Photographer Subhi Alghussain, author of Petra: A Panoramic Journey, knows the importance of great book design.
In a starred review, we called Alghussain’s collection a “gorgeous collection of panoramic photographs...[it] sets the standard of design in independent publishing.” And he’s not done yet: “After this I will return to Jordan and try to capture the 60 percent of Petra that I haven’t photographed,” he tells us.
We caught up with Alghussain in Saudi Arabia—he’s wrapping up the production layouts for the collector’s edition of his new book—to discuss his passion for photography, the desert city’s allure and the importance of design in self-publishing.
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Why was Petra your first book project?
I had this dream of photographing all the historical sites in our [Middle East] countries because the biblical land is so famous, but I have never seen a book that includes all of them. I couldn’t do it all at this time because of political unrest in places like Syria. One day I will be able to go [to all these sites]. I thought that I should start with Jordon because I admire its king and queen. I have only photographed 30 percent of Petra. The place is amazing.
The Fuji GX617 is a bulky camera that offers a maximum four shots per 120 roll, and it has an awkward optional ground-glass viewer. Why did you choose this as your primary camera?
I have the 6x7, the 6x6 and the 6x4.5—I have all of them. It’s love. The moment that I touched this camera and looked through the viewfinder I could see a complete image.On other cameras I feel that the image is chopped off, but [on the panoramic camera] you see almost 180 degrees.
I don’t think I can find enjoyment working in a format other than the 6x17. When you take a photo the subject feels closer to you, it gives you more detail. The Fuji 6x17 camera doesn’t have tilt/shift, like Schneider lenses, which is a feature that is nice to have. Someday I’d like to buy an Ebony 6x17 camera that can do everything a large format does and offer more lens options. The only other problem that I have is risking X-ray exposure when shipping the film to the U.K.
The 1:3 ratio of your panoramic negatives forces you to produce a book that is not standard size. Although collector’s editions can be oversized, it appears that you are forced into a 9.5 x 12-inch book format, which is almost a four-times enlargement for double-spread images. Does this pose any potential problems in production or for marketing?
I plan to publish the collector’s edition in A3 size [11.69 x 16.54 inches / 297 x 420mm] and I’m looking into having gold edging on the paper. We also added a forward by photographer Mark Denton. I will add additional pages for photo captions to allow the 9.5-inch format to retain the same proportions as in the A3. Finding a printer that will produce quality is the most difficult thing for me, as this is my first book. However, I’m having the text translated into nine different languages. I want the book translated by native speakers; quality is the most important thing for me.
Why do you think the design and print quality of your book is as important as the photographic images?
It’s a part of my nature. I’ve looked at many books on Petra and other places and some have stunning images. There are many photographers who are much better than me, but they failed to make the effort to work out the details of design. They relied on publishers to do the setup of the book...
Throughout my book I continued to tell Kevin [Opp]—my great book and graphic designer—consistency, consistency, consistency. In this book you will always see a big image on the left and a small one or text on the right. This makes the reader feel comfortable when reading it, unlike many other coffee table books or guides where you see images everywhere—in the middle, on the top and with different sizes. In my book there are basically three sizes [of images].
Kevin understood what I wanted in laying out the design, but he added his extra touch in selecting the font, text layout and the brilliant positioning of the paragraph titles. We added more pages to the book in order to maintain the correct proportion of history and description. I do not want to burden the reader with too much detailed information, [only] brief information about the subject and the experience of visiting such a place from the photographer’s and the visitors’ points of view. I want people to read my book without having to look up something in the internet. A publisher would probably be more inclined to cut the number of pages to save money.