Editing with Daniel Coburn

From The Hereditary Estate © Daniel Coburn

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 KauschingerJeff RichMiska DraskoczyKevin WY Lee, Aya Takada, the pairing of Jessica Dean Camp and Cole Don Kelley and Amy Wolff. Today we continue the series with Daniel Coburn.

Daniel W. Coburn lives and works in Lawrence, Kansas. His work and research investigates the family photo album employed as one component of a visual infrastructure that supports the flawed ideology of the American Dream. Selections from his body of work have been featured in exhibitions at the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art and the Chelsea Museum of Art in New York. Coburn's prints are held in collections at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), the University of New Mexico Art Museum, the Mulvane Art Museum, the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, and the Mariana Kistler-Beach Museum of Art. He has been invited as a guest lecturer at national and international photography events including the International Festival of Photography in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the Ballarat International Foto Biennale in Victoria, Australia, and the Helsinki Photo-Media Conference. His first artist's monograph, The Hereditary Estate, was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2015.  Daniel's work has been published widely, most recently appearing in the International New York Times. Coburn received his MFA with distinction from the University of New Mexico in 2013. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Photo Media at the University of Kansas.

 The Hereditary Estate cover © Daniel Coburn

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

Daniel Coburn: That is a tricky question. You might classify me as an art photographer. You might say my work is personal reportage, but that wouldn't be completely correct either. I photograph my family mostly, or people and places that represent my family. At this point all of my work is made in response to the idealized family photo album. My own family history is haunted by instances of suicide, domestic violence and alcoholism.  My new book, The Hereditary Estate, functions as an amendment to the idealized family album, it's my way of setting the record straight.

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

DC: I begin with a rough edit. I eliminate those photographs that are obviously not going to make the cut and then produce 4x5 prints of the remaining images. I find a big room to spread out. I am a professor at the University of Kansas and we have a large room with magnetic walls. Strong, singular, images are important for me and those become the anchors for the project. Sequencing is equally important, especially if the edit will result in a book, which encourages the viewer to consume the images in a very linear order.

Page spread from The Hereditary Estate © Daniel Coburn

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.

DC: I begin by looking for pairs of images that create a strong psychological dialog.  Often times, an image may be weak when viewed singularly, but that image might completely transform the meaning of another image when presented in sequence. It is important to set up a rhythm. Often times I will purposefully sequence images that obviously seem to belong together, and on following pages present a set of images that are seemingly disparate. I use this strategy to encourage the viewer to consider new associations and possibilities for deriving meaning from photographs. When I was editing for my new book The Hereditary Estate, I purposefully created a visual anxiety, offering my viewer very little respite. The edit was relatively dense. Much of my work is narrative, but I make all efforts to avoid a completely linear storyline. I want to challenge my viewer. I don't want to TELL my audience what to think. I want my book or exhibition to be something the viewer must revisit multiple times to fully negotiate or comprehend.

Page spread from The Hereditary Estate © Daniel Coburn

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?

DC: In The Hereditary Estate, there is one spread where the horizon line of a landscape image perfectly aligns with the contour of a bed in a photo on the preceding page. This is one instance where a formal consideration dramatically altered the meaning of both photographs. Overall, I would say that the consideration of formal qualities doesn't play a large role in my decision making process. I am however interested in the language, or the syntax of an image. For instance what kind of psychological dialogue occurs when you place a snapshot image in sequence with a very formal, large-format portrait? Or, what happens when you place a pixelated image next to an image that was made with film? I use this type of sequence to create a more complex narrative, encouraging my viewer to carefully consider the timeline and the chronology of the story.

From The Hereditary Estate © Daniel Coburn

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

DC: There are always a few problem spots in the narrative or the sequence. There are places where the photographs aren't quite functioning the way I would like, or the language is confusing. This is when I go back to my pile of photos that I have omitted and begin to look for new relationships. One of my favorite artists is John Baldessari who was interested in the language of photographs. He would collect images and assign words to them, so that he could begin to form sentences through sequencing. I often take a similar approach.

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

DC: Sometimes you just know. I always feel a bit uneasy if the narrative/edit seems fully resolved. I know that if I am feeling comfortable, something must be wrong. My advice is to be thoughtful, but not controlling. Leave room for mistakes and accidents, because those will become additional points of access for your viewer.

Page spread from The Hereditary Estate © Daniel Coburn

Page spread from The Hereditary Estate © Daniel Coburn

f: What are common mistakes you see in editing?

DC: I think the most common mistake is an edit that is too easy. It is one that tells a very clear story and doesn't allow the viewer room for personal interpretation. I think it's best to expect the best from your viewer, and allow them to draw their own conclusions; allow them to bring their own history to your work.  Let them complete the story and they will have a much more rewarding experience with your work.

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

DC: Find one or two people you trust to look at your work and provide advice on your edit. It doesn't need to be another photographer. My mentors are intellectuals, art historians,and artists from other disciplines.  We are often too close to our own work to see it objectively.

From The Hereditary Estate © Daniel Coburn

Page spread from The Hereditary Estate © Daniel Coburn