Howdy! My name is David Teran, a fine art portrait photographer based in San Antonio, Texas. Today, I would like to give you a little insight into a long-term project I’ve worked on for the past five and a half years.
Using just my Hasselblad 500CM and one roll of Ilford HP5+ film for each shoot (rated at 200, developed for 14 minutes in 1:9 Kodak T-Max developer), I have photographed ballerinas in 19 countries and 53 different cities, using 280 rolls in the process.
This project will be culminating with my first monograph and coffee table book, Hasselblad Ballet. I am in the middle of the journey of turning this personal project into a published book, and wanted to share what the process has looked like so far.
Starting the Hasselblad Ballet Personal Project
Although I initially started photographing ballerinas as a side-project, it soon became a major focus in my photography.
I don’t need to sell Shoot It With Film readers on the merits of film, but what makes this project special for me is the idea of flying to another country, coordinating with one or two ballerinas, and dedicating only 12 frames to each dancer.
At the risk of sounding pretentious and suggesting that film is better than digital (hint: it is… for different reasons), limiting myself to one roll makes me meticulous and precise with every frame. Where a digital session with a ballerina can produce anywhere from 500-1,500 images, this analog process leaves me with a higher percentage of “keeper” frames.
After about a year and 35 ballerinas photographed, I knew I would want to create a physical, tangible book.
Seeing the images printed in the darkroom, off my a digital screen, made me realize you cannot truly appreciate an image on a four or five inch phone screen.
Finding a Publisher
The first step for me in this book-making process was to make a list of publishers I wanted to approach, and create a pamphlet showing my work.
There appeared to me a certain level of esteem by having your book published, versus throwing my name on the cover and self-publishing. Although I have nothing to prove by having a published book, I thought if I’m going to do this, I want to do it in a traditional, published manner – if possible.
I made my PDF pitch, and emailed 35 different publishing houses, hoping to receive a response from even one.
I own over 100 coffee table photo books myself, and decided to pitch to the publishers who published the books that I liked.
After a few weeks of radio silence, responses started coming in.
Most were negative, but the negatives I took as a positive. Taschen, my dream publisher, told me they liked my body of work, but that I was not a fit in their current catalog of upcoming published books.
They asked if they could keep my information on file, and approach me two years in the future for consideration. As flattering as this was to me, that wouldn’t work for my emotional timeline. I was ready to see this book printed.
Following more silence, and more turned down responses, a medium-sized, German publishing company finally responded in the affirmative.
I was thrilled, beyond elated. I have an affinity for all things German (except food). I own German watches, German cameras, a German car – the lenses on my Hasselblad are German-made. I knew I would be satisfied with a German publishing company.
Also, it’s not like I had a line of publishers waiting to publish my first monograph.
Over the next two months, many Zoom calls, and over 45 back and forth emails, we were ready to start discussing funds, get an exact number of how many books I will be receiving, royalties, how I wanted the book to look, etc.
Unfortunately – I haven’t heard back from then.
Yes, I realize this reads weird, as if I missed a few sentences. I haven’t. I was ghosted out of the blue, and to this day, still have no idea if they are going to send me a finalized quote or not.
Although this bummed me out, there’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a bowl – or two or three – of chocolate ice cream.
I quickly got back onto my hunt for a publishing company, and finally met with a very small, independent company here in my hometown. Until the book is printed, I will keep this information private… in case I get ghosted again.
But suffice it to say, they have been incredibly helpful, playing more of a guidance role than anything else.
Now that I had a publishing company, formulated an idea of what I want the physical constraints of the book to be, and figured out a budget, it was time to get to the fun part of the book: culling and deciding which images would make the cut.
After five and a half years, and 280 rolls photographed, I was left with a library of 3,360 images. Tiny, in comparison to any digital photographer, but I digress. For me, this number was astronomical, and represented over 300,000 miles traveled in that time period.
But I had to start somewhere, so one day I locked myself in my office, put on some classical music, and started the process.
