Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Mound City Chronicle Book

Posted in Adventure, art, Fuji, Jason Gray, learning, nikon, perception, photography, prime lens, St. Louis, technique by Jason Gray on January 16, 2023

In late Fall of 2022, my first monographic photobook was published through Vedere Press in Indianapolis. Mound City Chronicle, a current exhibition series and the subject of my book, has been both a labor of love and a voyage of discovery for me since I moved back to St. Louis in 2009. The idea of publishing the work as a book goes back to at least 2014 when I produced a handmade variant using tipped in prints, though the publication process began in earnest back in 2018.

In this year, I met with a local publisher that was interested in producing their first “coffee table-style” photobook (they are traditionally more of a history press). Together, we worked out a concept for a book with the theme of St. Louis underground (both sites literally underground and sites that are not available to the public), that would incorporate short introductions written by my longtime collaborator and friend, Chris Naffziger. Over time, the publisher became reluctant to stick to the more art focused concept and gradually began to steer the publication back into an illustrated history book. Eventually, we were so out of sync over the vision that we needed to part ways. The contract was scrapped and I became despondent. I assumed that this was the one chance that I’d have and it was gone. Soon though, it became clear that the STL Underground book was not the book that I had wanted to make anyway (even if things had gone according to the original plan).

Mound City Chronicle variants and experiments

I returned to looking at and thinking about the original Mound City Chronicle handmade book that I finished several years earlier and began to consider producing something more akin to the photobooks that I’d read while teaching myself photography. Books that were closer to my heart as an artist and more honest to my work; books like Robert Frank’s The Americans, Walker Evans’ American Photographs, Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, William Eggleston’s Field Guide, etc. I wanted my book to resonate in similar ways and to operate thematically like these books and others. I began to make zines, maquettes, and little journals that experimented with layouts, sizes, and sequences. The exhibitions that I had during this time helped me to see these decisions in a more linear way and I printed my work to reference the scale of a photobook.

A special edition zine for STL-Style (a local business)

Once I felt happy with the layout, I began to research photobook publishers and sent submissions to more than 30 publishers in the U.S. and Europe. I learned a lot from this process. I learned that both self and traditional publishing generally have high upfront costs and that contracts covering all of the initial expenses are rare for this type of book. I received a lot of rejections, much less feedback, and very little praise. It was a tough period but I tried to remain positive, even while the possibilities I’d imagined continued to evaporate.

In 2022, in a last ditch effort to see my work published, I submitted a bid for an Artist Support Grant from the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis and won. Since I had already conducted research on publishers and had identified a few opportunities (if I could just overcome the upfront costs) and had solidified the design and layout of my book, I was able to proceed very quickly. I choose Vedere Press because of the owner’s history in producing high quality illustrated books (he sold his initial publishing business in order to work more exclusively with artists). I also work in art book publishing at the Saint Louis Art Museum and was able to employ the skills I’d learned there with regard to image prep and color proofing to my own publishing endeavor for an expedited result.

I am very happy with the finished product and believe that it shows the years of effort that went into its existence. I only hope that perhaps, years down the road, a young artist will discover my book in their local library and that it will lead them down the path that the ones I discovered did for me.

Pick up your own copy of Mound City Chronicle here: https://jasongray.bigcartel.com/product/mound-city-chronicle


2 Responses

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  1. Tobias M. Schiel said, on January 17, 2023 at 10:31 am

    Congratulations! The book looks awesome, and the story behind it… wow! Kudos!

  2. Jason Gray said, on January 17, 2023 at 1:39 pm

    Thank you, Tobias!

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