Sequencing: Part I

October 29, 2017 ·

Andrew Molitor

Sequencing. The bane of the would-be book creator.

photographs laid out as if for sequencing, in the form of a question mark
The Question

This is the first of two pieces on sequencing, in which I pull together ideas from all over, as well a s some of my own notions. The point here is not so much to give you a method for how to sequence your own book (or other display) but rather to open your mind to possibility.

Apart from the “minor details” of finding a publisher, getting the design down, printing, binding, and all those fiddly bits, sequencing seems to be the biggest hurdle to putting a book together. It’s the most complicated creative step, and one which photographers may not have spent much time studying. Sequencing seems to be the analog of composition, it’s something everyone agrees is very important, perhaps vital, but nobody can really write down how to do it.

Jörg Colberg, of Conscientious Photo Magazine, has a book out entitled Understanding Photobooks which has a fairly lengthy section on sequencing, which does cover some of the basics. Keith Smith’s The New Structure of the Visual Book goes in to much greater depth, but can be very heavy sledding at times. This little piece here aims to give you a thumbnail sketch with less depth than either, but more breadth than Colberg.

Why Sequence?

A story oft-repeated is that the photographer sweats blood for months to pull together just the perfect sequence, every transition makes sense, every spread is loaded with meaning. An amateur would-be-editor stops by and says “why not just jumble them up at random?” or something equally awful.

I  believe, and I think there is evidence for this, that if you put a lot of ideas in, then the reader will get a lot of ideas out. The surprising point is that the ideas they get out might not be the same as the ones you put in. But really, that’s OK.

If you make a random jumble of pictures, I think  it will more often than not read as a random jumble, but if you half-kill yourself sequencing the thing just so, well, at least some hint of the sweat of your brow will “read”. The reader won’t get every nuance, I can promise you that. The reader will quite likely find some things you didn’t intend. The reader might not get much of what you sweated over, but they’ll feel a sense of design, and intuit, if you’re lucky, their own idea of the meaning. They’ll read something out.

As a full disclosure, on an approximately 6 month time scale I look back at sequencing I have done in the past and judge it thoughtless garbage. What seemed so clever and excellent half a year ago, seems stupid and childish now, and I assume this will continue more or less until I die.

Basic Concepts

Colberg wisely points out that the starting point has to be the concept for your book. That sounds rather high-handed, but it’s not, really. He just means that you need to know what your book is about, what the point of it is. So, write that down or otherwise get it clear in  your mind. Are you documenting something? Is the idea to recreate some experience of your own, or to create a brand new experience? Do you aspire to tell a story, to create political change, to change a single mind? Do want to create a feeling, an emotion?

Next, or at the same time, work on what the “user experience” of your book should be. The concept should drive your desired user experience. Do you want your readers to simply start at the beginning and leaf through until the end? Dip into it at random? How does your reader look at the book the second and third times? Do people look things up in your book, do they read it front to back? Do they flip back and re-read sections? Consider pacing, are there parts where they might usefully flip through more quickly than others?

Take a little time here with some books. Any books, not just photobooks. Just hold them, books of different sizes and shapes. Leaf through them. How do the pages feel? Watch as the pages turn in your hands, note how the page behind is revealed.  Take some time with photobooks, think of how you use them, what is your “user experience” of these books, and how does it differ from one book to another?

Think about how a book works when you read it. Here in the west, the so-called western codex is the ordinary book. The spine is on the left, you turn pages from the right to the left. The right-hand side of the next two-page spread is revealed, and then the left-hand side. Your eyes move to the upper left of the two-page spread. There is a built-in forward drive. Imagine leafing through a blank book — you would start at the beginning, scanning the two-page spreads one by one, upper-left to lower-right, looking for content, until you reached the end.

Sometimes the sequence is obvious, the pictures have to go in chronological order, or geographic order. Sometimes, often, less so.

A standard book comes with certain built-in patterns, which you can either flow with, or struggle against, depending on what you’re trying to do. You can speed the reader up with repeated/similar content, or blank space. You can direct the reader backwards, with a duplicated picture or a picture that obviously refers to a previous one to cause the reader to flip back (“where have I seen that girl before?”) or at least to recall the earlier pages.

Throughout the work of sequencing, what you’ll be looking for, creating, reinforcing, is the basic idea of a connection between pictures. Without connections, a book is just a box of pictures, there’s no story, no drive, no particular experience beyond simply looking at pictures. That might be just what you want, but in that case, sequencing doesn’t matter, does it?

Connections form between pictures with the same subject (a flower, another flower), the same graphical elements (a strong vertical, another one), a  picture that naturally follows another (a man on a horse, a man tumbling off a horse), a subject contained within another (an eye, and then a face), and so on. There are probably millions of ways to imagine a connection between two pictures. In fact, if you don’t, your readers will. Your readers will wonder why this picture followed that one, and sometimes they will invent some reason.

Show me a flower, and then a building, and I will quirk an eyebrow. Show me another flower, then another building, and I will see that you mean it. Do it again, and I will start to wonder why. Maybe I’ll see what you’re getting at, maybe I will make up something else entirely, but you’ve got my attention. I’m going to start looking for connections between your buildings, between your flowers, and between flowers-and-buildings.

