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How to Make Books that Sing Like Sinatra

Keith Smith on the elaborate art of sequencing pictures.

By Lesley A. Martin

Kevin Smith

Keith Smith, Book Number 296, December 2015
Courtesy the artist and the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Keith Smith is a quintessential book maker—an artist fixated with the possibilities of the book form. In the course of creating over three hundred books, beginning with his first book of photo-etchings in 1967, he has explored the endless variations by which visual images and texts can be gathered together. He has worked with the classic Western codex, sometimes amended to include translucent pages, tipped-in images, and other customizations; made interventions in existing books (Book Number 15, 1970); and created wildly imaginative books-as-performance (and as-meal—Book Number 67, Bachelor’s Cook Book, 1977, a “conceptual book” featuring a recipe for making and freezing a seven-course meal in pouches stapled together). The majority of his works fall into the books-as-sculpture category, playing with unique structures and bindings, including triangular books, books as screens, books as fans, books with elaborate die-cut pages, and several featuring pages turned via elaborate systems of strings laced through holes punched into the pages (Book Number 91, 1982), among other experimentations. While a number of his books contain no images or texts at all, relying exclusively on the physical structure of the book as both form and content, photography anchors many of his projects, including taped-in gelatin-silver images and contact sheets as well as early experiments in Xerox, halftone screens, and other reproduction processes. The images frequently depict his friends and their families, his house-turned-studio, and his partner and frequent collaborator, Scott McCarney. Often, the photographs are used in combination with texts, sketches, watercolors, and other collaged elements to commemorate his community and relationships in book form.

In addition to Smith’s ongoing output of book objects, few artists have written as obsessively about the mechanics and metaphysics of how books work, including fifi ve volumes on nonadhesive binding methods (beginning with volume I in 1989 and ending with volume V in 2003), one volume on Text in the Book Format (Book Number 120, 1989), and the ne plus ultra of artist book geekery, Structure of the Visual Book (Book Number 95, 1984). In the fourth edition of this extensive, 432-page volume, Smith dissects and defines the many factors that influence the way an image performs within a book. The writing is at times belabored, but the dedicated reader is rewarded with rich veins of lyrical, compelling insights on the alchemy of making books. Sections include “The Book as Physical Object,” “The Process of Turning Pages,” “Picture Relationships,” “Movement,” “Time in Books,” and “Evolving a Series or Sequence,” to name just a few. This is a book for anyone interested in a deep dive into the syntax and structural elements that contribute to a book’s “visual flfl ow,” a term Smith borrows from his late mentor Nathan Lyons, photographer, educator, and founder of the Visual Studies Workshop. (Lyons, of course, was another great elaborator on the gestalt of images in a sequence, as activated via the printed page.)

The brief exchange below peels back the outermost layer of analysis Smith offers in the book, touching on the nuances of a sequence of images versus a group or series of images; the importance of pacing in directing a reader/viewer’s experience; and other finer points of shaping a loose set of pictures into an engaging visual book experience.

Keith Smith, Book Number 11, Up, 1969
© the artist and courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York

Lesley A. Martin: I’d like to start with a basic question about Structure of the Visual Book (Book Number 95). The book is dedicated to Nathan Lyons and one of the chapters is an homage to him; throughout the book there are references to other photographers, like Ken Josephson and Minor White, who were also seriously thinking through the idea of sequencing and multiple picture formats. Which other photographers or writers who were focused on the language of images and editing photographs for meaning were important to you when you wrote this volume?

Keith Smith: The people you mentioned were no inspiration to me in my ideas for sequencing. Music, especially sonatas, symphonies, and Richard Wagner’s leitmotifs, were my only influences, not photographers. There was one poet: Marianne Moore. I write about her in my book Text in the Book Format [Sigma Foundation, 1989]. Marianne Moore devised enjambment of line: breaking a thought or sentence, and completing it on the following line. In this manner, Ms. Moore pulls the reader from line to line through the poem.

By 1974 I had made fifty-three books using my ideas of how to take the viewer from one page to the next. I never saw any other artist or photographer’s books. I worked out my own ideas of what is a book, based on structure in music. I mention 1974, because that is the year I first saw a sequence by Nathan Lyons, when he published Notations in Passing [MIT Press]. I was elated. Here was the only book, outside of my own, I felt, that utilizes sequence to construct order. They create a series. Nathan and I try to “pull the reader” through the pages of our books, but not in the manner of a flip-book! It is not a straight-line progression that Nathan or I create. We go back and forth in time/action, and proceed by cause and effect, not by linkage forward. Cause and effect is sequential; linkage is serial.

I studied Notations in Passing (as I still do) to see what all elements Nathan utilized to take the reader from one picture to another, and not necessarily an adjacent image. He would take the viewer to a picture eight or ten pages ahead, or previously seen. . . . As Nathan often said, one must define one’s terms. Two cannot converse without common definitions. When someone says, “I am going to sequence these pictures,” what do they mean? An order could be a group, a series, or a sequence. To a cinematographer, the term sequence is a series of pictures, not an order by which Nathan defines his sequence.

