Editing with Miska Draskoczy

Egret From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Images courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

We are talking to a range of photographers, photo editors, professors of photography, book designers and others about the physical process of editing images. Selecting, sequencing and laying out photographs - be it for a magazine, book, online site or gallery presentation - seems something of a mysterious process for many photographers and a process that seems perhaps hard to give words to. I haven't found much written about the process and that's exactly why I'm excited to see what comes up in this series.

We started the conversation with Rob HaggartAshley Kauschinger and Jeff Rich. Today we continue with Miska Draskoczy.

Miska Draskoczy’s photography has been exhibited in the US and abroad including solo shows at the Vermont Center for Photography, Ground Floor Gallery in Brooklyn, NY and group shows including THE FENCE at PHOTOVILLE 2013. His work has been featured in the press by The New Yorker's Photo Booth blog, Time Out, PDN, Gizmodo, Featureshoot, Hyperallergic, Brokelyn and many others. He was recently named a Photolucida Critical Mass finalist. Miska's visual arts career also includes co-founding a conceptual arts organization, directing surreal sci-fi shorts, writing and developing a Slamdance shortlisted horror feature and creating a documentary web series about objects in people's homes. He also works as a director, editor and animator through his production company snow23 and is an avid rock and ice climber.

Miska's series "Gowanus Wild" is currently showing at Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, NY through May 10th.

Fluorescent Tree From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

fototazo: Tell us a little about yourself and what area of photography you work in.

Miska Draskoczy: I'm a photographer and filmmaker living in Brooklyn and my most recent project is "Gowanus Wild," a series which explores wilderness and nature in the notoriously polluted industrial neighborhood of Gowanus, Brooklyn. Besides doing photography since my teens, for most of my professional life I’ve worked in the film and video world as an editor, animator and director, so my approach to editing is influenced by practicing it in other mediums.

f: How do you select images to work with from a larger group? What criteria do you use?

MD: My first criteria is simply that it be a really strong image, something that I find irresistible to look at. The three general categories it has to hit for me are composition, color, and content. Sometimes an image is almost there formally and I think it can be brought up to speed with more post work. If it's a content issue then I discard or reshoot. I think there's a big difference between editing contact sheets to determine which images become part of the series versus editing down the current core images to smaller edits. Doing a long term project over several years, I went back over the contact sheets many times. Images I had previously passed over suddenly became relevant as I clarified the project theme, or they inspired me to go reshoot something that was a near miss. Or conversely images in the core group fell out of favor. It's amazing to me how much the process of photography is about this iterative scouring of the archives which doesn't always get talked about. I get just as excited about spending a night looking through the images as I do going out on a shoot.

Green Canal From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

f: Talk with us about how you begin to organize and sequence the images that you have selected in relationship to each other - as well as to text if there's text.

MD: The process is fairly different depending on the end format, which for me is submissions, exhibition layouts and now a book project. I edit digitally for submissions and exhibitions. For the book it's mostly digital with maquettes and POD dummies once I have an edit. For submissions I use Adobe Bridge with folders of low res images because it's fast and simple. For exhibitions I mock up wall layouts in After Effects and then make exhibition design sets I can flip through in Bridge. For the book, it's all in InDesign.

I tend to be exhaustive at first, trying many edit combinations and quickly discarding those which are definitely not going to work. I'll start small and build up, identifying various pairs that go well with each other, and then building pairs of pairs and onwards. It feels like writing or music: using notes to make bars, choruses and songs, or words to make sentences, paragraphs and chapters. The categories I'm usually playing with for "Gowanus Wild" are color/tone, shot type (medium/close vs wide), season (spring, summer, fall, winter), and vegetation/animal vs man-made. I've found that sequencing strictly by category rarely works except in small batches. For instance, I tried laying out the book in four sections according to season but it just felt too contrived. Given my background it's not surprising that I tend to shoot and think of the edit like a film - alternating camera angles, subjects and scenes to create a rhythm, a more fleshed out view of the world I'm exploring. I find this is where the real magic of editing takes hold, when the edit is drawing on the poetic, the friction of the dissimilar, versus the literal, a catalog.

In the book I've been pairing the images with short bits of poetry I've written, a sort of urban transcendentalism. At first I had a lot of poetry/image pairs but I've since pared it down as I find the images strong on their own and the text can be distracting when there's too much of it. Juggling all these elements - sequence, tone, text, is where I'm at right now. I think it's exponentially harder the more images there are in a series.

