Noah Beil’s This Is Not My Sky - An Appreciation


General Photography, Photobooks


Now that Apple unveiled their Colour Kindle (they’re calling it “iPad”) it will be interesting to see what kind of photography books might be produced for it. I can’t and won’t pretend I’m eagerly awaiting those, but of course I’m curious. Here’s the thing, though. As much as I appreciate new technologies for what they allow people to do, I’m still mostly focusing on what it actually is these new technologies are being applied to.

For example, I think that on-demand publishing in principle is great, but in practice most of those kind of books I’ve seen were pretty bad. A photo book, after all, is not just some book where the majority of pages are filled with photos. Compare that with a telephone book. That’s really a book where the pages are filled with ads and telephone numbers, and it doesn’t matter that it’s printed on really cheap paper (after all, you’re going to throw it out after a year anyway).

So far, on-demand printing companies have treated photo books as if all that mattered was to get photos on paper. Of course, this might change, especially if more people ask for better quality; but it’s equally possible that many people will just get used to the fact that, well, a photo book has cheap paper, and the colours are a bit off.

I’m the kind of person who appreciates a photo book for more than just the pictures. After all, what I’m looking for are photo books that in my book shelve will not have a small pile of dust in front of them. Of course, I have quite a few photo books that could have gained a little from nicer printing etc. The ultimate satisfaction I usually get when there’s a photo book that not only works well - because the photography is great - but that also feels like something special. And by “feels” I really mean “feels”. If you have the right paper for a body of work, handling the pages is just a tad nicer. Even the smell might add something.

Which brings me to Noah Beil’s This Is Not My Sky, a book completely hand-made, as you can see on the book’s page. The fact that the book is handmade actually really translates into the book feeling not just like something mass produced. So having this book in my hands allows me not just to look at the photographs, but also to see and literally feel the work that the photographer invested into making the book. In an email exchange with me, Noah wrote “I never received the same kind of satisfaction from making prints.” - and as someone looking at the book I can add that I rarely receive the kind of satisfaction from mass-produced books.

Of course, a large part of this is irrational, not measurable. If you love reading books on a Kindle, I think what I’m talking about here will completely escape you. I could never read a book on a Kindle (or Colour Kindle, sorry, I mean iPad), because that would take away too much from what reading a book actually means for me. If I take out a book from my collection after a few years to maybe re-read it, I can see the traces of my former reading it - maybe a page is a big torn or dogeared, there might be a stain somewhere, it probably has whatever I used as a bookmark still in it somewhere…

For me, reading a book usually is not consuming information - and where it is, I give away the book after the reading (because I’m never going to read them again). Reading a book is also about the process of reading the book.

It’s a bit comparable to getting a handwritten letter. Remember those? Getting a handmade photo book in the mail is not too dissimilar - here you have an object that actually was produced by the person whose thoughts it conveys. You can actually feel the presence of the person in the object you’re holding.

Part of the motivation to start The Independent Photo Book with my friend Hester was to open up that world, to make it easier for photographers to sell their books (and to thus make them produce more!), and for people who love books to be able to find and buy them. We both couldn’t be happier about how this is working out so far (68 books up right now); and if the site helped to convince people to produce their own books, just like Noah does it, that would be just perfect.