Photo District News

October 2004 Volume XXIV Issue 10

The Next Big Thing

Pat and Rosemarie Keough turned their Antarctica photos
into “the world’s best book.”
By Jay Mallin

SUPPOSE YOU HAD TWO PEOPLE, both of them self-described “fanatical, obsessed perfectionists,” although in a laid-back, Canadian sort of way. Suppose they were excellent photographers, world travelers and experienced in book publishing. And finally, suppose that — through success in past projects and some luck in the real estate market — they had the cash to go out and do or get pretty much whatever they wanted. What would you get?

Apparently, you’d get a book like ANTARCTICA, a 19.2-pound, handcrafted volume that took two Antarctic summers to photograph, though it required much more time to actually produce and print.

Created by photographers Pat and Rosemarie Keough, the book itself tends to overshadow the photography, good as that is. From their worldwide search to find the best goat leathers for the cover, to the combination of Renaissance bookbinding methods with top-end 10-micron stochastic printing for the color plates, every inch bespeaks the obsessive perfectionism of its husband and wife author/creators.

Oh, and each of the 950 sale copies comes autographed by a queen, Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, at no extra charge.

“At an artistic level, we can feel we’ve done something great and unusual,” says Pat Keough, with some satisfaction.

The story of the book, with its 345 color and duatone images, starts back in 1984. That’s when the couple met on a month-long guided river expedition down the Nahanni River in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Though 14 years apart in age, the two had a lot in common — both working in the corporate world, both fascinated by photography. They married just five months later. Just as importantly, they entered a photo by Pat in a contest sponsored by a chain of Canadian newspapers, and they won. The first prize: a trip to photography anywhere in the world. The trip became the Keoughs’ honeymoon, which they spent photographing in the Ghat Mountains in India. “We were thinking this is pretty neat,” recalls Pat. “We wondered how we can do this for the rest of our lives.”

With a little planning it was possible. Over the next few years the two quit their corporate jobs to shoot, doing some freelance work but also starting on their first book project. When they couldn’t get a publisher they self published it. That book, Ottawa Valley Portfolio, because a 1986 best-seller in Canada, launching the Keoughs’ publishing career.

By the late 1990s, the couple had produced six books and worked on television documentaries as well. They’d also seen an unexpectedly large return on some real estate investing. At that point, says Pat, “We could pick and choose what we wanted to do.”

What they wanted to do was produce a book that was exceptional in every way. For the content, they thought of a series of places they’d like to shoot, from the desert outside Palm Springs, California, to Antarctica. For the book’s look and feel, they’d been investigating new printing technologies since the early 1990’s. “Over the next eight years, we evolved a set of specifications for building the ‘world’s best book,’” Pat says.

At the same time, says Rosemarie, they decided they wanted their opus to do some good. “how can we combined [a book] with a significant contribution to a significant charity?”

The answer came in 1999, when the couple was photographing on a birding expedition to Antarctica and met the chairman of BirdLife International, a global alliance of conservation groups. Among the group’s projects is the “Save the Albatross” campaign. The Keoughs had their charity, and they had their book subject. “We dropped everything and said, ‘We’re going to do Antarctica,’” says Rosemarie.

There aren’t a lot of regularly scheduled commercial flights to Antarctica — none, in fact. So for the next two years, from November to May, the Keoughs hooked up with every Antarctica-bound expedition they could find, from climbers to scientists to tourists. Sometimes they worked together; sometimes they split up. Often they had with them their 7-year-old son, Glen, while an older daughter went to boarding school.

For the photography itself, the two used Nikon bodies, both the pro F5 and the FM2, an all-mechanical camera that requires no batteries to operate and so is less susceptible to cold. But that doesn’t mean problems didn’t come up. Antarctica may be covered in ice and snow, but the air is desert-dry, and what snow there is gets blown around until it’s ground fine as talcum powder, able to work its way into any camera crevice (see sidebar for list of Antarctica necessities).

In their shooting style, the two are the modern equivalents of Ansel Adams and the f/64 group. Even when shooting with a 300mm lens from the deck of a rocking ship, the Keoughs say they stop their lenses way down to render the images sharp from front to back. That, of course, means long exposures and a lot of images ruined by motion blur. “They [the images] will be 90 percent blurry, but there will be a couple of really, really special images, and that’s what we go for,” says Rosemarie. She says they almost always steady their camera with tripods or, even better, beanbags. “We’re fanatical beanbag users,” says Rosemarie, who sews the sacks herself and stuffs them on their trips with corn or beans or whatever’s available.

