School Library Journal
February 1991, pages 38, 39
Revised and updated in 2001
© Bruce McMillan
This article also appeared in
the Society of Children's Book Writers Bulletin

Photographer or Photo-illustrator:
What's the Difference
By Bruce McMillan

"For a photo-illustrator the book is the finished work of art."

Back in 1989 I was talking on the phone with Dianne Hess, my editor at Scholastic Books. We were discussing our book in production at that time, Mary Had a Little Lamb (Scholastic 1990). "When you explain it, I don't have a question with you using photo-illustrator instead of photographer on the cover. But Jean does. It's so clear when you explain it, why don't you talk to her." So I did. Jean Feiwel, editor in chief of Scholastic Books, posed the key question, "Why not just say photographer?" Without missing a beat, I replied, "I'm glad you asked."

What I do is so similar to other children's illustrators that if I had the option of mixing with a group of photographers or a group of illustrators, I'd head for the illustrators. I have more in common with them. I make books. My illustrating medium happens to be the photograph. We approach books in the same way. We are illustrators. We bring something to light. Is there truly a difference in referring to a book using photographs as being photographed or photo-illustrated? Indeed, there is. For a photo-illustrator the book is the finished work of art.

All books that use photographs, however, are not photo-illustrated. Some are photographed. I have done both. I was well into my children's book career before I realized the difference, and began using the term photo-illustrator. The difference starts with the artist's approach to the work. A photographed book is a collection of individual images. It's similar to stepping into a photographic exhibit at a museum. Each photograph stands on its own. The statement that the artist intended is contained within each image. When you visit the exhibit, although there may be a specified entrance, you may initiate your viewing from almost anywhere, take in the entire exhibit, and experience the full impact. It's a collection of individual images. The exhibit could be the work of one photographer or the work of many photographers. Either way, each photograph is an artistic statement; each photograph is the finished work of art.

A photographer may walk into an art director's office at a children's publishing house, leave a pile of photos featuring a theme, and then wait to see what the art director, or the author, does with them. That's not what a photo-illustrator does. A photo-illustrated book, like a photographed book, is also a collection of individual photographs, but there the similarity ends. When I'm photo-illustrating a book, I see beyond each individual image. Of course, I'm working to make sure that what is happening in the photograph stands on it's own. But I'm looking beyond that. When I look through the viewfinder of one of my Nikons, I visualize the entire book. I see what's happening in the preceding and succeeding pages. I see how this fits into the whole. The finished "work" is not the individual image, but the entire book. It's one person's vision.

Is my "concept story" picture book, Beach Ball - Left, Right (Holiday 1992), photographed or photo-illustrated? Although each photo can stand on it's own, the book has a definite beginning, middle and end - a story. Some of the images for the middle of the story could have been placed randomly in the book, but there is a rhythm that has to be maintained without breaking into a predictable pattern. The child must determine if the beach ball is on the left or right page based on the visual information given and not a repeating pattern of left, right, left, right. The photos were carefully planned to interplay with one another. It's more work, planning how each photo relates to the rest of the book, and requires much more pre-visualization. But this is more than a collection of pictures that show left and right. It's a book, a concept story that's photo-illustrated and not just a thematic collection of individual images.

When I photographed The Baby Zoo (Scholastic 1992) I first saw the entire book in my mind. The concept was clear - the names for baby animals such as cub, joey, kit, fawn, foal, lamb. Then I sketched it much like an illustrator who draws, to see what would and wouldn't work in the layout. Then I started taking photos, many photos that did not appear in the book. But I knew what I was after. I knew the approximate proportions for the size of each photo, that I wanted to see each animal baby with parent if possible, which direction I wanted them pointing, and even which animal I wanted the reader to make eye-to-eye contact with - the Spider Monkey because it was a primate, like the reader. That would be my ending, though it wasn't my first choice for an ending. It evolved as I "sketched" the layout. For the seventeen primary photos in the book I shot thousands of frames. Why so many? One reason was that I was photographing wildlife and that requires overshooting since the subjects are so unpredictable. The other reason is that it's a photo-illustrated book, and I'm after something specific. With layout and design in mind, and sometimes concept story goals, it's much more demanding to photo-illustrate a book than to photograph one.

