The making of Death: A picture album

28 January 2013

The film above gives a flavour of the hard work that goes into producing a publication like our new publication Death: A picture album. Here is a behind-the-scenes view from Kirty Topiwala, Commissioning Editor, and Marianne (‘Maz’) Dear, Senior Graphic Designer.

1. Concept

We first started thinking about the book early in the summer of 2012. Having spoken to the exhibitions team, we sat down with the images and information we had about the show. Given the visual impact of the work in the exhibition and the limited time we had to produce something, we agreed that the publication should be simple, beautiful and picture-based. We also wanted it to work both as a fitting souvenir of the exhibition and as a book that would standalone and have a ‘life’ after the show had ended.

At first, we considered a postcard book or box. Then, inspired by the black-and-white snapshots and postcards from Richard Harris’s collection, Maz suggested producing an ornate, old-fashioned photograph album, with images that would look as though they had been collected and stuck in. We consulted our printer, Murray Arbiter at Arbiter Drucken, about what would be possible and what we could afford. It was surprising what cost the most! Boxes and metal clasps were out, but a clothbound hardback was just inside our budget. We explored that idea further and after reworking it several times eventually came up with the final concept: an elegant picture book that feels like an old-fashioned keepsake.

2. Cover design

Maz spent many hours rummaging through old source books for antique patterns and then re-drew them by hand to incorporate deathly elements: the bones, clocks, moths and ravens and the skull. Much discussion went into these designs. Maz tweaked the birds to look more menacing, then less menacing, and finally more menacing again. We tried several different skulls, including one looking to the side (too creepy) and one that was almost smiling (too cheerful), before we finally stuck on the current model. The yellow background was chosen to fit in with the colour scheme of the exhibition and the posters. We hoped there would be a subtle visual link between them, and that the colour would make the book stand out on a crowded bookshelf.

3. Images

We thought it would be easy to select the images we needed, as all the works were from one collection. We were wrong. Most of the items hadn’t been photographed and, to make matters worse, they were sitting packaged up in crates in a dock in Chicago waiting to be shipped to London. We had no choice but to send our trusty photographer, Ben Gilbert, on an emergency transatlantic trip to the Windy City, where he set up a makeshift studio and photographed hundreds of the items for us and the press team. Ben, we couldn’t have done it without you!

4. Print

It might look simple, but it took serious work, multiple tests and a few migraines to get the final printed product right. We wanted Maz’s ornate cover design to be pressed into the surface of the cloth cover to make it tactile and feel more special.To get this effect means using an old-fashioned technique known as foil debossing, where hot metal plates stamp the design through a thin layer of foil into the cloth. Murray tried several types of black foil before we found the right one.

In the midst of this panic, we discovered that the yellow cloth sample we had been carefully matching to the gallery paint and posters was, in fact, sun-bleached. This meant that the hundreds of metres of cloth we had ordered from a special supplier in Holland was the wrong colour. It was at this point we started to think we weren’t going to make it…

5. The finished product

I’m pleased to say, however, that we got there in the end. This book did, at times, make us lose the will to live (which was apt for a book about death), but we’re all immensely proud of the result. We like to think that it’s a beautiful object in its own right rather than just a normal ‘catalogue’, and it’s wonderful to see that the buyers in our shop seem to feel the same way.

You can buy ‘Death: A picture album’ at Wellcome Collection, or order it online.