All of my recent motivation in photography has come from the desire to see actualized publications of my projects, in the wake of the wonderfully positive response to my recent Bulgaria zine and USA Digest.
It didn’t take a lot of adjustment for me to wind in almost all of my digital output and concentrate fully on bringing my work into physical existence, a decision that was informed by several factors.
I always wanted to work my way towards a proper book, but my experience building out these smaller zines has made me think again about the way I might go about producing something as substantial as a photo book. In my research and study of books, which means learning about the decisions behind the layout, typography, and print quality of the physicality but also the sequencing and rationale behind the images actually featured, I’ve found that I’m actually not a fan of the excessiveness that many mainstream publications seem to exude.
A zine (short for magazine) classically was an easily photocopied means of disseminating niche interest information, circulated amongst communities and friends. Importantly these were very “limited” especially in terms of budget, which meant that the creators really needed to push the boundaries of the page in order to fit everything they wanted to. Some of the most innovative and interesting ideas I’ve seen in print have been in the form of zines – when you compare them to hardback mainstream photobooks a lot of the flair and uniqueness seem to be lost. Books have a seriousness about them, an austerity that can work against their content.
Zines have recently become much easier to produce, which means there has been a democratization of the process. Many use services like Blurb or Mixam (the closest UK analogy I’ve found) to produce their short-run publications, which is great as it means photographers will look at their work as an articulating, communicating story, or sequenced project, rather than a collection of individual pieces.
This, I think, is key to the way that zines retain their edge against books: they are the singular vision of the photographer. Their voice, straight to the point of the work, with a complete idea explored from start to end.
Photo books represent some of the finest collections of work available, but it is difficult to find the value in them beyond existing as a coffee table portfolio. Very few of the A3 style hardback, “life’s work” type showcases being published do anything beyond presenting work on the page — no through line, no narrative, and little in the way of commentary. Instead, each page turn presents you with an absolutely incredible piece of work; individual masterpieces, inarguably fine photography.
Without the singular voice or focus, however, whether that’s the result of third party curation, ego, or simply the intent being to present a portfolio and nothing else, it can feel like you are sort of being beaten over the head with it. If the 1812 Overture started off with the canons they simply wouldn’t have the necessary impact: it’s about the build-up, suspense, intrigue, and a satisfying conclusion.
In my collection, I have a few beautifully put together books of landscape, documentary, photojournalism, all spanning around 200-250 pages, but none manage to retain me in a meaningful way – certainly not in the same way as a 24-page zine containing a specific, singular photo-essay. There’s only so many times I can turn the page and be blown away by the next majestic black and white landscape, or tribal scene, or fiery action before I feel exhausted. There is no lead-up between highlights, just hit after hit. Of course this is a generalization, but it’s noticeable in enough of the books I’ve studied that I feel comfortable making and defending it.
Zines on the other hand, by nature of being limited and succinct, tend to feel much less indulgent. With far less page real estate to be working with, it is easier to remain coherent, to say what needs to be said in order to tell the story, or to make the point the photographer wants to. The images that need to have an impact have space to breathe, surrounded by context and transitional images, building up to those heavy-hitting frames.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to whether or not the photographer has clarity of vision, and with the capacity for photographs to contain so many ideas working harmoniously, you need far fewer images than words to convey the same idea. To sit down and read a 200-page prose novel flat out can take an avid reader maybe a day or so. I don’t know anyone who sits down with a 200-page photo book and spends more than a few hours with it — it simply doesn’t take the same investment to “get” the point of it.
Zines take advantage of that and can convey what’s important in far fewer steps.
About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.