A Glimpse Into Professional Photographers’ Sketchbooks

Alec Soth, Broken Manual.

Copyright Alec Soth

To many, it might seem that the art of photography is simply a matter of going out and snapping pictures. But there’s a lot more to it, and there’s ample proof in the scribbles, diagrams, and other materials found in Photographers’ Sketchbookswhich was published last year by Thames & Hudson.  

“You often hear that everyone’s a photographer these days, which is true and wonderful and I love it. But what sets these photographers apart is all the time they spend not taking pictures,” said Bryan Formhals, a photographer and writer who created the book with Stephen McLaren. “They spend so much time editing and thinking and writing and researching. It’s not just about pressing the button on the camera.”

John MacLean, Hometowns.

Copyright John MacLean

Laura Pannack, The Walks.

Copyright Laura Pannack

Paul Trevor, In Your Face.

Copyright Paul Trevor

As the nearly 50 international photographers and photo-based artists and curators featured in the book show, the creative process can be just as diverse as the final product. While many photographers, like Alec Soth, work with film, contact sheets, and traditional notebooks, others, like Peter DiCampo, work digitally, using Instagram, blogs, and other online media for inspiration and organization. Indeed, the “sketchbooks” in the book are only occasionally photos of actual sketchbooks; other times they’re a picture of the photographer’s studio or a screenshot from a website. Always, however, there is some visual component to their thought process.

Those images—often improvised, messy, and full of quick scrawls and edits—do much to highlight the doubts and uncertainty involved in an artist’s life. While finished projects, especially from the best of the best, can look as though their path from conception to completion was a straight line, Formhals said, a behind-the-scenes look in a studio can easily prove otherwise. 

Viviane Sassen, Sketchbooks.

Copyright Viviane Sassen

Mimi Mollica, Terra Nostra.

Copyright Mimi Mollica

Stacy Kranitz, Appalachia.

Copyright Stacy Kranitz

“The projects don’t come out of this magical place. Every photographer struggles with the same questions: Do I have enough good material? Is this idea strong enough?” Formhals said. “Seeing that really made me more reassured that the challenges and troubles I’m having go all the way up to the top photographers in the world.”

Photographers today, using the free, easy tools of social media, arguably have more means to document and share their artistic process with viewers than ever before. Still, Formhals said, there are always more ways for artists to provide context for their work and help others appreciate the tremendous amount of work that goes into it.  

“I hope other photographers are continuing to be transparent with their processes and developing new ways to share that instead of just saying, ‘Here are my 20 best pictures.’ I hope people learn from the book and pick up some tips. We all win from that, I think.” 

Saul Leiter, Sketchbooks.

Copyright Saul Leiter

Jim Goldberg, Candy.

Copyright Jim Goldberg

Martin Klimas, Synthesizer.

Martin Klimas

Irina Werning, Back to the Future.

Irina Werning