Volume 2014, Issue 5



Observations on unlocking creativity through book-making
from Blurb’s Photographer-at-Large, Dan Milnor.

I was frustrated.

My job with Blurb had put me in front of a variety of truly creative people, places and things, but something was bothering me. The reality of print-on-demand had only been in existence since 2006 yet many of the creatives I ran into—including myself—had already begun to take this reality for granted. Sure, we could create wildly personal projects, for the first time in history, without committing to a large print run. But our brains were all still operating as if the clock read “1975.”

Dan Milnor, Blurb's photographer-at-large


“It is like a finger pointing to the moon. Concentrate on the finger and you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

Bruce Lee


My phone rang and on the other end was a long-time friend and fellow photographer, who, for lack of a better description, was “focusing on the finger.” In his particular case the “finger” was color management. I explained that getting good color was important—and relatively easy—and encouraged him to spend more time making great photographs as well as studying design, typography, and illustrated books in general. But my friend shrugged off this advice and continued to ask detailed questions about only one thing: Color management.

I hung up the phone and said to my wife, “He doesn’t get it.” It was clear that urging my friend to study the things I knew were critical to book success wasn’t working. I realized I had to be an example. I realized I had to MAKE things that broke the creative ice and presented our dynamic range of tools in a more fluid and active way. I then made a fateful decision. “Any idea of I have, regardless of how crazy or silly it seems, will end up in book form.” I made a pledge to stop what I was doing and sit in front of the computer until my fleeting idea was solidified in print form. After all, this was precisely what Blurb was created for. Freedom. Complete and total freedom.

From this simple decision emerged the “Because I Can” series of books. Why am I making these books? Because I can. Each book in this series will be printed exactly ONE time. They will survive was an “Edition of One.” That’s it. That’s all I need.

As you know by now, these books were born from frustration, but something strange and magical has happened. These books have cracked open the learned behavior of a traditional photography education and subsequent two decades of working as a full-time photographer, and have allowed me to see the light at the end of the publishing tunnel. Not all of these books are good, important, or consumable by a mass audience, but they have taught me a tremendous amount about creativity and the power of one.

Over the past year, these “Because I Can” books have been viewed by audiences across the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe. Without fail, these books invoke a reaction from those who view them.

A curator from a California-based museum accused me of being a “conceptual artist” instead of a bookmaker. It’s something I’m still coming to grips with, but I’m warming to the title. Making these books has been the single most important thing I’ve done with Blurb, and this is coming from someone who has made 170 unique titles with the platform. Yes, I’ve got a book fetish.

These books have proven to me there is life “beyond the monograph.”


A closer look at three ideas that became “Because I Can” books

The Puzzle Book


From 2006 to 2010, I created 120 different books, which I then sold to photography clients. Many of these books were comprised of children’s portraiture. Consequently, after creating then delivering the books to the families, many of these books were handled and viewed by kids. Kids don’t look at books the way adults do, and based on this reality, the “Puzzle Book” was created. The book itself was an existing “outtake” book I had sitting on my shelf, a 12 x 12, Imagewrap book filled with imagery from Peru, made during my annual workshop in this Latin American gem of a country.

Dan Milnor - Puzzle Book

To make the puzzle a bit more difficult, I painted the front and back covers of the book with acrylic paint, choosing a random pattern to confuse the puzzle solver as much as possible. I then recruited a friend who is a woodworker and someone with a band saw. He and I sketched out a pattern on the cover and began the great dissection. Several pieces of the puzzle did not have any portion of the bind to hold them together, which required me to glue the pieces together. I used an archival, clear sealer. I love stacking the book and placing it in front of someone then timing how long it takes them to solve the puzzle book.



I am fascinated by people who play pretend war. I am also fascinated by extremely visual subject matter, and the game of paintball provides an answer to both of these interests. After a little research. I was lucky enough to find a paintball battleground that not only had a beautiful assortment of fields, but also a staff who was kind enough to allow me out on the fields to photograph. They didn’t tell me how much it hurts to get hit by a paintball. Over a period of a few months I created an essay of black and white imagery, covering the “frontline” action of what it felt like to really play this game.

Dan Milnor - Wargames

I then designed a 13 x 11 Blurb Imagewrap book of the photographs, designed with simple four-way bleed, double truck images front to back. After receiving the book, I drove it back to the paintball field and asked the staff if it would be okay to “finish” the book. At first there was a bit of confusion, but after explaining the reasons behind my “strange idea,” the book was lined up and…paintballed. The case and book were somewhat destroyed by the high-velocity rounds, but that is what I was after. After allowing the book to dry over a period of weeks, I sealed the entire thing with an archival, clear spray coat.


What Michael Thinks

San-Jose-based artist Michael Napper is one of my creative mentors. He’s one of those guys that drives me crazy because he can write, photograph, paint, and illustrate—and he is really good at all of these things. He and I had met many times over the years to discuss photography, but we have never really done a project together.

Dan Milnor - What Michael Thinks

As a surprise, I designed HALF of a Blurb 8 x 10 portrait softcover book. Inside, I wrote a forward to Michael that asked “What would happen if one person designed half of a book and gave it to another person?” Would they simply push the book aside or would something come alive? I asked Michael if he would meet for coffee and when he sat down I slid the book across the table. “What is that?” he asked. “Read it,” I said. He opened the book, read the forward, starting laughing, and then put the book into his backpack. Several weeks later I began to receive small images via email of the book you see here. Michael had added images of his own, charcoal sketches, paintings, and an assortment of other items. This book—based on what Michael added—truly is a work of art and one of my favorite possessions. Even if only half of it is mine…


Some advice for turning YOUR ideas into books

The beauty of making books like this is you don’t need to overthink things. Not all of these books are good, but they are all crucial to the learning process. I’ve created fifteen books in this series so far, and there are those I’m proud of and those I don’t go out of my way to show around. The key is freedom and not second guessing yourself. After all, this process is about having FUN. And remember: You ONLY have to print ONE copy. What is the risk? What is the downside? Some of these books cost close to one hundred dollars and others cost less than ten. Make what fits your physical and mental budgets.

Dan Milnor - make a book

One of the things I find helpful is keeping a paper journal. I’ve been doing this for over twenty years, which should tell you how critical these journals are to my creative process. I keep a running tally of “Edition of One” ideas that I transfer from journal to journal so that I always have that list nearby. ANYTIME I get an idea it goes in the journal.




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