I always love it when I’m at a museum and information about how an artist worked is available along with the actual art. I’m not just interested in learning how something was constructed,* I love to see how artists worked through their ideas and found what worked and what didn’t. The effort part of art is too often framed as being only in the actual creation side of things—painting, sculpting, etc.—not in the ideation and working through of the concepts or in the decision making about what to actually show people.
*Though that’s cool too.
This is especially important with photography since discarded work is preserved in ways which are often indistinguishable from the keepers. Unlike other arts, photography is in many ways a permanent work-in-progress as discards return to the archive and projects evolve. Being able to view a photographer’s unpublished work and see how it evolved is a rare pleasure.
Which is what makes Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals’s Photographers’ Sketchbooks so exciting. Rather than being about a single photographer, this book has samples from dozens of them. The term “sketchbook” doesn’t begin to describe the various working methods in here. There are contact sheets, maquettes and dummies, online streams, notebooks, workbooks, work prints, plans, sketches, and more. All vastly different ways of conceiving projects, working through them, and editing them. This is how art is made. There’s never one right way.
Many of the samples involve working with the stream and the archive. Taking unfinished work and knocking the corners off or reshuffling things. Showing the results to trusted peers. Rinse and repeat. That we’re allowed in to see this unfinished, unreleased work—oftentimes without explicit references to the finished pieces—is a major privilege which demonstrates the significant amount of trust that the artists have placed in McLaren and Formhals to handle and present these private documents into a more public space.
For photographers whose work I was familiar with it was great to see the behind-the-scenes side of how the work was produced. For those whose work I was unfamiliar with, I enjoyed being introduced to new work as well as learning some backstory for when I encountered the finished work. I can see myself returning to this book as I encounter more photography in the wild.
As a photographer, it’s also great to see how many different approaches there are. This isn’t a how-to guide. But it is inspiring. It’s easy to accumulate an archive of photos. Winnowing through and turning that archive into projects—even if they’re just family photo albums—is something I’ve been putting off for too long. Where most photobooks influence how I take photos and see things, Photographers’ Sketchbooks is encouraging me to do something with them.