Though the book carries no individual credits on the photos and the couple says they’re not even sure who took many of the pictures, it's Rosemarie who goes for the details. There’s one spectacular color abstract, for instance, that turns out to be an image of the breast feathers on an emperor penguin. And though the book certainly will appeal to armchair travelers, they say it’s an art book, not a travelogue. They were fascinated by the colors of Antarctica, the way a piece of ice can go through a whole spectrum of colors in an afternoon.

Two years’ shooting and the couple felt they had enough to work with. Next up was the editing to select the images for the book. Conversation with this hyper-achieving pair tends to veer to the upbeat, but if pressed on what the whittling down of the images was like, Pat says simply, “It was hell.” They began by pairing images up, as on facing book pages, then working out the sequence of pairs.

Then started the real work – the production. The couple had samples of four images printed by selected printers around the world. One set, by Hemlock Printers Ltd. In Canada, used a new lithographic process, 10-micron stochastic, created by tiny dots that are always the same size but varying distances apart. Even with an ordinary loupe it’s impossible to see the printing dots on the page, and the quality just blew the Keoughs away.

But while lots of photographers are attentive to the reproduction of images in their books, the Keoughs were interested in much more. The binding for one. The couple decided they liked aspects of two bookbinding methods, “hollowback split board” and “classic European full-leather,” and they shopped around until they found a bookbinder in Canada willing to try to combine them. Other details were the grain in the recycled paper (it was kept parallel to the spine) and the specific Irish linen thread used to sew the pages together, items they carefully worked out.

“They put an amazing binding on it,” says Alan Jutzi, curator of rare books at the Huntington Library in California. “It’s an amazingly large book, and yet they want you to be able to see it and look at it.” He believes many photography books are made to be taken apart, so individual pages can be framed, but not this one. “I don’t think I’ve seen a photography book that goes to this extreme to keep all the prints together.”

The production process of their hoped-for “world’s best book” was often a painful one for the two perfectionists. When the initial proofs were disappointing, the two spent five months working with their printer’s color separator, using an old Kodak projector to show the slides and what they wanted from the technician. When the discovered the recycled paper occasionally had little black flecks in it, they carefully handchecked nearly half a million printed pages to make sure none of those flecks showed up, for instance, in the white feathers of an emperor penguin. On another occasion, someone at the printers got a paper cut while working on the project; the resulting droplets of blood lead to even more pages in the trash. Rosemarie recalls the months spent hand-checking each page for flaws as the most disheartening of the whole project. They actually found so many pages to reject that had to go back to press for some of the images. As for the binding itself, the process continues to this day, with about half the press run still to go.

But if the production process has been incredibly painstaking, the release or the book has gone extremely well – partly because of the imagery itself. The startling colors of Antarctica, together with the penguins, are the stars of the book, beautifully reproduced and surprising to anyone who hasn’t visited the continent. Who knew that snow could come with red or green algae?

“It’s very, very good.” Says Dr. Charles Swithinbank, a British glaciologist and photographer is his own right who advised the Keoughs on the text. “In terms of lovely examples of Antarctic photography, it’s superb.”

The Keoughs' book has received a number of awards and extensive attention in other quarters as well. Though one reviewer jokingly made an unfavorable comparison to Helmut Newton’s Sumo (“Sumo outweighs it by 47 pounds, cost $100 more and features naked people”), ANTARCTICA has received extensive publicity. In December, The Economist magazine cited it as one of the best books of 2003: “like a Patek Philippe [watch], this is a book you don’t own, but merely look after for the next generation – once, of course, you’ve repaid the loan you took out to buy it.”

So how do you follow the “world’s best book”? ANTARCTICA was conceived as the start of a series, a series with no definite end in sight. Though the Keoughs (who will not recover the production costs of Antarctica until at least three-quarters of the 950 sale copies have sold) say they are working on about eight possibilities for the succeeding books, they have not set any limits. And they point out that the cover of the book just says “Keough,” rather than giving their full names. “maybe our son will be producing them one day,” says Pat. “Or our daughter,” says Rosemarie.

Avoiding Snow blindness, Guano and

Aggressive Seals: Antarctic Gear Bag

Below is a list of items Pat and Rosemarie Keough believe are essential for a photographic expedition to Antarctica. The list (which does not include obvious items like film lenses, camera, UV filters, lens cleaning tissue, and an extra tripod head) is divided into three sections: items needed for a trip inland, items needed for an excursion along the coast, and items needed for any trip to Antarctica.

The Continent:

The continent is much colder and the ice cap is dazzling in its shades of white. Here you are tenting, and traveling by small aircraft, Ski-Doo, on skis and on foot. So for a trek inland you need:

1 All gear–clothing, boots, sleeping bag etc. rated to -40°. Extra boot liners.

2 A well-thought system of gloves and mitts. We find that we can only operate our cameras with bare fingers or with the protection of a thin liner glove. On the continent it is so cold even in summer that it is not an option to work with bare hands, not even for seconds. Wear over-sized mitts, atop of a pair of gloves with removable fingertips on the thumb and forefinger, atop a thin liner glove. A string attached to the mitts and running through the sleeves of your parka ensures that you don't lose your mitts in the wind when you take them off to take a photo.

