By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Meaning Together

with one comment

The Art of the Opener

Ladder layout

Chapter openers in pictorial books lasso the reader and set the stage for the gallery-type display pages to come. If well done, these two-page spreads can also subtly convey layers of context and mood — qualities many readers may sense, without being fully aware of.

A simple design is usually best. Unlike flashy magazine spreads, which must fight hard to grab the reader immediately, the best pictorial books should invite you to savor and probe over an extended period.  Depth earns them a permanent place on the shelf. “Coffee table” or “gift book” attractions are fine, but transitory: many of us hold those things or people closest to ourselves when we feel they have permanent value.

For such reasons I give special consideration to chapter and section openers. The classic graphic elements are a single vertical picture and a short title: and they need to talk to each other. I select the picture  and word(s) with an ear to this visual-verbal dialog. The goal is a kind fusion reaction that creates energy. That energy can ignite the text-and-picture narrations to come. As in any conversation, its tones and textures can weave layered meanings, overt and subtle, explicit and intricate — laced, for example, with irony and humor.  This  overlapping/interweaving of word(s) and picture can become a force multiplier.

My newest book, Causes and Spirits, is a kind of compendium of my images of people, worldwide.  Superbly printed by Steidl, a noted German publisher, its 296 pages sum up half a century of black-and-white photographs from around the globe. The challenge of such a far-flung subject was to give it coherence. I needed to find ways, through careful selection and sequencing, for the pictures to relate to one other across short stretches — plus, as with a few gentle nudes, placed early and late, to bracket the book with long range continuity. My aim was thus to make a book that was more like a film than a catalog.

Causes and Spirits is divided into eight galleries. Each is preceded by a chapter opener, plus one or more pages of text. The eight openers are: “To See is to Connect,” “Genesis,” “Gigs & Inspirations,” “Pioneers,” “Eyes in the Street,” “Gift of Place,” “The Uncharted,” and “Re-Union.” These track my life (and career) from childhood to the present. The text takes the form of a physical and spiritual journey across fifty years and around the world — an eastward odyssey that climaxes with my return to my birthplace, California, in the last chapter.

In some ways Chapter 4, “Pioneers,” can be called the heart of the project. Its overt subjects are the mainly rural Americans whose ancestors opened vast interior tracts of the nation, and who thereby gave us much of an enduring national character, strands of which may live on, below the surfaces of our urbanized lives. This “past-presence,” — our unconscious arc of identity — is implied in the small-town grit and grain of the photographs, many in a slightly 1930s or 1940s style, including offbeat sightings of  buildings and objects that had long since seen better days.

The fuzziness of my underlying theme of national or regional character made it hard to settle on one photo for the opening spread.  As I struggled with this problem, at one point I even considered breaking my self-imposed rule that the chapter opener should be a single vertical shot. Months passed. I mumbled and grumbled, shuffled through stacks of prints, flung open yet more file cabinets and boxes, scoured scores of contact sheets, made yet more prints in the dark darkroom and on the bright computer screen. Eventually, I noticed that one fairly simple image kept pushing its way to the top.

I’d made the picture of the old ladder on one of my far-flung trips across dozens of western states, when I was carving out publications on our gritty mining towns and sod-busting farm communities. Later, the same ladder had been chosen by Alfred Knopf, the book publisher, as the cover image for a William Faulkner novel. Now the same picture was again tapping me on the shoulder.

Plain form, stark tonalities, rough-hewn texture, and a slightly humorous narrative of dauntless striving and stumbling: for me, these  reflect the respect due our forefathers: for their elemental energy as they infused this first new nation with their unpretentious get-up-and-go.

Copyright statement: William Carter papers, © Stanford University Libraries. Click here for a detailed usage guide.

Written by bywilliamcarter

July 28, 2011 at 11:45 am

One Response

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  1. I expect to learn much from your combining image and word. I have a book in the making, juxtaposing modern poemsand paintings, entitled PICTURES Speak; Poems See, so tis is right up my alley. Unfortunately, life has a way of shrinking days, hours, minutes., and there’s never enough time to do it all. Bravo for staying with this project to its completion. The ladder is a leader! Gabriele



    September 13, 2011 at 5:57 pm

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