Hit the Books with Dan Milnor: Put Play into Practice

Join me in Spain for a week-long bookmaking workshop in May 2024. Create your own book from an existing body of work and with the mentoring and guidance of myself and other top photographers. Details here. Please note: This is not a Blurb-sponsored event.

Not everything is meant for public consumption. This might seem counter to the general trend of modern society, where every moment of every day is shared and shared passionately. But when it comes to producing our best, most genuine work, sharing in real-time is not always the best solution. Sharing as you go can have a negative impact. 

When we create for others, we add a performance element to our output, and we often fill our heads with the thoughts of others more than our own, independent, unique thoughts and beliefs.  Having an audience in mind while creating means you are often thinking more about “them” than you are about “you.” Figuring out who we are as artists, photographers, or bookmakers is one of the most important things we can do as creatives because discovering what makes us unique is what gives value to our work. Start by asking yourself, who is the true you? 

One of the best ways of determining who you are is to play. Yes, that’s right, just play. No strings, no attachments, no goals, no audience, and no analytics. Believe it or not, this might take some practice. Breaking out of the pattern of performance can be scary to some, and for others, it might be the first time they have ever done something simply for themselves. 

When we are left to our own creative devices, we begin to undo the thoughts of others while introducing ourselves to our way of creating. This could mean making a new kind of picture, switching from people to landscape or vice versa, or it could mean editing our work differently. Perhaps we shift from a linear edit to a more conceptual take because we are no longer wondering what people will think. Maybe we shift from making portfolio-style books to more narrative-based publications with personal history as the main ingredient? Who you are when you play is revealing. 

Photo of a book's interior with experimental and creative layout, showcasing the concept of practicing play in bookmaking

Albert Einstein once said, “Play is the highest form of research.” While my brain is no match for Mr. Einstein’s, on this point, I am in total agreement. If making something just for you—or taking the time to play—is new, then relax and start small. First, permit yourself to play. No judgment, no mood boards, no target audience in mind. Next, celebrate your mistakes. There is no right or wrong way to play. Also, give yourself a time limit. Take 10 minutes to create. Write, draw, photograph, edit, design, etc. Just flow and see where the experiment takes you. 

If you want to go one step further, print your results. Nothing fancy is required. For me, playing when you’re bookmaking results in what I call “the 10-minute book.” I take a random body of work, import the images into Blurb BookWright, and then design for exactly 10 minutes. Sometimes, I allow BookWright to autofill the pages so I can then adjust, or I start from scratch and design quickly and without restrictions. After 10 minutes, I upload and hit print.  Often, after receiving my book, I will have almost no memory of what I did until I see my efforts on the printed page. Sometimes, I am baffled by what I created, while other times, I am intrigued as to why I made a specific editing decision or choice of typeface. What emerges from these experiments is who I truly am without outside influence. Little by little, I learn from these experiments and then incorporate the knowledge into future projects so that I make things that truly belong to me.

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