Two Page Spreads, and The Gutter

The basic unit of your book, if you’re making a standard codex, is the two-page spread. One page on the left, the other on the right, with a gutter running down the center. The most conservative approach is to print photos on the right, leaving the left blank, or with text. This is a classic, well suited to a serious monograph which exists to contain a group of pictures. The “book” often has very little to do here. If you want a portable version of your gallery show, this is probably what you want to do.

If you print left and right, now you have interplay between the two pictures. You can repeat, or contrast. Repeated (or contrasted) subject matter, repeated (or contrasted) graphical structure, repeated (or contrasted) emotion, and so on. Be mindful that each spread needs to work with the other spreads of the book.

Here is a spread in which the two facing pages agree in some elements of geometry.

And here is a spread in which they agree in terms of content, both are pictures of signs.

This spread looks a little weird, though, doesn’t it? What has a co-op to do with a tomato?

Until, perhaps, you see the next one, and then it begins to make sense. The sign on the right indicates where, perhaps, the object on the left came from. If it was not immediately obvious, perhaps you recall that “co-op” often means, essentially, a worker-owned grocery store.

Printing across the gutter is something slightly controversial. The general rule of thumb is either to avoid it, or at least to avoid losing important picture content in the gutter.

I used to think this, but then I learned a trick or two reading Sally Mann. The gutter is a strong vertical. Work with it. Sally Mann prints across the gutter, using the gutter as a scalpel. One photograph might be sliced neatly into two pictures. Another might be printed with just 1/8 of the photo left of the gutter, suggesting an alternate crop of the photo. I think that when she doesn’t have a pair that will work left-and-right, she takes a singleton photo and places it in an interesting way: If it has no alternate crops, print it on the right page. If it does, place the gutter on the picture to suggest the slicing.

If I wanted to print this picture of two related storefronts across the gutter, I’d place it like this.

Sequencing Pages

The simplest pattern and perhaps the most common is what I call Evans style. Walker Evans uses this extensively in American Photos and it appears constantly in other monographs. Each photograph, generally one per page or one per two-page spread, contains a graphical reference to the previous one.

A man stands at the right edge of the frame. In the next picture, a signpost stands in exactly the same position, and a road leads diagonally into the distance. In the next, a counter-top echoes the diagonal line of the road. And so on. Each picture links to the next, creating a coherent sense of design.

The subject matter might be used together with graphical connections, or in place of them. A line of men might be echoed on the next page by a line of women, or a line of people in a different orientation.

This pattern works with the natural forward drive of the book and carries the reader more or less satisfyingly through the content of the book to the end. These next few pictures are built this way, with a simple one-and-then-the-next approach.

The shadow of the fern leads to the fern itself, and then to a fern at the base of a tree. This leads to trees, and then a detail of a tree (cedar, selected because it resembles the fern) and then back to a shadow of the cedar frond on the ground.

A larger collection of pictures could be hung on this basic structure, a whole side trip through ferns might be slipped in there, before bringing in the tree.

More interestingly, you could elaborate on the cedar frond. With some care, you could make some explicit references from a cedar frond on one page to a fern picture many pages before. To make the reference more explicit one might create similar mini-sequences, perhaps:

  1. a set of say, 5 pictures examining the same fern more and more closely
  2. later, a set of 5 pictures could examine a similar looking cedar frond more and more closely

Why would you do this? Well, you could do it just to be cute. Or, you could do it because this is your experience of nature, perhaps it is in your nature to examine details of the plants around you. Perhaps you noticed the similarity of these two wildly different plants, and want to make the similarities explicit, push your reader to see if the way you do.

Done with verve, and with a bit of luck, the recapitulation of the pattern on pages 44 through 49 reminds the reader of the pattern on pages 19 through 24, and she flips back to re-examine the fern and is struck and amused by the similarities of form.

Putting it Together

I liken sequencing a photobook to writing a piece of music. You can certainly just write down a pom pom pom pom beat. Or maybe a little bit of a pom pom Pom Pom POM POM pom pom rhythm, with quieter pictures building to something more dramatic, and then calming down again.

In fact, you can develop a whole book simply around rhythms like that, thinking in terms of interludes and crescendos.

There are other things you can do, however.

Using two-page spreads, you can have one rhythm set up on the left-hand pages, and quite another on the right, bringing the two together now and then, perhaps for a big finish. You could explore quite different subject matter left and right. Black and white details left, expansive color views right.

You can also work with smaller sequences, as alluded to above, treating them the way a symphony composer uses a motive.

For example, you might group sets of subject matter together not only by subject but by the way you treat the pictures. The cropping, the placement of tones, the use of color. In  Part II I’m going to try to work through a fairly thorough example of this sort of thing, and share a work in progress.


Andrew Molitor
October 2017

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Andrew Molitor

Andrew became a mathematician about the time the internet became the world-wide-web, but fell in to software development by accident. After 25 years of that he's just Dad. All along, Andrew took pictures, some of them small ones, and formed opinions, some of them big ones. He lives in Bellingham, WA, with his beautiful wife and two small daughters. Andrew's slightly unorthodox ideas for the beginning photographer can be found here: http://intro-to-photography.blogspot.com/

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