China Out to Dry (book)


Writing China Out to Dry was quite a different experience from writing Yangonomics, even though both books took me roughly the same amount of time to put together. Yangonomics began as a seed in the minds of Aung Aung and Nance Cunningham of Pansodan Gallery, before eventually being picked up for a while by Steve Daniels who was running Makeshift Magazine at the time (where I was on the editorial board).

In contrast, China Out to Dry began life as an unorganized collection of photos in one of many subfolders (cryptically named “Drying Behaviors”, if I recall correctly). These folders and subfolders were filled with some of the +30,000 photos taken over the eleven months from 2012 to 2013 I spent across China on a Fulbright. While there, I conducted ethnographic research in over 20 cities, where I conversed with and worked alongside over 200 vehicle owners to try and better understand their world; how and why they modified their vehicles, and how they used their vehicles to make a living (and the accompanying challenges and pressure from municipal authorities).


Sifting through photographs, organizing fieldnotes, and seeking out patterns, one visual theme that I’d photodocumented was the many ways in which people living in both urban and rural China dried things. As I thought and wrote more about the subject (and the subfolder grew in size), the scope of the work gradually expanded from a blog post (my usual medium) into a book.

After deciding that I wanted to make a book, I spent a long time sifting around the “Drying” subfolder in my computer; editing and touching up photos, organizing and reorganizing them into different (sub-)sub-subfolders, playing with different type options in InDesign, and generally doing what my grandmother would’ve termed ‘putzing around’. I had both the desire and the content needed to assemble the book, but I lacked the tactics to make the leap and start assembling.

Then, I stumbled upon Craig Mod’s piece, suggesting “To Make a Book, Walk on a Book”. He shared two key pieces of advice, the first of which was the titular appeal to take the ethereal pixels of a book-to-be and bring them into a tactile, easily-reconfigurable, and easily visible format. Getting a gestalt view of a section of a book on a big monitor is nice, but being able to see that same section laid out in a life-sized format (and in the medium in which it will eventually appear) is both instructive and pleasing in a way that’s hard to describe.

After printing out all of the potential photos that could make up a given book section, I started off by looking at each one up close and sorting them into stacks of “definitely”, “maybe”, and “definitely not” for inclusion in the book. I tried to leave myself room to be surprised – some photos that looked questionable on-screen ended up being complex and beautiful when printed out, and some that looked like winners when shown in pixels ended up being duds when committed to paper.

After this initial sort, setting aside the “definitely not” pile, and taking another hard look through each image in the “maybe” pile, I laid the photos that made the cut out on the floor of my studio apartment. There was a great deal of tip-toeing involved, particularly considering that my apartment is under 300 square feet, and laying out over 60 photos on the floor didn’t leave much room for maneuver.

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Staring at all the photographs for a section spread across my floor, the benefits of “walking on one’s book” became apparent. The decision of which photographs to pair together in a given spread was daunting to make while being constrained to a screen, where often the only way to decide whether two images “worked” alongside one another was InDesign’s elaborate dance of placing, copying/cutting, and pasting different potential pairs of photos alongside one another in a layout. I was only able to see a few photos at a time (and the details remained fuzzy).  Now, with all the photos in a given section laid out on the floor, deciding which photos should appear next to one another became far more simple, as rearranging them was a matter of picking up a piece of paper and placing it down in a new potential location.

Once pictures from a section had each been “paired off” to form a future page spread, I mounted the entire section’s worth of photos up on the wall in pairs. This lets photos be seen in more direct daylight, be more precisely aligned with one another (more closely simulating how they’ll actually appear in the book), and will form the basis for deciding in which sequence the spreads will appear in the final book. Of course, there’s still some swapping of photos and tweaking of pairs that happened at this stage, too, but for the most part this was about determining how a section would unfold for readers.

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The another lesson I took from Craig’s piece is the benefit of having a “polestar” – an equivalent, already-out-in-the-world offering that serves as a lighthouse of sorts, towards which you can pilot your own project through the inevitable tempests and doldrums.

On a micro level, taking a walk through a book you admire’s pages yields clues, inspiration, and surprises around the best way to hammer out the details and smooth the rough edges on your own book. On a macro level, the simple act of holding a “final”, no-longer-editable set of bound, printed pages in your hands is a tangible reminder that once, someone whose work you admire was in the exact same position as you, likely with at least as many doubts and questions in their mind about the validity of their own creative undertaking.

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As I thought about how best to assemble the disparate pieces of what would eventually become China Out to Dry, my polestar was the original version of the book on Tsusumi, the art of Japanese packaging, called “How to Wrap 5 Eggs”.  It consists of 221 (primarily) black and white photos of the different ways that objects are hand-packaged in Japan; from hand-carved wooden tops, to soy sauce, to candied papaya.

While the content was quite different, the intent was the same: exploring how country engages in a seldom-considered daily activity, and teasing out implications for how a place and its people’s daily behaviors are evolving.

I’m currently considering whether to offer China Out to Dry in a physical form, or if the book should live in digital for now. Either way, it has been a joy and a challenge to assemble it, and I hope you enjoy the book’s introductory section that I’m including below. The entire book is available for download here.


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