A few weeks ago, we got an email from our 2006 Ultra and 20x200 edition-maker, Alison Grippo, letting us know that she had just self-published her first book: CHASING: The Friday Night Fights NYC using Blurb.com. Intrigued, we sent Alison a few questions about her self-publishing process:
Tell me about your book.
It's a documentary about the fighters from The Friday Night Fights NYC. It's funny, I was looking through it and it actually does not have any photos of people hitting each other. I heard about the fights from a friend a few years ago and I thought, "Wow, men fighting in the basement of a church...who doesn't want to photograph that?"
I was completely in the dark about the sport, about this particular group, all of it; I just thought, "Holy spectacle." After the first fight, I realized that I had happened upon something that was easy to judge but not so easy to understand. At that point, I just wanted to keep photographing the fights, and the man who runs the show, Justin, was kind enough to let me come a few times. By the third fight, I knew that I wanted to do something bigger than just a few photos. I had proclaimed, "I'm going to do a book about this!" without really knowing what it means to create a book, a body of work, etc.
That seems to be how I operate though, I go way in above my head and then push to figure it out and make it happen because I said I would do it. Also, in working with everyone, from the trainers to the boxers, it became more of a requirement than a goal. Here were people that were working hard for something with the same odds as the lottery—how could they go unknown?
Why did you want to put together a book?
For boxing at least, it's a narrative. I lean more towards documentary work probably because I'm a nosy little brat...
I feel that all the photos [in the book] are required to get the story across, they work together, they share the overall point. There are some photos I have which I think capture a particular portion of what I wanted to say, but only when coupled with the rest is the story really told...
The point of the book (once I figured out the point) is not to show the dirt or the primal aspect of fighting that people immediately assume, it was to show the nobility of it, the beauty of the fighters and the scene, the character it takes to really be a fighter and stand up in a ring with another man who you respect and admire with the idea that you are there to best him. Part of why it's a book is because I can't explain it in words but I think I can explain it in photos. I hope I did—certainly the people involved deserve that.
How is putting together a book of photography different from putting together an exhibition?
Volume for sure. I couldn't do a show of 70 images just about boxing. Maybe I could but I don't think it would be as effective. In the end, I want people to own the whole collection even if there are some photos which don't resonate for them because it is meant to be seen as a whole.
As an exhibition, I think I'd have to do a lot a more of telling the tale behind some of the images because they could be out of context. Then again, I've had the luck of seeing some of the images at 20"x30" and the impact is completely different.
Did you look at other options? Why did you end up choosing Blurb?
I had a few options, some small places were genuinely interested in releasing the book and some independent publishers too but photo books are a rough business. I don't think you do it to make a living, unless of course you're a collective like Magnum, or you're Annie Leibovitz or Vanity Fair.
I didn't want to do a book that was a limited edition and super expensive. That did not fit with the topic, the purpose or the spirit of what I was doing. Most of those interested in working with the book wanted to do very selective, limited releases. I didn't spend the last 2+ years shooting this because I wanted 500 people to own it, I wanted people to know who these boxers were, I wanted people to see what I saw. I had already invested so much of myself in the project that the idea of not making this as available as possible was counter-intuitive. Then there is the fact that I'm not exactly Annie Leibovitz and there won't be a hoard of people rushing to grab my retrospective on boxing.
I chose Blurb for a couple of reasons. If I did it through Blurb, then I had to really own it and finish it. I had to edit it and take that last step in the process of creating this story. I like that I can I say it's 100% what I wanted; of course, if it sucks, I prefer people leave me to my own delusions. I'm sure if I had worked with a publisher, issues like how much it costs to print, how many photos I could have, the theme, etc. would have been up for more debate. I didn't want to debate that. I will see how this does as I think it's still pretty costly. I will probably release a less expensive version (smaller, maybe softcover) later on if the interest is there. Again, this is about people learning about boxers like Damon Rowe, or Jamel Spencer, and the more who can, the better.