3 Sunglasses and Glacier Goggles. We can't shoot while wearing eye-protection. If you're shooting a lot, scouting shots, watching through the lens for the ultimate composition to appear, your eyes will get sensitive. I actually started to get twinges of snowblindness. To compensate, I snapped of the arms of my sunglasses and placed the glasses inside the goggles which gave me the protection I needed.

4 Plastic sled, with a tow rope, and bungie cords to strap down your camera bag, tripods, personal gear –an easy way to tote gear across the polar plateau or the sea ice.

5 Lots of extra batteries. Recharging batteries is seldom an option in the interior.

6 A large brush (like a shoeshine brush) to remove caked on snow from your camera bodies; also to sweep snow out of your tent tracked in on your boots.

7 A camel-hair brush to clean finer snow from your camera before changing film, changing lenses etc.

The Coast:

On the coast in particular along the Antarctic Peninsula south of South America, also in the peri-Antarctic islands such as South Georgia, the South Shetlands, and the South Orkneys, it is warmer, which means there can be days of drizzle. Here you are traveling by ship.

1 Golf umbrella–and a friend to hold it over you–sheltering you and your equipment while you're taking photos in drizzle or sleet.

2 Waterproofing shrouds–to keep your camera bag dry from salt spray and waves while in transit from the ship to the shore by Zodiac boat.

3 Large plastic garbage bags–to put under your camera bag when in penguin colonies, or amid fur seals. This keeps your gear clean from guano and mud. Turn the bags inside out before repacking and moving to the next location. You may also prefer a bag to kneel on yourself if the guano is particularly thick . Additionally, you can also use the bags as extra waterproofing during inclement crossings by Zodiac.

4 Rechargeable batteries and an array of converters so you can take advantage of the power available from the ship.

5 Sturdy rubber boots with felt liners (bring extra liners).

6 Heavy-duty rain gear –not just for rain, but for traveling on the Zodiacs.

7 Camera bag should be a back-pack style given the terrain you'll be traversing.

8 Bright orange toques –so that you are highly visible to the ship's captain, watching with his binoculars, should the weather get worse and you’re off by yourselves (photographers don't generally stick with other people)

For Both the Continent and the Coast:

1 Cable release–your gloved hand may not be able to smoothly press the shutter, so use a trip wire or cable release

2 Extra camera bodies–you'll want a few spares in case of malfunction; also you'll need to have a few cameras loaded and ready for those times when it is impossible to change film (like blizzard conditions).

3 Bean bag–most useful item of all! A 14-inch square denim bean bag, filled with whatever is locally available. We prefer maize or popcorn kernels, which, because of their shape are more stable than rounded beans. The beanbag placed on the ship's rail, over a stanchion, well supports a long lens, reducing the fatigue factor of holding a lens for long time spans. The beanbag in our experience minimizes the vibration from the ship's engine. We also used the beanbag directly on the snow, or on a rock in place of a tripod, especially when we wanted to get low angles. At times we weighted our tripods with the beanbag for added stability in wind.

4 Tripod with points on the bottom of the legs – to dig into the ice and snow. An unexpected use of the tripod was for protection from attacking skuas (a predatory bird). At times we walked on the fringes of penguin colonies with our tripods extended over our heads so that the skuas would harass the tripod legs rather than us. Also, we've used our extended tripods held in front like sword to keep aggressive fur seals at a somewhat respectable distance.

5 Flash–very useful to make feather detail on penguin breasts become three-dimensional, to put catch-lights in albatrosses’ eyes, to allow a seal with its dark fur to stand-off from the background, to soften shadows in harsh light conditions, to fill in detail and clean-up colors in time-exposures of the dark-interiors of historic huts etc.


Higher, Wider, Further

… In addition to the photo of Rosemarie Keough shooting pictures on the Antarctic ice shown on page 47, the Keoughs also sent us this photo, taken at the Dawson–Lambton Glacier. It shows a friend holding two penguin eggs. Rosemarie explains that once a female penguin lays an egg, she begins a trek to open water–risking attack by whale or leopard seal–to get food that will replenish her energy and feed her chick when it hatches in the spring. The male stays behind to protect the egg all winter long. If the female never returns, the male has to abandon the egg and go in search of food or he will starve. The two eggs in the photo met this fate. Though the picture was taken in December–midsummer in the Antarctic–they are frozen solid. Cute as they may be, they represent the extreme harshness of the land the Keoughs find so alluring.

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