The Life of Tea

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Just published, and weighing in at a little over two-and-a-half kilos, is the new book that I’ve spent a year working on, and it’s called The Life of Tea. In addition to the books on photography and the design books (my latest is Mindful Design of Japan, pictured here below),   I generally get to do a book like this every few years.

Mindful desin of Japan

‘Like this’ means a big book on a different, unexpected or not-in-demand topic, and its two predecessors were Sudan: The Land and the People published in 2005 and Tea Horse Road from 2011, republished last year. These are books that take quite a commitment of time and travel, and usually some effort to get moving—in order to overcome the inertia of publishers who don’t easily see an immediate market. In the case of Sudan, that inertia proved so strong that we had to raise the money from sponsors, mainly in Sudan itself. Of course, once you have an actual book produced and aren’t asking anyone for money upfront, publishers are not that hard to find. This, The Life of Tea, was a special case, because it came in under the transom, as my old friend and former Picture Editor of the Smithsonian magazine Caroline Despard used to say. I didn’t pitch the idea; it came from the client. And it came already with this great title from the client and a clear concept of being about the very best of teas and the life surrounding them. And also with the demand to make it unlike anything else on the market.Perhaps strangely, it may never see the light of a Waterstone’s shelf or an Amazon page, because this was a private commission by a banking client. That still feels a little strange, because in every other way it was a full-on production on the scale of the Sudan and Tea Horse Road books. With close to 300 pages, no original book project of this size gets away with anything less than 20 weeks of shooting, and this was no exception. And those 20 weeks are just the core of the project, because there’s a great deal of prep and even more post that goes on. The post is probably the more obvious, involving picture selection, the text (ah, the words…that’s always another story), design, checking and re-checking, and finally printing and binding. The preparation for a big book, however, doesn’t get talked about very much, apart from the expected logistics—simply getting to places. Yet the conceptual work before shooting begins is the hidden and (to me) fascinating part. This is what publishers do in editorial meetings. Without a publisher in this instance, it’s what the client and I went through.

Fulin Zen Temple, Wuyishan, Fujian, China. Tea with Zen master

Fulin Zen Temple, Wuyishan, Fujian, China. Tea with Zen master

I set a lot of store by titles, because they can and should spark the imagination. I always have at least a working title from the very beginning, even if it’s clumsy, because I use it as a constant reminder of what the book should be about. In this case, the title was very good right at the start. Not only was there no title like this already on the market, but it evoked a special line of enquiry. This was to be a book that concentrated on the people surrounding tea, telling its story through their eyes and lives.

One of the great challenges in any book project is that if you’re dealing with a substantial commodity or theme, there will already be other books, and probably a whole slew of them. How to be different and better is always the preoccupation. Just different is not enough, because you then slide into being different-but-weird or different-and-pointless. It has to be somehow on target. It has to have a point and be desirable. Being better is of course a conceit. It means we want to be competitive, and even if not everyone else is going to agree, it has to be better by our own standards and those of our peers. At any rate, it’s an ambition.

We looked at other books on tea. As it turned out, it was a very mixed bag, and the best ones had no pictures. The larger, more illustrated ones cobbled their images from a range of sources, often hand-outs, so there was no visual continuity. I understood their problem: it costs a lot to go around all those tea mountains in Asia, more than a publisher is likely to recoup in sales.

And one more thing. One of my main preoccupations was colour. Most of the pictures were green, because most of them were about tea leaves. Well, yes, it’s all about tea so you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? If you’re doing an encyclopaedia it would be unavoidable, but we weren’t. I was doing a picture-led book, as the client asked for. The constant challenge throughout the year’s shooting was not always to have green leaves in the frame.

This is where making it a reportage project helped, telling the stories of the people involved—growers, makers, merchants, artisans, craftsmen and connoisseurs. They weren’t green, and moreover allowed visual variety, and if you’re going to have nearly 300 photographs in sequence, you do need variety, though of course with some kind of continuity, which is the usual paradox of photo essays.

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A private joke was that in the processing of Chinese green tea, an early step is firing the freshly picked leaves in a large wok to halt oxidation, and it’s called sha qing, or ‘Killing Green’. Publishing and tea had this much in common, because that was exactly what I had do in making the book.

I can’t show you the book itself, but here’s a small selection of the photographs on my portfolio account on LensCulture,

or if you prefer it to music, here on Vimeo.