The other reason is that Blurb runs Photography.Book.Now which gave me a deadline. I need deadlines. I was really motivated by the jury who was looking at the work, and that Beth Dow won last year (and I just love her work, all of it). I'm looking now at all the submissions and another freaky portion of publishing a book online is that you see everyone's everything...
What was the process like? What took the longest?
I made about five versions, so the process was exhausting. The multiple versions came from having to own up to what I wanted to say. One version was about the glory, which was wrong. Another was about the environment, which was totally wrong. Each was a topic that alluded to what I wanted to say but never actually said it because I was afraid. When I finally sucked it up and said to myself, "This is what you're going to focus on," it became easier.
Editing is an amazing learning experience, I've edited words but not photos as much. I've done a few articles and other short pieces with my photography so I'm not totally new to the editing process but taking on something that personal and that large was daunting. At one point, I actually stopped working on the book and started shooting again to avoid having to go through the photos and give myself more to procrastinate with. Going through your own work is brutal, often I just sat there saying, "Wow, wow I'm really horrible, these are awful, what was I thinking?" There was a great deal of self-flagellation, there still is. I gave up a few times. It's like anything else very personal, you're your own worst critic so you have to fight with yourself to just keep going. Wow, that sounds like a self-help platitude.
The longest part was accepting what I was going to be talking about or showing. I have a personal relationship with a lot of people in the book, some very close, and I was very unsure of how they might feel towards me if I did a book that was not the glory tale. This isn't a book about winning, it's about losing. It's about what it means to endure for a dream you will probably not achieve and how phenomenal of a person you become through the process of trying. I didn't want to judge but I had a point of view.
From a purely technical standpoint, having to actually lay it out, pick photos, beg people who I trust to look at it and tell me, "That's a really bad idea," so I could do better was painful. There are a few folks out there who I owe a lot to but want to choke to death for making me delete photos, change the order or rewrite the intro over and over and over again.
What is your biggest problem with self-publishing? How long did it take to make?
The printing. The printing is not exact, so you can print at home and it looks great, then you get the proof and you want to cry. Then you get another proof and even though you've done nothing to the photos, for some reason, they are all green. Black and white printing is no one's specialty, I think. The first proof I received, the cover was bubbly and the blacks on the photo didn't match the black on the book.
I've done a few test prints with Blurb to try and calibrate and I've gotten pretty good at telling what will print well and what won't, but (sorry Blurb 'cause I love you) it's still a bit of a crap shoot. My photos are very high contrast, I like my blacks to be black and my whites super white, sometimes the tones just don't come out through the printing process there. But I haven't seen anyone do it better than Blurb (and I've tested a lot of self-publishers). The premium paper helps exponentially but I'd love it if there was more consistency between what I print and what they print. Such is life.
Who is your audience?
My mom. Oh, who is it intended for, not who do I think is actually going to read it and tell me I'm special? My bad. You know, I didn't think about it. I just thought, someone needs to see this, someone needs to know how hard these men work.
Do you plan to self-publish in the future?
Not a clue. If I can come up with an idea that merits a book, maybe. Right now the idea of doing another book on the heels of just finishing one seems masochistic :)
What's your favorite photo book?
Ack. No idea. I've been searching for an out of print Gilles Peress book which might be my favorite, if I find it. I just went to look at what photo books I own and I can't pick a favorite.
What things are important to consider when creating your own photo book?
Have a point of view, stick to it, and edit edit edit. If you have a great photo that doesn't work with story you're trying to tell, then it isn't right for the book.
What's next for you? What are you working on now?
Right now, sleep is on my radar. I need to just clear my head for a while I think and see what happens next. I haven't taken a photo in a while but I'm going to start carrying the camera around again. I received a great piece of advice once from a super fancy photographer during a portfolio review; he said, "Just when you think you're done, throw it all out and start again, bust it all wide open." That's where I'm at, I need to throw it all out, start again, and see what happens.
Good luck and thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Alison!
So there you have it! Make sure to check out the preview of Alison's book, CHASING, and then buy a copy or five. Tune in same time next week for an interview with JBG artist, 20x200 edition-maker, self-publisher, and winner of last year's PBN Grand Prize: Beth Dow!