Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rounded Corners for Photos

For whatever reason, we are all in ecstasy over rounded corners, be they of paper or of photographs. I admittedly possess several physical corner rounding punches and I use them (as I did for Days Made Strange). But I wanted to inkjet print some photos onto cardstock and I wanted the edges rounded as they printed. Photoshop doesn't actually have a button to click or a filter for this, but I found a set of instructions online. However, a few steps were missing for me. Here's my version (I'm using Photoshop CS3).  It goes pretty fast. (For actual, physical, corner rounding punches, see the best inexpensive one here, and a pricier, industrial strength one here.)
  1. Open the file of your photo by dragging it to Photoshop. Adjust to the size you desire by going to the Menu Bar and clicking Image < Image Size. For printing out, make sure it is 300ppi.
  2. Go to Menu Bar, click on Layer < New < Layer.
  3. On the Tools Palette select the rounded rectangle tool (with the other shapes and lines). Look at the little box at the top under the menu bar and set to Radius: 40 px or whatever corner roundness you prefer. Make and center the rounded rectangle over your photo. The color doesn't matter.
  4. On the Menu Bar go to Layer < Layer Style < Blending Options. Slide Advanced Blending, Fill Opacity to 0%.
  5. On Layers Palette, go to Paths. Click on the little lines above the right scroll bar there. Highlight "Make Selection." Make sure Feather Radius is set for 0 pixels and anti-aliased.
  6. Menu Bar, go to Edit < Copy Merged (this is important).
  7. Menu Bar, go to File < New. Create a new file from clipboard.
  8. Paste in. Rounded photo!
  9. Save as jpeg.
Here, the corners appear white since they are presented on the Blogger border, but on paper you won't notice any border; you'll just see the rounded corners. Try using one of the other shapes. For fun, I changed a photo of my neighbor cat into a portrait (made sepia in iPhoto) using the ellipse. Introducing Zoe, Her Royal Fluffiness…

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Details of Home in a Daydream

In French, I learned recently, the word for home is similar to "in the house" or "at the house" or, occasionally "the house of me": the physical dwelling encompasses both one's heart and one's hearth; it is the structure that matters. Home as a concept does not translate otherwise from English to French. Gaston Bachelard (a Frenchman) spends quite a bit of time talking about the house in The Poetics of Space, a book I am reading for a class in creative nonfiction taught by Peter Orner.

The writing dwells on a few concepts that fascinate me: that the house in which we were born becomes the basis for all references thereafter to houses and homes; the notion that our daydreams are overlaid onto this place; and that a description of it, a sketch in words by one writer, will send the reader into his/her own reverie, out of the book and into an experienced place.

Our birth homes stay with us. We compare our subsequent dwellings to them. We look for the corners of comfort, solace, solitude, and inspiration that we might have had before. We may have had a place, or several places, in that house to go and think. When we remember that place, we may remember what we used to think or daydream about while there. I remember a covered patio, for example, and thinking about the phrase "childhood is the happiest time of your life" and wondering if it were going to be true. If this was a place we went or hid frequently, many daydreams might be housed here. We've sat there thinking many times before. Conversely, we might remember something, then see an image of the place. This is strange: remembering about thinking and remembering where we were when we were thinking.

And how does this translate to books or art or writing? I've written about the book as place before, and how it can function as an architectural space; now, thanks to Bachelard (who mentions it), I'm interested in how much detail the book needs to have to make it a space that interests the reader as well. Simply, a window, a door, a peaked roof says "house" to western culture. If you say "family room," I see both the playroom from when I was 0-4 years old and the family room I knew from ages 6 and up. Writing "family room" tickles my memories, and so I see that room in my mind, based on my experiences.  Those two rooms, even if I add wood paneling and a stone fireplace or linoleum floor and sliding glass windows won't create the same image in your mind. You will never see what I see (unless, perhaps, you lived in my house with me), no matter how many words I give you.

