In this series I am taking a look at books from the back catalogue and sharing how they came to be, how they did and what I learnt from the experience.
Each account is divided into 2 sections: Before and After
Crossing Over was released in June 2013 as a 24 page booklet. Technically speaking it was book #025 from The Velvet Cell. It documents the journey of the photographer, Yanina Shevchenko, from Moscow to Vladivostok in Russia and back again on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The publication includes an essay by the photographer examining the thought process behind the project, and how her discoveries met up to her expectations.
I have started this series with this Crossing Over for a few reasons. Firstly Crossing Over seems so long ago now that it's a good time to go back and revisit it. Secondly, this was the first book I did after moving to Asia and it was, as it turned out, a significant moment in the overall story of The Velvet Cell thus far. I was quite disillusioned with indie publishing at this moment and considered this a last hurrah of sorts.
Before we begin; a little about Yanina. She grew up in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) but moved abroad when she was 18. She moved to New York in 2005, before finding herself in Argentina and then London before settling in her current location, Barcelona. Though she may not live in Russia any more she is still captivated by where she comes from and most of her projects deal with Russia in some form or another.
I met Yanina while we were completing the same MA (Photography and Urban Cultures, Goldsmiths) course in London from 2011-2012. When the time came to think of our thesis, Yana decided to embark on a return trip to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway. By doing this she hoped to discover the ‘true nature of her homeland and embrace the immense scale of the country’. She spent the twelve days onboard mingling with her fellow travellers and watching the Russian landscape unfold itself through the carriage windows.
It was only long after the trip was completed, our theses handed in and so forth that the idea of the book really became a reality. It was March 2013, a whole ten months after the work was completed, and I was finally starting to settle in Taipei. We communicated a lot over whether it would work as a publication and how we saw the book in its final form, trying to see if we had the same ideas.
One of the first things that came up was that we both wanted the book to include an essay relating her experiences and giving the project a wider context rather than just a sequence of images. I often feel that many photobooks are too transient in nature because their message is too ambiguous. How many times have I gone through a photobook only to feel unsatisfied and uninformed by the end. Creating books that utilised the visual and the written form had been something I wanted to do for a long time and now, because Yanina had an essay to go with the project, I could do it.
Yanina and I both wanted to create something that was well presented in both concept and design and we didn't mind the idea of sharing directly with the reader what the project was about. We wanted the reader to understand the purpose of the project, rather than leave it completely open to personal interpretation. We were both really keen to give the readers the story behind the project itself. We envisioned a process: First, viewers would see the photos and interpret them in their own way. Second, they would read the text and third, view the photos again in a new way.
The idea here, and in all books that I’ve done that include essays, is not intended that the essay explains the photos, but rather it works in tandem with the photographs to further inform the viewer. It gives a context through which the photos, and the photographer’s intentions, can be better understood. Both the essay and the photos should be able to stand on their own, but also complement each other when put together.
For me personally, I have always maintained that TVC is not a photobook publishing house per se. It is about stories and journeys in the modern world, whether in visual or written format.
We spent a long time working on the essay. Editing text and essays is a lot more intense and difficult than arranging photo sequences. The essay was originally part of her thesis that she handed in alongside the portfolio, but we needed to overhaul its academic feel and make it more readable and interesting. Neither of us are writers so it was a difficult task but I've heard from so many people how they loved that essay and felt that it added massively to the book so I'm really glad we persevered. We divided the essay into different sections to help break it up and we also included a bibliography for anyone interested in further reading.
As a very small publishing house, the cost of printing in the UK or some places in Europe can quickly end some dreams. I was very lucky to find a quality printer based on the other side of Taipei and we got to work quickly on production. This was my first time being on press. It was a completely new experience for me at the time.
We decided to go for 300 copies as I was really unsure of the interest there would be in the publication. Neither of us really made a publishing plan or agreement, I just agreed to cover the risks at my own cost and she got some free copies. I took on all the risk but benefited if it sold well.
I remember distinctly feeling “who is helping who?” - on the one hand I am printing her work and spending considerable time promoting it online and in other manners. I am also investing in her practice and helping to set her up for further success. But on the other hand she was trusting me, a small and untested publishing house, with her content and her name (effectively her brand). And, for me, if the book did well TVC would have capital for more books. That’s always been my goal - that one book will enable another to be made.
The book was designed by me with input from Yanina along the way. At the time I was really inspired by Hassla. If you don't know them, Hassla have been producing beautiful eclectic books for many years now - though in later years their style has become much more abstract. But I loved how David had built a sustainable platform publishing small booklets: well designed, neat, usually saddle stitched. They came in all shapes and sizes. I felt they all emanated the idea of ‘restraint’ in a beautiful way.
To be honest I probably over emphasised the format of Crossing Over in my head as a result and tried to adapt the content to fit into the chosen format rather that letting the content inform the format. That was something I learnt from in time - letting the work dictate the format, not vice versa.
Finally it was all ready for printing! I spent all day overseeing the printing, not really sure what was actually happening but learning a lot in just that day alone. As each sheet came out I admired the photos and how nice they looked. Another mistake. I should have been spending this time scrutinising for mistakes and not admiring how the printed image looks - though it's hard not to!
After printing I went home and the books went off to be bound. A week or so later 3 boxes arrived at my apartment and it was ready for publishing! That's where I'll take up the story in Part 2 (After)