A visual history of photography

I’ve started work on a biggie – 400 pages (480 pages for US market – they have to be bigger and better) – on the history of photography.

A visual history, which means you get more pix to look at and be wowed by than words to read. It’s thrilling to work on this – one that we’ve always wanted to do – but it’s amazingly complicated and demanding to do it our way. That is, with material divided into chunks that will fit neat onto a spread of two pages, without the long linear narrative that other books can roll along. It’s such a non-linear subject anyway, I am aching to put the material into an e-book, but then we’d lose the yummy huge pages that we’ll have. So it’s a big chunky lump of pulped wood that will smell beautiful and be a heft to hold. Getting excited already!

Here is an idea of what I’m working with. A spreadsheet showing the different types of material to fit in.


(And you haven’t seen the database entries!)

UPDATE: The core editorial team is now together: project editor, designer, picture researcher, researcher, Woo hoo! (Sadly, my favourite editor of all time is unwell, and has to watch from the sidelines. We miss you!) And the page plan is now split into individual pages. Soon I’ll be dropping pictures into pages to  build up a sense of the content and picture flow. Already it’s been rewarding to dig up stories I never knew, see work I’ve never seen, appreciate links I’ve never understood.

UPDATE 18 June: I’ve been digging up books from my library and placed them within easy reach. So far, there are 19 books, ranging from the classic (and to my mind overly influential) Gernsheim history to the idiosyncratic, self-published but invaluable “Encyclopaedia of Printing, Photographic and Photomechanical Processes” by Luis Nadeau. This is what my desk looks like:

Under the right-hand monitor – actually it’s the 27″ iMac – is my iPad running a sweet little app that I found two weeks ago: Freshbooks. This is for small businesses to track time and bill, but I use it solely for tracking hours spent on various projects. I am still rubbish at remembering to turn it on and off as I slip from one project to another, so it must be under-estimating on everything. But in the last two weeks I’ve put in nearly 94 hours of work. 17 hours on dealing with emails and nearly 40 hours on the history project. And 44 hours on the online course on buying cameras with confidence. Yikes, that’s working nearly a fifty-hour week.

But it doesn’t tell you what I do to keep fit and sane. After every couple of hours at the desk, I run on the spot, with 12 star jumps every 60 steps. Then I finish off with 30 push-ups and 24 cross stretches. Nothing too fast or strenuous, but it gets the heart going a bit. Very refereshing. I will also do some qigong exercises to clear my head every hour or so. Or else I go outside and call to the Tuis or Fantails and have a chat with them. The Tuis (a blue-black bird a little larger than a Blackbird, with a distinctive pair of pure white features at their throat) especially like to be called too, and often return calls to me. Then it’s back to the research and squeezing in of the material!

UPDATE 20 July 2013 We now have a page-plan, or at least the first version, agreed between the publishing team and me. Within minutes of working on it, I discover I’ve put the same subject in twice in the first chapter. So the plan is out of whack by two pages already. Oh well, that’s what ‘plans’ are for: to be shuffled and shifted around. What we are doing in the page-plan is neither very secret nor astrophysics: we place subjects in rough chronological order but create a flow of subjects and pictures so there’s variety, the occasional surprise, and no jolts from illogical or ugly juxtapositions.

Now I have to give briefs to the researchers as to how I see each spread, and what it will contain. It’s the best job any photographer could have: trawling through my books (how lovely to be able to read them again) and the Internet. Thank you, Fathers of the Internet! I’ve found new material, new research that haven’t yet made it into books, or which I’d have to spend months uncovering. So exciting!

However, I haven’t neglected making the odd snap or two. I have the good fortune to be lent a Sony RX1 and a Sony NEX-6 to play with. Love them both, but the RX1 is a very special camera indeed. It seems to suck images in. I am learning how simply to allow it to do its work; to get out of its way. Here’s a shot one evening down the stairs to my office (shows you the limits of my world at this time!)


Oh, alright, then; here’s another shot. This one was made with, I think, the ‘Toy Camera Normal’ filter:

If anyone has views on what should or should not go in, any pictures which you judge UNmissable MUSTs, or just your faves, please do tell me. – leave me a comment below. I’d love to hear from you. 

Publication date? October 2014. 

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2 Responses to “A visual history of photography”

  1. Anders Karlsson 14/06/2013 at 5:20 AM #

    Hi Tom,
    To me, much of Lennart Nilsson’s work is quite groundbreaking and I’d be very happy so see something by him in your upcoming book. There are many pictures to choose from
    I’d been looking for a book like this, so I cannot wait for it to be published.
    Best Regards

  2. Tom 14/06/2013 at 11:08 AM #

    Totally. I had the great privilege of interviewing Nilsson in Stockholm over twenty years ago. He’s an absolute ‘must’ for the book. I would like to find more from Finland and Scandinavia, though.