But if I don't give you enough words, hints, or details, I may leave you empty. What if I only write "room" or draw a square? Take a minute. Are the edges blurry as you try to dream up an image? Which room is it? Can you see it? It seems like that room has four blank walls. Well, now it does. Maybe you saw it more clearly since I mentioned empty and blank and four walls.

I wonder, then, how do we build for the reader? Maybe we are not building a solid space, but only painting a feeling or mood. Certain qualities live in words, colors, and textures and will conjure up universal feelings, I think—the warmth of wood or the coolness of stone, for instance. You don't and won't see my wood paneling, although I could tell you if it were maple or teak or pine, which might clarify your picture. The reader needs a few details as an entry point: to grab hold of; to cart back home; and to send her or him into a daydream so s/he can fill in the gaps and truly live in the space.

Blueprints for a Birdhouse, 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Images for Books: Finding the Right Number

In working with words and images in book form, how do you decide what is the right number of images to use? Someone said he wanted to work with fifteen images but didn't want the finished book to look like a photo album or scrapbook. Is fifteen too many? If the images were scattered throughout a 200 page book, I'd say not at all. But let's say you want to make a book that can be read at one sitting. Fifteen is a lot to take in, unless the images are sequential.

Part of what makes a book special is the concept of memory. Every time we turn the page we have to remember what came before, and not just what immediately came before, but everything up until that point. According to early studies of working memory capacity, it was found that we only remember seven things at a time. That idea has been expanded, depending on the category: seven numbers, yes, but we can also remember other things in about four chunks, each chunk comprised of several things (apparently we can remember more short words and fewer long words, for example.) So perhaps we should approach sequence and ordering in chunks! For our purposes, let's make these chunks smaller than conventional chapters.

It is possible that fifteen images could be used if they were grouped, and particularly if each image in a group had a relationship to the others. I would argue that anytime you put two images side-by-side you will subconsciously want to link them.

A conversation begins. Now what if you add a third party (or took out the second one?):

A conflict is set up. Or a turn in the conversation. A bit like six-word stories, but in this case each image stands for two words. Something changes and builds. Our eyes dart around, trying to help us fill in the conceptual gaps, searching our experiences for similar scenes.

If you must use fifteen images you could continue adding them, creating layers and complex connections. As the pages turn, the images would stack up in memory to create an overall effect. You could also create several (three to five?) grouped chapters and leave space or put a story, poem, or dream between them. Try varying the number of images or the length of the writing. The reader's mind can now hold one idea at a time in a deeper form. Adding words that convey an impression of mood, tone, or conceptual qualities would be more effective and interesting than writing a literal description, I suspect. If the images are sequential, the final impression may be simpler: the reader can hold the basic idea but may not have to remember the details. If you have sequential images, you could alternate between a story told in words and a story told in images; a wonderful example of how this works is in The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.

Words and images do different things when you look at them. I notice that after turning a few pages of a purely visual book I begin experiencing it as if I were floating on my back in a warm pool and my ears were partially submerged. When I get back to words I hear voices in my head again: they feel much louder. I love verbal language, but sometimes it's nice to have that quiet, wordless space to move around in for awhile.

(For a visual poem, mostly comprised of linked imagery, see the 2010 film Somewhere by Sofia Coppola. For music that may put you in that warm pool or even to sleep, listen to "Weightless" by Marconi Union.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Con(temporary) Neighborhood Art

