We asked photographer and featured mom, Lucy Gray to give us her best insights after going through the process of creating and publishing her photobook Balancing Acts, published by Princeton Architectural Press.
When I met Katita Waldo in the market with her son and was told later that day that she was a prima ballerina at the San Francisco Ballet, and I knew I wanted to photograph her, the woman who connected us told me to write a proposal and she would give it to Katita. That turned out to be so important. I had to write a proposal to San Francisco Ballet to photograph there. I had to get contracts written with the dancers and I presented those to them and their husbands the first time we met. I had to get a contract with SFB. All of that was in 1999 when I thought I would have a book in two years. I thought the story was universal to working mothers and any mothers with time conflicts which is everyone. I thought what I was doing at the ballet had never been done before. I had an intimacy with the dancers from the beginning because we were all moms and they were used to being photographed and yet I was going for something new, pictures about them personally.
I bought a Leica M6 to shoot the book because I was told that was the best dance camera. I used black and white film. The first editor I went to in 2001 in New York was responsible for publishing the most ballet books in this country. He was highly respected as an editor, a writer and he had been on George Balanchine’s board of directors. In the ballet world of books he was a gate, and I knew him, so I called him up and he said, “Women have to make a choice. They cannot work and have babies.” I hung up stunned. I realized I would have a hard time without his help. I went to local publishers in San Francisco who said they couldn’t sell a book in black and white.
I had in the early years who would send a book to two or three places and then give the project back to you. I got another agent who didn’t send the book anywhere. I got a third agent who mentored me. We had a vigorous exchange of letters and later, emails. In 2005 she sent the book to twenty-five publishers who turned it down. She gave up. I kept hearing thirty-five was the magic number but she wouldn’t keep trying. I was very sad. I cried. I picked myself up and kept going.
I bought a Canon D5 in 2005 and used it off stage with the ballerinas. The shutter is too loud for rehearsals or performances. The images could be color or black and white but I had made my choice about that in 1999 and had to stick.
Self publishing became fashionable and I went to seminars about it. I didn’t have the money to do it but then Kickstarter was a way to fund projects and I imagined I would do that until I got a deal. I went to portfolio reviews, particularly Fotofest in 2004, 2008, 2014 where I would meet museum curators and small book publishers. I pitched the ballerina project at every one, twenty reviewers each time. I had other projects I pitched, as well. In 2012 I went to Palm Springs Portfolio review in New York at the Javits Center. I had five reviews, four with publishers. The first three said what the people had said in 2005, “The only people who would buy this book would be the three ballerina mothers in the book.” They were all so literal minded. The fourth buyer I showed the work to, from Princeton Architectural Press, just understood the project from the moment she looked at it. She saw the mothers as I did – admirable women whose work got better after they had children and who were better mothers because they worked. She saw it as a labor story. She thought the black and white images gave it an old school documentary feel which to her was a plus.
I took the images on an i Pad. This had the advantage that the editor could imagine a book for herself – I hadn’t made my dream book which would have limited the editor who has experience and skills at making books. She asked if I saw the book as a monograph (every photographer’s dream) or as a document about the ballerinas. I saw it being about the ballerinas. This allowed her to ask how I felt about a smaller format. I was in favor. Keep the price down. Sell more books. She asked if I had come to New York for the photo review. “No,” I told her. “Nothing ever happens at these. I was in New York anyway and had the $200 when I was offered the space and so I took it.” She told me later that that was key to taking me on. She said so many photographers are desperate for a book. She didn’t want to get people with out of control egos working in their small publishing house. I had many ideas about how the book might sell and who I could call upon to help in that effort which was also key.
I had to be patient but absolutely attentive when the editor needed me and then various other people needed my attention at the publishers down the line. She was interested in 2012. I have a book now in 2015. But that also meant I took more pictures until right up to the end that help the story.
Never give up. Keep pushing. Keep learning. You’re not the only person in the world who wants a book – so be aware and appreciative of others but know you’ve got competition so keep improving, keep your standard as high as you know how to make it, no one else can do that for you. That is you.