Milnor, with over 150 self-published photo books, discusses his use of self-publishing with Blurb.
Your first four books are on dogs and graffiti, did you set out to do a series or it just worked out that way?
The “Dogs Can’t Read” series started out innocently enough but quickly turned into a series. Several years ago I was working on a story in Sicily and Leica Camera loaded me an M7 for my trip. Not only did they loan me an M7, which at the time was the latest and greatest, but they loaned me a special edition model which was wildly expensive, so much so I was actually somewhat afraid of using it. So I left it in my friend’s apartment in Palermo. I went out and worked on my project, for about two weeks, then returned to Palermo to see my little box sitting there on the floor. I felt bad for not using the camera. I had three days left before I had to return to Los Angeles, so I decided to take the Leica and do a project, a short project, specific to the camera. I tried to find something that would require no access or permission, something I could just walk and shoot. Palermo has some of the best graffiti I’ve ever seen so I quickly settled on the idea. At one point I turned a corner in the old section of the city, a section that still suffers from WWII bomb damage, and I saw a wall covered in graffiti that simply took my breath away. It was script-like and was a message about the war in Nepal. As I was reading the wall this beautiful Dalmatian, the perfect black and white dog, came running by fast and furious. I yelled at the dog and he or she froze. It dawned on me that someone had risked going to jail for putting this message on the wall and yet the dog could care less because as we all know…dogs can’t read. It was as simple as that. What happened later was unexpected. I did the first book and the reaction I got was dramatic. People saw all kinds of things in the images. They thought the book was a political statement, which it was not, but I knew I was on to something. I then did another chapter in Tijuana followed by books in New York and Paris. Most of my projects are people based, required copious amounts of time and access, so this was a welcomed departure for me.
Had you self-published books with any one else before Blurb?
Yes. I had used MANY different publishers and I still experiment with companies outside of Blurb today. I think everyone should be doing this. Blurb is unique in a variety of ways, but I need to know what else is out there, how they work and how I could use it. I’m an open book when it comes to testing and trying new things. Get it…? “Open book”…okay, I’ll shut up.
I had also made handmade books for years, as well as journals and even things like books from color copies.
Are you in print with any “traditional” publishers?
I think many people assume that because I work for Blurb I must be opposed to traditional publishing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I love all forms of publishing, from space age to stone age. I did take one body of work to traditional publishers several years back and got a nice welcome and was told my work should be printed in book form. However, none of the deals felt right and I realized it wasn’t going to work for me. This in turn forced me to make a book of the material on my own. This book began to sell and ultimately this led me to where I am today.
What I do, for the most part, really doesn’t fit traditional publishing. I don’t work on stories with wide appeal, nor do I have a desire to do a monograph style-book of my own work. These books just don’t reach the audience I’m interested in engaging with. As photographers we should use all outlets, so if a body of work is right for traditional publishing then I say go for it.
How has the experience of self-publishing changed and/or influenced what you shoot, if at all? –Do you now shoot with a book in mind?
Self-publishing has completely taken the restrictions off of me, and for the first time in my career I finally feel like I can be as creative as possible without the industry having any say in the matter. Also, I should add that I stopped working as a photographer at the end of 2010 and this has also been very helpful and liberating. I can’t believe I’m saying this because I regard myself as a pretty basic, black and white documentary photographer, but what self-publishing has allowed me to become is more of a conceptual artist. I’ve made over 150 unique titles with Blurb, but I actually feel like I’m just now figuring out what the potential is. Self-publishing hasn’t changed what I shoot because I’ve always felt the most relevant work I would ever do is my personal work, but what self-publishing has done is give me a home for anything crazy I can dream up. I’ve always been a loner, so I’m happiest on my own working on strange little things that might only make sense to me. I’ll give you an example.
Several weeks ago I took some film to a lab in LA and had a conversation with the lab owner in regard to what was on the film and what the project was going to be. The conversation went like this.
LAB OWNER: “Who is the project for?”
LAB OWNER: “Well who is paying for it?”
LAB OWNER: “How are you going to market this?”
DM: “I’m not going to.”
LAB OWNER: “Well how are you going to sell it?”
DM: “I’m not going to.”
LAB OWNER: “Well who is going to see it?”
DM: “Just me.”
LAB OWNER: “I don’t understand but I really like it.”
I think this sums up my entire photographic existence. It might sound strange but I love the freedom to experiment and play that self-publishing gives me. I try not to take myself that seriously and keep in mind that most people in the world are looking for food and water not books of photography.
What kind of an impact have the books had on your business?
In short, the ability to make a single book was the most important development of the entire digital revolution, at least for me. And potentially the most entertaining! It changed everything, including my business. Once clients found out I could make a book it just became a natural part of the business workflow. I had to UNLEARN many, many things to get where I am today. I love tradition but I don’t live by it unless it feels right. I have a traditional photographic education, photojournalism school, and I was taught a book had to be a certain thing. It’s not true. A book can be anything. Once I figured this out I knew I could make things that would astound my clients. I would purposely break all the rules I was taught I couldn’t’ break. I continue this today and I’m only getting warmed up. I use the wrong book sizes, the wrong papers, I put key elements in the gutter and I ignore design rules as well. Sometimes it works, other times not so much but it sure is fun making an effort. I don’t look for permission and acceptance any longer. I know my clients hired me for a reason and they were deferring to me when it came time for things like editing or making a book. My job as an “artist” (laughs) is to push the boundaries not to do what has been done before. Photographers, bookmakers should do what they feel they need to do and not what they feel they have to do.
What are a few ways you’d recommend for freelance photographers to use books to market themselves?
If I came to you and asked, “What do you truly want to do?” can you answer that question? It’s not easy but once you figure that out you have direction. Direction leads to critical thought and breakthroughs. Breakthroughs lead to “ah ha!” moments and surprises which is where your true colors will shine through. I see SO MUCH conformity in photography and I can’t figure it out. We each have a unique, visual fingerprint, so take advantage of this whether that means with your photography, your books or both. So many people look at a product like Blurb and think, “Well, I can use this for a portfolio or a book dummy but that is about it.” Sorry, wrong. Boring. Learned behavior. There is so much more you can do when you have the power to make a single copy of a physical book, magazine or rich-media ebook. I find there are two kinds photographers. The first looks at Blurb, or any other POD company, and sees the limitations. There is always a reason NOT to do something. The second kind of photographer looks at the tool and says, “Let me see what I can do.” The second type is making all the great work. The second type are the rule breakers, the visionaries and the ones you better keep you eye on because they are going to continually surprise you. I want to be in that second group and I suggest you try for the same.
Also, photographers need to look outside of photography. Photographers need to look to things like art, literature, print-making, design, illustration and broaden their perspective in regard to what is being done in the greater creative world. There are some scary talented people out there doing remarkable things. Learn from them, love them and allow them to rub off on your photography and bookmaking. And remember, people are not only buying your book they are also buying a little piece of you. Be original. Be truthful. Be bold.
Ingrid Spangler is a freelance social media consultant living in New York. She’s been snapping pictures since she was a child and involved with social media since before it was called social media. Before going out on her own, she handled the social media for AdoramaPix, the photo lab division of Adorama Camera, for four years. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, flickr, 500px, Google+ and Pinterest.