The mechanical nature of cameras often creates the perception that photographers are “button-pushers”; that they have a keen eye and sense of timing, but that the artistry begins and ends there. Photographers’ Sketchbooks, a new book by Street Photography Now co-author Stephen McLaren and LPV magazine founder Bryan Formhals, provides a behind-the-scenes look into the thought processes of 49 photographers from around the globe.
The elongated tome is itself an encyclopedia of inspiration. Over 300 illustrated pages contain reproductions of personal sketchbooks, a term that has been expanded to include a wide range of materials. From the traditional Polaroid to the more contemporary iPhone test shots, the book encompasses more than just on-site documentation. It includes found photos, contact sheets, diary pages, and collages of various inspiring imagery that all funnel into the creative process of bringing an idea to fruition. More than just a series of preparatory steps towards a final image, each sketchbook is presented as a work of art in itself.
In addition to the visuals, each chapter begins with a short description of the featured photographer, followed by the photographer’s own words about their creative methods and relationship to the medium. Some are intimate stories, revealing more than could be inferred from the sketchbooks alone. Others are philosophies behind image making. Encompassing a broad range of photographers, the book includes legends such as Alec Soth and the late Saul Leiter, as well as up-and-coming photographers like Laura Pannack and Robin Cracknell. The combination of text and imagery offers an unfiltered look into the mind of each photographer. Magnum photographer Trent Parke describes his conflicting needs to both photograph on film and review each day’s photographs. “When we travelled around the country on the Minutes to Midnight trip, I had a 35mm scanner and a small postcard printer in my tent I would use to print out the pictures every day. Narelle, my wife, shot Polaroids of all my film hanging on clotheslines, in trees, by the beach—wherever we were, all around the country. It’s important that I see everything I do that day, because I am fascinated with the subconscious and why I am drawn to photograph certain things.”
The book arrives at a time when the role of the photographer as artist and business person is hotly debated. In the book’s introduction essay McLaren writes, “The most forward-thinking photographers are also curators and documenters of their own work, constantly probing new possibilities for publishing and exhibiting.” The book’s four essays incorporate both the early history of photography and the influence of the modern digital environment.
Photographers’ Sketchbooks concentrates on documentary photographers, those artists who traditionally have the least studio time involved in their image-making. This unacknowledged decision prevents the book from presenting a broader spectrum of photographers—conceptual photographers are almost entirely absent, leaving us to wonder what their own sketchbooks might reveal. Given the authors’ backgrounds, however, this bias can be appreciated. Those who view photography as a “click-and-print” medium will be fascinated to see the carefully calculated steps involved in the realization of an image, while practitioners of photography will delight in comparing and contrasting their own methods with the “studio practice” of these photographers.
Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures and a maker of photographs.
This article first appeared in print in Issue 4.
Photographer's Sketchbooks is available from Thames and Hudson