The art on the street keeps moving. A white truck idles in a driveway with the word “Hauling” painted on it, graffiti-style. Around the corner, the little bulldozer continues taking down the green house, making way for a garden. The red concrete steps are still there, leftover after the party, waiting for a ride home. I walk past the house, up the perpendicular street and turn left; the path becomes leafy and winding. Sometimes, the deer startle me and are startled by me in the foggy mornings as I march on up, but there are only birds and gardeners today. Almost at the top, one street turns into another at the cobblestone path where I often turn my ankle, so I cross the street before I get there. Here, the numbers change, seeming like centuries: down, the 500s; up, the 1800s. Someone has spraypainted a face on a discarded wheeled wooden crate out at the curb. I think it is cheerful.
Up at the top of the hill, new pink graffiti matches the faded red curb and adorns the glass-faced bus stop map. It possible that the rare woman tagger paints in pink to be seen. Past the pink graffiti, a wooden fence sports multicolored chalk marks, mostly vertical lines in rows and overlapping, clearly done by children, likely who live there, likely given permission. Similar affirmations, a block apart. 
At the rock park, a half -dozen sixty-year-olds are standing around something I don’t recognize. A smallish, maybe three-foot square concrete pad with one step has been installed as a kind of pedestal to an enormous concrete urn. A man with a tape measure is gesturing and looking at it. A woman with a canvas hat on a cord keeps putting her palm on the urn as he talks and taking it off again. The urn is man-sized.
Down and around, past the garden with the cattails, past the newly landscaped yard is the twin urn. Identical. Separated at birth? On the one hand I want a little plaque at the rock park, explaining, on the other, placing new concrete next to the ancient rock seems like vandalism. I heard that those little plaques are urban graffiti for the rich. The walls of both urns are plain and blank.

Down near the demolition site again, the corner smells of camphor chips, a reminder of the newly removed tree. Diagonally across the street, most of the green house is gone. The red front steps are abandoned and cracked now in pieces. I can clearly see the peach-colored house and the gray-blue house flanking the lot. The green house isn’t a house anymore. 

Farther south, down this street, eleven cardboard boxes are neatly stacked in three columns on the parking strip. Two Asian men are having a conversation a few feet away. The shorter, older man holds a box under his arm while he talks. He looks like he has forgotten he is holding the box. The printing on the boxes says: MYTEK / Lab Coats / Color: DK BLU / SIZE: XL. I wonder what sort of protection they offer.

In the late evening, I go back to the lot where the house once was. Everything is gone, even the red steps. It is leveled. A new canvas, waiting. Except this one is framed with a fence.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Writing Tiny Stories

A little world exists in a few words. The most famous tiny story is the six-word story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."* While the word choice is important to create the story, the spaces between the words are actually what gives the story life. The reader must infer or imagine if this story is a plain advertisement or a tragic tale. Because the story has gotten so much acclaim, we must infer that it is a tragic tale.

Many people have seized upon the gimmick of a six-word story and written what they think is a story, but not as many have actually succeeded encapsulating a world. Breaking it down, bit-by-bit we have first "For sale." Someone doesn't want or need something, s/he desires to either make money and/or get rid of the shoes. "Baby shoes" is next. We assume that either the shoes have been outgrown or someone has a shoe store. "Never worn" tells us the shoes are new. The reader realizes that either the baby was never born or that the baby has died. A relative must be selling the shoes, perhaps the mother or the father. Change has occurred. Tragedy in six words.

One reason it works is that a conflict is set up and developed. The concepts rub against each other and create a scene. "For sale" is general and familiar and gives us the desire. "Baby shoes" gives us a person to imagine, either the baby or a parent. "Never worn" creates the context and tells us that something actually happened.

Peggy Gotthold of Foolscap Press recently created a book of six six-word stories by six writers. I also think that just one six-word story has great potential to become book art. The book itself can provide the setting and the tone with color, texture, binding, and pacing.

Let's see how writing a six-word story might work. We'll try for subtext: we should be able to read the story on more than one level of meaning. Let's start with three questions:
  1. what is desired?
  2. who/what is involved?
  3. what is the outcome or consequence?
This is harder than I thought it would be. Some kind of gain or loss seems to work.
  • Airport shuttle has broken clock. Sorry!
  • Hungry cat meets skunk at dinner.
  • Horse falls. Winner by a nose.
  • Old boat. Wet shoes. Date over.

Fabricated, 2010

*This is attributed to Hemingway. The story is that he wrote it on a napkin, but no one has been able to verify that these were actually his words and that the event actually happened. In any case, we do have the six-word story, which has sparked much imagination and many contests. has one explanation.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Good Endings

What makes an ending good? If we're immersed in a good story, do we ever want it to end? What will convince us that we feel good—or at least satisfied—when something is over?

