All of my recent motivation in photography has come from a desire to see updated publications of my projects, following the wonderfully positive response to my recent bulgarian zine and United States Compendium.
It didn’t take me a lot of adjustments to wrap almost all of my digital production and fully focus on making my work come to fruition, a decision who was informed by several factors.
I’ve always wanted to make my way to a real book, but my experience building these little zines made me think again about how I could go about producing something as substantial as ‘a photo book. In my research and study of books, which means learning the decisions behind the layout, typography and print quality of physicality, but also the sequencing and justification of the images actually presented, I have found that I’m actually not a fan of the excess that many mainstream publications seem to be exuding.
A zine (short for magazine) was traditionally an easy photocopy medium to disseminate information of niche interest, circulating among communities and friends. Above all, these were very “limited”, especially in terms of budget, which meant that creators really had to push the boundaries of the page in order to fit whatever they wanted. Some of the most innovative and interesting ideas I’ve seen on paper have been in the form of zines – when you compare them to consumer hardcover photo books, a lot of the flair and uniqueness seems to be. lost. Books have a seriousness, an austerity that can go against their content.
Zines have recently become much easier to produce, which means there has been a democratization of the process. Many use services like Blurb or Mixam (the closest British analogy I have found) to produce their posts at short notice, which is great because it means photographers will see their work as an articulate, communicating or a sequenced project, rather than a collection of individual pieces.
This is, I think, the key to how zines retain their edge over books: they are the photographer’s singular vision. Their voice, straight to the point, with a full idea explored from start to finish.
Photo books represent some of the finest collections of artwork available, but it’s hard to find any value beyond their existence as a coffee table portfolio. Very few A3 style hardcover work of life display cases do anything other than showcase the work on the page – no line, no narrative, and few comments. Instead, each page turn presents you with absolutely amazing work; individual masterpieces, unmistakably a beautiful photograph.
Without the singular voice or accent, however, whether this is the result of third party curation, ego, or simply the intention to showcase a portfolio and nothing else, you can feel like you’re dying. ‘to be sort of beaten over the head with it. If the 1812 Overture started with cannons, they just wouldn’t have the impact it needed: it’s all about build-up, suspense, intrigue, and a satisfying conclusion.
In my collection I have a few beautifully assembled books of landscapes, documentaries, photojournalism, all spanning around 200-250 pages, but none manage to hold me back in any meaningful way – certainly not in the same way as a zine by 24 pages. containing a specific and unique photo-test. There are only a limited number of times I can turn the page and be blown away by the next majestic black and white landscape, or a tribal scene, or some fiery action before I feel exhausted. There is no lead between the highlights, just shot after shot. Sure, that’s a generalization, but it’s visible enough in the books I’ve studied that I feel comfortable doing it and standing up for it.
On the flip side, zines, by nature small and succinct, tend to feel a lot less forgiving. With far fewer pages to work with, it’s easier to stay consistent, say what needs to be said to tell the story or to make the point the photographer wants. Images that need to make an impact have a space to breathe, surrounded by contextual and transitional images, right down to these impactful frames.
Ultimately I think it’s a question of whether or not the photographer has clarity of vision, and with the ability of photographs to hold so many ideas working harmoniously, you need far fewer pictures than words to convey the same idea. Sitting down and reading a 200-page prose novel thoroughly can take a day or two for an avid reader. I don’t know anyone who sits down with a 200-page photo book and spends more than a few hours with it – it just doesn’t take the same investment to “get” the gist of it.
Zines take advantage of this and can convey what is important in a lot fewer steps.
About the Author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist who is currently working on a number of long-term street photography and documentary projects. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on day-to-day photography at his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in street photography at UAL, which can be read on here.