My initial cull involved sitting down with my three, 3-ring binders of negatives and contact sheets, and marking up the physical contact sheets with a silver permanent marker.
I started with roll 001, in Phoenix, Arizona, and ended with roll 280, in Nashville, Tennessee. I thought to pick only my absolute favorites, and landed on 706 images.
Like any parent having to choose between their favorite kids knows, it’s always best to double check, so I decided to go back for a second pass, in case I missed any from my first cull.
Finally, I gave it a third pass, and put a sticker on the sleeves of the corresponding negatives, which gave me one last opportunity to pick any images that escaped the first two passes.
These culls took five days, dedicating about three hours every day to the task. And now I was done.
Out of the 3,360 starting options, I had come down to 851 images, a much more manageable number, but nonetheless too many.
I knew I was gonna have to start picking my favorite of my favorite kids, aka photos.
And Even More Culling
My next step was to create digital, virtual copies of those images so that I could manage this culling process without having to carry my physical negatives everywhere.
Although this project is entirely analog by nature, I have created a happy digital hybrid. After all, you are reading this on a digital screen and seeing these images in their almost-done-but-not-yet-printed-into-a-book-form.
I sat with my library of images, and my boxes of physical negatives, and would star the corresponding digital JPG in Lightroom.
Unsurprisingly, this resulted in “101 missing negatives,” bringing my grand total to 952 images. Thankfully, I’m not this indecisive when it comes to food.
Re-digitizing the Images
In looking at five and a half years of digital images in a three hour span, I realized that I was going to have to re-digitize the entire project.
When I had initially started in 2018, I had scanned the negatives with a crummy Epson V600, which resulted in extremely flat images.
Covid gifted me with an excess of time, and I converted an extra enlarger I had laying around (gasp I KNOW) into a full-time digital scanning kit. I mounted a ball tripod head onto the top of the enlarger where the condenser head would sit, and using the actual condenser head, would photograph the negatives with a 24mp digital 35mm camera.
These literal RAW files allowed me extreme manipulation of the images, all the while staying true to the edits that I was afforded in a traditional darkroom: exposure, cropping, brightness, shadows, and contrast.
For this re-digitization process, and to stay true to the name of the project, I rented a Hasselblad X2D 100mp medium format camera and 120mm H macro lens, and photographed all 952 images.
Now that I had the images re-edited, I opened a program on my iPad called Freeform, and chronologically imported all 952 images, organizing them by date, city, and location.
This allowed me to quickly look at all the images within the palm of my hands, and using an Apple Pencil, make notes, crops, and continue the culling process.
The Next Round of Selections
This next step in the process was painstakingly slow and meticulous.
I was able to share this digital Freeform library with friends and family and allow them to choose their favorite images. Over the next three months, I got the input from more than a dozen friends; but in the end, it was only I that had the power to kill my favorite kids – proverbially, of course.
I was finally down to 351 images. Still too many for a book, but much more manageable. These 351 images are the favorites of my favorite kids.
I created a separate library with 351 of these images, exported them, and printed them at my local Kinkos on cheap photocopy paper to look at all the images in bigger form.
Although the Hasselblad Ballet book will be a “photography book that just happens to have ballerinas in it,” I wanted to ensure that my photographs honor the 500+ year old ballet art form.
I presented these images to a ballet critique, Sofiane Sylve, a former, world renowned ballerina, and now the artistic director at Ballet San Antonio.
Sofiane ensures that the ballet technique of the images are acceptable. This brought down my cull to 309 images.
The plan for the next steps is as follows: I am launching a Kickstarter to hire a designer to design the book and fund printing and production. After my Kickstarter campaign ends on September 20th, I will be working with my designer to figure out which of those 309 images will make the book cut… thus possibly even cutting out more kids.
Then, I’ll send the files off to the printing press, get a dummy and hard proof book to check quality, approve said dummy/proof, and then have the book printed.
So now, dear reader, I leave you with my plea: if you find this project to move the needle of your heart, you can help this project be a success… and in the end, see which are truly my favorite kids… I mean, images.