I was contacted several months ago by a well-known author in America, and asked if I too felt that book publishers were favouring ‘photographic history books,’ as opposed to the more traditional narrative books. Although I had just completed my third consecutive photographic history book at the time, I confessed that I had not given much thought to this development as I just regarded it as another way of writing a book.
At that point, I had probably written eight or nine books, and I regarded the photographic history books as just part of the mix of book styles that one built up during one’s work as a writer. But upon reflection, there did seem to be other authors also producing similar books and I just put it down to readers wanting a different product in their hands. It is common knowledge that our concentration span is less today than in times past, so perhaps people prefer books these days that are photo-heavy rather than word-heavy. Make no mistake, I enjoy writing both styles of books, in fact it is the research and interviewing process that I enjoy because I always end up learning something new.
To be clear, when I talk about a photographic history book, I am not talking about a glorified picture book. What I am referring to is an explanatory book where the photos determine the historical timeline and where each and every photo is given a detailed caption. In this way, writing a photographic history book is a lot more work for the author than a traditional narrative book. This is because it is easier to write a narrative book on any motoring subject, say the Audi quattro, Citroen 2CV or the history of the Silverstone race track, because the content flows from beginning to end in a chronological manner.
In a photographic history book, the photos need to be carefully selected to ensure that they follow logically and chronologically. Once the photos have been selected, the author must then painstakingly research and cover in greater detail than normal, the subject in each photograph. When the book is finished, the photos with their associated captions, must tell the story in a concise and clear manner.
As an example, when I wrote my book, Porsche 917: The Complete Photographic History, it contained around 900 photos spread over 500 pages. Every one of those photos had to be selected and researched before it could be included in the story of the Porsche 917. It was a mammoth task. For my troubles, Top Gear magazine selected this book as their Book of the Month back in 2009. Another reviewer said that the book was excellent because I had gone the extra mile to source photos which had either not been published before, or at least not often. There is nothing worse than picking up a book that contains images that you have seen many times before. With certain subjects this cannot be avoided because perhaps there just aren’t other photos available. But I feel it is my duty as an author to populate my books with new images, that way I will be offering you something new.
Another one of my photographic history books was Porsche at Le Mans: Sixty Years of Porsche Participation in the World’s Greatest Motor Race. In this book, I sought to bring the reader a taste of almost every Porsche that had ever raced at Le Mans, whether factory or private. This resulted in a 400-page book which is one of my favourite books because it contains many quotes from drivers and engineers over the decades. Sadly, this is now out of print, but it was no less work than the book described before, because it covered so many different cars over a period of sixty years.
The third of my photographic history books is entitled Porsche 956/962: A Photographic History, and here the title says it all. Once again this was a 500-page book, with more than 600 images, covering the design and development of this all-conquering race car. I say ‘race car’ singular, because the engineers at the factory regard the 956 and 962 as one and the same car, the latter version just having a longer wheelbase while retaining the same overall body length. For this book, I interviewed many engineers and designers as well as racing drivers, and so the captions are quite ‘meaty’ as they include sizeable excerpts from those interviews. So while the narrative is less than in a normal book, the captions are significantly longer, explaining each and every photo in detail.
It’s a lot of work, the long hours spent researching and writing, the waiting for interviews…but I love it because I learn more each day about a subject that matters to me: sports cars, motor racing, and the racing industry. I hope you enjoy reading what I write about!
Written by: Glen Smale