In Adam, a film by writer and director Max Mayer, one ending is shown, but in the Special Features section an alternate ending is listed. I didn't want to choose the ending. I wanted the artist to be confident and present his vision. But after watching the film I was not satisfied. Without giving a spoiler, I'll just say that the writer discarded the audience's feelings with the official ending. For the past ninety minutes, two characters had a relationship and we, the audience, had a relationship with both characters; sad or happy, we needed the right resolution with each.

I originally thought the alternate ending would be a cheesy, feel-good ending, but in fact the emotional landing point of the alternate ending was an open feeling of universal hope rather than what I was left with: the mundane feeling of "life goes on, we change, isn't it great." It turns out that the alternate ending was actually the film's original ending. The commentary tells us that when the film went to Sundance, the audience didn't respond to it, so Mayers changed it. Except, in my opinion, the audience was wrong. This is why artists don't make art by consensus: the results are mediocre.

What makes a good ending? I'm still struggling with this concept in my own work, and it fascinates me. The facts that the—what? eight minutes?—of the film's ending made such a huge impact on both the story and how I felt about it suggests that there may be many other salvageable stories out there. Maybe even some great ones. Eight minutes. One or two or three sentences. Very interesting. (Related post: Between the First & Last Lines.)

A writer whose work I'm immersed in currently, and who is becoming one of my favorite authors is William Trevor. Not only is his word choice and storytelling masterful, but the endings are almost always satisfying. They make sense with the story and they seem truthful even when they are sad. When I get to the end of one of his stories I tend to say, "ah, of course," because that end seems like the only end it could have. This doesn't mean it is predictable—because it never is—but just that it is fitting.

So, check it out. If you have a story in a drawer that is finished, but doesn't feel right, see what happens if you chop off the ending and rewrite it from a few different angles. If you're not sure how it works, try reading a substantial batch of Selected Stories and ask, "What would William Trevor do?"

(Instructions for volvelle on page 123 in Making Handmade Books.)

It Wasn't Until I Saw You  (volvelle with alternate endings), 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Beginning a Book

"Where do you start when you make an artist's book?" is a question I am frequently asked. It corresponds to the question the writer is asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" And everyone jumps up and down when the answer is "From anywhere. From everywhere. From somewhere." But I'll tell you all the drawers out of which I pull beginnings. All you need is one beginning.

File drawer (Text). Past writings, journal notes, dreams. If I start with the text I'll copy it, then cut up the lines or phrases where they seem to naturally break or where I want a breath or pause or emphasis. I'll think about what kind of structure these words want to be in and the design, colors, and images are worked out intuitively afterwards. Often, the text-based book becomes part of an edition. I am much more confident I will finish a book if I start with a text. Sometimes I am wrong. Posts about where to start with writing are here and here and here and here. Search this blog under "writing" for more.

Anchovies & Gossip, 2008
Kitchen drawer (Materials). Objects and medium. Metaphorically, what do I want to cook with? Acrylic inks? Folded papers? Wool felt? I start taking out stuff and moving it around until I get a larger concept or find an object that becomes the catalyst. Once it was an anchovy tin.

Desk drawer (Binding). Structure and form. I might take out paper and start folding to see if I can find something new. Or I might fold, sew or glue an older, yet unusual, structure. I'll carry the blank book around with me and sit down periodically, flipping through the pages, trying to "read" it or see what it tells me. I'll take my cue from whatever comes to mind, my own Rorschach test.

When He Was Blind, 2009
Virtual drawer (Research). A word, concept, or thing catches my ear. I look it up in books, online, I ask people. I keep looking. The first thing leads me to something else, equally interesting. And off I go, sometimes following the threads across, or pursuing the research about the one thing and going even deeper. Braille and its origins, were one example. More ideas about research and lists are here.

