After flirting with careers as an archaeologist, pilot, concert pianist, and diplomat, Sara Frances settled on photographer after just a few month’s residence in Heidelberg, Germany, while studying for her Masters in Comparative Literature. She self-defines as a photojournalist-poet. Always a writer and reader, as well as photographer, her unique hybrid media approach blends image in a sort of illustrated, sculptural time travel. Fragments of Spirit: 60 Years: A Photographer’s Recollections of Taos Pueblo, the Region and its Arts is a sinewy braid of diverse picture stories from her longtime love affair with Northern New Mexico, plus her long-considered philosophy and methodology of making art.
Tell me about your latest book and what inspired you to write/create it?
Fragments of Spirit: 60 Years: A Photographer’s Recollections of Taos Pueblo, the Region and its Arts began as a promise to self and colleagues to publish my photography as art, not as in previous books where I wrote and illustrated professional expertise and techniques. At the time I could not have imagined how far reaching that goal would be, even to creating a second career. Some ten years ago I realized, while organizing my professional archive, that I had a half-century of historic, intrinsically interesting, personal images and portraits of Taos people, the Pueblo itself, the region, and artists I’ve known. At the time I unearthed just one print, but the scope of possibilities came to mind as as a flood. Also over years, I’d collected writings about my experiences, my techniques, and my philosophy of arts. I had the makings of a formal monograph—and my artistic legacy!
Share your personal publishing story. Did you choose self or traditional? How did you go from book manuscript draft to finished book available for purchase?
The obvious publisher would have been a university press or a photo art book house. I quickly discovered that my hybrid image and text work did not suit either option. Note: never mention poetry to any publisher, and the photo art book crowd, who print just a handful of books a year, turns up its nose at text! Further, the process at all these presses is very old-style, including outside vetting of you the author, and editing, deign, cover, etc. from their own staff (and most often your expense). As a many-decades Master Photographer and published author—well, my ego balked right away at “vetting,” and besides I had no intention of allowing other hands on my images or design. This in spite of my first book having been gorgeously designed by the staff of Amphoto imprint of Random House’s!
There remained no other route for me than independent publishing; how hard could it be, I thought, because I had been making hand-made books for decades. It took me seven years (perhaps a Biblical seven?) to learn what I didn’t know I needed to know. Fortunately, I found the Colorado Independent Publishers Association (I’m now a board member), Lighthouse Writers Workshop (I’m a graduate of the Poetry Collective), and Independent Book Publishers Association. I began to soak up the technique, tips, and tricks of finding printers and distribution, book sizing for impact and economy, type faces and manipulation, color space and PDF conversions, cover art and back cover must-have info, forewords, pagination, indexing, back matter, title and contents, paper stock, proof runs, ISBN, Library of Congress, copyright, and, most importantly, the differences between wet and dry offset. Some forty-five iterations later—is a work ever completely finished?—I was ready to go to print under my own mark, Photo Mirage Books.
What is the most difficult part of the book writing process for you? Does it energize or exhaust you?
It took concerted searching in the archive to recover the “lost,” early negatives from the late 1950s. Just forty images, suitable for a small monograph. Husband Karl was doubtful, saying I needed to write something of an ekphrastic nature (he didn’t use that word, and I hardly knew what it meant!) as accompaniment and to bring a layer of experience and emotion into play. Short poems emerged from my pen, yet Karl remained dissatisfied. “How will people know the backstory?” Meantime, the image quantity increased as I thought about the yearly, intervening visits to Northern New Mexico. Faces and places were remembered with honor and delight. At that point the writing took a wrong turn, in my attempt to produce a consolidated text of culture and history. Karl, and others, notably Patty Limerick, were appalled—not because I’m not an expert in the field, but because historical accounts are both plentiful and boring, and, he said, “Because it’s your story, your experience, your evolution that people want to hear.” By then, the collection of images had grown to over two hundred; I scrapped 30,000 words entirely, and started again on the writing the personal, in first person voice. This met with approval, but my “task-master” further demanded that images and stories be organized in chapters and have a novel-like story arc.
How do you come up with your illustrations/images/graphics?
All my work is driven first by image, then by text: poetry, short prose, memoir, philosophy, some magic and suspense that is part of any artist’s life and occupation. As a self-styled Photoshop® “Pixel Surgeon,” my decades of experience optimizing and enhancing imagery, both pre-digital and current capture techniques, are my rock-solid foundation. And yes, I design everything in Photoshop® because this app permits one-stop image and text manipulation, rather than needing to go back and forth from inDesign®. Yes, type can be easily kerned and leaded and pushed around in Photoshop® if you know where to look!
How many unpublished or unfinished books have you written and set aside? What are your plans for them?
