDF - super. But putting a PDF online is never gonna get you Google traffic (like with a high-rank publishing platform such). I agree that for a photographer image resolution is imperative when publishing in print, but online you have to sacrifice some of that to get your work out there. A service like Issuu has 3 different view modes, that does all those things you are looking for (except the super high resolution). One of their views even looks just Acrobat Reader. OK, so it's not perfect, and that's why were still talking :-) Thanks for a great post, I thoroughly enjoyed the TED vid. I'm new to your blog, but subscribed jut now and looking forward to your thoughts.