I am in the process of publishing (and pre-selling) a zine called The Colours of Shanghai. It collects panoramic XPAN photos taken in Shanghai between 2014 and 2016.
In August of 2014, our entire family moved to Shanghai after my wife landed a promising job there. I was quick to discover the Xing Guang photo mall on Luban Lu, 6 stories of photo goodness including many second hand stores with film cameras on offer. My wife who (I suspect) was feeling a little guilty about moving us to the other side of the world asked me what I wanted for Christmas.
I had recently seen a video by Kai and Lok entitled ‘How to go bigger than full frame without breaking your bank or arm‘ This was my first exposure to the Xpan, and I wanted one. I found one (or rather the Asia branded Fuji TX2) at the photo mall which was going for 14000 RMB (roughly 1400 EUR) with both lenses – that was to be my priciest ever Christmas present.
In the next two years I went to plenty of places – renowned or not so renowned – in Shanghai and shot a lot of photos with the XPAN. The ultra-wide format takes some getting used to, and I had to learn to compose with it, but I think I got there in the end. I love that wide format when it works, and while many people see it primarily as a landscape camera I took mostly street shots.
In the summer 2016, when we found out the promising job opportunity had turned sour, we moved to Hong Kong where we have lived since. The idea started to surface about doing a photo book with the best of my shanghai wide photos, but it was little more than an idea at that stage. Since then, I started buying zines from (mostly) analog photographers and finding I enjoyed the format and the sense of community it created. The idea of a zine started to overtake the idea of a book. Around 2018 I started playing with InDesign to see if I was getting anywhere, but it wasn’t until this year that I finalised the project.
I thought it might be interesting for those who, like me, are new to the world of zines to detail my thought process, tasks and how I finally reached the final product. In my process, there were five essential steps.
I. Selecting the photographs
While this might seem like the easiest of those steps it is also the most crucial and forced me to question why I was doing this. I won’t pretend there’s no aspect of vanity in it, which would steer me towards displaying my most accomplished photographs. I quickly realised though that I also hoped through this selection of photos to show a side of Shanghai that many people who haven’t lived there probably don’t know. It might also speak to those who have lived there.
Some photographs would conform to what people might expect Shanghai to look like, others would hopefully surprise. I also had to decide whether I wanted to mix colour and black and white. In the end, I decided against it, hoping perhaps to release a later black and white zine if there was interest in this first one. I also debated long how many photos I would select. I finally settled on 15, which would make for a nice 32 page booklet (cover excluded).
II. Deciding on the format
I really wanted to highlight the particular format of the xpan photos, massive 24×65 panoramic negatives. Ideally I wanted the format to fit in with the width, and not knowing how I’d get it printed, I conceived a booklet format that would be a third of an A4 horizontally, ie. 210mm x 99mm. I did some tests in powerpoint with two photos per double page, and thought that looked too busy.
Also, I was unsure about delivering the photos alone and thought my idea to represent a Shanghai a little off from expectations might require some amount of text. So ultimately I decided to go with a single photo per double page, occupying the whole available space, and texts in French and English on the other page.
III. Writing the texts
This also turned out to be trickier than expected. Not only were the texts intended as context for the photographs, but I wanted to give a little sense – in as few words as possible – as to why that scene caught my eye. In agonised quite a bit about these short snippets of text, trying to be mindful of cultural differences without entirely wiping out my foreigner’s point of view.
I initially wrote the captions in French (my native language) and then translated them to English to “broaden my audience”. I also decided to include information about the Shanghai district each photo was taken in, and the film stock used for each particular photo. This would only speak to analog buffs, but I felt it to be important information.
IV. Laying it out
InDesign turned to be trickier to tame than I hoped. I had used PageMaker in another life, and that seemed quite intuitive to me at the time, and I’m sure InDesign is a different kind of intuitive, but at first I couldn’t quite grasp how it worked conceptually. I made a few attempts at it, and even switched over to photoshop in frustration at one point before finally coming back to InDesign with some advice from a few friends who know the software better than I do.
I also did a tiny bit of editing on the photographs, but tried to stay true to the tones and colour schemes that each film conveys. All in all I’d say it took about 5-6 hours of solid work to layout the whole thing, not including corrections made after the test print run.
Until that point, I had not really thought about the final, but crucial, step of printing. I think I had this idea in the back of my mind that I could just slap it on Lulu or Blurb, and people would order it there if they liked it. When I started looking into this seriously, some options immediately disappeared.
Blurb for example is stupidly expensive, so unless you’re well renowned and selling an art book of superior quality, forget about selling it. Lulu was more affordable, but didn’t offer a wide magazine format, which is not all that surprising.
So in the end it only made sense that I’d find a solution with a local printer and ship zines myself. This means adding the cost of shipping at the lowest possible scale, but eliminating the margin of a POD platform, so all in all the economics were similar. I got a quote from a printer I’ve used in the past for stuff related to my work, asking for the specific format and number of pages I wanted at various print run sizes. I paid for the smallest run they would offer, 5 copies just to have a test print before going big (well, comparatively).
I was very pleased with the look of the final product, and the test run allowed me to identify typos, odd phrasing and other details that would have annoyed me if I’d printed them in the final zine.
Which leads me to now and the inevitable 6th step: selling it. I could go all out and get 50 copies printed and then try to sell them, but I promised my wife that this wouldn’t cost me anything so I’m trying to be a bit careful about things. Based on the quotes I got back from the printer I’ve drawn a proper business model including average shipping costs and packaging. This helped me to come up with a price that I think is reasonable in order to not lose money, and still be affordable.
Of course, compared to professional printing with large print runs, a zine around the 10 EUR mark is still expensive in absolute terms, but it seems to be in line with the prices of zines I’ve purchased, and since shipping is included it’s impossible for me to go lower and not risk losing money. I decided to use Etsy to push the zine, because they only take 3.5% of sell price (plus a small nominal price to list the item) but also because it allows me to open an Etsy store with prints that people who go there for the zine might find interesting.
At this juncture, I’m led to question again why I’m doing this. Clearly it’s not to earn significant amounts of money. In the absolute best case scenario with a large print run of 100 copies, I would make a margin in the low 100s of EUR, and that’s ignoring my time and initial photography costs. In other words, no money at all.
I think it comes down to two things:
- First, I’d like this zine to help give my photography (or at least one aspect of my photography) a bit more visibility but through and out of social media. I intend to send a few copies for review here and there, and maybe find alternate channels to resell them. This feeds the aspiring photographer in me.
- Second, there is a very real pleasure in the idea of creating a physical, tangible expression of my photography. This feeds the aspiring artist in me. Seeing you work printed and disseminated changes your own perception of your work.
I’ve opened up the Etsy store on Friday. So far, I’ve pre-sold 5 copies, which tells me my presence in social media is nowhere near what I thought it was (a sobering lesson indeed). I have yet to market it aggressively, and I haven’t approached friends and family outside of social media, so we’ll see what these avenues deliver in terms of visibility.
And this article, while hopefully informative is also a way of giving the project more visibility. If you found it interesting, if the photos appeal to you, please consider supporting The Colours of Shanghai. You can also get a broader view on my photography work on instagram at @benfelten.