Editing Your Work

After a few days away and rather longer being tied up with putting a show on the wall I’ve today got back to catching up with some of my e-mail and reading some of the blogs I like to take a regular look at, including Jörg Colberg‘s Conscientious, which often comes up with some interesting leads. One of these that he mentioned a few days back was about Editing Pictures. Unlike me, Colberg often says little or nothing about the sites he links to, and his only comment on the article on Simon Robert‘s Blog was that it was a “must-read post.”

So I read it, and found it to be a very useful but hardly surprising account of how Roberts went about editing the pictures for his book ‘Motherland‘. Basically its probably not a lot different from the way many others work. He starts by having all of his films contact printed.

Nowadays I tend to do that instead on the Epson V750 Pro, which lets me scan my negatives in their filing sheets, carefully laid on top of the glass without a holder. It takes a complete 120 film in the filing sheet from the several different formats I use or either 5 strips of 6 35mm negs, 7 strips of 5 35mm negs or 7 strips of 3 XPan negs at a time.

Fine for the XPan, as its a whole film, but a problem for normal 36 exposure films which I have already filed, usually with 6 strips of 6 negs and a short end with 1 or 2 frames. However scan times are so short with the V750 that it is easy to make a second scan with the remaining strips – it only takes a few seconds to re-unite the two in Photoshop.

I find it better to make my first selection on screen – and its something I’ve become very used to with working from digital. 35mm printed contacts are a little on the small side, even though the high-quality loupe I use gives a superb view. If you work with film, it really is worth spending money on a really good loupe, though I made do for years with a cheaper Nikon one that isn’t bad…

Scanning at 360 dpi gives a jpeg file (at good quality) of around 2,000Kb for each contact sheet and is probably the minimum resolution worth considering. Each 35mm frame is then around 540×360 pixels and thus nominally around postcard size at 1:1 on the screen.

For Roberts, working away from base, the ability to see physical contact sheets while he was carrying out the work was of course pretty vital. He shot just over 5000 6×7 frames on the project in a year – a relatively small number of images compared to those of us who work with 35mm or digital, and both the small number and larger size certainly make editing easier.

From the contact sheets he made a selection of 500 images to scan and print, making up a book with 12 images per page. He doesn’t indicate the size of the book shown in the post, but if it was A3 landscape, then these images were around 4×3 inches. Roberts scanned all 500 for this on an Imacon, which seems to me overkill – the V750 could do the job perfectly adequately and a great deal faster.  If you are work on medium format and scan as contact sheets you can simply ‘cut’ the images out from these and paste them into a new document to print out.  For 35mm you would need to make your contacts at 600 dpi or higher, as then printing at 200 dpi would give images around 4.5 x 3 inches. (The optimum dpi for printing on most printers is probably 250-360dpi, but 200 dpi does a very decent job.)

500 pictures – 1 in 10 of his take – was still far too many for a book, and the challenge was to get them down, in his case to 153, for publication. (Looking at his book, which I think I wrote about briefly at the time it was published, I would actually have preferred a tighter edit, and considerably more text.)

There are two very important points that he makes on the real editing process that takes place at this point. Firstly that it is something that needs time; rather than making final choices immediately you need to go back time after time and let your thoughts about the images mature. Personally I prefer to leave work for years rather than months or weeks to give time for my initial enthusiasms, often more tied up with the event of making the image rather than the image itself, to evaporate and be replaced by a more clear-headed appreciation of the work.

It’s also true that many photographers are poor editors of their own work, too emotionally attached to it to think objectively. And some photographers are simply poor editors; the two occupations call for differering if overlapping skills. Roberts was fortunate to be able to call on the services of others, and in particular his publisher, Chris Boot.

The feature also contains some interesting quotes from a couple of books, one in which a number of well-known photographers give a sentence or two about their approach to editing and a slightly longer quote about editing and Gene Smith from ‘On being a photographer‘ – in which Magnum photographer David Hurn talked to Bill Jay.

I wrote about their views on Smith some years ago. They concentrate on his Pittsburgh work, produced in part during the short period he was a member of Magnum. It was in many ways a difficult project, not least for Smith when all his cameras and negatives were stolen. The burglars were caught after the cameras were sold as one contained a film on which they had photographed each other, but the negatives were never recovered and Smith had to re-shoot.  In some ways the project was doomed from the start, Smith had aimed to create an in-depth project, but Magnum and writer Stefan Lorant wanted a quick shoot with around a hundred pictures to decorate Lorant’s text. What they saw as a week or two of shooting eventually ended up as several years of Smith’s work, completed with the aid of a grant after he had left Magnum. But here’s the comment I wrote back in January 2000:

David Hurn and Bill Jay dismiss the idea that Smith was a good editor of his work, suggesting that all his best work was edited by Life staffers. It’s at best a curious argument, not least because Smith generally edited his work considerably before letting the staffers near, and the overwhelming evidence appears to be that they were limited to trimming and shoe-horning his ideas into the magazine format. At its best it was a painful and high-energy dialectic that did deliver. Hurn & Jay’s prime evidence is the stilted prose of the Pittsburgh article, which, according to other sources, was not by Smith, but written to a deadline by two Magnum staff at a time Smith was largely beyond lucid thought.

Which perhaps leads to a third point about editing.  It’s best done on a clear head and not under the influence of whiskey and Benzedrine or whatever your particular poison. A glass of wine may help me, but not a bottle.

But ‘Dream Street‘ was hardly as Hurn and Jay suggest “a failure“, except that is for the finances of Magnum, which Smith almost single-handedly brought to ruin (and he left owing money he was never able to repay.)  Some consider it Smith’s finest work, but perhaps Magnum was never able to forget that debt.

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