Musings on Photography

Elements, Sets, Sequences

Posted in Solo Photo Book Month by Paul Butzi on February 12, 2008


When I first started taking photography seriously, I thought about photographs as single objects. I’d think “This photo is good”, or perhaps “that photo disppoints.” What I never did was think about photos in relation to other photos.

Then I started hanging shows of my photos, and more or less against my will I was dragged into thinking about sets of photos. That’s because as soon as you start with a large collection of photos and try to devise a scheme where you make a subset of that large collection in some way other than random selection, you are pretty certain to think “Oh, this one goes will with that one”, or perhaps “this one doesn’t belong with all of those.” So I was forced to consider sets and subsets, and the relationships between the photos.

And, of course, as soon as you hang more than one photo on a wall (or put more than one on a web page), you move beyond sets to sequences – an imposed order on the photos. This one should be viewed before that one, as it were. Now, you can’t enforce this ordering except in some unusual circumstances (slide shows, for instance). Nevertheless, the order is there, and the viewer can follow it if she chooses. Despite all this, I tried really hard to avoid thinking very much about sequencing, because while it’s pretty easy to sequence two prints (only two choices) it’s harder to sequence three (six choices) and much much much harder to sequence, say, 15 (1.3 billion choices of order). When you’re talking about sequencing 35 photos (think SoFoBoMo) you’re talking about choosing one of 1033 million million million million million million possible sequences. That’s, well, an awful lot. Obviously, you’re not going to look at them all, rank them, and then choose the one you thought looked best.

So instead of looking at them all, and choosing the best one, you’re pretty much reduced to having some cunning plan that lets you select one of these 1033 undecillion sequences. And at last I come to the thought that I might choose the sequence as a creative decision. We can arrange the photos in a sequence that tells a story (probably we can arrange them into lots of different stories). We can arrange them in a sequence that introduces ideas in a desirable order. Whatever we do, we narrow down that 1033 undecillion choices to just one, and we put the photos in our SoFoBoMo book in that order.

Ack. My plan of making the photos, and then just plopping them into a book ‘skeleton’ just went out the window. Obviously the order of the photos makes a difference. I mean, I knew that before, but I hadn’t really come to grips with it, nor had I really considered that putting 35 photos in a sequence is a whole heck of a lot harder than putting even 20 photos into a sequence.

How to reduce the size of this sequencing problem? The answer, I suspect, lies in partitioning. If we ‘group’ subsets of the 35 images, we break the problem of generating a 35 photo sequence into a bunch of much smaller problems. If we partition the set of 35 photos into groups of five photos, we end up with seven sets of five each. Sequencing a set of 5 photos is a snap. Then we’re left with the problem of putting the seven sub-sequences into some order – again, sequencing seven things is not such a hard problem.

Note: Colin offers us an out, by observing that the Harvard Law of Behavior (“Under carefully controlled conditions, an animal will behave as it damn well pleases.”) applies to people interacting with books. If that’s so, why work so hard at getting the ‘right’ sequence when people will ignore it anyway?

13 Responses

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  1. mcananeya said, on February 12, 2008 at 2:58 pm


    There is an excellent article on just this issue in the latest copy of foam magazine ( The article talks about the implications of this task of selecting and sorting for Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, who produced a book of 1,000 Polaroid pictures. DiCorcia orginally intended NOT to determine the sequence of the pictures, a radical departure from him previous works, which emphasized sequence. He initially intended to have the sequence in “Thousand” be random, but then found himself unable to resist rearranging them. Very interesting article.

    Also an outstanding magazine. Each issue is designed to be a “mini-exhibition” of several photographers.

    Best regards,

  2. Gordon McGregor said, on February 12, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    the book world has this wonderful invention called ‘Chapters’ that you might want to look into 😉

  3. Martin Doonan said, on February 12, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Interesting points in both posts (yours & Colin’s). I think it is also important to consider that, should one choose to double-spread the photos (i.e. image on left and right page), there is also the issue of the 17 or 18 pairs that need to be contemplated in the sorting. Personally, I think the pairing is the most important decision in all of this sorting malarkey.

  4. Gordon McGregor said, on February 12, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    I ended up writing what was going to be a long response, so it turned into a blog post of its own

  5. Paul Butzi said, on February 12, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    the book world has this wonderful invention called ‘Chapters’ that you might want to look into

    Sure. Two points I’d make:

    1. Go look at your photo books. What fraction of them are broken into chapters? Not many of mine are. That falls into the category of ‘things that make me go “hmmmmm”‘.

    2. Sure. But chapters imply some thematic structure, at least to me. And the partitioning needn’t be thematic. It could be nothing more than a way to reduce the order of the problem – sort the photos arbitrarily into groups of six. Then sequence each group. Then sequence the groups. Much simpler problem that way, and although you’ve traded off some control, you have a tractable problem instead of an intractable one.

  6. Doug Plummer said, on February 12, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    Minor White was one of the great masters of sequencing, and his books are indeed arranged “chapterlike,” titles and all. If you start looking deeply at the great photography books, you cannot help but notice the unfolding of themes and formal organization that weaves through the work, and the complexity that is uncovered by repeated and deep looking. Sequencing a book is hard, and often requires a gifted editor. I’m bad at it. I’m amazed by the meanings that can be uncovered in my work when someone else sequences it, the couple of times I’ve been lucky enough to experience it.

  7. Gordon McGregor said, on February 12, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    actually the last few I’ve picked up are arranged in chapters – the NatGeo ‘Wide Angle’ book is arranged geographically, others are arranged chronologically in chapters of time (decades), another is arranged by body part. I can take the point that in general they might not be, but what are describing sounds a lot like chapters in the more general sense.

  8. Ed Richards said, on February 12, 2008 at 6:19 pm


    I wonder how much of that meaning is due to the sequencing, as opposed to what our minds impose on what could be an arbitrary sequencing? Be interesting try a few random sequences to see what they look like. Perhaps breaking out of our own imposed sequence would give us more insight into the work as it appears to others.

  9. Ed Richards said, on February 12, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    Bill Brandt’s big book is based on chapters. His most important organization seems to be pairing of images on opposing pages.

  10. Tommy Williams said, on February 12, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    The first time I ever thought about sequencing in photo books was when going through Robert Frank’s “The Americans” (how I wish that were still in print–I can’t seem to keep it out of the library long enough or often enough and I can’t afford $150+ to buy my own copy). I noticed shapes in the same places, or the covered dead body becomes the covered car and palm trees. I later read that he intended the book to be flipped through quickly, almost like a “paper movie” where the last photo is still in your eye when you see the next one and shapes and forms overlap. Now that you have written about sequencing, I want to go check the book out again and look some more at the ordering and the effects of going quickly through the book.

  11. Ed Richards said, on February 13, 2008 at 8:50 am


    You are in luck – The Americans is being reprinted in what looks like a very nice edition:

  12. Tommy Williams said, on February 13, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks for posting that Ed. I was just coming back to say that I had found this on Amazon and was so excited (I have already placed my pre-order). I saw it in the PDF referred to on this post about Joel Sternfeld and Robert Frank:

  13. David Ray Carson said, on February 13, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Raplh Gibson has this to say, “Exhibitions basically show my relationship to photography, the making of my photographs. Books show how I think about my photographs.”

    Use your intuition.

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