While I constantly promote Fragments, my next two books are full steam. I work on them at least half of every day. Unplugged Voices: Tales from the Four Corners, Taos and the West, an anthology, has mushroomed as an illustrated collection of experiences from an eclectic mix of Western people I’ve met. With the current perceived importance of verbal histories, experiential learning, and memoir—well, I’ve found that just about everyone has fascinating, personal stories of the land and the light that simply beg to be heard. I just topped eighty “articles” for the collection, with the goal of one hundred or more.
My capstone project for the year-long Lighthouse Writers Workshop Poetry Collective will be an oversize, four-color coffee table book of some 120 poems and short prose, accompanied by close to 300 highly manipulated iPhoneography images. Working title: What to Wear to Paradise: Wedding Dresses with Hardware Inclusions. Not a collection of poems, the organization is novel-like, with story arc that sets the stage of a protagonist, woman-artist who ruminates on the value of marriage—or not—and the symbolism of the wedding gown. The story proceeds through questioning, ego, denial, reversal, epiphany, determination, twists of events, disaster, forgiveness, decisions, taking up the role of muse, denouement. At times the text is provocative, timely, arrogant, funny, artistic, real, cultural, musing, sentimental, unrequited, role playing, fulfilled.
What next? An imagined series of mystery/suspense featuring a photographer traveling about the world. So many thoughts, so little time! Just get to it!
How do you go about obtaining book reviews? Do you read them? How do you deal with the good and the bad ones?
Book reviews are something perhaps I should spend more effort on, but really it’s a matter of getting Fragments in people’s hands. I find the images and design and obvious content sell themselves. When I hear a good comment, I ask if the person would kindly post it, and I give them the exact link to make it easy. I’m always answering questions, creating bonds over shared experience and need, and also entertaining—here the wealth of illustrations is key. Text and image augment each other. The only negative comments ever came from art photo book purists who see no value in words—fortunately their opinions were never in print, except for one comment in the Denver Post that ended, “…words decrease the photographic value.” BUT just a few months ago the Post featured me in print and online in their Monday series “Faces of the Front Range.” Obviously any publicity is good publicity to some extent.
What do you do for book marketing? Describe your plan, how it is working, and what you want to add or change to that plan, if anything.
My best salesman has six feet: my good friend Roberta Chambers and her sweet companion shitzu, Stella, who is a welcome visitor in bookstores and galleries. They live in the Taos area, and keep a stock of my books for immediate, free local delivery. Melissa Serdinsky, Thin Air Collective, in Boulder is my distributor who also keeps stock, does accounting, fulfills orders, and deals with Amazon. I couldn’t do any of these three myself, though of course my personality and appearance creates most of the impetus to buy. Again, getting the beautiful book in people’s hands is where it’s at.
I am currently exploring an independent representative who works with National Parks and another who is big in library sales—places where I have no possible in. I’m well satisfied with selling one or two at a time—my book is timeless, not a quantity mover, and the audience is quite specific. I make sure I do at least two personal appearances each month. I note that a number of author friends state that in their experience, “…virtual book launches don’t result in sales.” A big public appearance boost is my monthly virtual panel for the Millicant Rogers Museum in Taos. I organize and moderate conversations about arts and community interests free to the public and archived on the museum’s Youtube channel.
There are many trends in self-publishing that have come and gone. What do you think is going to change next in the self or traditional publishing landscape?
The most difficult thing about current traditional agencies and publishing is that your work must absolutely fit their niche, or they don’t know what to do with you. That was my problem from the beginning—image and text, not flip-through picture books. I’m an unknown genre and concept. Already traditional publishers are writing all sorts of contracts, mostly where the author is partially supporting the print run. This is surprisingly similar to the newer concept of small, hybrid publishers who offer a menu of charged services, for instance, design, edit, cover, etc., to would-be authors. Hosted “publication” contests are popular, where a winner still has to guarantee to sell a quantity of the run. This is prevalent in the poetry genre. By my unofficial experience, a great deal of current independent book production skimps on unattractive design, paper quality, graceless type, poor editing, and covers without shelf appeal. I’ve learned this through being a content and design judge for award contests that are hosted by independent publishing associations. I’ve learned what not to do.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
The most important thing is to “get the cart before the horse!” I mean, from the start you must discover and write to the audience who wants to hear you; this may not be your originally proposed audience. What problems do people want to solve? What shared experience or relationships do they crave? What entertainment will they pay for? With significant research you’ll get to know if your topic and approach will have legs. And of course, it’s OK if you write just for yourself, or friends and family, or two hundred, or two thousand—but do not have delusions of grandeur. Books are heavy and costly to ship; you don’t have physical space or budget to create books that will not sell. However, just keep writing because art saves lives.
Who is your favorite author, book? The last book you read?