Drawer of Curiosities (Concept). The questions lead the way. How can you make a book breathe with colored light (Go Change)? What kinds of word juxtapositions can you make when you change a letter or two (Spotted One Day)? How do you evoke steam on a page (Steaming on the Stovetop)? What if you could make a calendar/book where you would create a new haiku every day that wouldn't repeat for over a decade (Days Made Strange)? Working with a concept first is tricky; got to keep it fresh and layered and not devolve into a cute novelty. See more about "Conceptual Layering" in Making Handmade Books (240-242).

Carry On, 2010
Dresser drawer (Color). Something warm, something cool. I feel restless and can't figure out why. I take out paints or papers or wool roving and work with color first, shaping the mood intuitively. I might make a book with no words and wait. But I must look at it every day and focus on it if I want to complete it. If I can, I'll try to write a text afterwards. This is not always a success, but I always enjoy the process. Or it is a success and I learn something.

Forgotten drawer (Memories). Old letters, ephemera, or memory of a person. This book is often a gift for someone. An occasion of something. The person's life provides the content. I have to decide how to approach it, be it straightforward and chronologically, one story in the life of, a series of fragments, scans or photos of his/her stuff, or using actual materials linked to the person. I put it all in front of me at once, put things away I know I won't use, then just start pulling things out that call to me or have some emotional resonance.

So much to do! There's the physical object of the book, the content, the organization of the content, the design… so many choices to make! First we have to begin.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

College Book Art Association Conference Coming

The College Book Art Association has always had a conference in January, usually every other year. The first year (2009) the conference was at the University of Iowa. The second year (2011) it was at Indiana University Bloomington. Regarding the projected weather of both, the west-coasters said peculiar things. It turns out it was perfectly lovely and possible to take a walk in the snowy air by hopping from one heated building to the next.

But guess what? You can come to the conference this year in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of us do not surf or sunbathe in winter, but if we take off our gloves to take a picture our hands stay warm.

It is true that the word "college" is in the name, but even if you are not part of a college and if you are serious about bookmaking and academic learning, you can register and attend the conference. The keynote address this year is by longtime and noted book artist Buzz Spector, and the banquet speaker is Brewster Kahle, well-known "computer engineer, internet entrepeneur, activist, and digital librarian." as they put it modestly on the CBAA website. His wife Mary Austin is one of the founders of the San Francisco Center for the Book. The Indiana keynote address was by Ann Hamilton, the subject of this post.

The conferences are a wonderful opportunity not only to hear what interests people from all over the country and abroad, but to meet and connect with bookpeople in person over a meal or after a session. I've met artists, writers, bookmakers, and educators I've heard about for years and have been introduced to enthusiastic new people as well. The energy level is high and inspiring.

January 5-7, 2012 will feature a book exhibition downtown at the San Francisco Public Library, panel sessions at what I call "the beautiful oasis" of Mills College and more sessions at the bay-front Hilton Garden Inn in Emeryville, California, lunches, coffee and snacks provided, and a banquet and auction on the final night.

If you register now you can benefit from the reduced earlybird price.
Let's talk about books.

artifacts from the Iowa conference

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Challenged Books

Every year in the fall, the American Library Association, in conjunction with the American Booksellers Association, in conjunction with other associations and towns, cities, and book lovers across the United States celebrate Banned Books Week. More than 11,000 books have been challenged since 1982, primarily due to an individual's or a group's discomfort or disagreement with issues raised in the books. You can see the ten most challenged books of 2010 here, where authors include Sherman Alexie and Aldous Huxley, and subjects include the Twilight series and gay penguins.

Authors are free to write. Publishers are free to publish. Libraries and book stores are free to order. Censorship is when the books that were readily available are pulled from the shelves. Those who challenge books are trying to censor what we read, sometimes without ever having read the books themselves, sometimes being afraid of the discussions that might occur if we do read them. The key to learning is through the discussion of all topics—whether we like the topic or not is irrelevant, and whether we change our minds or not doesn't matter as long as we are able listen. We are lucky in the U.S. that we have the freedom to read: a cause for celebration, indeed. Happy belated banned books week.

Book shown: T/ravel: Book, 2007