This week I'd like to discuss the art of cropping your photographs, and how it relates to both commerce and art. Cropping has always been shunned by purists, who insist that the real artists always get it right in camera, even when they don't. Two genres of photography were responsible for this point of view - street photographers and photo journalists. Street photographers were out on the street, photographing snippets of real life, and considered their framing, done in the heat of the moment, to be the true measure of their art. Nothing could be done to improve their compositions, and some even included the film frame sprockets to "prove" that there was no cropping involved. Photo journalists, dedicated to "the truth", were not allowed to crop their images in case they changed their meaning. It didn't help that the State Department's only clue to Russian affairs was who had been cropped out of the latest image from the Kremlin.
IN THE PINK BOOKMARK
Well I'm just an artist, and I get to crop with impunity in the service of my art. I get to both subtly recompose my images after the fact to correct for in camera mistakes, and to crop so much that the image doesn't much resemble the original photo. In fact the message of the image is sometimes unchanged, just focused, while other times it is completely transformed from the original. I am of the firm belief that most fine images, especially landscapes, probably contain the seed of several other fine images inside them if you are willing to look for them. And this is from a photographer who already usually captures snippets of the wider world.
PORTLAND WATERFRONT BOOKMARK
Most of my readers already know that I make most of the little money I make by creating photo coasters, so I am no stranger to cropping. God decreed that coasters come in squares, so most of my in camera rectangular images have been cropped to squares. Now I happen to like the square format for its ability to calm and focus imagery, so it was fine with me that I seemed to be using an old and expensive square format Hasselblad camera. I actually had to learn to relax my in-camera framing in order to allow for square crops, since some of my favorite images were so "well framed" as to not allow for cropping to another format. But most of my imagery was now created with at least the idea that it was probably going to be transformed into a square.
SOUTHEAST OREGON BOOKMARK
So commerce had some effect on my art, but then the mere process of making coasters started to exert an influence. Frequently at the Market vendors go through mental gymnastics surrounding their marketing ideas. I am very guilty of suddenly getting a brainstorm that will of course allow me to make millions, or least make my life easier, only to get depressed when I realize how long it took me to discover what seems in retrospect to be an obvious notion that I should have come up with years before. How quickly I can go from genius to nincompoop even when I've finally hit upon something.
PORTLAND SKYLINE BOOKMARK
You see that for years I struggled with the fact that I could print four coasters on a sheet of 8 1/2" x 11" photo paper, but that I was "wasting" the bottom 2'' or so of the sheet. These are the kind of thoughts that run through your head when you have made and sold more than 15,000 photo coasters. For nearly a decade Fran and I had the world's most expensive shopping list paper as hundreds of these strips accumulated and I couldn't bear to throw them away. But I never figured out what to do with them. It took years for me to realize that if just wrote a title and added my name to that bottom strip I could create a line of photo posters. That worked for awhile as a way to market a cheap framed poster, but as the depression hit, my competitors at the market lowered their prices so much that suddenly my posters were no longer cheap.
PORTLAND OVERLOOK BOOKMARK
It was only when I changed my coaster process to include lamination that I was forced to change my ways. I was not only wasting the bottom of very expensive photo paper, but now I was also wasting the bottom of expensive laminating pouches! What could I do? As I inserted four more coasters into the laminating pouch, a very dim light bulb went off in my head - why couldn't I insert a skinny photo underneath them? Since I was throwing away the paper, and now throwing away the laminating sheet, my costs had finally achieved parity with my time - as an artist, virtually zero. I was only paying for ink, which amounted to about 25 cents for that small print. The game was afoot!
How could I market a small, long, skinny image? It was even less substantial than a coaster. As I bought yet another book at Powell's, and they handed me my free Powell's bookmark, I suddenly started laughing and then apologized to the cashier and assured here I was not laughing at her hair color or piercings. I had hit upon the solution for my skinny images - yet another product that was seemingly designed "out of time." I already make prints for people's walls, when most images never leave our phones. I produce photo books while others write e-books. Who actually still uses coasters? Now became my adventure of producing bookmarks when most people had moved on to Kindles. On the cutting edge as usual.
As I entered the bookmark game, I naturally used the Powell's bookmark as my model, even though I realized their dimension was probably completely arbitrary or related to their printing parameters. But I had to start somewhere, so 2 1/8" x 7 3/8" became the answer to a question that nobody else had asked for awhile. In photo terms this became a very panoramic 3.44:1, skinny even for a panoramic photo, which usually is somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1 in dimension. If you can believe it, most panoramic photographers still use the even more obscure ratios of 16:9 or 6:17, which are based on the original panoramic film cameras that most photographers have never even seen much less used. To each his own, and my first bookmarks used horizontal images that could be made even skinnier than their originals without losing too much.
COMING HOME (MT. HOOD) BOOKMARK
Now I would be lying if I actually thought about this too much while I added the bookmark to my sheet of prospective photo coasters. Since the idea was that these came free, I was prohibited from actually "making" bookmarks, and they were only products of the printing layout. I couldn't even change the haphazard framing of the printing program, and just tried images until something worked. It was only in producing this essay that I actually had to go back and actually crop these images to create this 3.44:1 crop, so that I could actually manipulate the image to fit into the crop! Remember these accidents were free!
Accidentally, of course, it occurred to me that I could go beyond horizontal panoramas. After all, bookmarks were used in a vertical orientation in books, so why shouldn't they be the verticals that I naturally am oriented to? They just had to be skinnier. These three images, slices of a San Francisco museum, sunshades on an office building, and a portion of the stairs at Pioneer Courthouse Square, seemed to work. Snippets of verticals seemed to focus on the real center of interest in the image while keeping to the vertical orientation, whether it was Fran on the beach, a sculpture in the Pearl, or a portion of the twilight sky in the park.
It was only when I allowed myself to follow my rule that it was not necessary to include the entire subject in the frame that the bookmarks were liberated further from their original images. "If Only" became an even skinnier slice of New York madness, and the Ferris wheel revealed itself without showing more than a small part of its circle.
But when I started to include portions of my pattern shots as coasters these images truly became free interpretations of images that already had no real orientation.
Rocks on the coast, water drops on glass, and fallen Gingko leaves are magnified when they appear as a bookmark, now that they are actually larger than their coaster originals. I hope you have had fun looking at my latest marketing brainstorm. So far I have only given them away with purchases of my books, but I'll soon try for $5.00, or 6 for $20.00, so wish me luck.