Book Design and Photography Meet Improvisation

Improvisation is certainly at the heart of good practice for a jazz musician or actor. But it also can be a boon to my work in design and photography. When I set out to show two sets of book spines on the endpapers of my Dwiggins biography — revealing them to the reader at actual size, in all their varied glories — I had plenty of books from my collection, but not the traditional means for photographing them: My studio strobe lights and light-conditioning gear were over in Maine, with my friends at Transparent Audio. No worries, let’s improvise.

In the room where I listen to music, there are floor-to-ceiling shelves, recycled from the local library when they upgraded their facilities. These metal shelves are perfect for storing all my heavy LPs, but they can serve other purposes as well. On the ceiling is a run of track lighting. Necessary means at hand.

Dwiggins often used metal foil in his spine designs. How to keep the spirit of these alive? The trick with photographing shiny metal is that it will reflect nicely toward the camera only when the light source is behind or in line with the lens. However, if the light falls onto the metal at an angle, it will bounce off at an equal angle, and thus the metal foil will appear dark to the camera. Easy enough to solve: I cut some sheets of matte mylar drafting film from my stash of analog supplies and push-pinned them to the ceiling in front of the lights. Cut a hole for the lens to peek through, and I was ready to go.

The endpapers are 18 x 11 inches / 46 x 28 cm.  I arranged two groups of books for each endpaper, planning these so that the joint between the two groups of books would fall at the center of the endpaper. To make each group 9 inches wide, I pressed the row of books between two concrete blocks covered in black paper. (This would ensure that all books remained vertical and did not lean, and would be the desired width.)

After shooting, I merged the pairs of images in Photoshop. This dual-shot approach reduced the perspective distortion at the left and right edges of the full 18-inch width, compared to shooting a single image.

Penmor Lithographers printed the endpapers on Strathmore Ultimate White, 100-pound text. Although this is an uncoated sheet, and thus is not expected to display as much color brilliance and saturation as a clay-coated paper, the UV drying system on Penmor’s Komori press enables the ink to dry as soon as it contacts the top surface of the paper, before it has a chance to penetrate downward into the interior. The result is a robust uncoated sheet of paper — essential for the strength and integrity of the case binding — but also a faithful and colorful representation of Dwiggins’s amazing spine designs.

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