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  • Behind the Scenes: How California Vernacular Came to Be a Zine

    Ending California Vernacular happened much the way starting it did: It wasn’t conscious at first. I took the earliest photo for the series in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I realized I was working on a project. My most productive year was 2009, but I continued to work on the series for a couple more years. Toward the end of 2011 and into early 2012, I was starting to move on, or starting to feel ready to move on, and I wanted to see what I had.

    So, in the spring of 2012, I began going back through all my photographs from the past five years, looking for images that I might have overlooked. Much of what was on my website at that point had been pulled from blog posts. Over the years, my process had been pretty basic: At the end of every day, I downloaded my images, looked through what I had, and chose what I thought were the best ones to post on my blog. Then, every once in a while, I would go back through my blog posts and choose images that I felt should be added to the series on my website.

    When I was faced with editing the series, I didn’t want to rely solely on my old blog archive to find photographs. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I might have more than just those images to choose from. And that turned out to be a big turning point for me. I spent weeks going through all the photographs I took between 2007 and 2012, and in the end, I found 225 contenders, many of which hadn’t been on my blog or website before. I knew at that point that I had enough to choose from, and that’s when I felt confident that I was truly done with California Vernacular.

    Once I came up with that pool of 225 images, I knew I wanted to narrow it to roughly 60. Why 60? I spent some time looking through the photo books I turn to again and again, and 60 seemed like an average number of images. Some of the books I loved the most had fewer than 60, and others had more, but 60 seemed like a good target to shoot for. At the same time, I didn’t feel confined by that number—I would’ve been perfectly content to end up with 50 or 70 or some other number, as long as I was confident that every photo contributed something essential to the series.

    I’d never done this kind of editing before, so I wasn’t really sure how to go about it. The 225 images were in a Collection in Lightroom, and at first I tried looking at the images onscreen, but soon I realized that wasn’t working for me—I wasn’t sitting with the photographs the way I needed to.

    So, I decided to print all 225 images at roughly 4 x 6 inches. A friend told me about a well-respected artist who, when he’s editing a series like this, has all his photos printed at a drugstore and then pastes them into a notebook, as a very basic book dummy. I tried that, but the print quality was crap, and I couldn’t see beyond the print quality to edit. So, I ended up printing all the images the same way I do gallery prints, trimming all the photos with a paper cutter to a uniform size. This process was time consuming, but it gave me the best possible version of the images to look at.

    Once I had that stack of images, most weekends I would lay them all out on my kitchen table (at first, spilling over onto other nearby surfaces), and just stare at them. I don’t know if there’s a better, more efficient way of doing this, but each week I just winnowed out the photos that I thought were the weakest of the bunch. When they finally all fit on the kitchen table, I started working at it from the other direction: pulling the images that I knew had to be in the final project. Then I looked for pairings—images that maybe weren’t strong enough to stand on their own but that I thought worked well playing off each other.

    I’m not gonna lie: This process took months, and I thought long and hard about each image, sometimes bringing back to the kitchen table ones I had cut the week before, only to cut them again the next week.

    In November, I arrived at my final edit, which coincidentally happened to be exactly 60 images (the target I was shooting for). And I sat with that edit for a few weeks, making sure I was satisfied.

    The sequencing of the images happened late in the process. As I was getting closer and closer to that final edit, I was also working on arranging them in an order that felt right to me. I used Blurb’s BookSmart software to do this, because seeing the images in book form, with two-page spreads, helped. I liked the freedom that BookSmart gave me in terms of rearranging images, trying different combinations or sequences. In fact, I think my final edit was actually closer to 70 images, but as I played with them in BookSmart, there were some I just couldn’t find a home for. They were images I liked, but they didn’t work in the book, so they had to go.

    Throughout 2012, as I was working on editing California Vernacular, my goal was really to produce a book maquette, with the goal of finding a publisher. I wasn’t interested in hand-sewing the books myself, so I started looking into other ways to do this. One option was going with a book bindery, but I thought two-page spreads were an important part of the process, and I wasn’t happy with the double-sided fine art papers on the market. Then I started looking into small, print-on-demand places.

    My sister Cara told me about one that happened to be in my neighborhood: Paper Chase. In the fall, while I was still working on editing the series, I met with the folks at Paper Chase and saw samples of their work, which is fantastic. It was difficult to get a price nailed down until I had the final page count set, though, so I needed to hold off until that final edit was in place. In December, after I’d edited and sequenced the series, I met with Paper Chase again and got a final quote for 25 copies of the book, but the price was well beyond my budget.

