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To Blurb or not to?

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To Blurb or not to? “Which tools will we use?”

About 15 years ago I attended a book making workshop with John Blakemore at the Picture House in Leicester. I also remember soon after that there was an exhibition of hand-made books at the same venue. These were individual hand crafted exhibits, which were in themselves, works of art. John Blakemore was a true craftsman and for many years to come we all developed the skills he shared with us on that day. It was later a pleasure to share these techniques with others. Even now the students I work with seem to marvel at the fact that it is possible to make such pieces. Although they are initially seduced by the convenience of working totally digitally, many are being drawn to using more tactile practical skills to produce unique pieces of work. The different textures and colours of handmade papers used on the outside covers make the viewer almost reluctant to open the book, like a luxury wrapped present. Once inside the pages are carefully lifted, unlike a commercially printed book, their weight and presence is felt in the viewer’s hand. After the content has been reviewed, the binding will be examined, the skills of the craftsman admired and the spine will be caressed with great fondness.

Although Blakemore would reject any influence from the TV programme “Blue Peter”, there are certain parallels. The materials he used may have been found in an art suppliers, while Blue Peter’s were sourced from the kitchen, the concept of making by following a series of steps and allowing the producer some control over the final outcome, is a well-known teaching strategy. He never would say “here’s one I made earlier” – but I certainly would!

At some point in time we started to experiment with the use of computers, printers and the continuous surface. Setting up templates and exploring the use of the new double sided coated papers moved us one step closer to a “real book”. This was soon followed by visits to the local printers and access to their “spiral binder”, with acetate covers our finished product was now quite professional.

Then along comes Lulu, quickly followed by a host of other online publishers and while they all vied for top slot, Blurb quietly slipped into the lead. Users have been criticised by some for vanity publishing but even those doubters can be rejected, as even well know practitioners are finding it a way of distributing new work. A quick look through Blurb’s website will reveal a vast array of quite exceptional work, which makes one wonder why it has not found a commercial backer. So with our Lightroom plugin we are now ready to flood the world with our creations. But wait, computers are soulless and cold, where prints are slowly fed to us and our only contact is through a keyboard and mouse. I was never really content with using slide film, the little yellow boxes would regularly drop through the letter box. However good the results, they lacked that personal input that a darkroom print processed. Even a colour Cibachrome print seemed more of a technical exercise rather than a creative one, perhaps it was the plastic nature of the paper being used. But now Blurb packages have replaced those little yellow boxes and you can even spread your work through the use of the internet. But how truly satisfying is the production?

Perhaps the enthusiasm of students to explore the nature of hand making has made me reconsider their use and uniqueness. This was further reinforced when looking at some negatives, no more than 10 years old, but they were tangible, a real thing to hold up to the light, reviling the magic of photography, but while looking at these I questioned the actual existence of my digital pictures?

So I decided to return to the skills learnt under Blakemore’s tutelage. Although the prints were digital in capture and production, the final book would be made from hand cut card and paper, assembled with PVA glue. The usual frustrations were experienced, of glue covered fingers and paper that would not stay in place. But there was satisfaction in the final outcome, it was not perfect but unique in its nature. Most of all it didn’t require me to use the internet or my credit card! Perhaps I am getting old but there are times when I question what progress we are making and is it our vanity that is driving our output rather than our creativity?