Some photographers take relentless notes in pocket journals, others share their discoveries in real time on Instagram. The two methods are different approaches to the contemporary photographic process, which is the subject of a new book, Photographers’ Sketchbooks, by Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals.
The volume, published this month by Thames & Hudson, features 49 international photographers contributing rare looks at the evolution of their projects. The term “sketchbook” is used here as a broad embrace of any piece of the preparatory process: contact sheets, book proposals, film negatives, zines, pinned prints, and scrawled text — all are assembled in a compendium that goes behind the scenes of professional photography.
What’s most interesting about Photographers’ Sketchbooks is how it bridges the analogue and the digital, both of which have a firm place in photography today. Australian photographer Trent Parke hauls around a 35mm scanner, a machine he used to make a rudimentary dummy of his trek across his country, captured in the monograph Minutes to Midnight; while Sicilian photojournalist Mimi Mollica takes down detailed story narratives by hand alongside his Hasselblad shots. Kentucky-born Stacy Kranitz is as much a historian as an artist; for her series on Appalachia she spent years photographing people in the often stereotyped region, as well as collecting text from a local newspaper and other artifacts of the place, making her studio into her own “museum and archive.”
Others, however, like Peter DiCampo, embrace social media as their “sketchbook.” DiCampo co-created Everyday Africa, a project that has 10 photojournalists sharing images of daily life on the continent shot on their iPhones. “Often my work as a photojournalist seems surprisingly, even dangerously, predetermined,” DiCampo says in Photographers’ Sketchbooks. “We know the story we have been sent to cover, and we edit ourselves to tell the story even as we shoot. But when I remember I can shoot without a theme, the other photos I am making simultaneously — on a silly phone with a silly app — begin to feel more honest.”
Photographers’ Sketchbooks offers not just insight into these private work worlds, but also a reflection on how practitioners are incorporating collaboration and the public through new technology. “The digital age and the internet have opened up many opportunities for photographers to share new and unfinished projects from their sketchbooks publicly,” the authors write in one of the book’s essays. “While it might not be wise to make all your creative choices solely on the basis of how many notes you receive on Tumblr, sharing projects-in-progress does allow the photographer to discover which photographs and ideas resonate with an audience.”