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  • Writer's pictureJohn A Lewis

Structure of a photobook

Further to my post regarding photobooks I have conducted somefurther research into the structure of a photobook and how a story might be told. One of the most vexing questions regarding creating a photobook is - : what should be the ‘sequence’ for the work? So far I have relied on the idea of a timeline, which helped me to organise my thinking and promote ideas for photographs which illustrate the event which took place.

I have examined three pieces of research which comes from slightly different viewpoints. The first is by Michael Freeman, (Three Tips to help your photos tell a story) September 2011 (updated January 2012). Michael starts his article with the comment, “telling a story – making a photo essay, in other words – is a difficult matter.” “That very few images are composed and timed in such a way, and have just the right subject, that you can read a story inside them. Most tell just a part of the story.”

He goes on to make the point that a photo essay is intended for an audience, and it’s intended to tell its story clearly. His key point is – “does it get the point across to the viewer?” each picture has the job of explaining. Freeman also addresses the question of text supporting the image. Freeman concedes that a group of pictures that are supposed to tell a story to someone else is often in need of some help. Freeman’s recommended structure is, in his words “dead simple”. An opener, body and closer. 3-plus-1. A strong shot to start, then develop the storyline, with a strong end. And the plus -1 is the key shot which will halt the viewer and key the story. The key shot could be used as a cover shot.

Freeman ends his advice by saying that stories that follow a timeline are the easiest to create - a linear narrative.

Delving a little deeper I found a post by Darren Rowse, " on the digital photography school website. Darren has come up with some additional interesting ‘tips’. His first is to introduce Relationship which will “conjure up all types of thoughts in the viewers of your shots” He makes this comment mainly in relation to a story with one shot but this could equally refer to a set of images. Darren also points out that leaving evidence in the shot of a second unseen person can add questions to your viewers mind. He uses the example of a shot of a person alone at a table with two cups of coffee in front of them – unseen elements of a photo can add a lot.

Rowse also talks about context. Being careful about what is going on in the background and what do the other elements say about the subject and what’s going on in their lives. Not to be too obvious about setting up the background because this can lead to clichéd shots. Rowse cautions against having too many elements in the picture which makes them cluttered.

The structure recommended by Rowse is a little more involved than that of freeman but is essentially the same.

An introduction – shots that put the rest of the images into context, and introduce important characters that will follow. They also introduce themes that the story will work with later. Introductory shots should give people a reason to go deeper into the story.

The plot explores ideas, feelings, experiences on a deeper level and make up the majority of the story. Themes such as visual themes (colours, shapes), Stylistic themes (macro shots, or other photographic styles) and location themes (similar locations) And finally relational themes, shots that focus upon a person or people over time.

The third piece of research is that from David Campbell “Photography and narrative: What is involved in telling a story? 18 November 2010.

David says that, “a narrative is an account of connected events”. Events are not found objects waiting to be discovered, the event is not what happens, the event is that which can be narrated. (Allen Feldman). Thus a narrative constructs the very events it connects. In photography Narrative is always related to context. No matter how complex or comprehensive a narrative appears it will always be the product of including some elements and excluding others.

Narrative stories will also likely have within them the following moments

  1. Exposition

  2. Conflict

  3. Climax

  4. Resolution

So following this classical structure Campbell advises that the key stages in structuring a narrative would include.

  1. Introducing the location

  2. Giving the story a ‘face’

  3. Letting people tell their own story

  4. Contextualizing these stories

  5. Following a dramatic form

Campbell stresses that these are not ‘rules’ that should be followed automatically, but used as a template. Narratives can also have the following dimensions: Time, Spatiality, dramaturgy (the art of dramatic composition), causality, and the most important one - personification.

This research has given me a new insight in how to view my image sequencing, which will be revisited to see how they fit with the comments above.


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