Saturday, April 14, 2012

Reading: Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Not a book about photography, but on a topic that has definite value for developing my photographic practice.

In a recent mail from my tutor the question was asked about where I going with my future as a photographer.  I frequently ponder this question, but as of now do not have a satisfactory answer.  Unless my current job goes South in a hurry I am very unlikely to be able to earn as much as a beginner photographer as a senior business analyst in a large IT company.  A decision to make a living as a photographer would then have to be balanced against a significant reduction in income, although maybe with the incalculable value of actually enjoying my job.  Just not sure if 50 is the age at which to make such a profound change...

However, photography is going to be a major part of my life so I do need to think about what that means.  Currently the greatest pleasure I get from photography is the development and production of photobooks.  Using Blurb I have now published over a dozen titles, ranging from, "here is what I did last vacation", through "harry met sally and they got married", to a few nascent attempts at fine art publications.  Actually, the "what I did last vacation" are the most involved; my vacations could best be described as underwater photography book development with Beer!  In 3 weeks I head away once more to the Pacific, the biggest question is what design will my book have and how to shoot for it.  More about that in a later post.

The design and publication of photobooks is thus going to be a major part of my practice going forwards.  I need to start developing skills appropriate to book publishing, taking and editing photos is merely a small element.  Of equal importance is the design of the book, the sequencing of the imagery, and critically the use of text.  The style of text has a huge impact on the look and feel of the book, the typeface, weight and size can impart a very distinct visual style.  When I produced U - a study of the Munich underground system I used Helvetica Neue LT 55, a very modern looking typeface, very clean and readable, also the closest I could find to that used in the subway system.  For Transient Light I wanted a more romantic almost historical look, so opted for a serif typeface - Bodoni MT.  In both cases the choice of font imparted an atmosphere to the book and influenced how it would be read.

I admit to an early interest in type, after buying a Macintosh Plus in 1987 (1MB memory, 20MB hard disk, a snip for 2000 pounds - and that was with student discount) I was introduced to the world of fonts.  When I published my Ph.D. I typeset it using Donald Knuth's TeX program, using the rather elegant Palatino typeface, one of the first thesis' published in my department that looked like a book rather than a bunch of pages from a typewriter glued together.  Since then I have always been concerned with the design of documents, although nowadays tend to default to the simplicity of the Arial typeface and leave it at that. It is readable and not ugly, but hardly conveys any personality.

So, recently I bought a few books on type and design, with the intent to educate myself more about the mysteries of the published word.  "Just my Type" is not only an excellent introduction to what works and what does not, it is a humorous and somewhat tongue in cheek history of the use of type and how innovation in printing has driven development.  The book intersperses a historical narrative with short chapters analyzing key typefaces and their use.  It looks at the good and the bad - the typeface chosen for the London Olympics takes a major bashing - it is desperately ugly.

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts

I now realize that I need to rethink Arial, to never again use Comic Sans, and start to explore Gill Sans, Helvetica, and the many other fonts I willfully ignore.  Another very useful volume I bought at the same time is a pure reference, but allows each typeface to be seen properly in print

Encyclopaedia of Typefaces: The Standard Typography Reference Guide

This is referred to a couple of times in Garfield's book and is an essential reference.

This is not really intended as a review of either book, but a reflection on my dawning realization that design is a key element of a photographers skill set.  Taking, editing and printing a photograph is demanding and takes years to perfect, however, for a photograph to be seen by more than a few it needs to be published and that needs an additional set of skills.  These books are a good source of inspiration and knowledge for building an element of that additional skill set.

1 comment:

  1. My favourite font at the moment is Din Pro—modern like Helvetica Neue—but with a something extra that appeals at the moment. But my favourites change often!!

    Other fonts never to use—tekton and brushscript!