I do go through several books a week; I’ve learned to quit after a chapter or so if my interest in topic or language lags. Too many books, so little time. My favs are frequent rereads of children’s classics: Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, Secret Garden (my husband’s nickname is Dickon from the main character).
Long time favs are from the past: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Sayers, Paul Gallico, Ernest Hemingway, WEB Griffin, Peter Mayle, James Michener, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf. More recently, Julia Alvarez, Tony Hillerman, Maryanne Robinson, Barbara Hambly, Louise Glück, plus bar-poet Randall McNair and our own Colorado contemporary novelist Peter Heller. All of them have informed my own work.
More about the author and how to find her books.
Sara Frances M.Photog.CR.,EA-ASP, API, MA (Comp Lit), Lighthouse Poetry Collective
Sara designs and moderates virtual panel discussions of art and life for the acclaimed Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, NM. She conducts workshops in photography and independent publishing, and mentors for the PPA, ASofP, and Osher Lifelong Learning at University of Denver. She serves as book design/content judge for IBPA and other independent publishers’ and writers’ associations.
You can purchase Fragments of Spirit: 60 Years: A Photographer’s Recollections of Taos Pueblo, the Region and its Arts direct from the website and on Amazon or order it from any of these local bookstores:
About the Author
After flirting with careers as an archaeologist, pilot, concert pianist, and diplomat, Sara Frances settled on photographer after just a few month’s residence in Heidelberg, Germany, while studying for her Masters in Comparative Literature. She was captivated with the potential for personal interaction with people of a wide variety of cultural and social environments. Her fiftieth professional year started in the late 1950s with her parents’ obsession with opera, Native American drum music, vinyl recordings, and historic places of the West. Her family of musicians and artists traveled, stopped, listened, and loved the light and land. It was her insider introduction at a young age to Georgia O’Keeffe country. Like Tony Hillerman wrote, New Mexico casts a spell. And even as a kid, young Sara fell for it.
She self-defines as a photojournalist-poet. Regardless of setting, people in that setting are absolutely the life and motivation of her work. She describes her personal, storytelling mission as that of Foto-Griot, a teller of tales of insight, culture, and expression, through the fusion of photography, mixed-media, poetry, and prose. The honorific griot (properly griotte in the feminine) comes from Native West African cultural tradition designating a storyteller, traveller, seer, celebrant, adviser, poet, interpreter, and historian. There is no English word that encompasses the griot’s province.
Always a writer and reader, as well as photographer, her unique hybrid media approach blends image in a sort of illustrated, sculptural time travel. Fragments of Spirit: 60 Years: A Photographer’s Recollections of Taos Pueblo, the Region and its Arts is a sinewy braid of diverse picture stories from her longtime love affair with Northern New Mexico, plus her long-considered philosophy and methodology of making art. Images and words intertwine in textural conversation, enfolding the reader in past and present, in a world both new and familiar to anyone who has experienced the magic and the proverbial “hum,” the spell said to emanate from the region. The book recently won two first place gold EVVY awards for art/photography and for interior book design.
Sara started hand-making art books decades ago, but in the last seven years, publishing her own works became a necessity—and then an avocation, to be of service to other artists. To understand all sides of the publishing industry she took membership, now as board member, in the Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA), the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), and several writers’ associations. Through publication, her vision of dimensionality of voice and image becomes a sculptural production—memory held in the hands.
Human geometry of land and spirit define her current arts and community anthology project. In her quest to articulate her own memories, she realized a separate book, a collective work, was needed add breadth of outlook to the wide New Mexico panorama. As Peter Hassrick wrote in his foreword to Fragments, “Western heritage matters.” She says, “Not in her wildest imagination,” did she picture the depth and exuberance of writing she would receive from the people who have chosen to share their times and memories in the collection—four-color illustrated, of course. Not just anecdotes—soulful revelations—uplifting, historic, funny, courageous, sad, catalytic. Each “voice” is a layer: a blanket, stratum, mother lode, seam, vein, river bed. Step directly into each author’s shoes and mind on diverse roads of the West, of memory that twists, explains, parallels, and then circles back in a happy map to rejoin the others. Working title is Unplugged Voices: Tales from the Four Corners, Taos and the West.
Another, unexpected, side to Sara’s art, lies in iPhoneography. Composited and manipulated in many layers, her recent image creations cannot be recognized as photographs, and therefore must be called a new medium. She questions, “What more can I do with, and to an image, to communicate a sensation?” What more is multiple, often dozens, of steps in the smart phone and computer; she delights in how abstractions can transport us to places of mind and heart that we almost recognize, but not quite. This process informs her new hybrid 200+ image and poetic text project, “Wedding Dresses with Hardware Inclusions,” which is near completion.