Most books set up an arithmetical order, from A to B to C to D. To Nathan and me, this is a series. Some people order a book by selecting thirty various prints of the same subject matter. That order is A to A to A to A. In effect, there is no order. You could shuffle them up. They are held together only by a common theme (and the binding of the book). A bunch of pictures with the same subject matter is a group. Not a series, not a sequence. It is the simplest form of order. It might be all pictures of fast food restaurants.

Now, if you show thirty pictures of fast food restaurants, and you show them in the order of starting at First Avenue, then restaurants on Second Avenue, then Third Avenue, the group of pictures of restaurants is now also a series, since it now has an order: A to B to C to D. So, it is a group and a series.

But a sequence can start in the middle of an action, eventually showing the complete action, much as an Ingmar Bergman film. One can start a sequence in the middle of the action/event, then change to a different subject matter. That interlude might move along as a series or a group, then return to the original (sequential) action. Then it might go back to the second subject matter or event, with a single picture/page, which might be a variation on the second picture in the book. Studying each picture for motif, one receives hints of relationships to recognize the composition of this complicated structure, much as a symphony or fugue has layers of specific order built in. Richard Wagner was the master of musical motif: a few notes to symbolize a character, a place, or an event. Nathan is the master of visual motif. There is no guesswork, no arbitrary adding or subtracting of pages, but an exquisite creation of order.

Keith Smith, Self Portrati, November 1969
© the artist and courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York

Martin: The section called “Picture Relationships” begins with the statement: “There are no single pictures. . . A picture does not exist in isolation. Every picture is a compound, or an implied compound picture.” You go on to explain not just the way that images, in sequence to one another, are the building blocks that create meaning, but also how important it is to consider all the elements. How the materials used in a book can affect how an image is read and the different ways that texts can contextualize an image, in addition to how images interact with one another across the book as a whole. Do you consider the book itself to be, in essence, a “compound picture”? Can any one of these elements function without the other? Are any to be considered more critical than any others to making a book of photographs?

Smith: Yes. Pictures in a book are like words in a dictionary. It is not in the amount of words one uses, but in the choice of the words you choose, and more importantly, not only the order in which you place them, but the total that is revealed by that order. Take any poem or sentence you love. Now shuffle up the words. It is garbled. All the words are there! But the meaning, or a lot of the meaning, is lost. It is order that is the most important element of a sentence, not the words in that sentence. The same is true in a book. The book is more than the sum of its parts. . . . Each individual picture has power, but each must be submissive to the total experience, which is the book. The book has to come first, and sometimes choice images must be discarded in order to create a better totality. Pictures are not that important in a picture book! They are just one element. Pacing is just as important! If you play a common tune on the piano, such as “Happy Birthday to You,” and give equal volume, identical pacing, same inflection to each note, the tune is incomprehensible. Pacing, volume, pitch, emphasis, feeling, all go together (along with the melody) to create the tune. The individual notes are not that important! The same is true in a book. Pacing, mood, pauses, building to climaxes are just as critical as the meaning within each individual picture. The gaps between the pictures must be composed, and many things are left unsaid, composed in the gaps by the reader’s imagination. 

Keith Smith, Book Number 82, Keith Smith at Home, 1982
© the artist and courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York

Martin: What is it that really activates a “sequence” of images? How can you tell when you see a really good sequence of images versus something that falls flat?

Smith: Study a poem by a fine poet. If you study it, reread it over years, you will all of a sudden see things you never saw before. They have always been there, but you did not see! You did not hear! And what a joy when you do find something new. That is one of the beauties of a poem over prose. The poet invites the reader back, because one cannot possibly get everything in one reading. Yet, I have had few people over the years look at one of my books for more than a single viewing. Someone who looks at a sequence, as opposed to a series or a group, could not possibly know what all is said from a single viewing. I go over Nathan’s books time and time again, and find things. It is a joy. Certainly the same is true for a composer’s music. Even the renditions by a great singer. In one of my books, I speak about structure in the singing of Frank Sinatra:

Sinatra is known for his phrasing, more than any modern singer. I have listened to Sinatra for years. Then I heard something I never picked up on before. In “Only the Lonely,” the lyrics are, “The songs I know, only the lonely know. Each melody recalls a love that used to be.” Sinatra sings it as a dirge. And, he pauses ever so briefly after the second syllable of the word “melody,” introducing a word within a word: Mellow is not in the lyrics, but in the phrasing. . . The book artist can do this in a book, not only within text, but by manipulating pictures in a book. (Nathan speaks through phrasing/pacing, as well as within his pictures.)

“Try creating duality for yourself.” I often would tell students, “copy musicians, not visual artists, it is less obvious.”

Lesley A. Martin is creative director of Aperture Foundation.

Read more from The PhotoBook Review Issue 015 or subscribe to Aperture and never miss an issue.

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