An Unexpected Collaboration: My Marriage of Writing and Book Photography

We all know the importance of an effective feature photo. After all, it’s the first thing you see when you scroll — the shock of colour, that unexpected juxtaposition — which makes you pause, and consider clicking on the post you might otherwise have passed by.

But I have been thinking, lately, about the relationship between photography and writing in a new way.

I’ve come to see it as a marriage.

Now, I’d like you to pause over that all-too-often used metaphor “marriage,” and consider what one between a photograph and a piece of writing might actually look like.

This is how I used to see photographs that accompanied posts: a marketing incentive to invite a reader to click on your post as opposed to the vast number of other options floating by. When I started my own blog — and was baptized into that creative process — I came to realize that photographs are not just an afterthought. At least, they’re not for me, if I am doing a good job.

Photographs do not merely accompany posts as some secondary feature, I realized. Rather, they are an internal part of the post itself, part of a collaborative, artistic whole.

Many times I’ve found that I’ll get stuck writing a blog post until I know which photo I’ll be using. Once I’ve uploaded it and visually have it in front of me as part of the draft I’m working on, I can continue to write. The writing and the photo often influence each other in ways they never could if they were just haphazardly paired.

And so, I repeat: I do not join photos and my writing together just because there is some ancillary commonality that they happen to share. (That would make me a bad matchmaker at best, to say nothing of a terrible priest.)

The photographs and my writing, then, often grow together, like in a true marriage.

Let me tell you a bit about my process.

While I’m writing a blog post, I will already be thinking of what kind of photo could accompany it. For some, I will choose an existing photograph that I previously took: these are mainly landscapes. Or, I’ll select one that someone else has previously taken, often these are ones with me included in it, ones I can’t take on my own (thanks again, friends and family for your generous permissions!).

But the vast majority of the feature photos included in my blog posts are taken with the particular writing of that post in mind. This is true with almost every single photo of books that you’ll see on my site. I start creating these photographs — not just selecting them — as I write. That is, I begin by composing them in my mind in conjunction with my writing.

Now, I am no professional: I’ve never taken a class in photography. I couldn’t even call myself an amateur. What I am is an experimenter, with an eye for the artistic and the interesting.

I am also not the photographer behind the camera for most of these photos, specifically the ones of books, which are the majority. No, that is the work of the talented Russell Lloyd. The role I have in the photographing these is that of the director of the photo.

I had thought that in directing photos, I would merely tell my photographer what I envisioned, that he’d take the photograph, and that would be it. (I warned you I wasn’t a  real photographer!)

And yet, I’ve been surprised to discover that each one of these photos is a collaborative effort between me and Russell. This sort of collaboration has been highly unexpected — not unlike the marriage between my writing and a photograph — but perhaps even more so.

We begin by setting up the scene. I arrange my carefully chosen books. Russell sets up his tripod, asks a few questions, and starts taking some initial photos. We look at them together and then start making adjustments.

I’ll go ahead and make changes to the scene. He’ll offer suggestions.

Maybe it’s moving something to a different angle. Adding a focal point for interest. Changing the lighting, the background, the arrangement. We riff off each other. It’s been amazing to me to see what kind of beautiful creations we can make together.

Let me give you an example.

One evening before a blog post was due, I was eating dinner with Russell when he asked what I wanted as the photo for my imminent post.

Usually I’d know exactly what I wanted going into it, and direct appropriately. But for this one, I told him I had absolutely no idea. This was a first.

I’d previously read him my post, My Multifaceted Relationship with Books (a short essay on the many ways I’ve encountered them). He considered the title for a moment, and told me that “multifaceted” made him think of a gem stone with many sides. Now you probably won’t like this idea, he warned me before he said any more, but we could take individual pictures of books and create a collage to look like a gem.

I surprised him, I think, when I said Show me. (I usually like to be the one coming up with the ideas, a challenge which we both know only too well). I pointed to some books near our table, and he began arranging them.

As I watched, I sadly realized the impossible amount of work it would take him to individually piece them together in some sort of editing software for a post that was scheduled for tomorrow.

Well, he offered, if I still wanted the multifaceted idea, he had some pictures from India he had previously taken that might do. India was full of geometric shapes in their architecture, he expalined.

So we looked at the photos. I found one which caught my eye, which I’ve included as the  left half of the feature photo for this post. The photo was absolutely gorgeous, with the central flower as a focal point and the light shinning through like that. But as I looked at it, I again concluded, with some disappointment, that the relation between “multifaceted relationship with books” and the multifaceted properties of this beautifully intrinsic geometric shape would probably be too far-fetched to understand at a glance.

Then someone got the idea, and I think it was me (it’s difficult, sometimes, to remember who had the specific ideas in the creation as it unfolds) to recreate it: a six-sided shape with a focal point in the middle, created by stacking books, with a vantage point from above.

So, we went to my personal library and I started pulling books off the shelves and began arranging them on the floor. Russell set up his tripod. When he realized I wanted the “middle” of the geometric creation of books (the chapbook I’d previously written and self-published called Memoirs of a Bookshop Girl) to be dead centre in the photograph, he had to extend horizontally the arm of his tripod to its max.

I scoured up additional lighting (it was, after all, night now, and I wanted to post this first thing in the morning). We would also need this light to offset the shadows made by the camera’s precarious position over the books.

Russell, meanwhile, had looped over the hook at the end of his tripod arm, a cloth bag filled with rice to counterbalance the weight of the camera overhanging the books. I thought it ingenious. Is that what it’s there for? I asked him, Or did you come up with that on your own?

The arranging of books was an ongoing collaborative experiment: it started with a few that I placed on the ground, and continued outward with Russell telling me colours that were needed, spaces to be filled. He would take a few photos, ask me to come look, we would discuss, make some alterations, and continue.

As he took the photos, and I held up a white pillow case against the lights to try and defuse some of the sharp shadows, I thought about what a ridiculously wonderful “behind the scenes” photo this would make: Russell with his bag of rice balancing at the end of his camera, my shelves of books with gaping holes in them where my books — now on the floor — had been, and me holding up this pillowcase. But taking that photo would have required an additional photographer, I reflected, and may have also taken away a bit of the fun of us being so candid. Meanwhile, my arms tired and I could feel my face glowing hot from the burn of the bright lights.

At one point, I left my post to bend down and adjust the angle of the book in the centre — my focal point. With the camera on a timer, Russell already had the photo in a the process of being taken. I got caught in the middle of it.

And yet, this happened to be the photo I ended up using for that particular post (the other portion of the featured image of this post). Yes, when we reviewed all of the photos when the photoshoot was over, we both agreed that my arms reaching down had provided something that all the other carefully created versions, artistic as they were, had lacked: the candid.

In conclusion

Each of the photos we’ve created together has been an evolving art form, something I never expected when I began the process. And, in every case, the final product of the photo is always a true artistic collaboration: something that neither of us could have created on our own.

It has been strange to see the collaboration between the photos and my writing: the way I need one in order to properly proceed with the other. An idea for a photo will often come to mind as I write. And then, with the photo now in front of me, this will in turn help give further direction to and clearer focus in my writing.

But stranger still has been the collaborative effort between me and my photographer. I might have provided most of the initial ideas (but not always, as my example above shows). But he always provides keen-sighted suggestions, and visual expertise, that shapes this, together, into a work of art.

These have both been beautiful marriages.

Oh – did I mention that my photographer, Russell, happens to be my husband? Yes, this has been a collaborative marriage, indeed.

Thanks Russell!


Question: What creative collaborative experiences have you had, either with another person or with two different art forms?