Is my rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb (Scholastic 1990) photographed or photo-illustrated? I see it as photo-illustrated, and I'm not the only one. Work from this book was included in The Original Art Show at The Society of Illustrators Museum of American Illustration. In "Mary" I had to visualize each photo as a part of the story, and also how it related to the whole. By illustrating the story, interpreting it as I saw it, I was bringing it to light. Could I let serendipity take place? Of course. After all, I had a lamb running around. While I was chasing the lamb and taking the photo, I had in mind the framework of the book. Did I press the shutter when the lamb was amusingly walking, right to left, and facing toward the left side of the frame? No. Did I press the shutter when he was against an unrelated background, even though it was a beautiful picture? No. I patiently waited until he was going in the other direction, left to right, the same way we read our language and turn the pages in our books. I waited until he was in front of the matching background found on the previous page. Only then did it fit into my design for the book. Will unexpected things happen that fit into the book while shooting, even if the book is so thought out? Sure they will. As Louis Pasteur noted, "Chance favors the prepared mind." I was prepared for my lamb's antics.

Ten years later the same photo-illustrating approach applies and serves me well. When I was in Iceland to shoot Days of the Ducklings (Houghton 2001) my mind was engaged as a photo-illustrator. I was shooting with the page layout in mind. I was shooting close-ups of the eider ducklings to mix with wide shots. But I was doing more than that.

The tension in the nonfiction story is between the girl, Drífa (DREE vah), who is raising and nurturing the ducklings to restore the eider population to this small island. If they are to survive they can't be pets. It was this tension that I photographed. They are wild animals and must be raised as wild animals and not as pets, no matter how cute and cuddly they are. It was as a photo-illustrator that I planned my gradually increasing, distancing between Drífa and the ducklings for the conclusion of the book. It takes place in the final four photos of her. The fourth from the last shows Drífa complete figure in a portrait with the ducklings. Then she is seen as a reflection in the water with the ducklings. Next she's seen back-to looking on from afar. Finally, Drífa is seen only as a silhouette in a boat as she leaves the island and the ducklings, wild and free, on their new island home. The ducklings are going their way, to the left, and, as seen visually on the spread, and Drífa is going her way in the dory, to the right, together forming almost one sweeping line.

Is a book photographed or photo-illustrated? It all depends on the artist's approach. Is it a thematic approach of similar but unrelated images, which makes it a book of photographs, or is it a total book approach, which makes it a book of photo-illustrations? When shooting the photographs was there a sense of where the image fit into the book? Was thought being given to whether it would be a left page photo or a right page photo? Was the cropping taking place in the camera so that the finished page was in mind? What about leaving out-of-focus space for the title text?

A photo-illustrated book is usually the work of one person. It's their vision. This isn't always the case with a photographed book. Many times a writer will illustrate a book by selecting photos from the files of a stock photo agency, a government agency, or a company such as a drug company with a file of germ photos. The photograph may have been made simply for record purposes, and no artistic statement was intended. Or perhaps it was taken as an artistic statement. Whatever the purpose of the photo, when it was made, there was no thought about how it would fit into a book. Can you imagine a collection of illustrator's works, artists who use watercolor or colored pencil or oil or whatever, put together to tell a story? Not likely. It's the vision of one artist that makes the book work, whether it's illustrated with drawings or photographs - illustrated or photo-illustrated.

As an illustrator, a photo-illustrator, I'm designing a page when I'm shooting the picture for that page. It's much more work than taking a single image for the pure joy of it. But, to use an oxymoron, it's enjoyable work. The artistic satisfaction from doing this - the inner delight of aesthetic ecstasy - is the reason I create books. The artistic satisfaction comes in two stages - first when the photos are viewed individually, and then again when the book is seen as a whole. For me, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The photo-illustrated book is greater than the sum of its photographs.

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