Blurb, a creative publishing and marketing platform for user-created book publishers, runs the Photography Book Now 2010 competition each year with a grand prize of $25,000, around £16,000 up for grabs, along with runners-up prizes. Now in its third year, this international-juried competition celebrates the very best in self-published photography books in three categories – Fine Art, Editorial, and Photography Portfolio - and the photographers behind them.
Macworld caught up with photographer Rafal Milach, Grand Prize Winner 2009 for his stunning Black Sea of Concrete collection.
What is the background on this story?
The Black Sea of Concrete is a part of group project shot by 8 photographers from the Sputnik Photos collective. We were assigned by a Belgium based NGO Altemus to photograph contemporary Ukraine. In December 2008 I started my trip at the Russian-Ukrainian border and the Ukrainian Black Sea coast. The beauty of the landscape side by side with overwhelming and omnipresent Soviet architecture struck me. I wanted to shoot the story in wintertime when tourists are gone and the landscapes are raw and empty. Five years have passed since the Orange Revolution when Ukraine gained independence from Russian influence and I found people have already lost the hope for change. The coast showed me how strongly Ukraine is attached to its Soviet past.
How long have you been photographing?
I've been in photography for more than 10 years. I didn't get my first camera at the age of five... it was a lucky coincidence that I got involved in photography. I've been studying at the Academy of Fine Arts and wanted to become a graphic designer. At the Academy I met one of the best Polish documentary photographers, Piotr Szymon, who taught me how to approach people and how to frame the real world. It opened my eyes to what was going on around me.
You work with digital and traditional cameras. What decides which one you use and what are the considerations for working non-digitally?
Simply, for everyday work I use a digital camera and for personal work I use traditional film cameras. Digital cameras are quick and cheap to use and great for when I’m doing editorial assignments. The digital camera has no limits you can shoot as much as you like. Such technical details determine the way I work on different projects. For personal work I use medium format Mamiya 6 x 7 frames. Using a traditional camera makes me feel calmer and helps me think about the process and what I want from my work. When I work with large format it is even more helpful for those reasons. The larger the frame, the calmer I become with my working process. I use basic post production to alter elements such as contrast and colour. I want to keep my photos real so it’s generally only simple Photoshop dark room techniques.
You use figures in a lot of landscape scenes, how do you think this helps, and how did you direct your subjects to achieve such natural looking portraits?
I play it by ear and work with the person individually, there is no formula but you always need to show respect. Each project is different and has different demands. With Black Sea of Concrete I had not much time to work with the people and I only knew one of them, the sailor’s wife. I would meet someone, talk to them and shoot them in a short space of time. I have discovered that the best way to photograph people is to know what you want from them and let them know. They can feel it when you are clear about your goals and it makes a huge difference. When I first started out I did mainly classical reportage. When I started to work for magazines I had to learn how to shoot portraits as it has been 80% of my assignments.
What has winning the Blurb P.B.N meant to you and your career?
P.B.N has had a large effect from an exposure and financial angle. For me, the goal wasn’t the award but the creation of my book and the satisfaction I got from my personal work. P.B.N gives you a great opportunity to show your work and your story to a global audience and the feedback I received was hugely motivating. Right now I am working on two more photography books and I love the fact that this medium tells a story beyond that of an exhibition or editorial work. I had always wanted to do a book and P.B.N gave me the reason I needed to do so.
How did you use Blurb to create what you wanted from Black Sea of Concrete?
Blurb was brilliant to work with, particularly in regards to setting up the template for the book and giving me an idea of what I wanted. I hadn’t really considered self-publishing before this but I am now fully behind it. I was very impressed with the quality of the book and the way it enables photographers and other artists to show off their work in the same way that musicians are able to give away CDs. Self-publishing is a move forward for the printing industry and a perfect alternative to traditional publishing. The coffee table quality books you can create give photographers a great alternative to a portfolio, and can convey a more serious and professional look.
What advice would you give up and coming photographers looking to enter the industry and enter P.B.N?
I think what a lot of photographers lose sight of is that a photography book is about more than just the photographs. Great photographs can get lost in poor editing, layout and design. A photography book tells a story and it is worth paying attention to the editing and design. If you don’t have a design background you can hire a graphic designer to provide an expert opinion and this can make all the difference. It is important to remember that the benefit of a photography book is that it tells a story and all the pieces need to fit together in order to do this.
(Blurb notes, submissions will be accepted through 11:59 pm PDT on 15 July, 2010 at www.photographybooknow.com. Contestants who choose to enter online must create their books using Blurb’s creative publishing platform. Each entry costs £20/€27.50/$35 by credit card payment only. A full list of Photography Book Now rules can be found here.)