Imagining Books

Ed Stokes printing Hong Kong As It Was, just off the press.


Inspiration for leaving commercial publication, and for establishing a not-for-profit publisher, came to Ed Stokes from both photographers and special publishers.

These photographers and special publishers, read about though not personally met, came primarily from Australia and the United States. In every case, it was their drive for artistic quality, for faithfully representing beauty and interest in the world, which offered momentum to Ed’s publishing plans. The ‘private press movement’ of the mid-twentieth century, seemingly a curiosity in this digital age, gave profound insights and inspiration into the enduring value of passionate, non-commercial book printing. In imagining books, Edward had two key mentors: Ansel Adams and Eugene Smith, both Americans.

Ansel Adams, most notable landscape photographer America has ever seen, is remembered for his ‘zone system’ of exposure. So complex that many professional photographers cannot understand it, the system nonetheless has a core, clear principle: to take an optimum image, the photographer must envision, or imagine, the final print’s tonal range and qualities. So it can be with books. Imagining a final publication, and its component parts, and then working backwards through all the sequential technical ‘process’ steps required to create the envisioned book, the publisher can originate works having far higher content relationships, and much greater print quality, than otherwise possible.

Eugene Smith, a pre-war and postwar Life photographer, was an exponent of the ‘picture essay’. His deeply focused combinations of contextualized photos and words created integrated ‘wholes’, and so created very powerful stories. Smith’s book Minamata, about mercury poisoning in Japan, is a classic of the genre. For Ed Stokes, a photographer and writer, combining the two elements was natural. As with his previous Australian books, balancing photos with contextualizing texts was bedrock for the Hong Kong Conservation Photography Foundation’s publications.