Something has been quietly happening in the world of publishing over the last few years, and this year looks like being the time that independent, small-run, crafted photobooks finally emerge into the spotlight. What, haven’t photobooks been around forever? Isn’t that what a coffee-table book is? Well, yes and no. Books that are collections of photographs are absolutely nothing new, and they’re what I’ve spent most of my career doing, from the Sudan book to Life of Tea. But these picture-led books are essentially trade editions, from often quite large publishers with sales forces or access to standard distribution channels. At the opposite, indie end of the scale are books that are personal, created by the photographer rather than commissioned by a publisher. There’s no compulsion to stick to an obvious storyline, or to explain. Being personal means that the photographer can experiment, and use imagination not just in the making of the photographs themselves, but in the creation of the book as an object.
Two things that contemporary photobooks have in common are first, that the entire book-with-its-photographs is the artwork, not just a vehicle for showing some pictures. As a photographer, it’s impossible not to enjoy making one, because it gives us full, personal control over everything — not just the shooting but the selection and how the images are sequenced. The second feature that all photobooks have is that each one is a physical experience. The tactile qualities, from the texture of the cover to the paper and any particular quirks like tipped-in ephemera, are every bit as important as the visual. A photobook is an object to be handled and felt — all the things that a screen and the internet are not. I personally believe that this physical challenge to the screen-consumed imagery that everyone is now so used to is a good part of the reason for the new surge of interest. And of course, they are highly collectible.
So you can imagine my delight when my client LUX* Resort and Hotels accepted my suggestion to make a photobook-as-collectible-object on the Tea Horse Road. Not only that, but they asked for a series of photobooks, following Yunnan with Mauritius and La Réunion. This is what my designer friend Roy Williams and I have been working on, and we’re very shortly about to go to press with the first, called Of Tea and Horses. Roy and Laurence, in their design partnership Bradbury and Williams, designed Life of Tea, and anyway, we’ve known and have worked with each other from way back, when they left the Royal College of Art and I left advertising. Even with all the books I’ve done over the years, this has been a particular experience, and on the whole a very enjoyable one. Yes, I realise some of you may be stifling a yawn at the word Tea Horse Road, but please bear with me. I haven’t started shooting Mauritius and La Réunion yet, so it’s the only one we’ve got. Also, apart from dipping into all the things you can do now with printing on a small scale, it’s an interesting exercise in making an entirely new version of an existing book.
The first job was to work on the physicality of the book — how it would feel and handle as an object. We wanted the cover boards to be as tactile as possible, so we looked at both a textured cover and de-bossing the title with foil. An early option was a suede-like material, but we finally settled on a white linen. For the de-bossed title — intaglio, in other words — this would mean making a brass die for a crisp effect. Then for the inside we quickly decided on a French fold, which is where the pages are folded rather like a concertina so that the printing is on only one side. Very tactile, and we added to this a number of leaves of a completely different paper, translucent. This was because of my interest in ephemera, like tea wrappers and sketches, which I wanted to sprinkle throughout the book, yet keep separate from the photography. Back when the original Tea Horse Road book came out, the magazine China Life ran a feature on me that included a tipped-in sketch that I’d made, and I liked the specialness of having something else to touch. For these translucent interleaves I photographed wrapped cakes of Pu’er tea from the wonderful collection at Postcard Teas, and recruited my artist friend Ellen Kong in Shanghai to make a silk painting and another, free-flowing sketch on paper.
On to the picture selection, which naturally has to be fresh and different from the photographs in the original book. No problem there, as I shoot twice a year in Yunnan, mainly in the Lijiang-Benzilan area, so there’s plenty of fresh material. Moreover, this book actually needs a different tone, and is a perfect vehicle for images which are favourites but which didn’t really fit the narrative of the first book. That’s one of the delights of a personal photobook — it’s an opportunity to step away from the obvious. There’s no compulsion whatsoever to make points, as happens in a traditional narrative book. The logic isn’t sequential, it’s visual and a touch oblique. This doesn’t make the selection any easier, because each image has to have some feeling, and should provoke thought.
It’s also perfect for a few shots that I have which are unusual in format, either strongly panoramic or strongly vertical. One of the latter is of Tiger Leaping Gorge, a spectacular and deep canyon, which to me begged for a vertical format. As did another shot of one of the narrow lanes of old Lijiang with towering tiled roofs and eaves. Images like this are completely uncommercial; they really can’t fit on a screen or in a normal book. In my own photobook, however, we’re running them horizontally, and the idea that the reader turns the book ninety degrees actually enhances the physical-object experience.
And finally, but turning out to be one of the most challenging tasks, was the title. The problem here was that the name of this ancient trade route, Tea Horse Road (in Chinese Cha Ma Dao 茶马道) is so simply descriptive that it’s hard to escape. It was the title of my original book, for which there was fortunately no significant competition, but it’s also very factual, and a new book needs something more interesting — while at the same time needing the word tea and the word horse. For the English version I came up with Of Tea and Horses, which seemed to fit the bill of being slightly oblique and with a literary reference (to John Steinbeck). But there had to be a Chinese version also, and that works quite differently. A direct translation was out of the question, but we still needed tea (茶) and horse (马), and at most a couple of extra characters, as the title has to be short. I canvassed all kinds of suggestions from friends in China, but how could I possibly judge? A good book title taps into culture, literature, history, and if you’re not steeped in those, you basically don’t get it.
On my last speaking trip to Beijing in December, I’d worked with a great translator, Chen Yifeng, and he proposed 茶马天涯, literally Tea Horse Edge-of-Heaven, but much more layered in meaning. 天涯, Tian Ya, is the edge of heaven, meaning far, far away — to the edge of the world. Deeper than this, it alludes to a famous poem:-
Over old trees wreathed with rotten vines fly evening crows;
Under a small bridge near a cottage a stream flows;
On ancient road in the west wind a lean horse goes.
Westward declines the sun;
Far, far from home is the heartbroken one.
Brilliant, and for me carries echoes of an old favourite book with a poignant title, Far Away and Long Ago, by William Hudson. But what an exercise in translation.