    At this point, I stopped and reassessed. What were my goals with this publication? I’d always thought my goal was to have California Vernacular published by a photo book publisher. I could’ve invested $4,000 to print 25 copies of the book, and very selectively distributed those copies to a handful of people. But I also thought a lot about how much I enjoyed sharing the series on my blog as it developed, how much the emails from blog readers had meant to me over the years, how excited I was to sell two images from the series at an affordable price through 20x200. And all of a sudden, it hit me: I don’t want this to be exclusive. I want this to be something that anyone who likes the series can afford.

    This opened all kinds of doors.

    Because I had used BookSmart to lay out my book, I briefly considered printing it through Blurb, but I was hesitant: I’d printed through Blurb once before, and I wasn’t happy with the results. That was years ago, though, and I thought the quality might have improved. So, I started researching—talking with other photographers who had used Blurb in the past year or so, and seeing what their experiences had been. The consensus seemed to be that Blurb can sometimes hit the mark, but that the quality isn’t consistent. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable listing my book for sale directly through Blurb, because I wouldn’t have had any way to ensure the quality of each copy of the book. Plus, and this was equally important, my book would’ve cost $80 per copy at Blurb (not counting any markup for profit). I couldn’t figure out why anyone would pay $80 for a Blurb book when they can get books published by the best publishers in the world for less than that. Finally, I wanted to keep the door open to publish the series someday, and I felt that if the book were available for anyone to buy on Blurb, that would diminish the interest of photo book publishers.

    So, I set aside the idea of a book, and started thinking about other forms of publication. And I hit on the idea of a zine. A zine would be affordable enough for most people to be able to get a copy; it would show the entire series as I’d envisioned it; and I could give away copies for free to portfolio reviewers and others I respected without going broke.

    The first thought I had was to publish something on newsprint. I’d bought Alec Soth’s The Last Days of W several years ago and really loved that format, and I started buying other newsprint publications, including Emiliano Granado’s Thank God That’s Over. I found a publisher that both Emiliano and Alec had used: Linco, based in New York. When I was using BookSmart, I had mapped out a roughly 80-page book, so shifting to a newsprint publication would’ve required some retooling—bigger pages would mean more photos per page. I got a quote for a 40-page tabloid-style newspaper, and it came out to around $4,750 for 1,000 copies. That’s a fantastic per-copy price, but Linco’s 1,000-copy minimum was a bit overwhelming. I was envisioning myself as a little old woman in my tiny Hollywood apartment, overflowing with newspapers. . . . Plus, a thousand copies was a bit more than I wanted for my limited edition. And finally, although I really love the newsprint publications I’ve bought, they don’t hold up well over time (understandably, since that’s not the intention), and I wanted something that would last.

    At this point, I started researching zine publishers and using their online estimators to get quotes. The Indie Photobook Library was a huge help in this area. I had a dozen or so zines that I’d bought over the years, and I found most of them in the Indie Photobook Library and was able to look up which printers the photographers had used. I finally landed on Smartpress because their pricing was the best, and their print quality was as good as everybody else’s. (I ordered samples to be sure.)

    Now I was ready to move.

    I knew I wanted this zine to be something special, which meant pulling in outside help for the design. I’ve always admired the work of Clifton Burt, and this was a great opportunity to collaborate with him on something. Lucky for me, he was available.

    I gave Clifton the images and told him which ones were to go on which pages, and he laid it out to those specifications. Then from there, it took probably two weeks of back and forth to get the design nailed down. Since I had already taken care of the sequencing and layout, by “design,” I’m talking about everything from choosing the font to kerning.

    We finished in mid-January, and I ordered a hard-copy proof from Smartpress. During this proofing phase, I found Smartpress incredibly helpful and easy to work with—they bent over backwards to get things right. Once I had a proof I was pleased with, I ordered 250 copies of the zine.

    While I was waiting for the zines to arrive, I bought resealable polypropylene bags from ULINE to protect the zines during shipment, along with cardboard envelopes. I also set up my online shop through Big Cartel, which integrates beautifully with Virb, where I have my website.

    After the zines were delivered, I signed and hand-numbered each copy and launched! I held back a small number to give away to portfolio reviewers and other people I love, admire, or respect. And the rest, I’m selling through my site.

    This whole process was a tremendous learning experience for me, and I’m so happy with the way things turned out! I feel really proud of and pleased with the zine, and if nothing more comes my way with the series, I know I’ll still be completely happy. And yet I also feel like the zine is different enough from what a book would be that I might still have the opportunity to publish it as a book someday. Either way, I’m thrilled! Nothing has taught me more, challenged me more, or been more fun than working on California Vernacular and seeing it through to completion.

    I love you, California!