The Colour of the Sky at Sunrise: A Book Designer on the Road
A post by ABDA member Phil Campbell
As a book designer you spend a lot of time at your desk. You might get up for a coffee or a bite of lunch occasionally and sometimes your arm gets some exercise if you are scanning a stack of images or opening the exciting brown paper satchels of books that arrive from time to time. But mostly we are desk jockeys. Which is why we jump at the opportunity to escape the studio and venture out into the world on a photo shoot.
I once heard the American designer and artist Ed Fella refer to himself as an exit-level designer, as opposed to entry-level, which I thought was very amusing. I’m finding it less amusing the older I get. Although nowhere near exit-level, in footy parlance, career wise, I am probably somewhere in the third quarter. Anyway, the point is when I was in my first or second quarter I designed quite a few cookbooks which are considered the best photo shoots. You not only get to art direct and see your vision come to life, you get to agonise over the exact position of a sprig of rosemary before sitting down to enjoy a free lunch.
Recently I’ve had the chance to get a long way away from the desk on some photo shoots for books on country towns. I got a taste for this on a book with the cracking title of Manangatang. Adam McNicol, a sports writer I know, had a grant to write a history of his hometown and we ventured up to the Mallee in northern Victoria with photographer Andrew Chapman. I tagged along as we interviewed and photographed farmers and shopkeepers and dug into the visual archives of the town, copied countless photos and heard loads of stories.
So when the call came that we were going bush again to document the town of Quilpie in outback south western Queensland, we packed up the Commodore and drove 1700 kms in two days. My mission once again was to tag along to the photo shoots and interviews, soak up the experience for design inspiration and pick through the local archives and copy historical images with my new Fuji camera. And we found some gems.
Quilpie is a town of about 600 people. Surrounded by mostly flat scrub land, some opal mining mounds and enormous sheep and cattle stations with names like Thylungra, Possamunga, Whynot, Maybe, and my personal favourite, Ray. We visited three of these behemoths. Farms with such challenging conditions for stock feed that their size needs to be enormous to compensate.
And of course we met the locals. In a town of 600 it was amazing how the same faces popped up again and again. Three old blokes named Kev, Killer and Collie seemed to be omnipresent. If we left them at a photo shoot at the bowls club with just enough time to get to the pub for dinner, they would already be there, halfway through a beer. Did they have some sort of portal between Quilpie drinking holes?
My big city preconceptions were blown apart several times. Just when I got used to a whole town seemingly wearing nothing but shorts, singlets and hi-vis, we dropped in on the oldest resident of the town, Mrs Pegler, renowned for never leaving the house without her hair and makeup done perfectly. She insisted she couldn’t be photographed in the state she was in, as we had surprised her. To my eye she didn’t have a hair out of place and she was wearing a beautiful dress, probably from the 1940s in an elegant black and white pattern. As always Andrew talked her around and he got the shot with nothing but the natural light filtering in through the front door of the fibro house.
So how does this make any sense in the new world, where I can type Quilpie into Flickr and get my design inspiration online in the time it took us to get the Commodore warmed up? Was it worth the long drive, the early mornings to shoot the sunrise at yet another rusting shearing shed? And did I mention the artesian bore water that makes your shower smell so strongly of sulphur that you’ll come out gagging? Of course it was worth it! It was like being transported into another dimension for a week, and there is no greater inspiration for a designer.
I loved the cattle station signs – crude, honest typography fashioned in the engineering workshop. The hand rendered monogram of the CWA sign, with the eaves of the building painted to match. The colour of the sky at sunrise. The colour of the sky at sunset. These details may well inform the look of the yet to be designed book. To be honest, the food wasn’t quite as good as some of those cookbooks I’d worked on, but if you’re up there, the town welder, Kev does a pretty mean snag with onions every Thursday night at the Quilpie Bowls Club.
Phil Campbell has been designing books, amongst other things, for 20 years. He has worked for Text Media and EmeryStudio and spent time as a sessional lecturer in Communications design at RMIT.