Junk Weed From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

f: How do you consider the balancing of formal qualities in the photographs with the content/narrative of the series as a whole as you select and sequence a series?

MD: There's a certain threshold I have for color and form such that if an image doesn't meet it then it's out. After that, it's all about the content and typically the question here is 'is it repetitive?' or 'is it an outlier?' The more a certain shot is the same subject, color palette and angle as another then it's redundant to have both in an edit, regardless of their strength individually. Then there are some which are great images but it's a stretch to relate them to theme of the series, or to get them to fit into a particular sequence, and I have to set them aside, sometimes grudgingly. Also in a larger series such as the book second tier images can sometimes still find a use as a glue to bridge transitions between contrasting images or sections, they're like prepositions. The content of "Gowanus Wild" feels more abstract and dream-like to me so I'm approaching the sequencing decisions on a gut visual level rather than trying to work out any sort of logical documentary narrative.

Moon Dock From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

f: What are common issues, problems and questions that unfold for you during the process of laying things out?

MD: The most common and more easily solved problems are clashes in formal qualities. Like too many of the same color palette or composition element in successive images. I usually spot those quickly and find solutions by breaking up the rhythm, getting a feel for the overall design. Content though is often harder to pin down. I could equally make a case for why a section of plant ones should all be together, or instead alternate with man-made themed images. This is where a lot of decisions are made from intuition or happy accident. I try to precipitate accidents by trying out all possible combinations for subsets of images. At one point I think I laid out something like 1000 spread pairs for the book in InDesign, quickly scanning them to find possible candidates, only to later realize that I wanted the book to be only 10-15% spreads anyways. But I find I often have to be exhaustive, otherwise I keep thinking 'what if?'

f: With a rigorous mental and visual process for testing pairings and sequences, it makes me wonder what the relationship of emotion to your editing process is. Does emotion play a role? When you're scouring old archives for work, is it actually a disconnection of emotion that plays a more important role than emotion? And does emotion overlap with how you're thinking about "intuition" in the editing process?

MD: I'd say emotion and intuition are roughly the same thing in this case and play a big role, the deciding one in fact. The word that comes to mind is love - I have to really love an image for it to ultimately become part of the core series. I consider the images again and again and the ones that remain in the core over the years, I just love looking at them. It's like there's a certain mystery where I don't really know how everything lined up just the way it did, it's as if someone else took the picture and I just discovered it on the contacts and it's a real joy to polish it and watch it mature. As for editing the images into sequences, initially approaching an edit with any sort of methodical system is a way to overcome inertia and frees me up to make discoveries without preconceived notions. It's that idea that I may not always know what I want but I’ll know it when I see it.

Pilot House From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

f: How do you know when a layout is done?

MD: For smaller edits, say 5-20 images, it's like Jenga - if I take out or move the wrong piece and it breaks then I know I went one step too far and back up. With this in mind I’ll work up a few candidate edits I like and sleep on it. Then I try to live with them for a while and see which one grows on me, possibly making little final tweaks. For larger edits like the 60ish I'm working with for the book, I'm not sure yet… Deadlines? Exhaustion?

f: What are common mistakes you see in editing?

MD: I see repetition and randomness as two ends of the spectrum. Both can be intentional, but either one done unintentionally could cause a series to suffer. If all my photographs are of the same subject, same composition, same idea, then it's going to be susceptible to repetition and boredom and I may need to rethink the project or reshoot. Conversely if I look at a series and feel like shuffling it would't change the experience much then I question the purpose of the edit. But I also think that sequencing for images is a lot more forgiving than other mediums. You can hear when a song skips a beat or notice an awkward cut in a film right away. But you can often edit an image sequence a lot of different ways before it starts to feel like a blatant mistake. I think this is the power of images, their loose and associative meaning, and also how the idea of narrative in image sequences can be broadly interpreted.

Red Piers From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

f: Finally, what is the best advice you've ever gotten about editing?

MD: I’d say the best 'advice' I've received has been from borrowing other people's edits of my work. I'm often delighted to see a photo editor's sequence or gallerist's selection I hadn't thought of which I really like. So I'll roll it into my future edits, earmarking it as a known good edit, or taking sections of it and combining it with other bits. I'm already familiar with all the editing issues involved since it's my work, so to see someone else crack the code is far more informative than looking at final edits of other projects where I can't see what’s been discarded.

Sailboat From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

Spring Tangle From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

Sunflower From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

Sunflower From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

Sunflower From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts